Gerry Cooney is boxing again. His face is covered in sweat as he
dances around his opponent, moving his head and parrying jabs.
The former No. 1 heavyweight contender appears poised to deliver
the knockout punch at any time. He occasionally throws his famed
left hook, and when the punch lands he bellows, "Whoa!" doubly
embarrassing his adversary.
Cooney's foe this Monday evening is not a ranked fighter. Not a
washed-up sparring partner. Not even a man. She is a grandmother
named Joan Frohman. The language and speech pathologist is a
student in the boxing fitness program that Cooney has been
leading for more than a year at the OmniHealth & Racquet Club in
Cooney isn't the only ex-fighter trying to make it in the
fitness business. Former champions and top contenders such as
Vito Antuofermo, Iran Barkley, Doug DeWitt, Juan LaPorte,
Michael Olajide Jr., Carlos Ortiz and Edwin Viruet can be found
in the New York metropolitan area training "white collar"
boxers--bankers, lawyers, fashion designers, artists and other
professionals who want to be in the physical condition of a
fighter without getting hit by an opponent. The trend seems to
be spreading across the country.
Some retired pugilists teach out of traditional boxing factories
such as Gleason's Gym, in Brooklyn, while others have found
homes in posh health clubs, where they lead groups of
students--most of them women--in hourlong aerobics classes
marketed as boxing workouts.
August 24, 1997
Boxers usually earn $70-$100 per session, and their presence
helps gyms set themselves apart in a competitive market. "Having
boxing classes is a selling point, and big names are an
attraction," says Ted Hoffman, boxing manager for the Town
Sports International chain, who has had Barkley, DeWitt and 1976
Olympic lightweight gold medalist Howard Davis in his employ.
"However, it takes a special talent to teach a class. You have
to be able to articulate a message. Keep people moving and make
them feel good. Wrap their hands and act as a therapist. A lot
of ex-fighters, they can't communicate."
The undisputed champion of the aerobic boxing scene is Olajide,
the former middleweight titleholder who in 1990 lost a decision
to Thomas Hearns for the WBO super middleweight crown. An eye
injury he suffered in that fight forced him into early
retirement a year later. Shortly after that, a chiropractor and
a physician in New York City asked Olajide to devise a program
for their patients who wanted to stay in shape but were unable
to run because of leg injuries. Olajide came up with a
noncontact routine based on a fighter's shadowboxing warmup and
dubbed it Aerobox.
Aerobox caught on, and Olajide, 33, now earns about $200 an hour
leading classes at the Equinox Fitness Club and the Sportscenter
at Chelsea Piers, two of Manhattan's hippest clubs. He has since
created Aerojump, in which students skip rope, and he trains
instructors around the country to teach his regimen. "It helps
that I didn't attain what I wanted in the ring," Olajide says.
(He finished his career 27-5.) "I've been able to transfer the
hunger I had for fighting to studying fitness."
Watching the trim, muscular Olajide lead a class of Lycra-clad
women throwing punches in the air for an hour, one wonders if he
ever misses the machismo of a boxing gym. "Both are stimulating
in their own way," he says cautiously. In his Aerobox classes,
he says, "you'll keep working with someone, but they'll still
throw a combination that would never work in the ring. It's
gotten frustrating. But I usually go in expecting the worst and
end up pleasantly surprised."
Considered a fancy Dan in his prizefighting days (he appeared at
one event wearing a black crocodile jacket, white safari pants
and silver-tipped black suede shoes), Olajide has moved smoothly
into the role of aerobics superstar. He always comes to class in
something striking, whether a tight purple shirt or a
custom-made silver eye patch. With his laconic manner, handsome
face and flat belly, it is no wonder that he has become a gym
sex symbol whose devotees so adore him that they once circulated
a petition to keep him from leaving Equinox.
Ironically, few of his students have any idea how he once earned
a living. "I think he was a boxer, Golden Gloves or something,"
guesses class member Leslie Armstrong. When informed that
Olajide once fought Hearns to a decision, she runs over to him
and says, "Michael, you never told me you fought Tommy Hearns!"
"Well," he responds, "I lost."
Armstrong seems perplexed. "Why didn't you kick his ass?" she
DeWitt is another Olajide disciple, one from the boxing ranks.
After DeWitt, a former WBO middleweight champion, stopped
fighting in 1992, he found work as a limousine driver. One day
he visited Olajide's Aerobox class and found it so rigorous that
he needed to take several rests. Soon afterward he began
thinking about trying his hand teaching in a health club.
"I started out doing the box aerobics, but it got kind of
boring," says DeWitt, 34. "I said, I'm going to do this, but in
a different way. I introduced people to the pads and gloves, and
they seemed to like that a lot more. I have them weaving, doing
defensive moves, slipping, throwing combinations." DeWitt, who
was regarded as a game if inconsistent fighter with a resilient
chin, now directs classes in suburban New York at Jujitsu
Concepts (where he is a part owner) several nights a week.
Pat Root, a wiry 62-year-old librarian and grandmother of six,
says she enjoys sessions with DeWitt because "when I was growing
up, we weren't allowed to be angry or hit anybody. I got in here
and was allowed to hit. It was wonderful." It wasn't until she
saw a video of a DeWitt fight that Root had any idea her
instructor was once a champion. "I thought, Gosh, that's
brutal," she says. "It's one thing to get exercise, but this?
I'm amazed he's survived and is still as handsome as he is."
Cooney, 40, says he doesn't teach for the money. Despite having
blown a portion of his millions on, as he puts it, "wine, women
and song," he appears well-off, with homes in New Jersey and
Long Island. "I had a nice life, but I was a little bored," he
says. One day last year, on a lark, he walked into OmniHealth
and casually asked if he could teach boxing. The club accepted
Since his last fight, in 1990, when he was knocked out in the
second round by George Foreman, Cooney has devoted most of his
time to helping the less fortunate. He makes motivational
speeches at prisons and juvenile homes, and he works with
charities such as the Special Olympics and Big Brothers. His
endeavor in the health club is satisfying, he says, because
after his students finish a training session, "they've got a
little bounce in their walk. They feel good, like they're
Cooney leads his retinue through jumping rope, shadowboxing and
bag punching. He sometimes turns the exercise studio into a mock
ring and, in full headgear and protective cup, spars with
members of his class.
Cooney clearly enjoys himself. While he barely touches Frohman,
he roughs up some of the younger men just a little. "Once he hit
me with a left, and it snapped all the vertebrae in my neck,"
moans Vernon Vatter, 32, who has been taking Cooney's class for
a year. "He used to throw punches so quickly, it wasn't much
fun. He's actually backed down a little. Still, if you get him
with a good punch, he'll hit you back with two or three, just to
let you know he's the boss." The good-natured battling seems to
have turned the two men into fast buddies. "I love him like a
brother," Vatter says.
Olajide, for one, would never replicate Cooney's methods. "If I
sparred, even if the laces of the glove just glanced across my
chin, I've got to defend myself, and that means I'd have to hit
them," Olajide says. "If you're a fighter, that's what you do."
Daniel Green is an editor of Maxim magazine and coeditor of The
Smoking Gun Web site.