"That's good money in Russia," says Mark Ionovich, speaking for the both of them. "Come tomorrow evening and I'll work with you individually after my group finishes. We'll see what kind of boxer you are."
Jesus Christ! How hard can it be to get into a proper stance? I'm asking myself this in frustration, baffled at my own incompetence. It's Friday evening, and for 45 minutes Mark Ionovich has been using his hands to readjust the position of my head, arms, shoulders, feet and fists. I knew that boxing would be difficult -- hell, I expected to take a brutal beating, to pass out mid-way through the second round, to trip on my feet... But I didn't expect my problems to begin with The Stance
"Relax...STOIKA!" Mark Ionovich yells at me, patiently watching my entire body clench up as I awkwardly try to assume a classic English boxing stance. "Get your right shoulder down! Protect your kidney with your elbow!"
Mark Ionovich gently guides his right fist through the hole in my defense near my right jaw, showing me how I will end up like Gerry "Glassjaw" Cooney.
"This is where you'll get killed. Your forehead is hard. Punches there won't hurt," he tells me, tapping his cranium with four fingers. "Your jaw is what will hurt."
Somehow the idea of a broken jaw still seems preferable to having my brain pounded into the back of my cranium.
Mark Ionovich steps out of the ring to talk to two of his female fighters. I am left in the ring alone staring at myself in the mirror while holding my comically incorrect stance. The girls are giggling. Ionovich tells a 5'8" muscular kavkaz to get in the ring with me. He introduces himself as Edik.
"His name is Eduard!" Mark Ionovich yells back over his shoulder, correcting him. "Edik" must be too informal for an introduction.
Mark Ionovich comes over and has us play a game of salki. Salki is a game of tag between two people moving around each other in a stance, the goal being to land a slap on the opponent's shoulder.
Edik and I start dancing around one another. My body is still stiff and clenched from trying to hold the stance while trying to avoid and land slaps. Whenever I manage to nab Edik's shoulder he responds with two lightening taps to mine. After three minutes I am gasping for breath. Both of my shoulders are burning red.
Ionovich lets Edik step down and takes his place. Ionovich is much easier to tag than Edik, his 50 years having slowed his reactions. Even so, he beats me 15-5.
"That's enough for today," he tells me, barely working up a sweat. "Come back tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. and you can work out with my group."
On Saturday morning I show up 15 minutes early to stretch out before my first full boxing workout. Mark Ionovich has promised to put me in the ring to spar today.
The boxers gather in the fourth floor gym, which is equipped with two rings and 10 full-size punching bags hanging from the ceiling. At 11:15 Mark Ionovich barges in the door and immediately begins barking out orders like a drill sergeant.
"Line up! Let's get started!"
We line up against the wall. I am second in line behind a 17 year-old from Vladikavkaz named Kazbek. The 20 of us begin to jog through the gym in a single-file line while making different boxing motions: throwing jabs, bobbing and weaving, throwing upper-cuts. Mark Ionovich continues calling out new exercises as we weave in and out of the hanging punching bags. After 20 minutes of light jogging I begin regretting years of alcohol and tobacco abuse. Mark Ionovich puts me out of my misery, however, and tells us to stop and stretch.
After stretching, Mark Ionovich pairs me up with Edik. We spend the rest of the hour playing hand and foot salki. Edik is not dominating me as thoroughly as in our first match-up, though my stamina quickly dries up. Mark Ionovich assigns Edik a new partner and pulls me aside to work with me on my god-awful stance for the remainder of the session while calling out instructions to the real boxers.