Lord of the Ring
Second-year student helps lead Harvard Boxing Club
by Margie Kelley
It is another extremely cold Thursday afternoon in February, but Gene Gurkoff '04 is soaked with sweat. He's just returned to the top floor of Harvard's Malkin Athletic Center after running down--and then back up--five flights of stairs for the third time in 10 minutes, with almost a dozen other students running right behind.
"Let's go!" he shouts, as he turns back to coax his breathless, equally sweaty companions up the last few steps. "C'mon, you can do it! Go! Go! Go!"
This is a conditioning day for the Harvard Boxing Club, and as its unofficial captain, Gurkoff is preparing the team for the rigors of weekly sparring matches. Over the next two hours, he will lead the group through an ever-intensifying workout of squats, push-ups, sit-ups and the like, along with at least five more trips down the stairs to the basement and back. He'll give everyone a chance to lead, and he'll make sure nobody falls behind.
"The workout is pretty intense," says Gurkoff, who has been helping to lead club workouts since he arrived at HLS in the fall of 2001. "When I first started, it wasn't uncommon for someone to throw up."
But that fact hasn't scared anyone away. Indeed, Gurkoff's emphasis on conditioning, leadership and the fundamentals of boxing has drawn a steady crowd of students--both men and women--from across the university, including fellow law students Alex Angarita '03 and Scott Levin '04.
A New Jersey native, Gurkoff first tried boxing when he was a sophomore at Northwestern University. He'd injured his back playing rugby and was sent to a local gym for physical therapy. There, he found a class that used boxing moves as the basis for an aerobic workout. "It was an intense class, a great group of people," he says. "So we decided to actually learn how to box for real."
When he arrived at HLS, Gurkoff immediately sought out the boxing club, which had been coached for six decades by legendary boxing champion Tommy Rawson. As Rawson was on the verge of retirement, and a new coach had not yet been hired, Gurkoff stepped in to help run club practices. Now he helps the new coach, Doug Yaffe, by running the conditioning sessions on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the team dons protective headgear, pads and gloves for Yaffe's sparring workouts, learning jabbing and footwork techniques using heavy punching bags and speed bags and fighting on a ropeless platform.
Open to everyone in the Harvard community, the boxing club tends to attract people looking for an intense workout, which they certainly get from Gurkoff. Still, he says, boxing is not what it seems.
"People come in thinking it's all about punching--about using your arms and fists. But really the arms have very little to do with it," he says. "The legs and hips are at the core of boxing. To apply yourself in the most effective way, you use your big muscles. When people first come in, they get exhausted because they're all arms."
At HLS, Gurkoff is focusing on conflict management and negotiation. During the spring semester, he took just three courses, two at HLS and a negotiation course at Harvard Business School. He has also worked as a research assistant to Lecturer on Law Robert Bordone '97 and Professor Emeritus Roger Fisher '48, author of "Getting to Yes." He recently landed a summer associate position with a firm in New York City.
Still, boxing is ever on Gurkoff's mind. Even during interviews for the summer job, he says, every firm's first question was about boxing. "They all wanted to know how I can square the boxing with conflict management," he says. "I would joke that if they wouldn't negotiate, I could beat them up. But really, these two things work out pretty well together."
Negotiation, he says, is a game: "It's like boxing in that you have to be able to read your opponent, set up a rhythm, adapt to his pattern and adjust your strategy to win."
And, like boxing, negotiation requires a huge amount of preparation.
"Most of negotiation happens away from the table--in preparing for it," says Gurkoff. "A regulation boxing match is just six minutes long, but you can prepare a whole year for it. And in both cases, you have to be able to learn and react in real time. You have to think strategically in a complex, chaotic and stressful situation."
In the ring, Gurkoff thrives under such conditions.
"I love the sport of it, and I love my teammates," he says. "I consider this my social time. I've made some great friends through boxing. Where else can you punch each other in the face and still be friends? You see each other at your most stressful, insecure moments, moments when you're not quite sure if you can do it. But when you help each other overcome those fears and meet those challenges, that builds a bond unlike any other."
Gurkoff pushes himself as hard as he pushes his teammates, whom he lavishes with praise at practices for their fortitude and endurance. His own endurance, though, is stretched beyond the boxing ring. As if the six-days-a-week boxing workouts weren't enough, Gurkoff is also training for the Ironman Triathlon in Lake Placid, N.Y., this summer. To prepare for that event--a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon--Gurkoff gets up most mornings at 5 a.m. to cycle with the Harvard Cycling Club. He also runs and swims three or four days a week.
"One reason I push so hard is that I know that in my life, I will have to confront situations where I where I don't know if I can do something. But because of the training, because I have been there and pushed through something challenging, I'll know I can I can do it."