As a half-dozen boxers work out at the Ten Goose Gym in North Hollywood, three heavy bags are getting their hides tanned, an awful thudding noise bouncing off the leather. The jump rope is a blur, whipping off the plywood floor like a chain saw. Inside the ring, uppercuts are being popped into a trainer's padded mitts. Every three minutes, a buzzer automatically interrupts the sounds of violence. But the action never stops. Pow, bam, bang. Push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups. The pace is relentless.
In a sport that places a premium on stamina, conditioning can often mean the difference between victory and getting your lights turned off. But training methods in boxing really haven't evolved much since the eighth Marquess of Queensberry civilized the sport more than a century ago. Boxers run, spar, jump rope and boff the bags. Pow, bam, bang. Push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups.
"When it comes to conditioning, boxing is in the Stone Age," said Mackie Shilstone, a specialist in conditioning with a master's degree is psychology and nutrition.
When Shilstone speaks these days, boxing might be forced to listen. It was Shilstone who put a new body on Michael Spinks and helped turn him into the heavyweight champion of the world. After Spinks knocked Larry Holmes into retirement last September, Shilstone suddenly became the voice of the future, the man who wants to drag boxing into the Space Age. What he did with Spinks, he says, was a giant leap forward.
"I applied physiology, science and technology to a sport that has never had the benefit of these things," Shilstone said by telephone from his office in New Orleans. "What I did came at the right time and the right place with the right athlete and it's going to cause some changes in boxing. Traditional boxing is going to have to examine my methods and say they're worth looking at."
To get Spinks ready to fight an opponent who was bigger and stronger, Shilstone redesigned him like a mad scientist let loose in a secret lab. Along with a lot of the old methods, he threw a state-of-the-art arsenal into Spinks' training: computer dietary analysis, blood chemistry testing, pulse-rate determination, body typing, integral training on an oval track and power weightlifting. When he got into the ring against Holmes, Spinks weighed 198 pounds. He had gained 23 pounds on a 4,500-calorie-a-day diet that was 60% carbohydrates, but his percentage of body fat had decreased from 9.1 to 7%.
"Michael is the ideal boxer now," Shilstone said, "mentally, emotionally, spiritually, professionally. He's leaner and meaner than he's ever been."
Shilstone also taught Spinks a yoga breathing technique to enable him to recover quickly between rounds, but the most controversial aspect of the training was weightlifting. Although weightlifting is an accepted, essential and almost necessary training method in most other sports, especially football, boxers have shunned it out of fear--based more on superstition than fact--that weightlifting will turn them into muscle-bound goons.
"In our weight training, we did full range of motion, and all the exercises were related to boxing," Shilstone said. "Michael was as flexible after training as he was before. He could bend over at the waist and touch his nose to his knees. And he didn't lose any quickness."
To train Spinks, Shilstone literally moved in with him for three months. He even participated in the training regimen, as he has done ever since Butch Lewis, Spinks' manager, originally hired him three years ago, right after Spinks first won the light-heavyweight title. It was a bold and unorthodox move then and still is. Boxers just don't have round-the-clock personal training specialists with new ideas. Part of the reason is tradition, part is financial.
"We don't sit down with our fighters every night and cook their meals and make sure they eat the right things," said Dan Goossen, manager of Ten Goose Gym. "But our fighters aren't making a million bucks a fight. If they did, I'd be glad to move in. But right now, we can't baby-sit our fighters 24 hours a day. We can give them guidelines, but that's about it."
Other trainers, it seems, haven't been ringing Shilstone's phone off the hook to get the inside dope on his training techniques, even though his number is listed in the New Orleans directory. Shilstone says he has received some inquiries, but not many. He thinks it's because trainers are resistant to change. Trainers at Ten Goose Gym offer a different reason: Shilstone, they say, is giving too much credit to Spinks and not putting enough blame on Holmes.
"It was very smart for Spinks to take the fight," said Pat Goossen, a former professional boxer turned trainer. "Holmes was an old man ready to get beat. Their timing was right."
The implication is clear: Goossen believes that Spinks would have won without Shilstone. He also believes that today's trainers are just as hip as Shilstone, and today's fighters as well-conditioned as Spinks, even if they don't use computers and fancy terminology. For example, fighters at the Goossen gym have been doing integral training for years, he said, and never knew it. They thought they were doing wind sprints.
The Ten Goose Gym is the kind of place where you'd expect to see Rocky Balboa beating up a hanging slab of beef. It is on a dead-end street in a residential neighborhood. Three years ago, the Goossen brothers (there are eight brothers, two sisters) set up a ring on an empty lot and hung a heavy bag over a tree limb. The building went up around it, piece by piece. It isn't pretty, but it gets the job done.
