The story of how one writer turned 30, started boxing and stepped into the ring for a heavyweight bout.

The mat beneath my feet is marked by other people’s blood. I step into the freshest, wettest stain and rub it underfoot. I don’t know why.

A former boxer leans over the ropes to my right. He hasn’t fought since the doctors put a plate in his head. Tonight he’s in my corner. His latex-covered hands are slick with the Vaseline he just rubbed around my eye sockets. My towel and potential symbol of surrender hangs over his shoulder. He looks at the stocky 197-pound man in the opposite corner of the ring and says: “This guy’s going to come at you with everything he’s got.”

It’s moments to the first real fight of my life, a heavyweight bout in the Ontario Golden Gloves Tournament, and I’m unsure how to act or where to look. I examine my opponent. Dressed in blue, he bounces off the ropes like a wrestler playing to the crowd. The mat vibrates as he stomps across the ring. He hasn’t yet thrown a punch but already he seems to be winning.

The announcer calls out my name. The 100 or so people in the crowd applaud while my trainer prepares me for the violence.

“Keep your hands up,” he says. “Remember your training.” But I remember nothing. “Relax and breathe.” Parting words as he steps off the apron. “I’ll see you in two minutes.”

The bell rings. We advance on each other, hands and bodies twitching. I clench my teeth, let out a grunt along with a jab and line up my right. He slips my punch and loads a hook destined for my temple. The crowd cheers as his fist connects with my head. I step back toward the ropes and prepare my counterattack. He comes in low, weaving from side to side. I jab him in the space between his nose and his upper lip, but it does nothing. He launches another hook toward my chin. I close my guard and prepare for the impact.

Toe to toe, at last
Popplewell, in the red trunks, faces off against a fellow heavyweight in the Ontario Boxing Association Golden Gloves in Hamilton, Ont.

To believe that a flatfooted writer with a crooked back, degenerating jaw and congenitally underdeveloped left pectoral ever stood a chance in a serious boxing tournament, you have to go back 16 months from the moment I got into my first fight and do as I did: disregard your common sense and have faith that anyone, if properly trained, can engage in a six-minute bout. In the lead-up to my 30th birthday I was obsessed with getting inside the head of a fighter going into combat. I wanted to know what it was to climb into a ring, in front of a crowd and put my face, pride, mind and body on the line for no deeper reason than to know how it felt.

I thought I understood the physical toll of the sport, but the emotional and mental sides seemed mysterious and fascinating. There was a romance to the ritualized violence. A beauty to the narrative of every fight: from the loneliness of the dank and drafty gym, to the blood-soaked climax and the savage nature of the joy and sorrow in one man’s victory and the other’s defeat. I wanted to experience all of it.

It was shortly before Christmas 2012 when I tried to explain all of this to my wife. But there was no way to articulate why I, a man who had never been in a fight, wanted to delve into an ancient and yet dying sport where ordinary people do things to each other that are illegal outside the ropes. She neither understood nor condoned my impulse. “I don’t want to be there when you fight,” she said. Then she rubbed my face and sighed. “They’re going to break your nose.”

My nose was the most superficial of my worries. In my day job I’d spoken to the families and friends of two athletes who’d ended their lives while struggling with chronic traumatic encephalopathy—a degenerative brain disease caused by concussions. Used to be they called it punch-drunk syndrome and dementia pugilistica because it was only boxers who seemed to get it. I’d suffered one diagnosed concussion in a biking accident 17 years earlier. I’d knocked myself out and woke up in hospital with a headache and a three-day hole in my memory. The state of my brain was foremost on my mind, but I couldn’t rid myself of the urge to dance and punch and maybe pull out a victory.

On the morning of my birthday I walked into a Toronto boxing gym looking for a fight. Mario Lechowski sat on a rolling chair in the back of the gym, one hand on his stomach, the other wrapped around a paper coffee cup. The 33-year-old former Canadian Lightweight Champion-turned-small-time boxing promoter looked at me and asked: “What the fuck do you weigh?”

“Last I checked I was 208,” I said, knowing full well I was 10 pounds heavier.

