Ladies and gentlemen, live from Dallas-Fort Worth, a scheduled 12-round contest: In this corner, the reigning champ — a disease as yet undefeated, causes uncertain, with centuries of experience. And coming down the aisle, the challenger — a rising prospect out of Grapevine, standing 6-foot-3, 50 years old, married with two kids …
But something is wrong. Gary Schmitz, the challenger, stiffly shuffles — “Herman Munster-ing,” as he puts it — across the floor. One hand twitches wildly at his side. He bears a look of resignation.
This is going to be a tough fight.
The bell rings. “Come on, Gary! Come on, Gary! There you go! Lean back, I’m trying to hit you!”
Former two-time champion boxer Paulie Ayala bounced around the ring in the University of Hard Knocks gym he runs in Fort Worth, tossing combos, barking instructions, waving his mitts at varying spots for Gary Schmitz to hit.
Schmitz — lanky and likable — dodged and threw a series of jabs and uppercuts.
“Watch that hook!” Ayala said. “There you go! Come on!”
A whistle sounded, and Schmitz left the ring in a sweat as another student climbed in. It was just part of a workout including weights, squats, crunches and jogs down a cavernous hallway dubbed “The Green Mile” for its pastel-colored walls.
“I’m training them, I’m pushing them,” said Ayala, bronzed and fit at 42 with a butter-spread of hair. “Out of their comfort zone. ’Cause that’s what a fight is. It’s not a comfortable place to be.”
A fight is exactly what these students face. Each has Parkinson’s disease, the affliction associated with legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, diagnosed at age 42.
A study of more than 100 boxers, released this month by the Cleveland Clinic, indicates that brain damage — including the kind linked with Parkinson’s — begins to show up after six years of fighting, long before symptoms become apparent.
Yet, Ayala’s so-called Parkinsonians box.
The training is low-impact, with no blows to the head. The twice-a-week sessions, paid for by the North Texas chapter of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association, stress endurance, strength and mental and physical agility.
Participants say the training helps reverse the disease’s effects and lifts confidence. The assertion is echoed by a similar program in Indiana, and while few studies exist to back it up, evidence is growing to support exercise — specifically the intense, continuous and varying kind that boxing offers — as an effective form of combat.
“All the things that Parkinson’s wants to take away from you — balance, hand and eye coordination, movement — those are all the things that boxing is all about,” said Schmitz, who also credits a change in diet for his progress.
“Parkinson’s really wants to put you in your place and strap you down. You have to fight through it.”
In 2000, Schmitz had launched a business, too busy to deal with the stiffness and slower motions he’d had for months. But the tremors that woke him at night said something wasn’t right.
As he scoured the Internet, Parkinson’s posed a possibility. An aunt had died of the disease’s complications, and growing up, Schmitz worked on a Wisconsin farm whose owner had developed it, too.
Doctors confirmed the diagnosis. Schmitz was barely 38. That made him part of a “young-onset Parkinson’s” subset, those diagnosed before age 50.
Worsening symptoms, fears posed by his diagnosis and the stress of his struggling venture were too much. Meds triggered conditions requiring more meds. He shuttered his project and went to work for a construction company.
Every tremor bred panic. Painful muscle spasms punished his hands and feet. He tried to hide the worst from his wife, Cathy, and their teenage son and daughter.
Insomnia at night bred daytime fatigue. There were drugs for both. But by last year, he’d quit his weekend yard work and spent the time asleep in a recliner, cursing disruptions like a grumpy grandpa.
One morning, Schmitz shot a video of himself shuffling through the kitchen, before his meds had kicked in.
Filing for disability began to cross his mind.
Six years ago, Indiana lawyer Scott Newman faced a similar situation. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in his early 40s, he could no longer type and had trouble walking.
One-time Golden Gloves boxer Vincent Perez didn’t like seeing his friend depressed and inactive. He offered to teach him how to box.
“They had no idea it would be so effective,” said Joyce Johnson, CEO of Rock Steady Boxing, the Indianapolis-based outfit the two would form after others, seeing the results, sought similar transformation.
Each month now, about 120 Parkinsonians take the group’s noncontact, boxing-based program of ring work, bag punching, core work and calisthenics. They range from age 30 to 90.
