What is it about Rocky training montages that are so empowering? Could it be the music? Eye of the Tiger is a pretty inspiring anthem, after all. Maybe it's the anticipation of the big fight. Will he really defeat the odds and beat the obviously better boxer—again? Hey, it's Rocky - what do you think? No, it was something more that had people, myself included, walking out of theaters punching the air. It was the fact that Sylvester Stallone was actually doing this stuff. That was no stunt double you saw pummeling the speed bag, running sprints on the beach, duckwalking with a log across his back and doing inverted sit-ups in a dusty barn. That was all Sly.
Even more impressive was the end product. Stallone came in at a doughy 178 pounds for his first clash with Apollo in 1976. By the time he touched leather with Drago in Moscow three montages and nearly 10 years later, he had become the poster boy for fitness - a trim 173 pounds, with bulging serratus, broad, defined shoulders and deeply etched abs.
Two-time Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu, who trained Sly for Rocky II, said he could have parlayed his genetics and drive into a bodybuilding career if he had chosen to.
But it wasn't just rep after monotonous rep in the weight room that built Rocky's title-winning physique. Boxing training involves the coordination of many muscle groups working at a will-breaking pace over long periods, with very limited rest sprinkled throughout - think of it as choreographed interval cardio. Any M&F reader knows you have to shed bodyfat through cardio to uncover that kind of muscular detail; Rocky just did his with hand wraps on.
In the real world, boxers are some of the world's leanest, most well-trained athletes. Champs such as Vladimir Klitschko, Shane Mosley and Mike Tyson were all human wrecking balls in their prime and had the builds to show for it.
Gyms that are built on the idea of boxing-for-fitness are popping up left and right across the country, most advertising the promise of helping you burn up to 1,000 calories in an hour. Seriously? So, sadist that I am, I decided to glove up and enlist the help of famed boxing trainer Freddie Roach, making his Wild Card Boxing Gym in Hollywood my fitness home for 12 weeks.
By the end of my time with Roach and company, I may not have been ready to swap blows with a pro, but I was faster, leaner and stronger than I had been since college. Train this way and maybe you can salvage a bit of your youth, one punch at a time.
Welcome to the Wild Card
"This can't be it," I remember thinking to myself as I pulled into the parking lot of Wild Card for the first time. The gym, situated on the corner of Vine Street and Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, is much more modest than the esteemed list of fighters who have trained there; Tyson, Manny Pacquiao, James Toney and Klitschko have all worked under Roach. But Wild Card, its walls littered with posters, fight photos and autographed 8x10s, is every bit what boxing should be - gritty, confined, primal.
A full-size ring occupies most of the space in the room. A few heavy bags swing from the ceiling and I can hear the rattle of a speed bag getting worked in a back corner. The warning bell sounds on the round timer, indicating that only 30 seconds remain until the final bell. Instantly, everyone's pace increases to mimic a late, round-stealing flurry. The air is hot and muggy, and you get the feeling that it would be that way even if we weren't in the midst of another California heat wave.
Just beyond the front counter - where patrons pay beanie-capped trainer Macka Foley $5 to work out - Roach is consulting with a tall, fit young woman on basic boxing techniques. Standing about 5'6" with spiked hair and squared-off, black-rimmed glasses, it's a little hard to picture him as the fast-and-furious lightweight he once was. But that day, I wasn't there to see Roach. I had sentenced myself to three months of hell with Roach's No. 2 man, strength and conditioning coach Justin Fortune.
Fortune, a former Australian powerlifting champ and pro boxer (he fought Lennox Lewis in 1995, losing on a disappointing early-round stoppage), is so wide in the shoulders that he probably needs to walk sideways through most doors. And he isn't one to pull punches - not during his competitive career and certainly not when it comes to training people. While jovial and entertaining (in a crude, Def Comedy Jam sort of way) when you first meet him, things change once it's time to work.