Lechowski established his credentials quickly. He said people still called him “The Champ” and that he’d boxed in Vegas and trained with Floyd Mayweather. I told him my grandfather, a novice boxer in his day, gave me some basic pugilistic training in my youth but as best I could remember I hadn’t punched anyone in the face since the sixth grade.

He said he didn’t give a damn who I was because in his world I was nothing. Then he lightened up, said he could get me a match in front of a crowd with ring girls and judges. He ran an amateur show called The Brawl on Bay Street. Most of his boxers were high-flying bankers, aggressive types with a lot of money. But one of them was weaker. “A 40-year-old fat guy,” as Lechowski put it, who’d been coming to the gym for a while, but who was still fat. “You could fight him. I can put you on the card for $2,000.”

I was 10 minutes into my exploration of the boxing world and already felt like I was falling prey to a promoter. I told Lechowski I’d hoped to train and maybe compete in a smaller show, something gritty where real fight fans sat on folding chairs, like in that opening scene in Rocky. He said to come back with money and we’d see where we wound up.

Soon I was skipping rope in the corner of a wood-floored torture den, tucked between a record shop and a Money Mart, that once housed Canada’s Boxing Hall of Fame. I was forking over $220 a month to Lechowski, who’d stand in my vicinity for two hours a week while I tripped over a rope and then pounded on a heavy bag. I began to crave the rare moments when Lechowski would look up from his iPhone and critique my form.

“Punch harder,” he liked to say.

For three months I awoke in pain from the repetition of pounding my hands into the bag. My knuckles seemed permanently bloodied and bruised, and I’d stretched out the ligaments between my pinky fingers and my wrists. I could barely shake hands with strangers without wincing as they squeezed. I felt pathetic, yet remained determined to get in the ring. My biggest question: who was going to help me get there. I left Lechoswki and began the search for a new trainer.

Put a ring on him
Morrison helps Popplewell get the gloves on at Sully’s, the second of three gyms he trained out of during his 16 months of fight prep

Tony Morrison was sucking back on a McDonald’s pop when I met him inside Sully’s, a small gym above a woodshop in an industrial strip in Toronto’s west end. Said to be the oldest-running boxing club in Canada, Sully’s once built the top fighters in the country. But that was ages ago and the only real fighter who still seemed to frequent the gym was Morrison. The Jamaican-born heavyweight had been a promising pugilist in the mid ’80s, though he hadn’t competed since 1990, when Riddick Bowe put him down in the first round of a bout in Kansas City. Morrison was out of shape now and moved slowly around the gym. Publicity shots from his career lined the walls alongside photos of Muhammad Ali, who’d trained out of Sully’s prior to his 1966 bout against George Chuvalo at Maple Leaf Gardens.

The lights were off. Morrison stood alone, looking at the rain through a window on the far side of the gym. His right hand, which had once knocked out Leon Spinks, was digging the last few fries from a paper bag. I told him I was a writer looking for a fight. He said I was older than most guys he trained, then pointed to a sign on the wall that read: “It’s better to build boys than mend men.” Then he tossed a truck tire on the floor and told me to shadowbox around it as if it were a human.

Like the untrained Karate Kid trying to impress Mr. Miyagi, I coiled my fists in front of my face, staggered into my orthodox stance and started throwing some basic combinations. After three minutes he told me to put on gloves and move to the heavy bag. “Let’s see your left hook,” he said. I swung my body weight and plowed my arm into the bag. It made a soft sound when it connected, kind of like a tire deflating—nothing like you’d expect from the fist of a 215-pound man. My one round on the bag complete, Morrison told me to catch my breath while a handful of his pupils filtered into the gym.

“Do you think I can fight?” I asked.

“You can fight,” he said. “But your jab is really weak, and for a guy your size that’ll kill you. You need to be jabbing all the time. And there’s something wrong with your hook. You’re twisting your lower body but none of that weight is getting into your arm.”

