“I can’t breathe,” I complained as I sat on the hard wooden stool, my elbows resting on my knees, head pointing abjectly through boxing gloves towards the canvas. Blood ran freely from my nose, my chipped lip; it pooled around my mouthguard before dribbling along my chin and onto my chest. Both eyes were swollen and discolored, an earlobe had been nicked. The crowd hummed with the excitement of my knockout.
“Get your nose fixed!” my trainer advised me a few days later. “You can’t fight if you can’t breathe.”
My nose had been broken when I was a kid. In those sublime days, seatbelts were never used, and when my father braked suddenly, I was hurled into the front windscreen of our old bush-truck. I cried, but not much, because I knew my father would be angry; he was a coalminer and they were proud folk who could take pain, even when they were only four years old.
“We can burn the bone away,” my doctor explained, “widen the passage and let you breath. It’ll be better than re-breaking the bone, and we can have you out of here quicker.”
I thought I should ask some questions, find out some more facts, but the doctor seemed unimpressed by my interest. It didn’t matter, I was nineteen, and all I really wanted was to get back into the ring.
When I came out of the operating theatre my face was more damaged than in any of my previous fights. My nose was filled with gauze and swathed in bandage. My eyes were swollen, almost closed. After a few days they turned a malarial yellow flecked with a becoming milk chocolate color. When I tried to breathe, stale stagnant blood dribbled down the back of my throat.
I was allowed to leave hospital after three days and a week after that I was back at training. Light work: the heavy bag, skipping, shadow boxing, morning road work. My breathing came easier, and my condition quickly improved.
Our gym was a small tin shed in the back yard of our trainer’s house. In the summers, we baked under its low roof, exhausting ourselves in the rancid air. In the short sharp winters, we froze in its cold metal embrace. An amorous reek of sweat met you as you entered.
The boss had furnished the gym with a few old heavy bags and speed balls. Skipping ropes and tattered gloves hung on nails on a far wall. Colorful fight posters gave it a carnival spirit of expectation and excitement. A small ring, which allowed no room for escape if you were getting a belting, was built against a back wall.
Our trainer liked to arrange sparring sessions with boxers from other gyms.
“Experience, it’s good experience,” he would whistle through a nose that sloped like a pea pod. “Next week we’ll go over to Boolloroo and do some sparring with them boys. Put you in with Blinki, see how you go,” he said turning to me.
I only nodded because you never argued with your trainer.
Blinki Robinski the son of Polish immigrants, was New South Wales professional lightweight champion and ten pounds heavier. He had an extremely large and misshapen nose, light curly hair, and heavy, round shoulders. Blinki was a slugger.
I was considered by some to be a mild prospect in 1974, and against Blinki I was dancing sweetly, easily avoiding his heavy, ponderous attacks. I felt keen and my punches were sharp and miscellaneous, finding their target, frustrating Blinki until he began to throw heavier punches, concentrating on hurt instead of technique.
I was still surprised when the straight right hand landed bang on my nose. In the shortest of moments, the punch had destroyed the fine work my doctor had spent his valuable time doing. Blood and snot exploded across my chest, congealing, mixing with bone and gristle. The swelling blocked the nose passage. The pain was searing, it persevered. Water gathered and fell from my eyes. I bit into my mouthguard, danced away, unable to see clearly. The pain spread, kneading the back of my eyes until it changed into a throb stronger than a drumbeat. I went after him, my punches now concentrating on hurt, and the round ended no better than a brawl. We embraced, because Blinki Robinski was a genial man outside the ring.
I met my wife in Paradise. Costa Rica lies on an isthmus of green, fringed with golden sand. A range of rugged mountain divides it between two aqua seas. Its air is undiluted and sweetened with enough moisture to make breathing a sensation. Only pockets of poverty and man-made strips of ugliness scar its beauty. In the two and a half years I worked in its jungle rivers looking for gold, living on a staple of beans and rice, I never felt fitter, rarely stronger.
When I moved to Holland to be with V in 1986, a mysterious and chronic illness overtook me. I felt tired, my strength ebbed, a weighty fog that was like a cup of mercury rolled willy nilly in my head. I had trouble processing information. At times with its multitude of trams, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, crossing an Amsterdam Street brought on something akin to a panic attack. I suspected I had something lethal caused by boxing.
In my unremarkable career, I had been punched into submission three times. On each occasion, after being knocked to the canvas – sometimes more than once – I revived enough to clamber back to a standing position and hold up my hands. I had a strong will, and I always ended the fight on my feet, if only slightly conscious, always badly bloodied, and mauled. What they call a technical knockout in the fight game.
