Photography by Bev Childress of Fort Worth, Texas
Grappling is my first and forever love. That will be an awkward conversation with my future wife. My love of grappling eventually led to an appreciation and fondness for other forms of unarmed combat. It didn’t hurt that I had Bruce Lee movies and Rocky to watch as a kid. I grew up in the days after Muhammad Ali. The heavyweight division, despite having Larry Holmes at the apex, was a far cry from wars of yesteryear.
Then came the collision of pop culture and boxing in the rise of Mike Tyson. There were also the four kings: Duran, Hearns, Leonard, and—my personal favorite—Hagler, who mesmerized crowds throughout the 1980’s.
Boxing is affectionately known as The Sweet Science. To the untrained eye, it doesn’t look terribly complicated. Hit the guy in the face, collect the check. Only when you start wrapping your hands—an art in itself—that you begin to grasp the depth of the sport.
You enter a dingy boxing gym, a real one, not the mass-marketed cardio boxing studios. The people in these gyms are not chasing calories; they are trying to escape poverty and fight for a living. You wrap your hands, put your gloves on, and begin your lesson.
Stance, footwork, rhythm, timing, bobbing, weaving, parrying—keep your hands up—all before throwing a punch. If you’re lucky, a trainer will hold the focus mitts for you. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get the trainer who takes his or her job seriously and will smack you in the face with a mitt if they see your hands drop, leaving your chin defenseless. Then, you realize it. There’s more to fighting than you ever realized.
Living the Martial Life
Some begin the combat arts like jiu jitsu later in life, and others are born into it. Roy Jones, Jr. was the latter. He started training with his father at age six. The training was not for the faint of heart, and since it was father/son, senior did not take it lightly on junior.
He pushed young Roy to the brink of collapse, and beyond. His father found sparring partners that were older, heavier, and more experienced. Apparently, that wasn’t good enough, tying one of his son’s arms behind his back. The brutal training, although creating a fractured relationship between father and son, worked.
Roy Jones, Jr. won gold at the Junior Olympics in 1984 and the Golden Gloves. The dream of any amateur athlete is the Olympic Games. In 1988, Roy went to Seoul, South Korea for the opportunity of a lifetime. It seemed academic.
The brilliant young boxer was a shoe-in for another gold medal. He was destined to have gold draped around his neck and stand with his hand over his heart as the American National Anthem serenaded the crowd. The journey to the finals went according to plan. He torched his opponents, never surrendering a single round.
It resembled Dan Gable from the 1972 Olympics, who won all six of his wrestling matches without giving up a point. In the finals, Roy faced Park-Si Hun, a national hero. The hero didn’t fare so well. Marv Albert, that sports announcer who bit a woman in 1997, provided the commentary for the fight.
“Park Si-Hun is taking a thrashing!”
It was a glimpse of the Roy Jones the world would later see as a professional. At the fight’s conclusion, the combatants were pulled into the center of the ring as they waited for the judges’ decision. They remained there, no word from the judges. It shouldn’t take this long. Scorecards get passed around from judge-to-judge.
The results finally reach the announcer, and by a score of 3-2, Park-Si Hun is awarded the gold medal. A few Korean loyalists in the crowd cheer, but shock and anger grips the majority; another sad controversy in an Olympic contest—a robbery.
Later, fifty Korean monks visited the Jones camp to offer their apologies and express their shame for what occurred earlier in Chamshil Students’ Gymnasium. After the match, Roy Junior was doubtful that he’d ever fight again. I’m glad he changed his mind.
Know Where You’re Starting From
As a professional, Roy displayed the dazzling footwork, hand speed, and ring generalship that made him an amateur stand-out. It’s unavoidable for the supremely talented to receive criticism, usually from empty suits.
- He doesn’t engage.
- He doesn’t have tough competition.
- He rides out the fight to a decision.
- He’s a dancer, not a fighter.
- Can he take a punch?
The criticism is familiar since it was shared earlier about Sugar Ray Leonard and later about Floyd Mayweather, Jr. It didn’t take long before Roy decided to entertain his critics and show them why he was who he was. The first “I’ll show you” moment came in his fight against Vinny Pazienza—The Pazmanian Devil.
Jones was merciless. He floored Vinny three times in a single round and became the first fighter to officially complete a round without getting hit. Jones’ second middle-finger to his critics came in his rematch with Montell Griffin. Jones was disqualified in their first fight, and combined with the criticism he was receiving, Roy had a chip on his shoulder.
How long does it take to shut up a hater? With the internet troll, the answer might be “never.” But, in 1997, Jones did it in less than three minutes. He clobbered Griffin, knocking him out inside the first round.
From my novice viewpoint, there are four levels of boxers:
- People who think they can fight
Masters are exactly that, masters of their craft. Elite is another term, but I am developing a distaste for the word. Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Pernell Whitaker are examples of the masters. Of course, we can’t leave out Jones or Mayweather. Vasyl Lomachenko is a master-in-the-making. Some would argue, and it’s a good argument, that he’s already there.
Professionals are those with a true grasp of the science of pugilism, and perhaps with more ring time and sharpening of certain skills, can become masters. Amateurs need more experience and skill development. They are also younger and less physically mature. No matter how many films they study, or drills they perform, there are some things you can’t rush.