For the next three months I trained at Sully’s, averaging six hours a week with Morrison and a group of teens. When I wasn’t doing road work (Morrison’s words for jogging), I was skipping rope, shadow boxing around that truck tire, pounding the heavy bag, or sprawled out on the floor, doing mountain climbers, sit-ups, push-ups, burpees or just lying there, gasping like a dying fish in the bottom of a boat.

Though I told Morrison my name dozens of times it never seemed to stick. He called me Red because I usually wore a red shirt. “Don’t quit, Red!” he’d yell, shaking his head when I did. By August—eight months after first putting on a pair of gloves—he’d trained me to jab non-stop for three minutes without even throwing a right, but after about a minute I was really just touching the bag. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but still he declared me ready for my first sparring session.

My eyes twitched with anxiety as Luke, a goateed heavyweight with an “L” tattooed on his arm, crossed the mat. He swung at me like a lumberjack and I could hear Tony screaming from ringside. “Pop-Pop-Bam!” He shouted encouragement until I got clipped by a right to the underside of my chin. My head snapped back and suddenly Tony’s assistant was counting to eight and asking if I understood what had happened.

“He hit me hard,” I said.

“And your feet were together, so you almost fell over. Do you want to keep going?”

I nodded. Luke and I continued, him wailing on my face and body until finally he stopped and it occurred to me that perhaps he’d exhausted himself. I fired wild jabs around his head like a flak gun, then clobbered him with my right. He stumbled backwards. My pride at having hit him was quickly replaced by remorse when I noticed the blood dripping out of his nose. When we were done I apologized for making him bleed. He said it was nothing, then informed me I had blood on my teeth and that my right eye was starting to swell.

The next day, as I walked down a leafy street, I had a slight headache that seemed amplified by the sun poking in and out of the leaves. I’d suffered what my doctor called a “sub-concussive blow”—an apparent injury but without severe enough symptoms to call it a concussion. All things considered, my head was doing better than the rest of my body. I’d developed shin splints so painful that I was no longer jumping rope, which was a problem because my footwork in the ring was awful. A physiotherapist soon explained that the root of this and every other incapacity in my life was that I was inherently crooked. I’d long known that I had a curve in my spine, an effect of having been born without a lower pectoral on my left side. None of this limited me physically, except in the ring where my quickly fatigued left jab and caressing left hook were causing me to fight like a one-armed man. I began spending my down time with a personal trainer who described me as “a baby deer with a broken leg.” Together we set about reprograming the way my brain moved my body all in the hope that I might learn to channel some power into my left.

Back at Sully’s, Morrison continued toughening me up in the ring. Following one particularly embarrassing sparring session with a 145-pound kid who danced around me like a squirrel circling a tree, an instructive Morrison tapped me in the chest with a bareknuckle right, called me Red and yelled: “You gotta shift that weight!”

It again occurred to me that I’d been sparring without anyone at Sully’s really knowing my name. What’s more, I knew nothing about the men I’d been fighting. I still had confidence in and respect for Morrison, but I wanted more personal guidance before getting in the ring again. So I switched trainers for the second time in 10 months.

Crossing over
Popplewell, in the blue headgear, takes a right on the chin during a sparring session at Sully's

Mike Hysong was examining one of his fighter’s bloodied noses when I entered The Combat Asylum, a drafty boxing club tucked up against a railroad track in Toronto’s east end. “Close the door!” Hysong shouted as I shuffled in from the cold. We shook hands and I noted that his was like a battering ram. Short and thick with long brown hair, Hysong was a former amateur who’d retired after suffering an injury to his face.

Every one of his fighters in the Asylum that day was being trained for one fight or another. Among them: a 34-year-old carpenter and expectant father named Demetrius Kotsos; an actor named Dylan Taylor; and Kenneth Laroza, a 27-year-old real-estate agent who’d fought one match, knocking his opponent’s mouth guard to the mat. None of them were as impressive as the smallest of their sparring partners, Marianna Zafiroudis, a 120-pound bartender who’d give up 40 pounds in the ring and still come out looking better than the guys she sparred against.

Hysong ran a strict gym. Every sparring session was filmed. And everyone who took a punch in his ring had to be cleared by a doctor.

