Cinderella Men

7.22.2009

By Brian Thomas Gallagher

Serge -- a charter member -- and Chris are tangling in a center ring while a steady thrum of club hits plays over the speakers. Fleet-footed Chris dances around the ring, closely pursued by the wide-shouldered, huskier Serge. Chris pops jabs at arm's length, biding time to put together stinging combinations of punches, while Serge inches forward, trying to land short punch salvos to the gut and head. On the apron of the ring, Hoskins gives running commentary, criticism, and encouragement: 'Keep your chin down, Serge,' 'Push through it, Chris.' (Hoskins is a constant font of boxing maxims. He signs his emails, 'Keep your guard up and come out punching.') He pauses to swing his hips to the music and declare, 'Boxers can dance.' Meanwhile, Chris and Serge clinch in the middle of the ring. But the slow-dance- hug is less romantic than pragmatic. By wrapping up Serge's arms Chris prevents any shots from being thrown, and by resting his head on Serge's shoulder, he protects himself from uppercuts. Soon they break apart and begin to dance and punch again.

Boxing is not for everyone. To the uninitiated it can be brutal, bloody, and mystifying; if there are few, if any, gay professional boxers, it's hardly surprising. 'Being gay in the boxing world is very taboo,' says Hoskins. 'There are definitely some out there, but no one talks about it.' In fact, boxing remains obdurately unreconstructed, a sport where gay slurs are scattered like firecrackers to belittle opponents. The experience of former boxer Emile Griffith is instructive. At the weigh-in before Griffith's 1962 fight for a world welterweight title, his opponent, a Cuban named Benny 'the Kid' Paret, called Griffith a maric'n, the Spanish word for faggot. Enraged, Griffith took his revenge in the 12th round of the fight, backing Paret into a corner and knocking him out cold with a vicious flurry of uppercuts. Unseen by the ref, Paret's arm was hooked on the rope, keeping him upright as Griffith battered his head with a slew of undefended punches. Paret fell into a coma and died 10 days later. Years after his retirement Griffith came out of the closet, and, recalling his bout with Paret, said, 'I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man and so many people find this an unforgivable sin.'

But the outlook is not entirely bleak. Serge recalls how he struggled with the decision to tell his regular trainer that he was gay. After turning up at his local boxing gym with bruises and split lips from his GBL sessions, his trainer began to think he was in a fight club. To allay his concerns, Serge told him of his Sunday meetings -- that they were at another gym, attended by other experienced boxers -- but when his trainer expressed interest in dropping by, Serge was faced with a dilemma. 'I told him, 'You know, if you do come, some of the guys are gay -- do you have a problem with that?' ' he recalls. 'He was like, 'No, bro, I'm from Europe. No one gives a fuck over there.' And I said, 'OK, then you should know that it's not just some of them that are gay. They're all gay. You've been training one of them for the last year.' I had to say it three times before it sank in.' The trainer's bewilderment was temporary; soon he was offering to set Serge up on dates with his fianc'e's gay friends.

Hoskins, who is out only to a few of his close friends, has had to navigate similar situations. 'I came out to my buddy Matty, and he said, 'So what?' I said, 'Are you gonna start telling people you get beat up by a gay guy?' He said, 'I'm just not gonna tell them you're black.' '

Toward the end of the day, Hoskins teases the other boxers about not being man enough to go a few more rounds with him. 'Nobody wants the big dog?' he taunts. Darrell responds jokingly, 'We're all terrified, mortified, petrified.' Hoskins shoots back, only half-jokingly, 'You should be.' Serge rises to the challenge, despite appearing spent by his rounds with Chris. 'The boy tends to be rambunctious,' says Hoskins with affectionate condescension. 'Gotta beat him down. Put him in his place.' Indeed, Hoskins does put on a boxing clinic -- out-punching and out-landing the tired fighter. Serge shows heart, gamely holding his own with counterpunches, but late in the second round, he gets caught with a stiff right to the gut. 'Auugh. Fuck you,' he shouts and slumps down in pain. The upstart is exhausted, and as the final bell sounds, he falls forward into Hoskins's arms.

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