Pre-Fight Jitters: Wednesday, 3 AM
Insomnia. in just a few hours I'm flying to Dallas to learn how to box. My gym-rat friends tell me that in the world of workouts, fight conditioning is the Next Big Thing. Maybe. But my mind samples a host of doubts, all of them personal: Will I get my nose hammered? Will I hammer someone else's nose? Or worse, will I really enjoy hammering someone else's nose?
I remind myself that part of the reason for my pilgrimage to Dallas is to see if a fighter's workout has a purpose besides getting walloped and getting through it, day in and day out. Like millions of other people I've dutifully worked the cardiovascular/strength-training angle for at least a decade. Every other day, I spend about an hour running and lifting or StairMastering and lifting or, if I really want to mix it up, swimming one day and lifting the next. No surprise, then, that lately I've become disenchanted with the eternal round of aerobicizing and Nordic Tracking and tread-milling — soul crushing endeavors that all cry out, "What's the point?" I want a workout that has some kind of meaning, whether it's improving self-defense skills or boosting self-confidence or overcoming fear.
My destination is White Collar Boxing, which bills itself as "The Workout of a Fighter Without the Fight." On White Collar's Web page there's a photo of Jeff Overturf, the 41-year-old founder. He appears to be about 23: washboard stomach, wrinkle-free face. For an exercise guru, the look is unexceptional. I get off on the incongruity of the name, White Collar Boxing. As I finally begin to doze off I imagine guys in Armani suits, duking it out.
The Warm Up: Thursday, 7 PM
I show up at Goodbody's Gym, a tony health club in Dallas's Highland Park section. Overturf arrives a few moments later. A one-time world-ranked kickboxer, he's a walking contradiction: khaki clad with tortoise shell prep-boy glasses perched atop a nose that's been "done over" three times. He's got the full-on Texas accent and over-the-top enthusiasm. First impression: Jean-Claude Van Damme meets Abercrombie & Fitch, Dallas division.
First words out of Overturf's mouth: "I spent all my life getting kicked in the head, and now it's finally paying off." He's referring to his fighting years, when he was a top 10 welterweight in both the Professional Karate Association and the World Karate Association, and his subsequent success as one of the pioneers of boxing for fitness.
Overturf is among the most successful of the trainer/entrepreneurs who are capturing the spirit of the back-to-basics boxer's workout for people whose lives are anything but basic. During the past eight years he's launched five White Collar Boxing programs in gyms from Boston to Fort Worth, and he's building a roster of private clients that include models and professional hockey players, brain surgeons and socialites.
Students drift in, pluck a yellow Ace bandage from a pile at the front of the room, and begin wrapping their hands. I do the same, pretending that I know what I'm up to. The Journalist in me wonders whether the 75-minute interval training that is the heart of Overturf's program will be a revelation, or simply a species of aerobics with a boxing theme. The New Girl in Class worries that I'll wrench my shoulder by throwing a left hook that misses the bag. Or, gulp, that I'll be the only one who won't even attempt to complete the required number of crunches: 1,000.
Round I: 7:30 PM
There are about two dozen businesspeople here: a software designer, a marketing exec, a stock broker from Bear Stearns & Co. They are all, it seems, depressingly good at jumping rope, the first part of the circuit.
David Smith, the Bear Stearns guy, has mastered that effortless "I-coulda-been-a-contenda" style. His feet barely lift off the ground, just high enough for the rope to slip beneath the soles of his Nikes. The rope is a blur, propelled by a flick of his wrist.
Rope skipping is followed by toe touches and the crunches, starting with 200 each for the abdominal muscles and the external obliques (the muscles that run up your sides). This is not about buffing for the beach. The goal is to transform your torso into something approximating the heavy bag that boxers slug, so your muscles hold up when you get whacked in the gut.
The back obliques are strengthened and stretched to prepare for kick-boxing — that pose you've seen on the posters of Korean action movies, where the fighter, turned away from his opponent, shoots his leg out backward while twisting his upper body around, his fists locked to deliver the follow-up punch. We're all curiously quiet during the minutes it takes to rack up the crunches — no talking, but also no groaning or gasping for breath. As I pass the century mark I feel a pinch in my side — 106, 107, 108 — but it's not enough to drop me.
Finally, 200. As I wait for the pain to drain out of my obliques I notice one of the software guys sprawled out next to me, drenched in sweat and glorying in it. He knows I'm here to write a magazine article. "Don't forget to mention the all-important love-handles issue," he says, with just a tad too much cheer. "These side crunches are great for them." Duly noted.
