Cover

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Frontmatter

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blows to the head

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contents

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pp. vii-viii

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prologue

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pp. 1-4

A bloody mouthguard floats in a bucket that I am holding under a young Hispanic man’s face. It is a frantic moment between rounds and I am working the corner, reaching through the ropes of the boxing ring and mopping his dark kinky hair with a torn white towel. Inside the ring, kneeling at Manuel’s feet and urging him to stay alert, is his coach John, a former middleweight ...

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1. a dirty sport

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pp. 5-12

I am learning how to perfect my jab in an inner-city gym where you can work out for $9.95 a month and then pop next door to the unemployment office to pick up your check. One of a chain of low-cost fitness centers, it is homogenized, no-frills, and this branch is especially low on the chain. The first time I ...

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2. women

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pp. 13-22

Bessie and Minnie Gordon are said to have been the first female boxing act, popular entertainers on the eastern seaboard vaudeville circuit. Their performance was billed as “bag punching and scientific act.” The Gordon sisters’ act is preserved in a two-minute film shot by Thomas Edison in 1901. The film is ...

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3. vos is dos?

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pp. 23-30

By the fourth lesson with John, I was dreaming punches. One morning my husband grabbed my hand, which had been moving automatically in my sleep. Both hands had been going back and forth. We fell back asleep with our hands entwined, but my husband said I was still trying to move my fists. ...

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4. take me on

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pp. 31-42

I found my boxing coach because of a story in an American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) newsletter. I was still barely getting used to the fact that I received such a document. Wasn’t it just yesterday I had been a promiscuous young rock’n roller? I had gone to “happenings” and “be-ins” in the ...

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5. love me, love my cigar

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pp. 43-48

I am six years old and sitting at my father’s feet, ducking the flicks of ash from his ever-present and foul-smelling cigar. The large ruby ring on his pinky gleams as he raises his fist. “You bastard!” he yells, leaning forward on his beloved yellow leather club chair with the studded buttons that I fill with chewing gum ...

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6. a joy to be hidden

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pp. 49-60

I am standing in front of a blue gym mat on the floor of Chancellor Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey. Mr. Kanowith, dense and muscular, is exhaling his onion breath onto me like a dragon digesting its lunch. “Let’s go! Are you gonna be a klutz too, like your sister?” I didn’t witness her gymnastic travails, ...

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7. an endless scream

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pp. 61-72

Before John there was Jacob, like a bible story. I met him when I broke my ankle and foot, and that’s one of the injuries I didn’t tell John about in my zeal to be seen as a strong and worthy disciple of boxing. Several years before John took me on, there was a morning when I was distracted and spacey as I carried a can of birdseed ...

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8. requiem for a heavyweight

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pp. 73-80

Before John took me on, and during the months that Jacob and I were boxing at the gym, my husband was going through a personal dry spell. He was obsessed with a tabletop baseball game with cards and dice in which you could reproduce the teams of a certain game in a certain year but be the ...

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9. risks

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pp. 81-94

Scott’s theater performance was fantastic. I was excited, watching him stride across the stage. His friend Ken, sitting next to me, grabbed my hand as Mountain took the stage, hurt and bloody from a fight, and cried out, “It hurts, Maish, it hurts!” Scott as Mountain played a drunk scene, a love scene, and my favorite of all—a forceful physical scene when he grabs ...

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10. siblings

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pp. 95-100

When you visit your therapist, you may maintain the fiction for a time that you are the only patient, until the inevitable day you see someone else in the waiting room. Or you strain to hear the muffled words of the previous patient through the door, and you wonder if they are more interesting, or more crazy, or more special than you. When they come out, you want to ...

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11. john calls the fight

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pp. 101-110

I was having a difficult time with a close friend who was going through a marital crisis and had recently entered psychoanalysis. It was an odd mixture of events: she talked little about the problems with her soon-to-be ex-husband and more about being absolutely certain she was in love with her new analyst, ...

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12. making contact and collective rage

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pp. 111-122

Don’t report me, but I’ve yet to see Schindler’s List. I have been making my way through somber documentaries about life in the shtetls, life in the Warsaw ghetto, immigration stories that included amazing tales of Jewish sheepherder cowboys who settled in the West, including Levi Strauss and his invention

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13. mind over matter

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pp. 123-130

Meriden, Connecticut, is a blue-collar town with around sixty thousand people. It’s considered the midpoint of Connecticut and to me it’s always been lacking in character, a little seedy and depressing. I spent a few hours once doing jury duty there and was mercifully excused from participation in a ...

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14. namesake

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pp. 131-136

The battles of West Side Story were tame compared to the neighborhood brawls on the Lower East Side of New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The best fighters were those who captured the territory, the turf—or had the goods to back up their claim to being the best. The streets were dangerous; ...

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15. combat

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pp. 137-144

I now own my own boxing gloves, read Ring magazine, and watch fights on television any chance I can. I can no longer complain when Scott is glued to the Red Sox games—chances are while he’s in the bedroom watching baseball, I’m in the living room watching men pound each other on the other television. ...

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16. pain and violent zen

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pp. 145-152

I’d upped my boxing lessons to twice a week when I began to experience significant pain in my right leg. I’d be doing my happy stroll through the mall and my leg would feel heavy, fatigued, achy, and sometimes tingly. Sometimes I’d have to sit down and put my leg up, rest it for five minutes, before I could ...

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17. annie oakley’s anxieties

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pp. 153-162

Okay, truth be told, boxing wasn’t exactly my first experience with an unusual hobby. I’m a rifle shooter. I was vacationing at a lake house in western Massachusetts. Scott and I had gone there every summer for several years. One year, when I was forty-five, a wiry and grizzled fellow with twinkling eyes ...

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18. still a man’s world

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pp. 163-172

I’ve now spent a small fortune on custom-made orthotics because while my neck may not hurt anymore, my right calf aches like nothing I’ve ever felt, with a sudden throbbing so intense it takes my breath away. The whole leg feels heavy, there’s some tingling on the bottom of my foot, and no amount of stretching or ...

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19. let my people box

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pp. 173-180

He did battle with the insurance company to authorize the MRI, which turned out to be normal; this left me reassured, but still in pain. I reinvested my energy into Internet research. And one day, while experimentally wearing a compression stocking on my right calf, the pain temporarily receded. I found a vascular ...

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20. poet laureate of plainview

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pp. 181-188

I’m no stranger to unpredictable story lines. Every day people infiltrate my psyche with their rambling narratives, and though they are not tales of scaling Mount Everest or chewing off an arm to get out of a bear trap or escaping a prison camp in the dead of night, they are as important and dramatic to my ...

coda

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pp. 189-194

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acknowledgments

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pp. 195-197

Anthony Riccio told me writing a book was like looking for god, getting married, and having a baby, all at the same time. It also takes the support and encouragement of many people. Thanks to Martha Kaplan and Bonnie Solow, for suggestions on early stages of the manuscript. All the people I met in the ...