Thursday, July 25, 2013

How the Sweet Science Unleashed My Secret Sporty Spice

“The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It's the same thing, fear, but it's what you do with it that matters,” said famed boxing coach Cus D’amato.  I wasn’t feeling particularly heroic as I entered the IFC gym looking to hire a boxing coach.  I chose Freddie Cuevas before meeting him as he was billed as being big on fighting philosophy as well as form.  Freddie retired from boxing professionally in 2006 after putting in eleven years as a popular Chicago middleweight fighter.  I hired him not for his record, which was certainly respectable, but because he is a boxing coach for thinkers.  I was counting on my brain to overcome my physical limitations, as I am far from sporty.  I felt that boxing might be the best crash course on fine tuning my concentration and my coordination, two areas that have kept me out of sports generally. My aversion to fitness started early; I forged notes from my mother to excuse myself from P.E. class as I couldn’t bear to be the last person picked for every team.  I’ve always been that person in aerobics class that’s facing the wrong direction, while practicing yoga I’m always struggling with the right side when everyone else is effortlessly doing the left side.  In dance classes advertised as “There’s no wrong way to do this”, teachers have proclaimed after seeing my attempts, “Except maybe that way.” Eventually I took up running as it was something I could do alone, free of being judged on my performance.  But I became determined to find a sport that worked for me, and if that sport involved hitting things, I was all for it.  While wrapping my hands at our first session, Freddie asked me a reasonable question.  “Why boxing?”  I joked that it was because I’m Irish and I don’t play well with others.  I went on to explain that some of my interest came from family tradition.  My grandfather was a professional boxing referee, I grew up watching all the men in my family glove up and hit the heavy bag.  We watched fights on television with great regularity, there were many discussions of technique and strategy as we watched the likes of Muhammed Ali, Leon Spinks and Joe Frazier.  I was seven years old when my extended family gathered excitedly around the television to see my grandfather in action, moderating the heavyweight championship between George Foreman and Ken Norton.  Foreman knocked Norton out shortly into the second round so my grandfather’s time in the spotlight wasn’t lengthy, but it was memorable.  

Gramps Jimmy Rondeau officiating at the 1946 Golden Gloves

The IFC gym itself was not like the other slick places I’d gone to work out in the past.  It is a simple two room space with a standard ring in the front, heavy bags and speed bags in the rear, as well as two treadmills, a bike, some kettle balls and a few basic weight lifting machines.  The walls are adorned with photos and clippings of the employees doing what they know best: fighting. There is no air conditioning.  There is no juice bar.  They are often blasting hard rock or rap, or if Freddie has his way, salsa.  It’s all about function, no fancy stuff.  It’s not a health club, a spa, a studio, or a dojo.  It’s a straight up boxing gym.

Freddie with today's motivational message

Freddie started by teaching me the four basic punches: the jab, the cross, the hook, and the upper cut. Our subsequent workouts have varied a little but generally we do something close to the following program each time we meet. After a brief warm up of windmilling my arms, doing jumping jacks followed by squats, I do two rounds of shadowboxing.  This warms up not only my core and my shoulders, but my comfort level with looking stupid.  I find it hard not to feel self conscious as I’m throwing punches into the air in a boxing ring in clear view of passersby on a busy street in Chicago.  After my ego and my arms are ready to go, Freddie puts on mitts to field my punches as we do three rounds of different punch combinations that he dictates. 

I then move to the heavy bag for two rounds of punch combinations of my own choosing.  Then to the speed bag for two rounds, which is a nice relief to have something that’s less about punching and more about hand/eye coordination. 


Then there’s two rounds of jumping rope, a round of chasing mitts, (remember Rocky chasing the chicken? It’s the same principle, working on speed and agility, but with Freddie throwing mitts around the room and me retrieving them like a dog)

and three different kinds of sit ups, a minute of plank pose

and we’re DONE.  All rounds of every exercise are three minutes, just like boxing rounds in a standard match.  Every round of exercise is capped off with fifteen jumping jacks and ten squats as well, just to keep it moving. 

After being a runner for several years I was in fairly decent shape when I took on the boxing regime, so my stamina wasn’t an issue.  But my coordination problems made learning the punch combinations challenging, and jumping rope was an aggravating impossibility at first.  It was six minutes of pure frustration, punctuated by whipping my legs with the jumprope, further cementing my anxiety and disappointment with myself.  A majority of fitness instructors I’d had in the past would take to barking instructions on how to do things the right way at me, to no avail. I’d just shut down after getting yelled at.  I started noticing that when I would make mistakes while working with Freddie, he would simply stop me, and we’d do it over.  He wouldn’t sigh or make any sort of face indicating displeasure or exasperation or comment in anyway that was negative.  We’d just stop and do it over, however many times it took until I did it correctly.  Freddie also gave my mind a work out, discussing how the better boxer is not the tougher one, but the smarter one.  I found the mix of strategy and footwork to be akin to playing chess while dancing, with the mind and body finding harmony working together in unison.  After much practice, I started picking up the punching combinations more easily, which Freddie always took note of and commented on positively.  In my early struggles with the jumprope, he would tell me repeatedly in a calm voice, “You control the rope, you control your legs.  You just have to get those two things to work together."  And slowly but surely, those things did start working together. I now can jump rope fairly smoothly for much of the six minutes, and I whip myself with the jumprope much less now.  

I love it when a plan comes together

My love of boxing got a serious boost during a recent trip to Louisville, when I visited the Muhammad Ali Center.  Ali was not only an amazing athlete, but an artist, an activist, and a philanthropist. Wise and courageous (and so PRETTY!), the man continues to be an inspiration.  
A sports star that's truly worthy of hero worship, a man who taught me that there ain't nothing wrong with going down, it's when you stay down that you run into trouble.

So I opted not to get discouraged, even on days when the gym just beat the shit out of me, instead of the other way around.  At no point have I felt judged by Freddie, or anyone else in the gym for that matter.  I often get high fives and words of encouragement from the other staff and sometimes the other patrons of the gym.  Freddie trains many women who fight as amateurs, who are strong and beautiful and awe inspiring to watch as they spar with men who are much bigger than they are.  Again, it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. 

A couple of months into the training, I noticed that not only were the exercises much easier to perform, but my confidence while tackling new exercises was enhanced. Freddie taught me not only how to be a boxer, but how to be a teacher. I’m sure I won’t ever be skilled enough to fight someone else in any official capacity, but I fought my fear of all things athletic and emerged victorious.  I think Cus D’amato would approve.

Photo credits:  Gym photos by Jill Howe, Ali Center photos by Chuck Sudo.


  1. It's great that you found a coach who doesn’t only take boxing as a sport, but a discipline as well. Boxing is not just an ordinary sport; it is a challenge that will definitely test both your physical and mental stamina. Just imagine the heavy routine and activities you have to perform during training! Anyway, the secret here is having a strong determination. If you don’t have it, the routine will always be difficult. All the best!

    Barbara Cales @ Legends Boxing Gym

  2. Having a good trainer is the key to succeed. Especially in the field of boxing, because your trainer will be the one to guide and teach you all the techniques you need to know. And I’m glad that you found yours through Freddie. This definitely gave you a huge advantage in becoming a good boxer and teacher.

    Conrad Mills @ Toronto Top Team

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