Old Dog. New tricks.

Tonight, as the rain and the wind rattled an old warehouse in Kensington, I stood in a boxing ring, the canvas floor mercifully clear of the puddles elsewhere in the gym, under a leaky roof.

My hands were taped up and gloved, and I was in a singlet and shorts, sweat flowing freely. I still haven’t forked out for proper boxing shoes, so my trusty but expensive Asics running shoes were being slaughtered in the side-to-side, front-and-back shuffle of sparring.

Sam Visciglio, grey-haired, lean as a whippet, ever-encouraging, with a face that shows a lot of life lived and with flat, concentrating eyes that miss nothing, stepped back, pads relaxed, and said: “See, that hand (the left) is the cocky kid from – where are you from again, Nicko?”

“North Fitzroy,” I panted.

“- from North Fitzroy. It’s loose, it’s the right side of the brain controlling that left. Loose, creative. But this hand (pointing to my right) needs to be at your chin, in front of your jaw. That’s left side of the brain. Defend. It’s controlling the elbow tucked into your side, protecting your ribs.

Sam works on the battered face of one of his fighters. No doubt with calm, soothing words when they’re needed.

“And now, when you land that left, I want you to turn the fist so you punch with these knuckles here (index finger, middle finger). Turn on impact. Back to the chin. Turn on impact. Back to the chin.

“And put that cassette into your head, and hit ‘play’. It’s the cassette marked ‘agile’. I want you thinking that word: ‘agile’, ‘agile’, agile’. Footwork. Keep moving. Do you hear what I’m saying? I want you to reprogram your feet.”

“Sam,” I said. “I’m not sure anybody my age can be termed ‘the cocky kid from Fitzroy North’.”

Sam laughed, patted me lightly on the face as he does to say: “Good job”,  and called another fighter into the ring, while I went back to belting the heavybag. A cassette in my head saying the word, “agile” over and again, with my feet moving accordingly. Right fist planted in front of my jaw as the left jab snaked out. Another lesson absorbed.

I love Sam. He trains fighters alongside my mate, Mischa Merz, Australia’s very own queen of the square ring, and an old journo mate of mine when she’s not being hit, hitting people or training people to hit and not be hit.

I learn so much from these two. All that stuff about how old dogs can’t be taught new tricks? It’s not true. For starters, since Fly Dog the Magnificent did her Achilles tendon on Christmas Day (hello $3000 worth of surgery and vet bills), she’s mostly learned to obey my: “Slow! Fly, slow!” command, and she only wants to chase balls like she used to every hour or so, instead of every minute.

Likewise, the old dog that is her owner is learning new things all the time. On Mondays, Mischa and Sam teach me fundamentals that I really should know after so many years of dabbling in hitting heavy bags, floor-to-ceiling bags and training pads with endless jabs, hooks and bodyshots.

Fly Dog The Magnificent, as she spends more of her time these days, post injury: being driven around.

But no, there’s always so  much more to learn, so many bad habits to lose. Tonight, with the crazy Melbourne weather, only the hardcore trainers were there. And me. A new guy, Lee, from England is an ex-amateur fighter and knows his stuff. Was trying to punch holes in the heavy bag as he falls back in love with the sport. When we had to spar, trading body shots, practicing our defence, he was great in teaching me how to be ready to attack but able to close the gates of my elbows as required, to ward off shots to my stomach, elbows ready to defend kidney attacks.

Learn, learn, learn.

And that’s before I get to Wednesday hockey and another Intermediate Class then Dev League session with Lliam and Army at the Icehouse.

This blog has been going for more than 100 posts and I still can’t quite convey how much I learn in every session, how the improvement keeps coming. Jason Baclig, from the Melbourne Ice, said last week – when I mentioned my funk, and feeling like my improvement had flat-lined – that there comes a time where improvement is incremental, so you don’t get the big, obvious breakthroughs on a weekly basis. The solution is, of course, to keep working, and I threw myself into last week’s class and Dev League like a crazy person,  with the support and urging of Lliam, Army and my classmates/teammates. Funk, be gone.

Tonight, Sam gave me another tool for the same job. “Agility,” he said. “The perfect footwork for different punches. Imagine yourself doing it, Nicko. Imagine that you can do it. Of course, you can’t. You have to learn, but pretend you can, think you can. Agility. Believe you know how to, and work from there.”

It’s become a running joke among some of my Dev League peers that I remain a Dev League Virgin, as in: I haven’t scored a goal yet. Last week, I was agonizingly close at least once. But no goals yet.

Maybe I’ll carry Sam’s voice onto the ice this week. Believe you score goals, Nicko. Tell yourself that you’re a guy who can put it in the net. Work from there.

If nothing else, I’ll keep my L-Plates proudly on display. Talking to a long-time friend last week, we warily eyed the future; what it would be like to truly become old men. Our solution? Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop setting challenges. God knows, hockey, and boxing, do that in spades.