According to Rock Steady, symptoms improve after just a few weeks. Newman is now a full-time college professor, and the program, its results under study, hopes to expand nationwide.
They all doubted. Paulie Ayala, a runt of a fighter from Fort Worth, challenged unbeaten Johnny Tapia for the WBA bantamweight title in 1999. “He may be a bit too slow for Tapia,” the announcer said.
Tapia charged out and shoved Ayala before the bell even rang. But Ayala capitalized on Tapia’s trademark street temper, disrupting his game plan by taunting him each time he landed a jab.
The 12-round, in-the-trenches thriller was nail-biter close. Judges scored it 116-113, 116-113 and 115-114 for Ayala. Ring magazine named Ayala its 1999 Fighter of the Year, putting him in the company of names like Ali, Frazier, Foreman and Leonard.
“They can never take that away from me,” said Ayala, who also won a super bantamweight crown. “I’ve been to the top of the game.”
He retired in 2004 with a 35-3 record and returned to Fort Worth, where he opened his gym.
Last fall, Fort Worth resident Stacy Christopher, who’d read about Rock Steady Boxing after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2007 at age 38, approached him with the idea. The more Ayala learned, the more he realized he didn’t know.
He knew about Ali and Freddie Roach, a former fighter who’d been Tapia’s trainer and now also had Parkinson’s. Ayala thought: That could be me.
Gary Schmitz’s outlook had soured. He’d started actor Michael J. Fox’s book, Lucky Man, but couldn’t relate to a guy who’d seemed to have it all, even with Parkinson’s.
Then, as he neared the end of the book, he read about Fox being consumed with rage as he hit bottom.
That’s me, Schmitz realized. “I thought — maybe there’s a different way to approach this instead of being wrapped up in all that anger,” he said.
He drove back and forth to Houston, hoping to qualify for trial gene therapy. As the date approached, he quit his medication as ordered. Before long, he looked decrepit, shaking worse than ever, his shoulders yanked out of shape.
Again, he turned on the video camera, aiming to show the progress he hoped the brain injection would spark.
But days before the procedure, doctors found evidence he’d suffered a mild stroke. The scarring would impede the surgery. He was ruled ineligible.
A couple of weeks ago, two young fighters grunted as they trained at Ayala’s gym, the thump of leather against leather backed by the frenetic pa-da-da, pa-da-da waltz of a well-hit speed bag.
Against a wall, three Parkinson’s students folded red and yellow wrap around their hands before slipping on the gloves.
Along with Schmitz, there was lithe, rosy-cheeked Tina Hargrove, 56, and Christopher, forceful, toned and working a wad of gum. Since last year, they’ve been Ayala’s most faithful regulars.
Before their diagnoses, Christopher noticed a twitching thumb, difficulty holding a toothbrush; Hargrove, a travel marketer, thought she had carpal tunnel syndrome. But the average observer wouldn’t know they had Parkinson’s at all.
Their training, Ayala said, mirrors his typical regimen, minus contact — conditioning to strengthen, punching to work hand and eye coordination, dodging to test reflexes.
“It’s a big opponent we’re fighting against,” he said. “And I’m always up for a fight. It’s not the first time I’ve been the underdog.”
Workouts are intense. “He really has no mercy for us,” Christopher said.
During breaks, they swig from water bottles pawed between gloved hands. Though tough, Ayala knows the sessions are an empowering counterpunch.
“I’m trying to get them to focus, even when they’re fatigued,” Ayala said. “That’s what separates champions and contenders.”
The young-onset Parkinson’s group is a neglected one, even left out of some population estimates of those living with the disease. But it’s a growing one, possibly because of earlier detection.
They come with their own set of issues — the shock of being blindsided by an “old person’s disease,” fears about how their work will be affected, how to tell the kids.
Images of Michael J. Fox, whose symptoms are more advanced, spring to mind
“Pretty much every young person will tell you the same thing,” said Christopher, whose two children are in grade school. “The first few years, you’re so distraught over what could be that you can’t function.
“Then you realize — you’ve got to live, you’ve got to go on, you’ve got to fight it.”