I began training at the Asylum four times a week. I’d run up to 10 km at a time and sprint up and down 17 flights of stairs. I’d skip rope for 15 minutes straight. When I tripped I’d punish myself with push-ups. I swore off anything that tasted good and began eating like a caveman.

Hysong taught me that every fighter fell into one of two categories. “Boxers” were the tall ones who relied on their jabs to maintain distance and tended to look poised in a fight. “Brawlers” were shorter guys who made it their game to break through opponents’ jabs and get inside to work the body and head. Hysong’s favourite fights were those between a boxer and a brawler, or as the great boxing writer, A.J. Liebling, liked to say, “a vertical line and a cube.”

As I am six-foot-three, Hysong trained me to be a boxer, and a week before Christmas he put me in the ring. I did a few rounds with Kotsos and Laroza, then squared off against Taylor, who buried me in a corner. Frustrated, I tossed out a right that clipped him in the chin. He staggered back, then cracked his neck like a cartoon villain and manoeuvred me once more into the corner before unloading a cross to the bridge of my nose. Blood poured out of my face and Hysong pulled us out of the ring. When I returned home, my wife looked at my swollen nose and remarked that the bags under my eyes were turning purple.

“By the time I got out of the ring I had a trickle of blood from the accountant’s nose mashed into my beard. I was about to head home feeling like I was done with boxing forever when Hysong said he wanted to put me on his team at the Golden Gloves.”

I was nearly a year into my training and still had no fight on the horizon. I told her I’d keep it going until my 31st birthday, then I could say I’d given it my best for an entire year.

On the evening that I turned 31, I had a day-old pork chop, an apple and a banana for my birthday dinner, then walked into the Asylum. Kotsos was there, along with a stocky southpaw and an accountant named Mike Panjvani. First I sparred with the southpaw (a brawler) and then with Kotsos and Panjvani (boxers). By the time I got out of the ring I had a trickle of blood from the accountant’s nose mashed into my beard. I was about to head home feeling like I was done with boxing forever when Hysong said he wanted to put me on his team at the Golden Gloves, the Ontario Boxing Association’s annual amateur championship tournament. “You’ve come this far,” he said. “Might as well keep going.”

I agreed along with seven other Asylum fighters, but it was the unknown knowns that worried me most. Mainly, I had no idea who my opponent would be. Night after night I prepared for an opponent of any shape or size. Each match in the tournament would consist of three two-minute rounds. On any given night at the Asylum we’d put in six rounds just to ensure we could go twice the distance required.

I doubled my running schedule and started eating nothing but eggs, apples and walnuts to dip under the 200-pound heavyweight threshold. I stopped shaving because I’d read that a well-lubricated beard could help a boxer slip a punch. I re-watched boxing movies and looked up old fights on YouTube, but eventually had to stop because I kept reverting to bouts where one fighter actually killed another.

As the Golden Gloves drew close, members of the team began dropping out. The Monday before the tournament I walked into the Asylum for one last sparring session. We were under orders from Hysong to throw only jabs, but not everyone was listening. I caught a right in the nose and it exploded. Blood as thick as brain matter stuck to my opponent’s glove. The next day I couldn’t breathe. By Thursday I was in my doctor’s office learning that I had cartilage damage and perhaps a deviated septum. I told him I was scheduled to fight in 36 hours. He asked how I felt and my hands started to shake.

“I feel scared,” I said.

“Do you want to go through with it?”

“You don’t have to. You know that right? You’re in control of that.”

I nodded.

I no longer felt in control of anything. I wanted to stop, but I’d told everyone in my life that I was training for a fight. And now I was trapped, consumed by some irrational need to mask my inner cowardice.

It is 3:32 a.m., first day of the tournament, and I’ve just finished dry-heaving into the toilet. I rinse my mouth in the sink and crawl back into bed. It is 4:44 a.m. when I last note the time. Then I slip into a dream. I am standing in the ring about to fight when a doctor comes running up to the referee. He reveals that my body is so crooked that I cannot fight and he escorts me out of the ring.

