A one-of-a-kind experience in college still brings back memories of a cowboy trainer and a broken nose. 

My Farmhouse basketball jersey doesn’t fit any more. It was poorly made really. It did one of those rotational things where the tail of the shirt rotated over about 15 degrees to the left when you wore it. I wore it when I headed off into battle with the city campus fraternities or sometimes just over to the East Campus gym. It fit in over there.

The East Campus gym was an ancient building with a cramped weight room in the basement and a couple of basketball courts and a stage on the main floor. My guess is at one time it was intended to be an auditorium or at least doubled as one. I never knew of any program or play being presented on the stage but we broke Todd Kramer’s nose up there. Todd was a year younger than me and a really good kid. He was willing to help with just about anything and not afraid to dive into something he knew nothing about. That’s how he became my sparring partner.

Every spring the Sigma Chi Fraternity sponsored “Fight Night” a fundraising “smoker” at the State Fairgrounds. I wasn’t completely like Todd, I was skittish about doing things that I had no experience doing, unless those things were athletic in nature. For some reason I still haven’t been able to unpack when I heard about Fight Night I was interested. Had anyone from our fraternity ever fought? All the older guys I asked looked incredulous. No, of course not, no one had ever boxed in this.

I might say the adventure of the unknown was completely my motivation but if I did I’d be lying. I did it partly because it made me the first. I knew literally no more about boxing than having watched it on t.v. a handful of times but as I asked around the house someone said that Randy Cain, a cowboy from Burwell, used to box Golden Gloves in high school. Randy was in my class and about as wild as they came. He’s a story, probably several, unto himself but for the time being we’ll just say he agreed to train me.

He had a quick plan to get us started. We’d buy some father/son boxing gloves at Target, slyly putting two sets of adult gloves in the same box so we only had to pay for one set. I remember thinking this sort of low-grade shoplifting was new to me too. I tried to remain calm and not look over my shoulder as we walked to his pickup. I was almost certain that at any time the store cop would be running us down but nothing happened. We had our boxing gloves. We bought some wrist wraps at a sporting goods store and headed back to the house. He wanted to show me how to wrap my wrists and teach me just a few things about punching.

If you’ve never had your wrists wrapped and taped it’s hard to explain the sensation. Your wrists and hand are securely held so there’s no lateral movement whatsoever. That movement, including any movement up or down is what, according to my new coach, “Gets sons-a-bitches wrists broken, Gif!” I never thought about there being a danger of breaking a wrist. Then I remembered how a buddy of mine, Sam Sidner, had broken a wrist in junior high on his skateboard when he stopped himself from crashing into a basketball pole and it made perfect sense.

The immobilization makes the end of this appendage feel as if it’s not really part of your body. Later when Randy would tape my fist (something that I’m pretty sure was illegal in Golden Gloves) the lack of sensation was astonishing. It was as if your hand was now a weapon, one you did not have to grasp however, like the wrist and hand were gone and in their place an unfeeling, vicious and righteous battering ram now existed. I loved it. I could literally punch my room door in the fraternity and feel nothing and I did. Cool!

We practiced in the East Campus gym basement to begin with. The tiny weight room had an ever tinier area to stretch in adjoining it. Randy taught me the basics about how to throw a punch. I was surprised that, like hitting a baseball, your power came from your hips. Randy taught me how to jab first, explaining that everything would come “off the jab” including how I moved around in the ring. He caught my punches with the other set of gloves but after a couple of sessions he concluded we needed someone else to help. We needed a sparring partner so Randy could watch my technique, including my feet.

In the interest of full disclosure, Todd wasn’t the first guy to agree to spar with me. I’m sure Randy sold Bob Yeager (also a classmate and no, not Chuck’s younger brother) on the idea by saying all we needed was someone to hold the gloves up and move around so that I could throw punches and Randy could watch. Bob agreed but he was terrified. He hated the idea of someone throwing punches at him, even if I didn’t intend to really land any of them on anything other than those stolen gloves. I didn’t consider myself all that menacing.

Truth be told I was terrified also when Randy would put on the gloves and have me practice my defense. When you mixed the two together, throwing punches and also covering up, the feeling was as raw and sensual as my fists were cold and senseless. The adrenaline was incredible and sometimes it got the best of Randy, especially when he would demonstrate something with my sparring partner. He never hurt Bob but he absolutely scared the bejeezus out of him and he never returned.

