After the workout, the group splits up and Mark Ionovich hands me a pair of blue gloves.
"Put these on," he says. "It's time to fight."
Mark Ionovich calls Edik over. I secure the Velcro straps on my gloves and Edik and I climb in the ring.
We are to spar for two 2-minute rounds.
"OK, now take it easy, Edik," Mark Ionovich advises. "We don't need to hurt him."
We tap gloves in the center of the ring and start playing salki, but this time with punches. As we circle one another, my arms are paralyzed and my fists glued to my face. I'm straining to remember the crucial parts of the stance while dodging Edik's jabs. "Right shoulder down, right elbow covering gut, head tucked near left shoulder, left fist in front ready to jab, stay loose," I think to myself.
I finally build up enough courage to strike. My left jab catches Edik in the right shoulder. He quickly responds with a light shot to left jaw, exactly where Mark Ionovich had said I would get killed. Surprisingly, it doesn't hurt much. I had thought that all punches would hurt a little, but the gloves definitely take away the sting. Edik is taking it easy on me, perhaps handling me as if I were a 5 year-old girl.
The rest of the session follows the same pattern. I land a jab to Edik's chest or shoulder, he punches me in the face. I swing and miss, he pops me in the gut. The enjoyable part is prancing around the ring pretending I'm a real boxer.
Ionovich calls the second round.
"Not bad," he says, straining to make me feel good. "Maybe you'll come fight for our club!"
After the workout, Oksana, Mark Ionovich and I meet in the office. Oksana is a 27 year-old boxer at Kitek and also Mark Ionovich's secretary. She is splitting time between making tea for us and doing bookwork. Mark Ionovich tells us he'll return after his shower and exits the room. Oksana and I are alone.
She has a stunning body. Her physique recalls that of an Olympic high jumper rather than a boxer. She is 5'10" with long, sinewy legs and lean, muscular arms; not buff, just perfectly toned. A face that has taken maybe a few too many blows is her only noticeable flaw. Despite her Slavic heritage, with her blonde hair you could imagine her performing remarkable athletic feats in a Leni Reifenstahl film as an archetype of Aryan physical perfection. She seems oblivious to my gawking, even more so to my lecherous thoughts.
She tells me she started boxing about three years ago, fulfilling a lifelong dream. "In my hometown the only sports at school were wrestling and volleyball," she says. "I told them I wanted to learn to fight, and they said: 'Why don't you just go play volleyball?'"
A pussy with poor technique: Mark Ionovich trying to teach me a stance.
Oksana has one of the more intriguing and sad biographies of any of the fighters at Kitek. She arrived in Moscow in 1993 from Borovichi, a town in which she says there is nothing to do except "roast potatoes and eat them." After studying in Moscow for a year at the Chemical-Technical Institute, the distant relatives with whom she was living kicked her out. She subsequently quit the institute and found a job working construction, an arrangement which allowed her to sleep at the construction site.
"I've worked everywhere, though," she tells me. "I was a stagehand at the Lenkom Theater. I made $20 a month there. Once I was even a juggler of heavy weights in the circus."
Oksana found out about Kitek three years ago and asked Mark Ionovich if she could join the club.
"He looked at me and said, 'Well, you're probably too old to start,'" she recalls. "He asked me how old I was, and I lied and told him I was 19. He only found out at our first competition that I was 24. I had to show my passport."
Oksana has been married for four years, but her husband piled up so many debts that he had to leave Moscow for good. She hasn't heard from him in three years.