By the end of only the first round, it’s obvious that a venom has infected both boxers in the ring.
Sugar Ray Leonard isn’t showing his usual fleet footwork. He seems more inclined to add a little weight to his supernaturally fast punches, looking for damage instead of mere points. Even more intriguing is that Leonard is standing firm in the pocket with his opponent, Roberto Durán. The Panamanian is supposed to be the brawler of the two; his nickname “Hands of Stone” belies the fury with which the flurries come. But as the clock ticks down to 90 seconds, both men appear resolute in their desire to wing looping bombs at each other, leaving their own chins open with every angry combination.
Durán had been beyond profane in the lead-up to their match, insulting Leonard’s manhood constantly — including to his wife’s face. So I can understand why the fleet-footed boxer, one of the greatest of all time, would begin to ignore the game plan after tasting blood.
But then there’s me, standing in my living room in front of the TV, huffing and puffing as the final seconds of Round One tick down to zero. Three minutes of the legendary first Leonard-Durán bout have passed. I know something both those men don’t: That this will be a full 15-round war past the brink of exhaustion. This is daunting news for me, who is punching along for all 45 minutes as part of my newest workout.
I’ve gotten complacent in quarantine, gaining six pounds as a result of eating more delivery food (to save the economy, or something) while being barred from the rock-climbing gym. There have been flirtations with high-intensity workouts on YouTube, yoga sculpting classes and old-fashioned runs outside, but nothing has been compelling enough to get me motivated to exercise hard and with discipline. A lot of us have been feeling this pain, surely; in many parts of the country, there are no pickup basketball games, group martial arts or CrossFit classes. Trying to do it at home just isn’t the same if you’re the kind of person who gets competitive juice from having others around them.
But firing up old boxing and MMA matches, many of them iconic events in history, has helped kick my ass out of its seated position. There’s something about the adrenaline and hype of great fights that feels timeless, whether it took place in the 1960s or the late aughts. If you’re anything like me as a fan, the best battles make you want to stand up and wing a few left hooks of your own in the living room. Realizing that sparked my curiosity — could I pick a fighter and keep up in the climate-controlled comfort of my home, throwing punches in response to what my “opponent” was doing on screen?
By Round Five, the answer is clear: Yes. Kind of. Rivulets of sweat are searing into my eyeballs as I weave side to side from my hips, mimicking Durán in the corner of the ring. I imagine trying to slip Leonard’s whipping jab, crunching my core tight and moving my head like the pendulum of a clock. Fifteen minutes of fight time have passed. I am breathing way too hard for someone who is standing in a living room.
This isn’t my first virtual at-home fight-a-long, and it won’t be the last. While I practiced some martial arts in adolescence, all you need to shadow-box properly is a solid stance and some practice throwing basic punches. Because there’s no bag to hit, there’s little risk of injury; the only equipment you need is enough floor space to move a few steps in all directions. And the best part is that there’s a nearly endless stream of fights to stream online for free. The odds of getting bored of a specific workout pattern are nil.
Want to work on fast-twitch muscles and agility? Dial up footage of a footwork master like Vasyl Lomachenko swerving all around Jorge Linares. Want to crank your back and core? Try and imitate heavyweights George Foreman and Ron Lyle taking Babe Ruth-sized chops at each others’ heads.
Like with all sports, what happens in the ring is only one element of the pomp and circumstance around boxing and, in the modern era, MMA. All the trash talk between opponents, the training-camp drama, the culture clashes, the idiotic displays of masculinity — it’s not merely fuel for our desires to see a violent solution. It’s the mythology that connects Ali and Frazier to Fury and Wilder.
Thankfully, that mythology has only grown richer with time. In my mind, to box along with vintage main events isn’t just a workout, but an exploration of history and society that seems so much richer and vibrant than the pandemic reality we have today. UFC 249 may have been a masterful card, but the lack of build-up events and a crowd made it feel like a referendum on the future. Hearing the crowd roar as I pick myself off the ground for Round 10 of Leonard-Durán, meanwhile, reminds me of the past.
Might I suggest some other matches?
There is the controversial split decision of Oscar de la Hoya and an in-his-prime Floyd Mayweather, ready to duck and dodge strikes by millimeters. Any of the bloody scrums between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Márquez would be a challenge. In MMA, I love the vicious rematch between strawweight champion Rose Namajunas and the former title-holder, Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
These are all fights with wildly different styles, personalities and outcomes. I think that’s exactly the kind of color and unpredictability that I’ve been craving for exercise.
The key is to work up to longer, harder fights. Throwing punches against air takes a lot out of your muscles compared to hitting a bag, and it becomes crystal clear in the last two rounds of Leonard and Durán’s fight that I don’t have it in me to power through. The two men are still chasing each other around the ring, even with Leonard battered and Durán digging deep for more power. My shirt is stuck to my back, and even a minute of rest won’t satiate my need for more oxygen.
I make a mental note to revisit Leonard’s stunning loss and fight in his shoes, instead of as the “Hands of Stone.” My hands now literally feel like boulders; the 16-ounce boxing gloves I plan to wear once I’m stronger taunt me from a nearby table.
Even with gyms reopening in different parts of the country, I know that I’ll be hunkering down for a while, waiting to see what unfolds before I expose myself. So it’s a relief to find a novel way to exercise that gets my emotional excitement as high as my heart rate. But there’s also trepidation as I scroll through the internet, looking for footage of my next training session: Legendary fights are great and all, but they have a nasty habit of taking my still-soft quarantine body and knocking it out.