Later, over coffee, my wife tells me she’d also had a dream. In it she was mugged and because of that I had to leave the fights and go to her bedside in the hospital, and when I got there I remarked that her injuries were the ones I should have been given in the fight. Our anxieties are getting to us. I eat four hard-boiled eggs and some walnuts. Then I grab my boxing gear and make for the Golden Gloves in Hamilton.

The ring is being constructed in the cafeteria of Mohawk College when I arrive. I overhear two fighters discussing their plans to destroy their opponents in the ring. “I don’t care who it is,” one of them says. “I’m gonna put him to sleep. Night-night.”

Despite her earlier assertions that she did not want to see me fight, my wife has chosen to be with me because she knows I’m going crazy. I weigh in at 196 pounds, my anxieties having consumed two pounds in one day. As I wait to see the doctor I realize I am holding a paper with the name of my opponent: Brian Radolfi. He too is 31. He weighs 197 pounds and fights out of a gym in Kingston. I tell my wife his name and suddenly the man in front of me in line starts staring at me. “I am Brian Radolfi,” he says.

He is four inches shorter and much thicker than me, and most of his mass appears to be muscle. I take him for a brawler. I explain to my wife that if he knocks me out it will be my fault for letting him get inside. “If that happens, the doctor will be there to take care of me,” I add.

Time grinds to a halt as we wait for a man in black running shoes and a tuxedo to climb into the ring and announce the line-up for the night. I watch from the crowd as two of my sparring partners take to the mat. Kotsos loses on a decision, Panjvani by a knockout that leaves him on his back. When I ask him why he wasn’t punching he replies: “In my mind, I was.”

Seated next to my wife, I force myself to eat a banana and some more walnuts then blast the fastest-paced song on my iPhone into my ears.

I am staring at the floor when Hysong and Laroza, the real-estate agent from my gym, tell me it’s time to suit up. I throw on my red tank and trunks, lace up my boxing shoes. Hysong rubs Vaseline into my beard and around my eyes. He shakes out my arms, tells me, “You don’t want to look back at this years from now and wish you’d tried harder.”

I catch a glimpse of my wife in the crowd as I climb through the ropes. I try not to look at her, keep my eyes on my feet as I step into stains of previous combatants’ blood.

Radolfi stares at me from his corner with an expressionless face. Then he grins and I realize he’s ready to go.

Stairway to transgression
Minutes to the fight, Popplewell draws within himself to keep a level head and remember his training

In the beginning I am strong. I dance on my toes and circle Radolfi in the centre of the ring, peppering the air just beyond his nose with jabs. Thirty-two seconds into the match he throws a hook that hits me behind my left ear. It rings my head, but I am not fazed. Moments later he tries for another. He launches it from his hip and it careens through the air like a mortar. I alter its trajectory by driving my left into the base of his nose. He staggers backward. I advance, unloading a flurry of jabs. He takes a few and slips the rest, then ducks low and launches another hook. I dodge the impact then reload the jab. The posturing continues until he begins to weave back and forth. I triple up on the lefts, treating them like covering fire for my one good punch. I am baiting him to go for that hook. Two more jabs and I see it coming. I cock everything I have into my right and throw it straight into his brow.

His head spins on his neck with my punch. Then his arms flare out by his sides like a trapeze artist searching for balance. He turns back toward me. His eyes are wide, staring at the mat. I have just hit him harder than I have ever hit anyone in my entire life. He stumbles forward. I expect him to collapse, but he doesn’t and I move in.

“HANDS UP!” his corner screams.

I catch him with another left, then a right followed by a quick jab to the chin. He backs into the ropes. I jab his sternum and try to hook him in the kidneys but then the bell rings and I take to my stool.

Hysong pours water in my mouth and tells me to spit. “You’re winning this fight,” he says, wiping the sweat from my face and encouraging me to breathe. “He’s going to try to break through your reach now. When he gets in, you put your hooks in his sides.”

The bell rings for the second round and I come out slower. Radolfi moves more cautiously now, weaving and jabbing upwards toward my chin. I catch him with another hard right. The crowd responds, but Radolfi doesn’t flinch. Instead he just keeps stalking forward.

