The last thing I want to do is fight.
Like a lot of guys, I have talked tough. Argued. Dared a few drunk jerks to “say that again!” I’ve been in tussles, scuffles and a few pickup-basketball shoving matches, with nothing to show for it but a black eye or a bloody nose. My career record in real fights is 0-0.
I’m not alone. Only half of American men report that they have been in a “serious physical fight,” and you can bet some of them are lying. An Onion headline got it right: “Report: Average Male 4,000% Less Effective in Fights Than They Imagine.”
All of which is fine — until a fight finds you.
I made it into my 60s without punching anybody or, worse, getting punched. Then I went jogging in Brooklyn.
Near the end of my run a tall, scraggly bearded skateboarder was kicking his dog, a young pit bull. “Stop it,” I told him.
The guy turned on me. If you remember Spin Doctors, he looked just like their lead singer. He said, “Huh?”
“I said, ‘Stop it.’”
And he did. He picked up the dog, put it under one arm and ran right at me. “Dumb ugly old man!” he yelled.
Before I could think, “What do you mean, dumb?” he was a step away, rearing back with his fist cocked. I was about to hit or be hit.
At that point, things started to move in slow motion. As his fist got bigger and closer, I had a split second to flash on encounters with some of the world’s best fighters during 30 years as a sportswriter.
Lennox Lewis, the 6-foot-5-inch 260-pound Englishman who won the world heavyweight title in 1992, snuck up on me in a restaurant and threw a haymaker that would have knocked me into next week — if he hadn’t stopped his fist at the tip of my nose.
“Had you vexed!” he said.
Floyd “Money” Mayweather once showed me how to pepper an opponent with jabs. In Manila, I stepped into the ring with 12-time world champ Manny Pacquiao, who pulled my elbow back and coached me on launching a lethal left hook.
All of which I forgot the moment I needed it. Instead of bending my knees and loading my weight onto my back foot, I stood there like a lox. At least I kept my hands up enough to fend off Scruffy’s punch, which glanced off my hand as he went past me and skated away, laughing and shooting me the bird. I wound up with a bruised wrist and an adrenaline rush that’s still going.
It’s enough to make a peaceable man want to be better prepared.
There are plenty of reasons to learn to throw an effective punch. For one thing, sparring is great exercise. It’s also good to know realistic movie and TV punches from slappy ones, and to appreciate the skill of boxers and mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters. But in this case, self-knowledge matters as much as self-defense. As Brad Pitt put it in Fight Club, “How well can you know yourself if you've never been in a fight?”
The point is to be ready — to know you could execute the simplest, manliest move if you had to.
So I turned to World Boxing Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach. At 63, Roach is boxing lore incarnate. A veteran of 53 pro fights of his own (40-13 with 15 knockouts), he was just as tough outside the ring. Jumped in a street fight one night, he bit a guy’s eye out. Roach went on to train Pacquiao, Mike Tyson and a dozen other world champs, plus celebrity boxers including Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Miles Teller and, yes, Aimee Mann.
“Tyson threw the most devastating punch I ever saw,” he says. “There were some guys who were going down before he hit them — out of fear!”
As for the rest of us, “If you're confronted and you need to throw, go with the left hook to the point of the chin, regardless of whether you’re a righty or a southpaw,” he says. “The left hook is the closest distance to the chin. Make sure your elbow is even with the floor and don't stop the punch on contact — you want to make sure you punch through the target, the same way you follow through when you hit a ball with a baseball bat, a golf club or a tennis racket.”
The other guy won't be getting up from that, he says. “But if you miss, my second recommendation is to run like hell!”
How to Throw a Punch
World Boxing Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach explains how to shut down an attacker fast
The last thing I want to do is fight.