There. It's right there. The front hand dips, just a little. It's a tell, a hitch that precedes him firing the lead jab. It's going to come at my head, followed by some sort of kick-punch flurry. He's young, quick, strong. A third my age and already a black belt. Deserved, too. Something he throws will get through my defenses.
Not if I get to him first, though. Armed with this bit of forewarning I can launch a pre-emptive strike, get to him before he gets to me. Catch him in the act of throwing his strike, undefended, vulnerable. I take a small step forward and left, right arm rising to parry his punch if necessary. My head *should* be out of his line of fire anyway, but I've a litany of bloody and, occasionally, broken noses in my past.
His glove barely kisses my cheek, exactly what I want. My left hand is pistoning out, fingers closing so that it will be a fist at the point of impact against the side of his head. My hips twist, my foot gives a slight pivot, and my right hand is cocked and ready to provide a follow up that surely won't be needed. We're only sparring in a martial arts class so I'll pull the punch some when it hits. Don't want to knock this kid into tomorrow or anything. He probably has a trig test after study hall or something. Hopefully this won't scramble his thinking too much.
My strike doesn't land. In that fascinating way the brain processes information with unfathomable speed and accuracy, I realize that not only has he gotten his right arm back in enough time to block me but his left is already flickering in like a branch of lightning. I sidestep as I angle my right arm, hoping to be able to ward off his blow, feeling like I'm moving through mud.
Welcome to being old.
Well, not old, exactly, but at 48 I'm no spring chicken. My martial arts class is full of spring chickens, and if there's a more sobering herald of being middle aged than having a fifteen-year-old mop the floor with you I'd like to hear it. Making it even more of an ego check is that when I used to train 20-some-odd years ago, I was better. Much better. And not just at sparring, but at grappling as well. My old style focused heavily on jiu-jitsu and my groundwork was solid.
Now? I get eaten alive. Two of my fellow students are in their thirties, a good 8-10 inches shorter than me, and in various states of physical disrepair. They both have wrestling backgrounds and they flat-out destroy me when we tangle up. My long legs become ungainly, troublesome. All those locks that used to be there for me are elusive, ghosts on the wind. I no longer fight to dominate in class, but rather to learn and survive.
Comes with the territory, I guess, as the years stack up like cordwood. It's not as sharp a sting in hockey, where my limited experience is a feasible excuse for stinking up the joint. But as I gaze over at my retired rugby cleats I can't help but remember how in college we'd drink 'til 2 or 3 am the night before a match, catch a few hours sleep, and roll out for 80 minutes of running around the pitch in the morning. It wasn't only age that caused me to walk away from rugby, but even at 43 I'd felt the repercussions each Sunday after a match. I have friends my age still playing. Good for them. I don't have enough meat on my bones for that kind of beating anymore.
Instead I do my best to keep teenagers from dropping me with spinning back hook kicks that I couldn't pull off without aid from an elaborate system of weights and pulleys. I try to fight smarter, make use of the deceit that comes with being elderly. Keep moving away from their strong side. Stand as a southpaw. Use my long legs to fend, block, counter. Look much more confident than I am.
And wear a cup. Always. Slowing of reflexes may be a side effect of aging, but so is wisdom.