Panther Training

by John Struloeff

Illustration by Zia
Keep your chin down,
tucked to your chest,
your elbows tight against your ribs.
With every jab, you breathe.
Keep the balls of your feet on the mat,
tight like they’re nailed there.

If you open the middle, he’ll strike you right there,
and if he gets you good, you’re going down.
Even if you don’t drop, you’ll want to kneel on the mat
and suck air like he’s cracked your chest.
Just remember to breathe.
It’s only your ribs.

Forget about the ribs.
Keep the focus there
in his eyes. Listen to him breathe.
You listen, the snake’s going down.
Hold your gloves over your chest.
Keep the balls of your feet on the mat.

Now shift around. Forward and back on the mat,
diagonally, like you’re lacing his ribs:
boom-boom, shift-shift. Don’t look at his chest,
look in his eyes, right there
in the heart of his reptile soul. Don’t look down.
Chin down, eyes up. Remember: breathe.

Panthers are powerful but loose, so loosen up. Breathe.
Jog backwards a little. Slide your toes on the mat.
Don’t lift your knees—keep the balls down.
Your bottom ribs, those are your ‘floating ribs,’
hear me? You keep dropping those gloves, he’s hunting there,
and he’ll drop you in the river. Same as shooting you in the chest.

Don’t slouch. Stick out your chest.
Move, move, move! Breathe!
All right, that’s good there.
You’ve got him going. Watch the sweat on the mat.
I only gotta say one word: ribs.
Protect them with your life. Chin down.

All right. Time. We’ll end it there. Not bad, kid.  
You learn to breathe, move on the mat, you’ll get yourself a chest of gold 
with brass ribbing. Then you can keep your chin up, all right?
Now down for twenty.

John Struloeff recently served as the City of Malibu’s third Poet Laureate and is the author of The Man I Was Supposed to Be (Loom Press) and The Work of a Genius (Finishing Line Press). He has published poems in The Atlantic, The Sun, Verse Daily, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, ZYZZYVA, PN Review, and elsewhere. He is a former Stegner and NEA Fellow and now directs the creative writing program at Pepperdine University.

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