The sales job he gave Todd I’m sure didn’t include any mention of the fact that Bob had quit after just a couple of sessions. We had decided that to more adequately mimic the size of the ring I would have to work within we needed more space. The basement area was literally about 10 feet square and had mats and some free weights on one wall, not to mention the guys going into and out of the weight room that had to walk right through the middle of our “ring”. We decided to move upstairs to the stage. There the floor was wood, not crummy indoor/outdoor carpet and we could pull the curtain and be uninterrupted. Kramer was good to go.

I’m reasonably certain that Todd’s nose didn’t get broken the first time he helped us out but it wasn’t far into the process. Randy was demonstrating to me how to keep coming at my opponent when they retreated, how to throw different punches and cut them off as they tried to escape. I could tell he was getting excited as his voice rose in volume and in pitch. Todd was trying to escape as best he could but even with the additional room to maneuver Randy hemmed him in.

Todd was a basketball player first and a good athlete. He was in far superior shape to my cowboy-trainer Randy but he was so lost in the wilderness he

couldn’t even see the road signs about how to get back. I think I recall hearing Randy’s high-pitched instructions, something to the effect of: “You keep coming, Gif! And you keep jabbing and hooking and with your body position you keep him from getting away! And you use your punches too, Gif!! When he tries to move to your left, throw the left hook!!”

I don’t know if it was the left hook or a straight jab but when Todd’s nose broke he knew it. Randy would tell me later he knew it too: “I threw the punch and saw it land and felt it and thought, ‘Aw shit!’ Our sparring session was over, way over. The damage was as clear as, well, the nose on Todd’s face.

He didn’t seem to be in a ton of pain but you could tell it hurt. Randy took me back to the house and he and Todd went to Emergency. They set Todd’s nose and sent them both home. Todd’s mom was none too pleased when he called her with the news. I don’t know if she was particularly mad at Randy and me but like any mom she didn’t want to hear about her son getting banged up. We never got another person to spar with us after that. Our house held about 80 guys but word travels fast.

Randy and I continued to train and I felt the fear and apprehension of his occasional onslaughts where his training and instinct would kick in during sparring. He dropped me once when we practiced at another gym; the only time I’ve ever been knocked out. “I couldn’t help myself, sorry Gif” was all he said afterwards. To be fair getting clocked didn’t hurt and he literally knocked me out and caught me so I didn’t hit the floor. I never saw it coming and didn’t even have any after effects. I wanted to keep training but he said we should call it a day. We were about ready for the fight anyway.

I went on to win that fight by Technical Knockout, taped fists and all, in front of two or three hundred drinking, screaming Greeks. I got matched against a guy who was probably more scared than I was. I fought with non-pilfered gloves that laced up and everything. I landed a few punches early and the guy almost literally folded and went into defensive mode. I hammered him with uppercuts (a punch we hardly ever practiced but that I’d seen on t.v.) until they stopped the fight in the second round. Randy was admonished by someone after the fight that saw us

taking my tape off. “Holy crap, you’re lucky they didn’t see that, they would have disqualified your fighter.” I didn’t care much, the official wrapping wrists before the fight (they had him do this because some of the guys had no trainer or coach whatsoever) had commented I had the hands of a piano player and I wanted some kind of retribution. I guess I got it.

I fought the next year too. This time it was me who came in, probably way too serious, and forgot to cover up when I jabbed left. The guy I fought, another rank amateur, landed right hand after right hand until the referee stopped the fight in the second round. He knew I’d had enough and I had. I never boxed again.

I still see Todd every once in a while at high school basketball games. The nose looks good, no after effects I guess. Randy moved to Oklahoma and was working down there when he was attacked one night. He was beaten so badly they thought he wouldn’t survive. He did but the brain injury he sustained left him disabled and not the cowboy I knew him to be. I don’t know a thing about Bob. I think he’s married with kids somewhere around Omaha.

Looking back we were all sort of young and dumb and wide eyed back then; unafraid and yet scared to death. I wouldn’t box again; it’s definitely a young man’s sport. Still, having been through it I would recommend that you do it just once for the experience. Just make sure you cover up and maybe, wear headgear.

Ever been through something that even though it was quite an experience, you’d never do again? I’d like to hear about it if you’re willing. Just comment below.


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