I was going to be a Golden Gloves champion, until I found out that the gloves didn't fit. I mean, they had my size, but -- well, let me explain.

I was 12 when I started boxing. Nothing serious, just weekly workouts and sparring. But I wasn't bad. One day a coach told me I had quick hands, and I spent the rest of the week flicking punches at my younger brother's nose.

"Quick hands," I thought, as I flicked a series of jabs into the air. I watched my shadow. My arm snapped out and back. With each jab, I forced a sound from between my teeth: "Ffft! Ffft!"

For weeks I worked on the bags: Boxing became a blend of body and mind and feeling -- the punch, the Ffft! Ffft!, the sting of contact.

My quickeness confused opponents. Once stung, they became wary. Their eyes grew shifty, their movements jerky. I could sense when an opponent was disoriented, and I learned to fake with one hand and follow through quickly with the other. And always, on my lips or in my mind: Ffft! Ffft!

We used to talk about the Golden Gloves. After a workout, we'd say how we'd like to give it a shot. How tough could it be? I figured I had the best chance -- after all, I had the quick hands.

When I learned we would put on an exhibition for servicemen at Fort Myer, my mind started racing. A good showing might mean the big break, the chance to impress someone who had the Golden Gloves connections. In workouts before the exhibition, I was all speed. My hands moved in blurs. I peppered the bags. And my shadow. And my brother. And I watched myself in the mirror. I lived with the sound: Ffft! Ffft!

At Fort Myer, I looked across the ring to size up my opponent. I was surprised to find that I knew him -- a schoolmate, a kid who had a reputation as tough. But we were sort of friendly at school. At least I thought so until we met at center ring for the ref's instructions. aI smiled.The kid just looked at the floor, and I wondered why someone I knew, someone I saw every day, wouldn't look at me. I also noticed the muscles in his arms. They looked different from mine -- more clearly defined, tighter. I went back to my corner wondering if he was older than I.

At the end of the first round, I hadn't landed one good punch. My quick hands were sluggish, as though I were punching under water.Even the Ffft! Ffft! was gone. But he hadn't hit me either.

I tagged him a couple of crisp jabs on the nose. Ffft! Ffft! But the next time I went to jab, he hooked me with his left. I saw the punch coming but I couldn't move fast enough. My head snapped back and I smelled blood. I never saw the follow up-punch that stung my forehead. I was scared, a little panicked. Where would the next punch come from? My lips felt fat.

I escaped further punishment in that round by covering and clinching. No more Ffft! Ffft! And no more punching.

"Did he hurt you?" my coach asked between rounds.

"Yeah, a little," I said.

"Nah, not a bit," coach said. "Fire your jab."

In the final round I landed a jab or two, solid and quick. I pushed the Ffft! Ffft! out of my mind -- it suddenly seemed silly, a distraction. I hit him with a combination, but he showed no sign of panic or disorentation. He didn't seem to feel the punches until I landed a quick flurry. The last one was a hard, snapping right. My glove fist crunched firmly against his jaw. His head twisted towards his right shoulder. Then it popped back toward me. I saw his face, blank, confused and hurt. And, like mine, young.

Funny how an instant can seem like an hour. His gloves were down and his eyes were confused. Someone yelled, "Hit him again." Instead, I stepped back. Suddenly his eyes focused. From nowhere, his left found my jaw -- twice. Each time blood rocked inside my head. He was all over me and I gasped at the force of his punches. The soldiers were cheering.

They didn't say who won the fight.I left the ring figuring it was probably a draw.

In the locker room, I noticed my opponent's face was splotchy. He looked at my slightly puffed lips and said with a smile, "Almost got some blood there."

"Yeah."

"I had two good lefts late in the last round. "

"Un-huh," I said.

"See you at school," he said.

Beneath his cocky exterior he had to be hiding something. I wanted to say, "Hey, I hurt you too, didn't I?" But if he had answered no, I would have felt bad. And if he had answered yes, I might have felt worse.

So that's how I knew that, for my quick hands, the Golden Gloves wouldn't fit.