Quick on their feet. Nimble in confined spaces. Cool under pressure. Masters of mental and physical endurance.
These characteristics describe both bartenders and boxers, and 16 of the former are being molded into the latter, courtesy of the newly formed Bartender Boxing Organization, sponsored by Tequila Cazadores.
For the past several weeks, the pros behind the stick are taking their skills to the ring, working with the sport’s best to learn how to jab, cross and hook their way to the finals, held at Tales of the Cocktail in July.
Charged with whipping these newbies into fighting shape?
Two boxing legends, former world heavyweight champion Lou Savarese of Main Gym in Houston and former world championship contender Justin Fortune of Fortune Gym in Los Angeles.
While the making of a champion takes years, Savarese, Fortune and their teams have only a few months to work with their charges.
“At one point I was a novice, too,” says one of Fortune’s trainers, three-time world heavyweight champion Jeremy Williams, who’s been overseeing the bartenders’ training.
“I wasn’t a natural talent and had to work really hard for everything I earned, so I understand what these guys are going through. While they’re not going to be polished fighters, we are giving them conditioning, confidence, and a small arsenal of skills they can use in the ring.”
The bartenders’ weekly training regime?
Two hours a day, three days a week, with a mix of cardio, stretching, drills and technique to transform them into fighters.
“We’re training them just the way we’d train real boxers,” explains Savarese.
“They warm up, they do calisthenics and sit-ups, they punch hand bags, and hit heavy bags and speed bags and all the things our regular athletes do,” he says.
For Los Angeles competitor, Daniel Sabo, “training has been really intense, even more so than I thought it would be. But it’s also very practical. So much of it is just conditioning and getting over the fear of getting hit, which is counterintuitive to everything you’ve been taught your entire life. When someone is coming at you, you can’t run. You have to take the punch. It’s very strange.”
Los Angeles competitor Chris Amirault agrees that hitting friends is the most challenging part of the training.
“In practice, I’m sparring with a good friend and the guy who pours me my beers on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s super freaking weird. But hitting him is a necessary thing, to protect myself and to teach him to put his hands up. You learn quickly.”
The other challenge of training? Putting in the workouts on tired legs and at the front end of 12- to 14-hour work days.
Houston competitor Thomas Reyna says he gets home from work at 5 a.m. and is up again at 10 a.m. to hit the gym.
“I”m doing this training on four hours of sleep and tired from being on my feet all night. But it’s definitely gotten easier over time.”
Williams encourages his mentees to use the skills they’ve learned bartending — like long days on their feet — in the ring.
“I’ve seen a bar that’s been slammed, when the lines are three deep, and these guys are remembering all of these orders, mixing three or four drinks at once, and they are just in complete control,” Williams says. “I want them to bring that same level of calmness to their fighting.”
Sabo also sees the parallels between bartending and his new newfound hobby.
“Most people don’t realize bartending is an extremely physical job,” says Sabo.
“It’s a marathon every night. People coming in at 1 a.m. want the same quality of drink and efficiency of service as the people that came in at 6 p.m. You learn when to conserve energy and when to take breaks, and we’re learning to do the same thing in the ring. When to push and when to sit back. It’s very calculated and strategic.”
Overall, both trainers are impressed with their charges.
“They all working really hard, and almost all of them come in and work out on their days off. They’re going to be ready,” says Savarese.
While Williams admits it’s been challenging to pack training into such a short period of time, he says, “We’re doing the best we can with the time we’ve been allotted to train them. And they’re going to be fighting people of the same caliber, so it’s an equal playing field. Plus, they’re fun people in general. You have to be a bit wacky to be a bartender and a bit wacky to be a boxer. I really like them and have enjoyed training them. It’s a true labor of love.”
Sabo says win or lose, the best part of the training has been the sense of community.
“I’ve found the gym to be similar to a great bar. Our gym is extremely supportive, investing in us improving. I felt comfortable immediately, and it’s one of the few others places I’ve found the same level of comfort and tribe as I do with a really good bar team.”
Follow the progress of our bartender boxers: Join the Bartender Boxing Facebook Group.