Twenty five men stood in a loose circle, looking towards the centre, perfectly still. Immaculately ironed and starched olive green and navy blue, tee shirts and shorts, green issued socks folded over twice, grey Hi-tec trainers. Regulation haircuts, grade two, sideburns terminated at the middle of the ear, neck trimmed straight, not tapered.
The Physical Training Instructor, short, mean, ginger, combat trousers and a tight white vest, views the men before him. He searches for his first victims, all hoping not to be picked first. Nobody wants to be first, no one wants to be last either, all that waiting, better to just get it over and done with.
The PTI slowly walks the line, hands behind his back, then he uses the whole of one muscular arm to point, fingers straight, like the blade of a knife.
‘You and you’. A sinking feeling in my stomach as the arm points at me.
Huge boxing gloves are pushed on roughly. Straps pulled tightly on old cracked brown leather, a stench of dried sweat from all the others who have worn those gloves before me. A long slow walk to the centre of the circle, my opponent growing bigger as he gets closer. Standing inches apart, the mountain of muscle towers above. The circle of men has gone quiet, silence thundering in my ears. Standing for an eternity on the wooden gym floor, like two nervous teenagers at a school disco. Time has slowed to a crawl. The adrenaline is already coursing through my body, arms and legs shaking.
A roar goes up from the circle of men around us, cheering, shouting. Apprehensively we clash, no way to escape, no excuses not to fight. We fling ourselves at each other, swinging, windmilling, flailing, churning hoping to contact something. Fists raining down on my head, each blow feels like its rattling my brain around inside my skull. Ears ringing, brown leather flashing before my eyes, no idea if any of my hits are landing. I grit my teeth, swing my arms harder, blindly at the target, chest burning as I struggle to intake air. No blocking, dodging or weaving allowed, a test of pure aggression, character building, closer to gladiatorial combat than boxing.
I land a solid whack, then another. A lucky few punches, a momentary pause while my opponent recomposes himself. He returns instantly with a blow from each fist straight into my face, launching me backwards. The circle stops me falling, hands push me back towards the centre of the circle. A trickle of blood runs from my nose and down my chin, splashing onto the polished gym floor. My opponent is on me again, more blows, sweat pours, joining the congealing blood. Our green tee shirts soaked, sticking to burning skin. Exhausted, gloves weighing arms like concrete. We wave our aching limbs at each other in our strange, violent dance. Lethargic punches landing, slipping, sliding off blood and sweat.
We stumble away from each other, dripping. Our clothing blood soaked, twisted and stretched, no longer immaculate, faces covered in crimson welts of latent bruises.
A single minute has passed, two more rounds to go.