"Everyone's got his own philosophy (on training)," Pat Goossen said. "There was a fighter who trained by punching (soap) bubbles, but we like to stick to the tried and proven methods. Road work in the morning, an hour and a half in the gym boxing, doing bag work and floor work. As for nutrition, I do as much reading as possible. I consult doctors. But you know what happens? The guy who's been eating all the right foods runs out of gas and gets beat by a guy who's been training on hot dogs but has a different body chemistry."
The Goossens train and manage about 20 fighters, including Michael Nunn, an undefeated middleweight (10-0) with a promising future. Nunn's training routine is typical of the fighters in the Goossen stable. Six days a week, he gets up at 6 a.m. and runs five miles, eats a breakfast of bacon and eggs and a handful of vitamins. He's at the gym by 3 to spar, jump rope and do calisthenics. Before a fight, he'll load up on carbohydrates.
"You are what you eat," said Nunn, 22. "I can't afford to go out and eat junk food."
Like most boxers at Ten Goose, Nunn does not work out with weights. "I get my strength from hitting the bag," he said. "I don't like weights."
His feelings were echoed by Walter Sims, a lightweight with a 15-2-2 record who recently defeated a highly regarded fighter from Detroit's Kronk Gym. Sims does 200 sit-ups and 50 push-ups a day, but he seldom lifts weights.
"I'll use Nautilus machines," he said, "but mainly for my neck. When I was working a lot with weights, I thought they slowed me down. I don't want that to happen again. Everything now is just right."
The Goossens leave weight training up to the boxers. "We're not against weights," said Greg Goossen, a former major league baseball player and now a boxing trainer, "but it's a matter of having enough time for everything. There are a million things you can put in a program that are viable and good. You've just got to decide which ones are for you."
All the physical training boxers go through is designed to build up their bodies as well as their minds. "If you're physically fit," Nunn said, "you think you can do anything." The opposite is also true, which is why the Goossens don't require weight training. If a boxer believes that weight training slows him down, nothing is going to change his mind.
"The biggest and most important thing Shilstone did for Spinks," Dan Goossen said, "was having him believe he couldn't lose. That was the key."
"Boxing is 90% mental," said Peter Broudy, an associate of the Goossens. "I see people come in the gym all the time and say, 'I'm tough and I wanna fight.' Well, maybe they're tough when they drink a couple of beers and someone says something to their girlfriends, but they're not tough 24 hours a day the way a boxer has to be. You look for a kid who's willing to take the punishment and pay the price.
"A lot of guys come in here thinking boxing's easier than working at a job. It isn't. It takes dedication and hard work. You cannot do this at 80 or 90%. You got to give 100% all the time. There's no money in this business unless you're at the top. Everybody else makes a couple of thousand a fight and fights six or seven times a year. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication to stick with it and become a champ."
And, sometimes, it even takes a Mackie Shilstone.
THE TRAINING OF A BOXER: TWO METHODS MICHAEL NUNN:
Training: Up at 5:30 a.m. Run 5 miles, then wind sprints.
Breakfast: Two soft boiled eggs, juice, mixed fruit, oatmeal.
Training: At 3 p.m., spar 8 rounds. Then do a workout including 150 situps, bridgework (neck exercises, 35 total), 50 pushups, 50 tricep exercises, 25 kneebends, chin exercises and 15 minutes of jumping rope. (Two weeks prior to a fight also do 6-7 rounds on heavy bag, 3 rounds on the speed bag, 4 rounds with the mitts).
Lunch: Tuna salad and mixed fruit.
Training: Do a workout consisting of lightweight reps on Nautilus machines to stretch and tone back, arm and neck muscles.
Dinner: Fish or chicken breast, vegetable soup, steamed vegetables, tuna salad.
Vitamins: B complex, C.
Training: (Even-numbered days) Up at 6:30 a.m. to do track workout (4 to 6 880s, 4 440s) and explosion calisthenics (squat jumps, elevated pushups).
(Odd-numbered days) Run 2 miles, varying 440s and 330s. Then weight training with 30- to 50-pound dumbbells, all done from boxer's stance.
Breakfast: 3 poached eggs, whole wheat toast, liquid muscle-building supplement, orange juice, tea.
Training: 4:30 p.m. workout -- spar as many as 12 rounds.
Lunch: Chicken, broiled fish or turkey, fruit, vegetable, salad, liquid supplement.
Dinner: Same as lunch. No workout.
Vitamins: B,C and E plus minerals.
Extras: Watch videotape of opponent, undergo body-fat analysis, do flexibility training with yoga and breathing techniques.