Rebroadcast: The Sweet Science of Fitness

Farai Chideya continues her "fitness challenge" by stepping into the ring with a former boxing champion.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

This week, we've been rebroadcasting some of our favorite stories of 2006. Earlier this year, I pledged to transform both physically and mentally. I tried an array of activities from yoga to basketball to weightlifting. And one of the most challenging and rewarding was my time in the ring.

(Soundbite of song, "Eye of the Tiger")

CHIDEYA: The champion, Justine Fortune, is 215 pounds of pure muscle. Although I weigh a little more on the scale, I've got a lot more fat. I knew as soon as I saw Justine that I wasn't ready to go toe-to-toe in the ring. So I let him put me through a boxer's training session.

Boxing is supposed to be an all-over-body workout. Justin put me through my paces at one of Los Angeles' hottest boxing clubs, Wild Card Boxing, in Hollywood. He's a former Australian pro boxer who once fought former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. He lost that fight and eventually retired. But now, he's one of the most sought after trainers in the country. He started me off the way he does his pro fighters - jumping rope.

Mr. JUSTIN FORTUNE (Boxing Trainer): So when you're jumping rope, okay, we're going to start - ultimately, you want to do 10 while alternating your feet when jumping rope. There you go. Perfect. Just smaller steps. Step. Step, three minutes.

CHIDEYA: Uh-oh. I think I'll be lucky if I reach three minutes. I'm already tired.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Mr. FORTUNE: That's to be considered your warm-up.

CHIDEYA: All right. This officially sucks but it's more fun when you're kid.

After I worked up a nice sweat, he taught me how to stand and what punches and combinations to throw.

Mr. FORTUNE: Shape up. Face the mirror. Step away. This is where your hands should be, right here, right by your chin. That's your right hand and this is your floater. This is how you jab. The left hand, you jab and that's what searches out and makes the opening, through your right hand and the rest of your combination.

CHIDEYA: Okay.

Mr. FORTUNE: So when you jab, jab, double jab, jab, jab, come straight through the right hand. Good.

CHIDEYA: One of Justin's top boxers happened to be there while I was.

Mr. ISRAEL VASQUEZ (Professional Boxer): (Through translator) My name is Israel Vasquez. I'm originally from Mexico City. Currently, I'm the champion of two International Federation Boxing championships.

CHIDEYA: Israel Vasquez doesn't look like your average boxer. He's 5-foot-6 and weighs about 120 pounds.

Mr. VASQUEZ: (Through translator) Originally, it started out as just a simple sport but I found out I had an opportunity once I started fighting professionally and winning by knockouts. It motivated me even more.

CHIDEYA: Wild Card gets a lot of celebrities as well. Actor Mario Lopez, formerly of the TV show, “Saved By The Bell,” is in here almost every day. He says the gym is intense.

Mr. MARIO LOPEZ (Actor): With all due respect, it's a ratty, smelly, nasty little hole in the wall place, and yet, like, a lot of movie stars come in here, a lot of women come in here, I guess, because they don't kiss anybody's butt, you know, they treat everybody the same, everybody with respect.

CHIDEYA: Lopez now calls fights for HBO International and HBO Latino. He says being in the ring himself can be quite a thrill.

Mr. LOPEZ: Anytime you knock somebody out it's exciting. You know, I don't want to hurt anybody. It's that whole gladiator kind of feeling. I'm not trying to take anybody's head off, but you catch them with a clean shot and it's a clean, legal shot and you happen to knock them out, that's always exciting.

CHIDEYA: Mario trains with Wild Card's owner, Freddie Roach. Freddie grew up in a family where fighting was a way of life. His father was a pro-boxer. Growing up in the projects in Boston, he says his backyard had a boxing ring instead of a swing set.

During Roach's boxing career, he fought more than 150 pro and amateur fights. Now, as a trainer, he's coached 18 champions, including Mike Tyson, James Toney and Manny Pacquiao. He laced up my gloves and took me in the ring to put to the test the moves that Justin had taught me.

Mr. FREDDIE ROACH (Owner, Wild Card Boxing): There you go. Upper cut, nice and loose, nice and loose. Very good.

(Soundbite of speed bag)

CHIDEYA: Why is it important to stay loose?

Mr. ROACH: If you get tight during the next round, you won't last that long.

CHIDEYA: OK.

Mr. ROACH: So, you got to be loose just like you want to be in the fight.

CHIDEYA: By this time, you would have already beaten my butt. But this is practice. It's all good. So I'm throwing uppercuts.

Mr. ROACH: Uppercuts and overhand. Nice and low.

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Mr. ROACH: Thirty seconds to go on top. Pick it up. Faster. Come on. That a girl. Work it. Time.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

CHIDEYA: Whoa, that's no joke.

I got a huge adrenalin rush from the pace and speed of sparring. Boxing is definitely the most exciting sport that I've tried so far. And Freddie says it's easy to get drawn back into the ring.

Mr. ROACH: Boxing is addictive - a very addictive sport. That's why these people have trouble giving it up. You know, I think what we missed most of is the pat on the back, good fight and stuff like that from the fans and when that goes away, you kind of miss that. So I got lucky when I found out that I was a better trainer than I was as a fighter. So I'm still involved in the sport.

CHIDEYA: Freddie hasn't fought professionally since the 1970s. But he still paid a price for his time in the ring.

Mr. ROACH: I have Parkinson's because of - well, trauma-related Parkinson's induced Parkinson's as they call it - from boxing. So - but you know the thing is I chose the sport and, you know, and I do - I love that we live in a free country. We can choose what we do.

CHIDEYA: Is that similar to Muhammad Ali?

Mr. ROACH: I have - yeah, but my symptoms are a lot less than his.

CHIDEYA: Obviously, yeah.

Mr. ROACH: Obviously. But when I do see a fighter that needs to retire, I'll be the first one to tell them that.

CHIDEYA: Wild Card also trains a few female fighters. Catarina Cat Cruz(ph) is just getting in the game. She's got a few amateur fights under her belt and she's hoping to turn pro.

Ms. CATARINA CAT CRUZ (Amateur Boxer): What gets my juices flowing is the dance of it. It's having to be sharp and prepared, alert, aware and moving someone else's energy. It's like a dance. But it's a physical game of chess. So I love that, and that makes me very passionate about it.

CHIDEYA: With all the sports I'm trying, I don't know if I'll get back in the ring anytime soon. But as I build up my strength and flexibility, and drop some pounds, I'll definitely find my way back into the ring.

You can hear all of my adventures in fitness at our Web site, NPR.org.

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