The last category makes up a large cast of characters. These range from drunk barroom brawlers, or those who watch the UFC on television, shouting instructions with nachos on their laps. It can also describe the cardio kickbox crowd, but not the ones who use it exclusively as a workout.
In that context, I’m fine with it. I think it’s a great workout. It’s those poor souls who believe, mostly deluded by their instructors, that’s it is comparable to boxing training and they’ll be able to “handle” a tense situation. It’s not, and it won’t. The categories have upward mobility.
A drunk fraternity brother who gets knocked out by a smaller person with greater skill might wake up and decide to learn the craft. He then graduates to amateur, regardless of his desire to compete. If he wants to compete, he may proceed into amateur contests and perhaps fight professionally. He may never become a master, but it’s possible. Even if he does not compete, he now has skills, and most likely, humility.
What Category Are You In?
Exercise appears to follow the same categories. Masters, professionals, amateurs, and people who “exercise.” The masters are not who you think they are. They are not the ones who are on magazine covers and on television. They also aren’t categorized by “who they train,” even if their clients are on the magazine covers.
I’ve met trainers of celebrities and professional athletes that couldn’t train a Border Collie. Don’t get me wrong, some of the more stylish celebrity trainers are indeed talented, but the percentage is low. Sometimes, it’s “who you know.” In a year of Saving Private Ryan, the Oscar goes to Shakespeare in Love. Yuck.
Masters are those who put in years of study into every possible dimension of health and fitness. Nutrition, physics, physiology, business management, human behavior, and psychology. They can get the most out of whomever they work with.
They do not rely on an NBA star to make them look skilled. They can get results out of a 90-year old who can hardly walk, and increase a ballplayer’s throwing strength. They usually aren’t overly visible on social media or at Barnes and Noble. They are hard to find because they are busy. They are busy studying, thinking, experimenting, failing, and improving.
The professionals understand the hard sciences and the soft skills. They have flaws, but actively work to reduce them, for the betterment of their clients. Their pocketbook is secondary. Being a professional trainer is not glamorous. Watching a mother of three do her first pull-up isn’t televised like your client scoring a winning touchdown, but there’s no feeling like it.
Scoring a touchdown is an incredible athletic accomplishment, but it’s not every day that a middle-aged woman who is told to “stick to the treadmill” jumps up, grips the bar, and pulls her chin over it. I’ve seen women cry afterward, and I can’t help but get a lump in my throat. Amateurs are new to the game.
They may be in college or recently graduated. They could be studying for a certification, or newly certified. This category is also comprised of the person who doesn’t wish to work in the industry, but takes exercise more thoughtfully.
They want to know how things work. They don’t want a path of shortcuts or Instagram diet teas. They want to understand and take a more sophisticated approach to exercise. It is this state of mind I’d like the casual exerciser to have. No matter your vocation, a CPA or a computer programmer, take a genuine interest in the truth about exercise. Stop chasing hype.
I don’t always get what I want. That brings us to category 4. Similar to the barroom brawlers, this section is full of those who go to the gym, and just do “stuff.” It kind of looks like exercise, I’m sure it feels like exercise, and you could technically describe it as such.
You see it all the time: people wandering from machine-to-machine, with a muscle magazine or the latest celebrity-worshipping rag under their arm. Nowadays, they have their phones out, following the moves and advice of their favorite Instagram trainer. It’s not difficult to predict.
- Don’t eat until noon.
- Stop eating at 4.
- Avoid all carbs and fat, except the 300 calories of butter in your superpowered coffee.
- Perform 30 minutes of crunches, followed by an hour of cardio, but don’t forget to swallow the most legal form of methamphetamine they can sell you.
- Take a selfie every six minutes.
- Tilapia and broccoli for dinner, and voila: you’re ripped.
Since the trainer looks in shape and the program can—accidentally—deliver results, no questions are asked. Eventually, the honeymoon ends. You’re left with a hole in your pocket, a closet full of exercise equipment, a pantry stocked with fat-burn pills, a plateau, possibly an injury, weight-rebound or a severely damaged psyche. Don’t think I’m being harsh. Well, maybe a little. However, all good amateurs, professionals, and even masters spent time in this category.
What you are left with is a choice. What sort of exerciser do you want to be? Let me put it in the simplest way I can:
You own the most incredible machine ever seen in the history of the world, and you live in it, twenty-four hours a day. You should take the time and learn how to use it.
Your Body Doesn’t Have an Instruction Manual
Your gorgeous new car, your lawnmower and even your hairdryer come with an instruction manual. It’s natural to visit the bookstore and pick up what “looks” like an instruction manual for your body.
Some books will go as far as using that as its title. Those books belong under your lawnmower, not on your bookshelf. You can do better. I don’t recommend reading the more technical material. It’s difficult to comprehend and boring unless you work in the field.
Get yourself a promising amateur or an established professional to help you understand your body and how it best responds to exercise. They won’t tie your arm behind your back like Roy’s father, but they will develop you into the finest version of yourself.
It’s appealing to want a master, but don’t bother. It’s not that they are too busy. The good amateurs and professionals are learning from them, anyway. Much like the amateur and professional boxers who look to the masters of their field, we do the same.
It’s not my concern who you learn from or where you do it. But, do it. Exercise is an art, a science, and can help your body accomplish things you only thought existed inside your imagination. On a selfish note, a better-educated exerciser won’t perform biceps curls inside the squat rack. Help me put an end to the insanity.