Nicklas Lidstrom: will be oh so missed! Pic: Detroit News

ONE MORE THING: ACTUALLY, TWO:

1. It was in August last year that that I wrote what turned out to be a contentious blog about the state of the Blue Tongues’ rink at the Gold Coast, after attending a game there to watch the Melbourne Ice. Blue Tongues fans went briefly nuts (which resulted in great readership numbers for the blog – the biggest I had until, umm, the entire city of Detroit decided to visit one day.) Anyway, the Ice just went north again and Sunday’s game had to be called off because of problems with the same rink’s ice or boards or both. I will say again what I tried to say in last year’s blog: I am in awe of the Blue Tongues’ players, that they are so good and have such a great team, while training and playing in Australian hockey’s equivalent of third-world facilities, when put up against the Olympic training-standard glory of the Icehouse. Nothing against the people who run that facility, either: how fucking tough a job is that? Maintaining and running an ice rink on the Gold Coast. Like running an outdoor café in the Antarctic. I hope, for the Blue Tongues’ sake, they can stay in the competition and with a decent rink.

2. So long, Nicklas Lidstrom and thank you for the memories. The Wings’ captain and spiritual leader has called it a day, and celebrated by being given a standing ovation at a Detroit Tigers baseball game, being hailed at a Red Hot Chilli Peppers concert and taking a full page advert out in the local papers to thank fans for all their love over the two decades of his career. Yes, he’s that classy. I only came in on the last few years of the magnificent Swedish defender’s career with Detroit but I fully understand why his teammates’ nickname for him was/is: “The Perfect Human”. Four Stanley Cups, seven-times best defender in the NHL (and in the top three almost every other year), a brilliant captain, cool, calculating, composed and a natural leader like few I’ve seen before on the ice, and possessing a slapshot from the blue line that would put a hole in an armoured tank. I am SO glad that Will, Mack and I got to see Lidstrom play in the flesh last year during our epic trip. (And that I bought a signed No. 5 jersey that is now a collector’s item, and yes, I wear it. To hell with re-sale value.)

The fact that Lidstrom has creakily called a halt to his amazing career at 42 years of age must surely sound some kind of warning bells for a 47-year-old second-year rookie, I’m sure, but I’m choosing not to put too much thought into that. Enjoy retirement, TPH. Man, the Wings are going to look different in 2012-13. As coach Mike Babcock said at the Lidstrom presser: “Embrace change.”

The Quadrella, Part II

Mischa and Zoe hang out pre-training at the nerve-centre of the Kensington fight scene.

Second Leg, Monday: Boxing has been part of my life for a long time and I love Mondays with Mischa. 7.30 pm on the third floor of an old warehouse in Kensington, now converted into boutique and diverse creative endeavours. Apart from the top floor which is dedicated to multi-discipline fighting.

On Mondays, about a dozen of us share the space with a bunch of wrestlers, or “grapplers” as Mischa calls them. They grunt and writhe, snaking limbs around each other’s bodies in a way that makes you go straight back to Roy & HG setting the whole thing to a Barry White soundtrack at the Sydney Olympics. Ohhhh, baby.

Last night, as we skipped (the first two rounds are skipping. Death to calves after The Bang) a pretty big kickboxer also wandered in and spent some time pounding into the heavy bag with his legs, threatening to shake the floor under us. It’s never a boring setting.

Mischa, AKA “The Sweetest Thing”, is an old journo friend of mine who got into boxing quite a few years ago, which gave us a whole new level of conversation because she was now training with boxing identities I’d written about for years in one of my many incarnations (boxing writer for The Herald newspaper, and briefly, freelancing, for the Sunday Age).

Then Mischa got further into it, and won an Australian title and fought overseas, training at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, NY (of which I’m endlessly jealous), and has written several excellent books on the subject of being a female fighter. These days, she mixes her time between training fighters, running boxing fitness classes like the one I attend, and journalism.

Our group is pretty diverse. There’s Zoe, who is in training for an actual fight, even though she might have broken a rib sparring last week. And there are a range of guys and women of varying motivation, fitness and skills. On Monday, I paired up with Bree, who works in a fabrics shop and told me she has a side business involving Eighties sewing machines or something. She told me all this while throwing left and right combinations at my padded hands, centimetres from my face, so it was hard to pay full attention.

After the skipping, we split into groups and either move and throw combinations at the air, or run and do mounting numbers of push-ups, which is where the day before’s Bang session starts to hurt before I’ve even started. I hadn’t realised how many Bang punishment push-ups I’d obviously done because my shoulders and chest almost immediately complain about raising and carrying my weight. I sprint 10 times, then push-ups, which means 55 push-ups spread out, and I’m wondering if I’ll survive the hour.

But then thankfully we’re on the matts, throwing combinations, left jab, straight right, left hook, straight right, then step under phantom blows and countering with straight right, left hook, straight right. A cheer goes up from the Grapplers. Maybe somebody finally scored? We pair up and move onto pads and gloves, throwing combinations into the pads, dancing around one another, changing direction, changing direction, footwork, footwork, then a two punch combo, or an eight punch combo, or a six punch combo, and move, and change and change and change and one jab, and move and change …

Taped up and ready.

By now, I’m sweating hard but my body has loosened and The Bang is behind me. As I wail into the heavy bag with jabs and hooks, and the occasional uppercut combo, my shoulders are working hard but my legs feel good and all the dancing and directional changing will channel directly into my skating, once I’m back on the ice.

The session finishes with a gruelling abs workout, with a bunch of crunches and other stomach-busters.

And we drift into the night. I’d felt seriously stressed and heavy when I arrived. Now I feel fantastic.

Monday (and Wednesday), 7.30 pm, 10 bucks for the session.

Seriously, hockey people, you can’t go past it. You might even get to punch me. What’s not to like?

Address: Level 3, 10 Elizabeth Street, Kensington.

(Facebook: ‘like’ Mischa’s Boxing Central)