Lou Savarese pummels the bag at his new gym.

Image: Daniel Ortiz

The fact that, until very recently, I truly believed the combat sport of Muay Thai was pronounced the same as Mai Tai—yes, the drink—tells you everything you need to know about me and boxing. I mean, yes, I follow Conor McGregor on Instagram, but when it comes to fighting, let's just say I'm most familiar with Christina Aguilera's interpretation.

So it was with some trepidation that I entered the ring with one Lou Savarese. If you haven't heard of the professional boxer and former heavyweight champ with his own trading card and spots on series like The Sopranos and Damages, you might at least recognize some of his opponents—Evander Holyfield, George Foreman, or Mike Tyson ring any bells?

Admittedly, I know nothing about the sport, but Savarese's record seems more than a little impressive: Of his 53 total fights, he lost only seven; of his 46 wins, 38 were by knockout. Again, I'm most familiar with this concept via Justin Timberlake, but I digress.

The native New Yorker now makes his home in Houston, where he's just opened the doors to his brand new, state-of-the-art boxing gym, Savarese Fight Fit. The West U facility is where I recently found myself glove-to-glove with all 6-foot-5 of him; at 53, he's still just as imposing as I'd imagine he was in 1998 when he knocked out Buster Douglas—the first man to beat Mike Tyson—in the first round of their matchup.

It took no time at all, though, to realize just how nice Savarese is. And encouraging—thanks to his affable nature and gentle guidance ("good one, kid!") I visibly improved with each session in the ring (there were three), gradually progressing from clueless and spaghetti-armed to at least moderately coordinated and able to keep up with what felt surprisingly like a dance. "This must be what Muhammad Ali meant," I thought as I squared off to jump around the ring. I started to anticipate the combos, and when Savarese called for a jab or an uppercut in his thick New York accent, I responded accordingly; by the end of it, I could hit a "1-2-1-2" without missing a beat or a word in our casual chat, during which I learned his niece went to culinary school in my home state.

In short, what I expected would be the most intimidating portion of the circuit training—this one-on-one with a pro—was actually the most fun. The minutes flew by like seconds, always a wonderful thing in a workout, and what I attribute to the requirement for actual focus and as much mental agility as physical. Turns out, boxing is a sport that really flexes your brain. Who knew?

When I wasn't in the ring, I was at the bag, and that was much harder than it looked. We forget the inherent difficulty of real hand-eye coordination when we're sitting at a desk all day, and hitting these combos—directed by another fighter, the "Mai Tai" pro Jacob Rodriguez—began frustratingly. Like Savarese, though, Rodriguez offered consistent, patient instruction; eventually, I was pummeling the bag like it was the last guy to ghost me.

Lest you think it was all fun and games, though, dear reader, we'd be remiss to neglect that the most torturous part of the workout came at the very end. If time moved at break-neck speed until this point, now it was positively crawling. I began to realize just how long I'd been working my arms when it came time to face the battle ropes, alternating between slamming them against the floor and lifting them for jumping jacks.

Next came abs, and after that, collapse. Was I sweaty, exhausted, and acutely aware of my lacking upper body strength? Yes. But more than anything, I felt like a badass. I wanted to keep the gloves. I wanted to come back. I wanted to be a contender.

I also wanted a beer, so I walked next door to Little Woodrow's and had three.

Savarese Fight Fit (at 4215 Bellaire Blvd.) offers classes, private, and semi-private training sessions Monday-Friday from 5 a.m.–8 p.m. and Sunday from 7 a.m.–2 p.m. A 30-minute introductory session with a pro fighter is $20. And, for the month of November, save 10 percent off a drop-in class or 20-pacck of private sessions booked through Mindbody using promo code "HAPS10," and Savarese Fight Fit will donate 10 percent of proceeds to the Houston Area Parkinson Society. Savarese is a firm believer in the benefits of boxing for Parkinson's patients, as the sport improves hand-eye coordination, requires cerebral thinking, and helps with muscle rigidity. 

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