Beside the beatings I suffered as a boxer, I had also been hit over the head with a barstool. Skinheads, a London pub full, milling crudely amongst decent folk, bent on trouble. When a small Irishman, inoffensive and unafraid, had the tenacity to erase a swastika a skinhead had traced on a window’s condensation, they erupted. It was a frenzied attack on the man and when a few of us intervened on his behalf, they had their mayhem. Their numerical superiority allowed them to fight like pack dogs … four, five against one. The bar stool was short and heavy and aimed from behind. My head was grotesquely swollen on one side for days. Three months later the attack was still noticeable.
Because my illness continued, my wife made an appointment for me with a neurologist. The doctor was youngish, thick dark hair, attractive in a prim, clever sort of way. She diagnosed me as over-traveled, charged one hundred guilders cash, and gave no receipt.
“She only asked a few questions,” I answered my wife’s enquiry.
“Corrupt,” she complained when I told her about the payment method. “And what sort of diagnosis is that?”
But personally, I was happy with the doctor’s conclusions. It meant my head was not going to be the death of me… if she was right of course, but I have never doubted the wisdom of doctors, and as for the method of payment, well I was a foreigner and as such, felt she had every right to suspect that if she wasn’t paid in cash, perhaps she wouldn’t be paid at all. It’s just human nature.
My health continued to be a problem and a few years later I was referred to another specialist. This doctor seemed to be more serious, listening attentively to my complaints, taking careful and minute notes. His neurological scans showed that my brain had suffered some damage. He described it as small volcanoes that may or may not lead to epileptic seizures later in life. The damage would explain to some extent my problem with the quick processing of information, my anger issues. But it did not explain all my problems.
Yet another diagnosis came from my family doctor. Allergies! For years I swallowed extremely expensive antihistamines and felt better. Later still new attacks occurred that left me bedridden for days at a time. The symptoms were flu like but included many of my former head complaints. A good friend suggested that I see her doctor, a nose ear and throat specialist.
My friend had suffered for decades with unspecific maladies, mysteries really, but allergies and a chronic sinus infection were at least partially suspected. Her doctor had encouraged her to eat a special diet that forbade most foods that had any taste and insisted she only wear shoes with leather soles. He had operated on her nose, andHer she worshipped him. Out of desperation I was prepared to worship him as well.
Doctor D. was past retirement age and called all noses snouts. He was tiny but portly, and this made his quick alert movements resemble a bouncing ball. He had an optimism that was infectious and encouraging and although he made precise appointments, he never held to them, sometimes keeping his patients waiting for hours. Curiously, only his secretary became furious at these delays that he so casually caused but, as far as I could learn, her anger never had the least impact on him.
Doctor D’s, greatest asset was his sincerity. He wanted to get to the bottom of the problem. He listened but, more importantly, he explained and answered. If he had a fault, it was his complete confidence in his diagnoses.
“You have a sinus infection,” he told me.
“Like my friend,” I added.
“An operation is necessary,” he continued as if he had not heard. “We have to straighten that snout out. Don’t want to give the bacteria a place to breed.” Yes, it would improve my breathing and help with snoring and therefore my sleep. Yes, he was confident it would improve my allergic reactions.
When I look at the photos my wife took as I lay convalescing in my own bed after the operation, I remember my regular demands for pain killers, the thin soups that I sipped, the constant attention I demanded, the pallet of blacks, yellows, blues and browns that were my eyes, the misshape of my head, yet again.
But I had stopped snoring and I could breathe more easily. My general health improved, and my nose was so straight and handsome, that I was never again mistaken for a boxer. Suddenly it was as if those years in the fight game had never happened. I felt like a soldier who had lost a medal.
After the operation, and to my wife’s everlasting confusion, not a moment went by, when I would not have exchanged my new improved health, for the bumps and spread of my old nose.
Four years after the operation, at the age of fifty, I had another fight. I was traveling as a member of a boxing troupe through the Australian bush. Each night our fighters, standing on a raised platform in front of a colorful mural of great Australian boxers- a drum beating, a bell ringing- would challenge local men to fight three rounds for a cash prize. I was employed as a driver, roustabout, referee, but sometimes I felt the need to cross my demarcation line. Really, what I wanted to prove was that age had not wearied.
My opponent was ninety pounds heavier and twenty years younger. I was knocked to the canvas three times before the end of the fight but finished it standing. I was cut and bruised about the face, and for months afterwards my balance was impaired, and my nose, if ever so slightly, was spread again. To my opponent, I am eternally grateful.