Baby Joe’s House of Pain is the only boxing gym in Monrovia. From Broad St you walk through a doorway in what seems to be a large concrete wall. You walk down a narrow cobblestone passage where water is draining to the street and boys pay to play video games in an alcove beside you. You walk past a large one-room structure where there are ping pong tables and where the Taekwondo club practices on weekend mornings. Then you come to a small courtyard where laundry hangs to dry on a clothesline in the rain. The gym is the main structure flanking the courtyard. It is a one-room structure about the size of a small studio apartment. It has small windows made smaller by the concrete latticework that covers them. Sometimes the smell of burning charcoal comes through the windows. When this happens, the coach - who is just ‘Coach’ - shouts something out the window and, after a rustling of coals, the thick, heavy smell dies down.
Inside, the walls are painted in the red, white, and blue of the Liberian flag with an intermittent white star. On the walls hang fight posters and tear-outs from boxing magazines and framed photographs of local fighters and expat enthusiasts. There are two heavy bags, a speed bag, a double-end bag, and a large mirror. The ring is roughly regulation size with a floor that is plywood boards that give and return as though on springs and without a canvas covering. At the entrance there is a message written over the doorway:
NOW WHOEVER HAS COURAGE AND A STRONG AND COLLECTED SPIRIT IN HIM. LET HIM COME FORWARD. LACE ON THE GLOVES AND PUT UP HIS HANDS
This is the Liberia Boxing Association.
Coach explains that there is no money from the government to support the facility or him as the trainer. He makes what money he can from the few expats - mostly Lebanese - who pay a small fee to use the facility for training or who pay him for training. I pay USD 50 per month; others pay less and perhaps some pay more. A normal training session lasts about an hour and a half. I jump rope and shadow box to warm up for about ten minutes. Then I work the mitts with Coach for about six two-minute rounds. Then he puts me on some combination of heavy bag, double-end bag, and speed bag for four-to-five rounds each. Then I do pull ups and go home. That is Wednesdays. On Sundays, I stay a half-hour longer and Henchman (that is the only name I know him by) - Coach’s informal assistant and a pretty good boxer himself - takes me through some stretches and an abs routine for which I give him USD 15 per month.
Sometimes there is another expat or two and Coach will work with us in turn. Kate is an expat and the only woman that trains at the gym. The first time I met her was at a mutual friend’s house over drinks. She is slender and pretty and unassuming. In the gym, she is a trim fighter with good technique and plenty of wind. She is better trained on the mitts than I am and she could give me a good run for my money in a go-around in the ring - it would be my greater strength against her stamina and technique. Only she is a bit mechanical, which is common for women boxers who learn to punch in a gym rather than on a schoolyard or by watching kung fu movies.
Of course there are a handful of locals who train in the gym too. They are all young men and plenty fit because of their youth and natural build. Some come consistently and they work together or do drills with Henchman. The good ones are wonderful to watch and you can see how they improve like it comes naturally to them. Some come once and never return and most are intermittent, I guess because of other commitments or lack of desire or, probably, work ethic. Most of the boys - and even there are a few girls - who like fighting train with the Taekwondo club. I think this is because they get a neat white uniform and they get to do fancy throws and jump kicks and because it is finesse over brutishness and no heavy sweating at all. Once an American man emailed the Liberian Expats Google Group looking for karate instruction for his son so I told him about the club that meets on the weekends but I do not know if he followed up and I have never seen a white kid in the group when I am there on Sunday mornings.
Sometimes young boys sit at the steps of the entrance to watch us training inside. Usually they are stopping in as a break from standing on the sidewalk or walking among the cars trying to sell biscuits or drinks or produce to the passengers in the taxis. They sit for a time and watch. Everyone likes the sharp ‘pop’ you make when you connect squarely with the mitts in a quick combination or when you slug hard on the heavy bag with a straight right or a swift left hook. The sound fills the small room and it is very satisfying.
Occasionally a small child will struggle up the steps and into the gym.
‘Is she yours?’ I asked Henchman once while rolling up my hand wraps after completing a workout. He was smiling and holding the child in a very familiar way.
‘No,’ he said.
Then Coach explained the situation to me. He speaks in thick Liberian English so that you catch the train of though if not each distinct word as it is spoken.
‘The mother is 17. She has four children.’
‘Really?’ I said as though it affected me because I figure it is what you do even when you are very used to it and think you have heard it all before.
He grimaced and gestured at the infant.
‘This is a boy. The parents are too young. They think it is funny to dress the child as a girl with the braids in the hair.’
‘Really?’ I said. That was a new one to me.
‘You know, there is no reproductive health here. No way to prevent pregnancy,’ Coach said. ‘The parents are still children when they fuck and they have children and they have no way to support them.’
Before we bought the motorbike, I used to wait for a private taxi to arrive to take me home. Then I would talk to Coach while I packed my gear and waited to be collected.
‘Coach, what’s this I heard about the Liberian Taekwondo fighter who was disqualified from the Olympics?’ I asked. This was in August and we were going to Sajj or Hotel Royal or one of the other restaurants every night to watch the games on DSTV.
‘They sent him from America - he was Liberian-American - and he had never done Taekwondo before. He arrived at the match and they didn’t let him compete.’
‘Really?’ I said.
‘Yes. I have a heavyweight that I trained and the government said they had no money to send him to London.’
Coach was annoyed about the situation so his accent was especially thick and it was hard to understand it all. Some weeks later, I learned from a Deputy Minister that the ‘athlete’ was not American but had wanted to visit family in London and had registered for the Olympics with the help of someone in the government because this was a way to have the trip expenses paid for. When they discovered this they launched an investigation and even now all public support for Liberian athletes to travel abroad to compete is suspended.