Life in Moscow: Ellis Johnson ‘18

What do you do when your host mom gives you 1-on-1 boxing lesson for your birthday? Well, that’s actually pretty easy: you head down to a worn-looking, Soviet-style boxing gym and get yelled at in Russian for a couple hours. Sergei Vladimirovich, a retired boxer and trainer, is just trying to get you to run faster and keep your hands up.

This was my first time boxing here in Russia. It was an odd cocktail of excitement, confusion, and physical exhaustion, which I enjoyed enough to give another chance… and then a few more. Eventually I found myself training multiple days a week, picking up my own pair of gloves, and getting into the ring with some coarse-looking middle-aged Russians.

Now, it’s strange for me to try and diagnose what makes boxing such an integral part of my life here in Russia. Writing this, I mused about what my subconscious must have latched onto. Maybe I enjoy boxing as an escape from the traditional classroom or maybe I needed some form of sport to fulfill my competitive nature. Or perhaps I just have a sick fascination for getting cursed at in Russian and punched in the face.

Regardless, boxing has been my portal into “real” Russian life. Away from the academic culture of my host university, in the boxing ring I can see a little deeper into the Russian spirit. It’s something that I have heard so much about, but failed to witness and understand until I started training. Despite the obvious economic hard times that have befallen much of Russia, there is a feeling of resilience and a warm sense of brotherhood that you feel from the moment you strap on you gloves to the moment you exit the gym. During this time, the stern faces of the Muscovites break down for two hours, flashing from tired looking variants into smiles as they quip to one another.

I too, feel like a welcome member of the group as I am greeted with a firm handshake and a smile, and further more when my trainers and fellow boxers take a few seconds to make sure I understand a new series of moves and don’t fall behind. Don’t get me wrong, they love to point out that I am American, and questions about Donald Trump and the US are frequent topics of discussion before class, but these conversations come from a position of my being “one of the gang.” I no longer feel like an American who boxes with them; I’m the boxer who is American.

As my semester and consequently, my time as a member of my boxing club being to end, I was asked by my trainer if I would continue to box when I return to the states. I explained that I plan on doing so, although I worry it may be a tad less remarkable. I am going to miss the unbridled unprofessionalism of my trainers, who enter the ring to beat up on those whose egos get too large. I will also miss the distinct lack of fully functional equipment and the perplexing mix of a lack of empathy for the exhausted and an extreme sense of care for the injured or technically struggling. My experience boxing has been a huge part of my time here in Russia—one that I wish I didn’t have to leave behind. I also can’t help but think of what a strange series of events led me to one my most memorable experiences abroad, and what might happen in the next few weeks boxing here in Moscow.

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