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Photo by Attentie Attentie on Unsplash

Fighting for my self-respect

Essay | 8 minute read
Robert Kazandjian always associated a ripped physique with masculinity and power. So why, at his fighting weight, did his self-esteem spiral out of control?

We make a lot of assumptions about our futures when we are children, and those assumptions are shaped by messages we absorb from the world around us. When I was a child, I assumed a fierce physique was a guaranteed staple of manhood. The Gladiators were built like tanks. My Ultimate Warrior wrestling figure was shredded. The Thundercats packed serious feline muscle. With this physique came the promise of strength and the capacity to inflict violence on bad guys.

Perhaps more fundamental to my understanding of the man I’d surely become than those abstract heroes, was my dad. Not towering in height, but imposingly broad and athletic, he boasted of having never lost an arm wrestle in his life. Ask any Armenian uncle and he will tell you that an arm wrestle is the one true barometer of a man’s power. I marvelled at the fist-shaped craters he left in my bedroom door after arguing with my mum. My favourite stories revolved around him asserting his strength: when he broke a would-be bike thief’s nose in a dusty Cairo street; the time he slammed a Cypriot gangster through a table after a dodgy card game in a Nicosia taverna; how an attack by skinheads in a West London pub ended with him holding a steak-knife to the ringleader’s pale throat.

Why would I be any different from the far-flung musclemen I idolised? Why would I be any different from my dad?

To my surprise, I was. When I started secondary school, I was a short, chubby boy with a bowl cut. At that age, boys do that great thing where we relentlessly take the piss out of our friends to the exact point where their eyes fill with tears, before reassuring them it’s a joke. My response to that teasing was to go home and gorge on as much junk food as possible. I’d already got the message that crying in front of the boys was a free ticket on the fast train to ostracisation. Shutting myself in my bedroom with Real McCoy crisps and Yorkie Bars for company, then blasting DMX through my headphones, was my misguided method of self-care.

The onset of puberty meant I shot up like bamboo, albeit bamboo with no muscle definition to speak of. Where were the Gladiator biceps? The Ultimate Warrior abs? Where were the Thundercat thighs? My scrawny frame couldn’t slam even the most lightweight of gangsters through a table. If I hurled my fist at the door like a meteor, the sound of knuckles on wood resembled a polite knocking.

I clocked that I was supposed to swallow any disappointment and sadness I felt about life, let it swirl into anger in my stomach, and then spit it back out like dragon fire. I learnt from the indestructible men I saw in films and on television. I learnt from the bulletproof rapper poets in my headphones. I learnt from dad’s dealings with other dads on the touchline of my football matches, and his smiting of traffic wardens on the high street.

I’m from a neglected part of North London where young men don’t tend to access the state’s channels for legitimised violence; we don’t typically become police officers and soldiers, our fire isn’t aimed towards those who ‘fit the description’ in our streets, or occupied peoples in faraway lands. We spit fire at each other. We hurt boys and girls just like us, from down the road and around the corner. I applied this understanding to everything and everyone close to me. Exclusions from school, broken hands, cracked ribs and split lips demonstrated my commitment to being strong.

Robert Kazandjian during a fight

So when I first walked into a boxing gym as a teenager, wrapped up in this super-toxic masculinity, it made me even more unpleasant. I was being a dickhead on the roads. Now I was a dickhead who believed he could back up his big chat. I was a fake bad boy who thought a couple of sessions spent tripping over a skipping rope, followed by swinging wildly at a punch bag, made me a real bad boy.

Sparring with actual boxers knocked those ideas out of me. I was humbled by these quietly dedicated young people. I began to feel the benefits of training: the sense of belonging I craved, and sought amongst angry boys like me on the street; the influence of positive role models in my coaches, who outwardly possessed all the qualities I associated with manhood, but showed me simple, gentle care; the mindfulness, because you are never more present than when avoiding a jab to the face. Boxing became one of the good things I did, which gradually left little room for the bad.

I stuck with my training and didn’t look back. Adulthood and regular exercise meant my body thickened and strengthened. Yet I still lacked the chiselled frame I thought was my birthright as a man. Well-defined muscles were not body armour. They wouldn’t stop the trajectory of a fist, let alone a bullet. They couldn’t stop the knife that pierced the chest of the best footballer in our friendship group, leaving him dying near the park where we all used to play. I knew this. And despite all the work I did outside the gym, despite the time spent reading and trying to unpick my poisoned notion of what it meant to be a man, I couldn’t shake the desire to have them.

