Training In The Shadows

It has been over a year since the calamity that is COVID-19 upended our lives and shook the world. Every corner of the globe has been affected by the deadly virus, and virtually every industry has taken a significant hit, including boxing. While major fights resumed last summer, they have taken place with various precautions and restrictions and with limited attendance to prevent the virus’s propagation. But while such high-profile events have been staged in different locations, the grassroots level of the sport has had to weather the storm and wait for better days. The community gyms that are boxing’s lifeblood have been left to fend for themselves and find some way to survive during this pandemic.

One such gym is Ambition Boxing, in the Pierrefonds district of Montreal. Ambition closed for three months when the first wave of the virus hit, during which time head trainer Shady Awadallah offered online classes through Zoom. Then Ambition joined other gyms in reopening during the summer, and they stayed open until January when a curfew was imposed on the city. Ambition also had to implement strict sanitary measures to adhere to new health and safety regulations. And while Shady acknowledges the pandemic’s effect on gym owners, he saves his real sympathy for the athletes.

“The fighters are hit the hardest,” says Awadallah. “They don’t have anything to look forward to. The people who were approaching the Golden Gloves, or getting ready to start a pro career, they are hurt the most. Not only do they not have goals or fights to look forward to, but for some of them that were approaching a potential future in the sport, they have to reroute everything, rethink their whole lives.”

Having their dreams derailed may force some to turn to alternative career paths, and those might not always be the best life choices. “When my fighters let the gym go, they go back to old habits,” notes Shady. “When you have too much time on your hands, that’s when things fall apart. And a lot of these kids no longer have a source of income. With limits on what’s open, that narrows down your choices. If you already had a hard time finding a job before Covid, now you have an even harder time and you start thinking about other ways to make money. For a lot of these kids, boxing prevented them from getting involved in other things.”

Despite the temptations and the difficulties, most of Shady’s students have managed to find stable jobs. And the trainer did his part to help by finding an innovative way to keep his amateur fighters active.

Trainer Shady Awadallah.

“I sent them MP3 versions of my voice giving them commands like ‘jab, slip, duck,’ so they could train by following my verbal instructions. Some of them couldn’t even do it at home, because it would make a lot of noise, but it was still helpful, just as long as the weather was clear. They would take it outside and shadow box in the park.”

Beyond that, Shady has some practical advice for young boxers trying to cope without access to their gym or their trainer.

“Stay sharp by watching boxing videos online,” he advises. “Research the sport and learn more about it. Take the time to boost your boxing IQ. If you can’t work as much on your body, it’s time for you to upgrade your mind. Now we’re going to find out who is real about it, the guys and girls who still want it when their faith has been tested. Out of all of this, some champions are going to emerge. We’re going to find out who’s been training all this time in secret, in the shadows, and doing their homework.”

One fighter from Ambition who has been putting in the work behind closed doors is Theo Owusu, one of Shady’s prized pupils. When I last spoke to Theo in 2019, his goal was to turn pro in 2020. Obviously COVID-19 threw a wrench into those plans and it would be a lie to say that the pandemic hasn’t tested Owusu’s dedication.

Theo Owusu (right) competing at an amateur tournament in 2019.

“During the first lockdown, I became lazy. Everyone was having fun, so why keep training? I worked out only twice a week for the whole summer, and I wasn’t eating well. I got to almost 160 pounds, and my normal weight is 145. I knew I had to refocus and not start loafing and partying with my friends. I still need to focus on my goals, whether the gym is open or not. So I posted online that I was starting a daily workout challenge, which has kept me motivated and inspired others to stay in shape too. Since then, I’ve been working every day.”

What has Owusu learned most about himself during this past year? “That I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do to achieve my goals. Before, my coach would tell me what to do, but now I do it myself. That fitness challenge helped me because now I wake up with a plan, and I always make time to train before the day ends. I decided to push myself despite what was happening with the pandemic. I got a fire in me and I want to turn pro and become a world champion one day.”

Pre-pandemic memories: Jessica Camara with coach Ian MacKillop at Donnybrook.

Another Montreal fighter with similar aspirations is Jessica Camara (7-2), who fights out of the Donnybrook Boxing Gym, which is co-owned by her coach, Ian MacKillop. Like many gyms, Donnybrook reopened in the summer, but then closed again in October. Since then the gym has opened only for pro fighters with a bout agreement. Camara is now scheduled to battle Heather Hardy in April. And while Camara did her best to stay in shape during the past year, she missed being in the gym and working with her teammates.

“I always find a way to stay in shape. I was working out at least five days per week. My wife is also a boxer, so we did pads and sparring drills at home. But it isn’t the same as being in the gym and being in that environment where you have your teammates around you who are encouraging you. The big challenge was not being able to use the gym. That’s important for me. I’ve dealt with anger issues, and going to the gym and hitting the bag is a big release.”

Camara lands a right hand on Heidy Martinez at the Montreal Casino.

And now Camara has more motivation than ever to get to the gym and hit that bag. She is scheduled for the biggest opportunity of her career thus far, a showdown with Heather “The Heat” Hardy (22-1) on April 23rd in Florida. Hardy, even at 39 years old, is still a major attraction and top talent, a former world champion whose only defeat came at the hands of Amanda Serrano (40-1) in 2019.

Heather Hardy is an ambassador of women’s boxing,” says Camara. “She’s experienced and respected. Sharing the ring with her gives me exposure and an opportunity to show the world what I can do. This is the biggest fight of my career, and I am making every day count. I’m mentally zoomed in and I am more motivated than ever.”

Camara adds that, ironically, COVID-19 has actually helped her ahead of the most important fight of her life. “During the pandemic, I learned to slow down and enjoy life. This helps me to prepare for Hardy because I’m allowing myself time to relax, recover, and to enjoy the process.”

Hardy (right) represents both a huge opportunity and a major challenge for Camara.

In fact, if there is one silver lining for the boxers and trainers training in the shadows, it’s that the pandemic forced them to slow down, take a break, and refocus on what matters in life: relationships. Before, Camara always worked multiple jobs, including evenings and weekends, which took a toll on her body and health.

“I was working seven days a week, and a night job on the weekends, so I barely slept or got time with my wife,” says Camara. “So when everything happened, it allowed me to catch up on personal time. My wife and I had time to go for walks and have picnics and all the stuff that I couldn’t before. We have grown as a couple as a result of the situation.”

Similarly, Shady used the time away from the gym to spend it with those closest to him. “I spent a lot of time with my wife and two kids. I benefitted a lot from prioritizing time with them rather than always prioritizing the gym and my business.”

MacKillop with Shakeel Phinn back when no one had heard of COVID-19.

MacKillop adds that although this year has been incredibly trying, it has taught many to maintain the right perspective. “This whole thing has shown the importance of family and friends and how short life can be. Many people have the habit of taking things for granted, and hopefully, this situation helps everyone refocus. It certainly has for me; it’s made me realize what really matters, and that’s family and relationships. We lose track sometimes of what life is really about, and sometimes it takes a horrible thing like a pandemic to bring us back to reality and show us what is truly important.”

— Jamie Rebner 

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