By Daniel Silliman
In the red trunks, Nathaniel Hicks was fast. He was an up-and-coming speed fighter. He was the winner of the Arizona Golden Gloves, 2005, and now he was in a corner of a boxing ring in California, competing for the Western division title.
His coach was saying, "Use your speed to your advantage. Use your speed to your advantage," and he was standing in the corner, on his toes, getting ready for the fight, when he saw the man in the other corner.
Hicks, remembering the man in the blue trunks, calls him, "this Russian dude."
"I had to fight this Russian dude," he says, on the phone from training camp, "and he was just ... he was in there to kill."
Hicks tried to use his speed. He tried to use his combinations. He and the Russian touched gloves and the fight began and he danced into the first round, moving his feet, and he threw a couple of jabbing combos "to see what he'd do."
Then the big man in the blue trunks clobbered the 23-year-old Jonesboro native.
Hicks chuckles a little, remembering the loss.
"He was real strong," he says. "So even though I was using my speed on him, he was just punching straight through."
He doesn't talk about it like he's talking about a fight he lost. He talks about it strategically, like he's talking about styles and techniques, methods and tactics.
For him, he says, boxing is about strategy, it's a strategy game. Like chess. It wasn't always like that, though. When Hicks first threw punches, he wasn't practicing the so-called "sweet science," he was brawling in bars in Korea.
"I was bad," he says. "I was bad and doing bad stuff. I was just getting drunk and wanting to fight everybody and being bad. I grew up with God, but I got bad and I just wanted to fight. Boxing brought me back to God. Boxing brought me closer to God."
In 2002, at the age of 18, and a Jonesboro High School graduate, Hicks was getting into trouble, he says. He was running with a bad crowd and doing bad things he doesn't want to talk about, anymore, and he wasn't doing anything with his life. He had a little girl, then a second baby girl was born, and Hicks decided he needed to straighten up, needed to do something with his life.
In October 2002, he says, he joined the United States Army.
The Army trained him as a "cable systems installations specialist" and sent him to Afghanistan with the 2nd Infantry Division. He was there for about a year, dragging cables around in the desert and wondering if this was really "doing something" with his life.
"We ...[were] the installation people," he says. "We do the same thing as Comcast, basically like that, except we couldn't connect you to cable [TV]."
In 2004, the Army sent Hicks to Korea and he spent his free time drinking and brawling and "being bad." He remembers, now, that he would talk a lot about being from Atlanta, about being bad because he was from Atlanta, and he got into a lot of fights. One day, though, a staff sergeant heard him talking big and the staff sergeant started talking back.
"If you're so bad," the staff sergeant said, "why don't you get in the boxing ring?"
Hicks doesn't remember the staff sergeant's name, but that man changed his life. He got into the ring at the Army base, stomach full of butterflies, and another soldier punched him.
"He punched me in the face," Hicks says. "He jabbed me in the face and I was like, 'I ain't having this.'" He was hooked, though. He was fascinated and drawn to the ring, like there was something in it for him.
"It was a totally different thing," he says. "It wasn't like fighting in the clubs."
He kept losing. He'd strap the gloves on again and he'd lose. He'd tire himself out in a round, rushing in to punch and out to dodge. He'd get beaten in the second, third and fourth rounds. Those early fights, he says, were competitions to see who was the toughest man. But they taught him he had a skill and they taught him discipline, taught him to think harder and pace himself and use his skills to his advantage.
"As I got better, they started teaching me more, and now it's like a chess game," Hicks says. "Pick your shots. If you throw a combination, or something ... you set them up and then you bust them up. You can't go all out that first round. You got to out-think them."
That year, he won the middle weight title in Korea. In 2005, he was transferred to Arizona and he won the Golden Gloves. In 2006, he joined the All-Army boxing team.
He learned to pace himself, to plan ahead, to think faster -- and pray. It changed his life.
Now, he's with the 67th Signal Division stationed in Augusta and he's training for the upcoming fights at the Armed Forces Tournament in Camp Lejeune, N.C.
He's been in Arizona, this week, training with his old coach again, running eight miles in the mornings and doing 200-300 crunches when other soldiers take a lunch break.
He's been thinking, he says on the phone, about how he's fighting for God, for his wife and three daughters, and for Atlanta. Those are the things that give him strength, he says.
He's been thinking, too, about a fight he had in Mexico once, against a Mexican fighter who was the hometown hero. The hometown judges were lined around the ring, he says, scoring points, and his coach told him, "You got to beat him bad. You got to make it obvious. Just make it obvious that you're beating him down."
He was in the corner, he says, wearing the blue trunks. It was a two-minute break between rounds, but it felt like 30 minutes long and his coach kept saying, "Use your speed. Use your advantage" and when the fight started again, he heard his girls, ringside, yelling, "Go daddy!"
He thought, "I can't get beat in front of my kids."
"I hit him," Hicks says, "and by the time he punched, I moved out of the way and didn't even get hit. You know what I'm saying? I can use my speed to my advantage. I'm at home in the ring and it's like I can hit him all I want. It's like my paradise."