Competing in the boxing ring is a completely unique experience: a potent cocktail of excitement, loneliness, terror and togetherness. It’s like ordering a triple rum and coke, but with Wray and Nephew. Fighting elicits an almost incomparable high for me, and like every great buzz, it fades, triggering a bleak purposelessness in its wake. The low is almost as drastic as the high. My last fight was just over a year ago and, to be honest, I’ve not recovered.

The idea behind cutting weight before a fight is to gain a size advantage over your opponent. I’m six feet tall, depending on who’s asking, and walk around at about 83 kilos. I agreed to compete at 70 kilos, instead of a way more comfortable 80. In theory, on the night of the fight I’d be bigger and stronger than the boxer in the other corner. We’d weigh-in a few hours before the opening bell while our coaches looked on sternly. I’d stand on the scales and flex my pulsing biceps while my opponent wondered how I’d boiled down to such an impressively ripped shape. Then I’d disappear and take on the fluids and sugars my muscles craved.

I trained harder than ever, and all that graft requires a lot of fuel. But all that weight-loss requires a lot of not eating. I’m not a professional with a team of elite nutritionists; I was prepping for an unlicensed scrap in a Southend club. With the fight a few days away, I had plenty to shed. I abandoned my tantalising diet of porridge oats with water, steamed white fish and broccoli, and a spoonful of peanut butter. Instead, I binged on hot baths and steam rooms, seasoned with anxiety and irritability. I made weight. My opponent didn’t. He was relaxed, well-fed, and a couple of kilos over, but of course the fight still went ahead. And in the end, I did the business.

As I struggled through my weight-cut, my body changed significantly. I loved what looked back at me when I stood in front of the mirror. I finally saw in myself the images of the men I’d spent my childhood looking up to, from Macho Man and The Terminator, to my dad.

My unsustainable diet had given me the body I’d always expected I’d have. While the women in my life were concerned, commenting on how gaunt I looked or how irritable I seemed, my guys were like, ‘Yo Rob, you’re looking cut you know. I’m trying to be like you bro.’ I dismissed the concerns and lapped up the approval. What does that say about my sexism? As a cis-het man, what does that say about who sets the expectation of how my body ‘should’ look, and who I’ve been trying to impress?

After my fight, I went home with a packet of Oreos. I felt like I’d earned a treat. I ate a couple. A voice in my head told me I’d ruin everything. Say bye to your abs. I binged on them all. The next day I had a few beers and a pizza. The voice again: you’re messing it all up. That week at work, I ate an entire tray of cupcakes while my colleagues laughed. I laughed with them, but inside the voice was screaming at me. I’ve been fighting with it ever since.

My mental health took a steep downturn. I became trapped in a cycle of wildly overdoing the things people do to feel good, in order to mask the fact I felt so bad. Every blowout was followed by a period of cruel self-criticism. Without the steady routine of the boxing gym, and reeling from the comedown after a successful fight, demons I’ve long kept at bay crept back into my thinking.

I was the boy in his bedroom again, gorging on powders and potions because I’d reached the zenith of a very shaky temple, and was terrified of the fall. I felt like the smallest indulgence had undone all my hard work, and I began to unravel. Where had this pressure come from? Was my idea of masculinity and strength impossibly tied to my dad’s fearsome prowess? Or had it come from the images and icons that filled my childhood, or those that flooded my screens, news feeds and timelines now?

Today, while I’m happy to have a move around the gym and keep the old tools sharp, I don’t feel able to really commit to training. I’m much happier coaching than I am boxing. Some might argue that boxing is the embodiment of toxic masculinity, another form of legitimised violence, and that my experience was ultimately down to that. I disagree. I think a boxing gym can be a hub of equality and inclusivity. But it’s still rare for men in any context to talk about how having anything other than the ‘perfect’ physique makes us feel, and how we attach the idea of strength to that perfection.

We have appropriated the language of mental health and wellbeing, attaching the idea of self-care to training our bodies. There is truth to that. Boxing taught me the value of community and enabled me to be mindful in an often challenging environment. But I never felt able to talk openly about body image in that space, or any space.

Perhaps I lacked the tools to do so. Perhaps I associated things like diet and weight loss with femininity, allowing self-care to mutate into self-harm. That is truly toxic. Had I felt able to have a discussion about these things at an earlier stage in my life, perhaps I’d be in a better place now.

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