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Gia “Boom Boom” Marakas: On Uncles, Boxing, and Learning New Tricks

Late last year, I decided to start taking boxing lessons.

This was a decision decades in the making. In fact, I can pinpoint my interest in boxing to the first time I met my uncle.

My mom’s brother was the black sheep of her family—a rough, wild ne’er-do-well who, rumor had it, worked as a bookie and ran with the gangsters of Youngstown, Ohio (a rough, wild town itself). Boxing was popular throughout the area; my grandfather was a steel worker, and his coworkers would let off steam by holding matches outside the mill. Youngstown produced many great boxers, including one with a FANTASTIC name: Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. Boom Boom, incidentally, was a friend of my uncle’s. And my uncle loved boxing.

When I was 6 or 7 years old, my uncle visited my family in California. His look floored me. He was a kooky old Greek guy who dressed in gangster suits and fedoras. Most evenings he watched boxing matches on our TV, and I always joined him. My favorite time of day was catching the elegant, fascinating sport with him. So, after he returned to Ohio, I kept up the viewings. Soon I had a full-blown love of boxing.

But I never had been in a ring myself until several months ago. The decision to take a lesson was spurred both by my lifelong fascination and a recent itch to try something that would challenge me. I’d been in Pilates and dance studios all my professional life. Wasn’t it time I gave my muscles and mind something new to tackle?

I honestly didn’t know what to expect at my first lesson, not even how to dress. (I wisely forwent the bright purple leggings for an all-black ensemble.) I was nervous when I entered Wild Card Boxing Club, more so when I felt the sheer testosterone of the place. In my months since, I’ve seen only one other female student – and her ferocity and musculature made clear that she was a professional.

But any anxiety I had melted when I met my teacher, Dustin. Not only did he put me at ease, he knew how to teach a true beginner. My boxing experience has been a reminder of what it’s like to be a novice – the bravery it takes to try something new. I often work with students who have never taken Pilates. It’s important as their teacher to empathize with how unfamiliar everything must be. I can’t just tell a student to do the Hundreds, the same way Dustin couldn’t just tell me to put my hands in fighting stance. The first time he gave me the name of each punch—right hook, left hook, uppercut—I realized, “this is what it’s like for my new students to be on the Reformer!” The information overload is compounded by being physically tired and frustrated by the new movements.

Even after many classes, boxing is awkward for me; it’s like my body can’t catch up with my mind. The foot positions and stepping are still so strange. When I do a feigning exercise, I will do it 50 times in a row, and one minute I have it, and the next it’s like all that practice has been erased from my brain. When I dance, I don’t even think anymore, it’s so automatic. But with boxing, I have to think before I move my body. It’s stretching my mind in wild—and sometimes frustrating—ways.

But the sensation of learning, the challenge of it, is amazing. By attempting a new sport, you realize there’s a depth of knowledge and skill you didn’t even know existed. For example, I hadn’t realized that boxers work on different planes. I just thought that you punched forward and that was it. But you box straight, down, at angles. And fighting involves not just hitting, but avoiding getting hit. It’s fascinating to learn.

So, yes, I haven’t yet found my natural boxing self. But I’ve learned through this experience that I like feeling lost. We get so used to our comfort zones, to our routines. It’s difficult to learn something new, but it’s rewarding to realize that you can learn it. It will happen; we have these capacities.

So my goals with boxing are simple: to be good and proficient and to enjoy it as a workout. And of course to access that early magic, that first love, when I watched boxing with my wild, funny uncle.


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