By Benjamin Nugent
I never intended to become a jump-roper. I only wanted to box. I wanted to box because boxing is ancient and sanguinary. It was practiced by the Greeks and Romans, and by Hemingway. It’s everything that jumping rope is not. But to become a boxer you have to jump rope.
I did not know this when I showed up for my first boxing lesson at a basement gym run by my friend, a writer-turned-trainer. Minutes after I arrived she handed me a black plastic jump rope. It was a sinister object, emasculation itself, coiled like a snake in her hand.
She told me I had to jump rope three minutes at a time, with thirty-second breaks, because the rounds of a boxing match run three minutes with thirty-second rests in between. She did not say why jumping rope was something a boxer had to do, but it seemed unboxerlike to ask.
The room was full of teenage boys. Some sparred, some punched the heavy bag, some did pull-ups, and some punched pads held by a partner. I quickly learned that jumping rope is one of those activities that becomes nearly impossible when you are self-conscious. I couldn’t get my feet over the rope, could barely get the rope over my head.
My friend coached me patiently, but I was hapless. One of the teenage boys stopped what he was doing and watched me flail. He introduced himself, speaking softly, and placed a fatherly hand on my shoulder. “It’s like this,” he said, and pantomimed, showing how instead of swinging around the handles of the rope I should keep my forearms still and rotate my wrists. “You’ll get it,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
My friend took pity on me and we moved to the heavy bag. But she would not let me spar until I had mastered the basics. Before I could come back and hit someone and get hit, I needed to learn to jump rope on my own.
I consulted my boxing books—I have several—seeking a course of instruction in which jumping rope was avoidable. I learned that jumping rope is a time-honored and essential element of the pugilist’s exercise regimen, going back at least to the middle of the twentieth century. Watching the heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson train for his 1962 fight with Sonny Liston, James Baldwin wrote, “We watched him jump rope, which he must do according to some music in his head, very beautiful and gleaming and far away, like a boy saint helplessly dancing and seen through the steaming windows of a storefront church.” Sugar Ray Robinson developed a distinctive jump-rope technique, the way another fighter might develop a singular jab. A. J. Liebling, watching Robinson work out in 1952, observed that “[m]ost fighters jump rope as children do, but infinitely faster. Robinson just swings a length of rope in his right fist and jumps in time to a fast tune whistled by his trainer. He jumps high in the air, and twists his joined knees at the top of every bound. When he jumps in double time to ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry,’ it’s really something to see.”
I went to Modell’s Sporting Goods and bought a brown leather jump rope, nine feet long, boxing standard. It seemed unlikely that I could use it in my apartment without disturbing the downstairs neighbors, so I went to the park and tried to find a place where a man in his thirties could jump rope ineptly without attracting notice. I settled on a grassy field labeled with a graphic of a cavorting child; this was the only field in the park not reserved for soccer. It must have been designed as a place for little kids to run around, but was used by teenagers for touch football, wrestling, and catch.
I struggled along for a while before a teenage boy approached. “Can I see that rope?” he said.
I gave it to him and he halfway closed his eyes. The whoosh of the rope was metronomic. He seemed not to jump but to levitate slightly above the grass.
I came to understand, watching him, that jumping rope is how boxers learn to follow Muhammad Ali’s famous injunction: Float. If you expend the minimal effort required to lift yourself off the ground, you can stay off the ground almost continuously. And if you can do that, you can move smoothly and unpredictably. It is because of the jump rope, I realized, that a good boxer seems to hover like a vengeful ghost.
After a minute the boy stopped and gave me the rope back. “You’re doing good,” he said, which was not true.
The next day I found a secluded spot in the same park, a concrete path near the handball courts. Once I was alone, something changed: I no longer jumped as high as I had been jumping. I was able to jump steadily for about thirty seconds, empty-headed, like a child or an animal, and for a moment it was as if I was not jumping but doing a kind of nodding with my feet, and then I became proud of myself and reflected on what was happening and tripped.
To learn the heaviest, manliest sport, you must learn the lightest, most girlish one. Is that the general way of things? Does every serious endeavor contain a germ of its own antithesis? To paraphrase The Sun Also Rises, it’s pretty to think so.
Benjamin Nugent's fiction appears in Best American Short Stories 2014 and in the forthcoming The Unprofessionals: New Writing from the Paris Review.