Round II: 8 PM
Next is bag work. This is the true main event. The room is dotted with a dozen heavy bags that hang from hooks in the ceiling like overripe fruit. Overturf takes a time-out to teach me a left-right combination, called Hospital-Death.
The left is a quick jab. Following Overturf's lead, I punch straight from my shoulder. My fist, clenched inside my red sparring glove, aims straight ahead, as if I'm pointing with my knuckles. The all-in-one movement should be swift, like I'm snapping a towel. I'm too tentative. I'm not punching the bag, I'm pushing it. Overturf stands at my shoulder, barking, "Smack it, smack it, smack it!"
Next comes the right hook. My arm curves out and around, my fist turned so my thumb faces up. Overturf explains that my bicep is a kind of piston that powers the punch. The left jab, "Hospital," is meant to snap an opponent's head up, exposing his jaw. The right hook, "Death," is the coup de grace, the whack to the side of the head. The left sends him to the hospital. The right puts him in the ground.
We pound the heavy bag for eight rounds. A Sparmate Timer ticks off the seconds. Each round lasts 3 minutes, followed by 1 minute of rest. The timer's yellow light flashes, signaling there are just 30 seconds left. Instead of going all out, which is what you're supposed to do when a round is down to 30 seconds, a few of us ease up. Overturf bellows, "Yellow light means kick some ass! Now!"
I'm slacking. Overturf catches me. "Karbo! Stay with us! Stop cheating yourself. The world is full of underachievers. We don't need one more."
People have called me names before, but never that. I pull my elbow back and let it go. My fist cuts through the air like a rock from a sling shot. Pop! I land a good smack on the bag. Underachiever? Think again.
Round III: 8:45 PM
I'm put under the tutelage of David Smith, the 30-year-old vice president at Bear Stearns who's been working out at White Collar Boxing for the past two years. We practice a kickboxing combination: left jab, right hook, side-step, hop, kick. I have trouble making the switch from boxing to kicking. I get too close to the bag. Then I move too far away. I don't keep my leg straight. I lack power. Smith is patient. "It just takes time," he says. Then I stand aside and watch while he leaps and in one swing spins around and knocks the bejesus out of the bag.
Smith is ultra-gracious, in the Southern tradition. So I ask him: Which is better for beating stress, boxing or jogging five miles? "No comparison," says Smith. "Boxing gets at the violent part of you very quickly. It blows out all that bottled-up tension. And unlike running, where you cram your mind with a hundred different worries, you've got to be fully focused when you're doing a boxing workout."
Agreed. Other forms of exercise relieve stress by leaving you exhausted. Boxing gets right to the heart of the matter. This is your boss. This is your boss's face. Hospital. Death.
Round IV: Friday, 10 AM
Just 25% of white collar's students ever climb into the ring and put Hospital-Death to practice on a real opponent. Getting ring-ready takes time, youth, and "the heart of a warrior," says Overturf. But he agrees to let me spar with him, so I can get a chance to experience the therapeutic effect of landing a solid punch.
I lace up the 14-ounce padded gloves, the real boxing gloves. They're easily twice as large as the sparring gloves we use for bag work. We meet in the middle of the gym floor and slowly begin dancing around each other. I overdo the dancing — one too many viewings of Rocky — and glance a weak swat off his jaw.
"C'mon," he says, "pop me one. Think about every coworker and boyfriend you've ever had it in for. Hit me as hard as you can."
To get me going, he lands one right in my gut. No time to block the punch. Hell, I never even saw it coming.
I flail away at him like one of those cartoon characters with windmill arms. Hospital (never mind death), so easy to execute on the heavy bag, seems impossible on a dodging welterweight. Finally, Overturf lowers his fists just a little. I hurl a left jab at his jaw, throwing my arm into it. I feel the push in my shoulder, hear the flat "thock" of contact.
Overturf's head bounces sideways.
Later, I'll tell him that while I've written half a dozen stories from the human guinea pig perspective — I've gone to gun camp to learn how to shoot a pistol and surf camp to learn how to shoot a curl — nothing has ever matched that small, primitive satisfaction of landing a solid punch.
Karen Karbo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of two novels as well as coauthor, with Gabrielle Reece, of "Big Girl in the Middle" (Crown, 1997).
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.