“SMASH HIM!” someone screams, and Radolfi reverts to launching mortars. I can still see them coming but I’ve lost some of my spring. I take a right to the head followed by a left, and suddenly my back’s on the ropes. I know I should clinch but something inside me says, “Run!” I shuffle to my right, momentarily turning my back on him as I evade his fists. The referee directs me to my corner and starts counting in my face. He reaches eight then asks, “Are you OK?”

“Yes,” I say.

He steps back and says: “Box.”

Radolfi paces forward and I retreat from the centre of the ring, firing off some meaningless jabs meant to discourage his advances. The bell saves me and I make for my corner.

Hysong tells me to rinse my mouth. Blood pours out as I spit in the bucket.

He says I need to keep it together. He towels off my nose—it too is covered in blood.

“He breaks in on you like that again you gotta step back and bury that right in him.”

I’m on my feet before the bell rings. I reach the centre with my hands up and wait for Radolfi to join me. He moves slowly and I wonder if maybe he’s more exhausted than I am. I dance for a moment to trick him into believing I’ve still got legs.

I land a few jabs but I’m firing blanks with my left. My right is all I have. He lunges at me and I step back, catch him off balance with a sloppy combination and suddenly his arm’s tangled in the ropes and his knee is nearly down. I go for the knock-out. As he regains his posture I clobber him with a right hook to the chin. He stares at me with his eyes wide and shakes his head. For a moment I feel I’m fighting Hulk Hogan.

“COME ON, RED!” I hear someone scream. I pepper him with a few more jabs and a right that connects with a thwack against his eye, but I don’t see his last hook until it’s already ricocheting off my chin. My jaw moves from one side to the other. It’s the hardest he has hit me. I step back and don’t land another punch. The bell rings and I drape my arms over the ropes and gasp for breath as I await the decision.

“This is going to be close,” Hysong says.

He wipes the blood from my mouth and nose, pulls off my gloves, tells me to breathe and reminds me that if I win I have to be back here first thing tomorrow for my next fight. For five minutes Radolfi and I stand in our corners. I can see the judges convening ringside. Then someone gives a paper to the referee and the man in the tuxedo announces the winner. Radolfi raises his arms in glory while I nod at my feet. I kiss my wife on my way out of the cafeteria. She says she’s proud of me. I tell her I’m going to puke. My adrenalin is crashing and I vomit a day’s worth of walnuts and bananas into the toilet.

“The bell rings and I drape my arms over the ropes and gasp for breath as I await the decision.”

Boxing is in decline, and everyone’s got a theory for why. From the rise of MMA and the crookedness of the game to the growing public awareness that frequent blows are bad for the brain. Yet there remains an inherent attraction that still leads fully functioning members of society to smash their fists into each other’s faces in the name of amateur sport. And there are still thousands of men and women willing to flock ringside to witness the organized violence.

I return to the Golden Gloves a day after the fight to take in the championship bouts, my nose and jaw aching.

Radolfi is there when I arrive, his left eye swollen purple and green. He explains that he lost all vision in the eye after the match. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I couldn’t see anything. You hit me so hard. I was scared.”

He says that for him boxing is like therapy, and that he hopes to grow old in and around the ring, training kids. He also tells me he grew up in a rough part of Kingston, near a prison. His dad spent time on the inside for a drive-by shooting and was murdered shortly after getting released. “I’ve been in a lot of street fights,” he adds. “None of them lasted more than 30 seconds.”

He says he stopped brawling in his early 20s. Then, sometime before his 30th birthday, his neighbour bashed him in the head with an axe handle for playing his guitar too loudly. Radolfi defended himself with his fists and knocked his attacker out. “I really surprised myself with what I could do,” he says. “That’s when I decided to take up boxing.”

I had lost the fight, but I’d done everything I could to beat him. I tell him so and he thanks me for that. Then he shakes my hand and begins preparing for his next bout while I step back from the ring and slip into the crowd.

Photo Credits

James MacDonald
Aaron Vincent Elkaim
Jamie Hodgson