When I was 7 years old my Mexican soccer teammate Gustavo Pina invited my family and me over for dinner at his house in the "bad part" (read: where the Mexicans live) of town. After a wonderful Mexican meal and much laughter and amusement, Gustavo's father and uncles decided to top off the evening by encouraging Gustavo and me to beat each other senseless in the living room. Gustavo's uncle went to the garage to pull out a giant pair of boxing gloves, but before he returned my mother was screaming "no mas!" a la Roberto Duran, hustling me out the door. She packed our family into our '75 Buick and made a beeline home.
I obeyed my mother, but I was disappointed. Deeply disappointed. My curiosity had been piqued. I knew then that I wanted to box. I thought that if I took up boxing, I could talk tough like "Eh cholo, let's take this outside," and, imitating my erstwhile hero Dr. David Banner/The Incredible Hulk, "Don't make me angry... you won't like me when I'm angry..." I wanted to be a bad-ass.
But I was born too scrawny and weak, and my parents loved me too much to donate my brains and kidneys to the sport. I spent my entire athletic career playing comparatively innocuous sports like baseball and basketball, never once fitting myself into a football helmet or hockey pads, much less a pair of boxing gloves.
So three weeks ago, facing the task of covering amateur sports in Russia, it occurred to me to explore the Moscow amateur boxing scene by taking boxing lessons. Here was my chance to realize my childhood fantasy: squaring off in the ring. I knew, of course, that a thorough ass-beating would await me at some point, but as the movie Risky Business taught us Reagan children, "Sometimes you just have to say, 'What the fuck...'" Besides, my parents had robbed me of my chance to prove my manhood at age seven. It was time to set things straight.
I looked up some boxing clubs in the Moscow Yellow Pages and came across one called Kitek/Boyevye Perchatki ("Boxing Gloves"). I called and arranged an appointment with the club's director at 8:30 p.m. the next evening. I explained to him what I wanted to do: to get my ass, and my boxing jones, kicked thoroughly inside out, once and for all. He had no problem with that.
"You know, I helped make a movie once," Mark Ionovich Meltser tells me, reclining in his wooden swivel-chair behind his large, cluttered desk. "Some actor followed me around for four months to learn about boxing and what it's like to be a boxing coach."
When I first met Mark Ionovich, he had greeted me icily, asking curtly what I wanted. He warmed up immediately, however, when I told him I was a journalist interested both in his club and in learning to box. Within minutes he was telling me about his brush with the movie biz.
"This actor wanted to learn how to box, too," he continues. "When they made the movie, most people thought he was a real boxer. He got pretty good. He was from the Baltics, I think."
Mark Ionovich is the director of the Kitek boxing/kickboxing club, located in a 4-story red-brick schoolhouse near Preobrazhenskaya ploshchad in northeast Moscow, hidden in a labyrinth of apartment blocks, courtyards and empty construction sites. Mark Ionovich, with his thinning gray hair, sharp nose and neatly-trimmed mustache, looks like a cross between Alexander Lukashenko and, appropriately, Soda Popinski from the Nintendo game "Mike Tyson's Punchout." At 5'11", he has a powerful build with a broad chest and biceps sagging only slightly from age. You can tell he was a fighter.
His office walls are plastered with posters of famous Soviet, Russian and international boxers. He is pictured in several of them, always as a coach, either explaining something to an exhausted boxer in the corner between rounds, or standing deferentially next to one of his fighters holding a trophy. Behind his desk is a blown-up Xerox-copy of boxing enthusiast Ernest Hemingway. Peppered between the boxing posters throughout the room are different black-and-white photos of Vysotsky (bard Vladimir, not Soviet fighter Igor, who twice knocked out Cuban legend Teofilo Stevenson). Directly behind Mark Ionovich's desk hangs a small, curious pamphlet with a picture of Brezhnev.