Because most Parkinsonians are older, peer support is hard to find. Some young-onsetters avoid any groups, afraid of glimpsing a difficult future.
Schmitz is the elder in a group that meets monthly at Plano’s Presbyterian Hospital. After 12 years, he tells them, he no longer dreads every tremor.
“You have them, they go away,” he said. “You just kind of roll with the punches.”
Dr. Madhavi Thomas, a movement-disorder specialist in Bedford, said while medications can regulate many Parkinson’s symptoms — especially if detected early — exercise has to be part of the equation, too.
Exercise has long been thought useful, but more recent studies say intense, continuous activity may be especially good. “It lets the brain secrete certain chemicals that are protective,” Thomas said.
According to Rock Steady Boxing, some studies suggest such training could actually slow, stop or reverse the disease, if only temporarily. Boxing training works because it tests the body in all planes of motion in a constantly changing routine.
Think of a toy car, the kind you rev up by pulling the rear wheels back across a surface, then letting it go. Parkinson’s clenches the body. By reminding muscles what they can do, boxing helps gets the wheels moving again.
Up against the ropes, Schmitz’s comeback began after watching a YouTube presentation by Terry Wahls, a physician who said a switch to a dairy-free, vegetable-heavy diet had helped alleviate the effects of her multiple sclerosis, another brain disorder.
Within two weeks of starting a similar diet, Schmitz said, he felt more energetic and was sleeping better. That gave him the confidence to try out Ayala’s boxing class.
Parkinson’s had him down. Now he’s hitting back. He’s dropped 15 pounds, feeling stronger, no longer the beast shuffling across the kitchen floor.
“My best days are the days after I box,” he said. “My head feels clear. My body feels good.”
The spasms in his hands subside, he said, after a night of contact; he’s regained lost coordination. He’s now taking four or five pills to get through the day, rather than 13.
Said Christopher: “He has completely turned a corner.”
From the start, Ayala worked them hard, and early on, Christopher resisted. “He wasn’t going to listen to that,” she said.
Dumbbell lifts, squats and presses, a flurry of crisscrossing feet and one-legged hops. The more intense the workouts, the less symptomatic she became.
“I’m feeling strong and powerful,” Christopher said. “It’s a boost emotionally.”
Hargrove said the tremors in her leg have lessened. “I don’t know if it’s the boxing,” she said, “but I haven’t had that in a long time.”
Parkinson’s effects typically favor one’s right or left side, so Ayala targets their weaker sides for strengthening, even switching their stance.
“Little things like that will stimulate them as a whole,” he said. “We started gradually; now they’re doing everything. They’re really punching. We’re not playing patty cake.”
Despite their raves, getting others to attend the classes has been hard. Some blame work schedules, others child care issues or fuel expenses.
Ayala sighed. “People say they’re busy. But this stuff is gonna get worse. Then ‘busy’ ain’t gonna matter anymore.”
Last week, in the ring, Ayala coached a once-deflated man around the mat, looking to summon the fighter within.
“Push me!” the trainer barked. And Schmitz pushed him into the ropes.
“Come under!” Schmitz hit the outstretched mitt.
“Now up high!” Smack. “Uppercut!” Smack. “Come on, Gary! Come on, Gary!”
“That was it!” Ayala grinned. “You knocked him out! Now you’re gonna have to start practicing this move!”
He high-stepped over a felled imaginary foe as Schmitz allowed a tired but satisfied smile.
At Schmitz’s Grapevine home, the flowers are planted, the trees are pruned. He did that.
“He’s back to being a functional member of the family,” his wife, Cathy, said as she watched him trim the edges of the front lawn. “He had kind of given up last year. This is amazing.”
This year, Schmitz admitted, has been a cakewalk compared to last, and he thinks it will be several more before disability crosses his mind again.
But he can’t let his guard down, can’t stop moving around the mat. Because every day, the bell rings anew.
AT A GLANCE
About the disease
Parkinson’s, a brain disorder affecting 1.5 million people in the U.S., usually strikes around age 60 or 70. Among its effects are loss of movement and coordination, tremors and insomnia.
Genetic factors and environmental ones, such as pesticides, are thought to trigger the disease in tandem, but its precise cause and cure remain elusive. Each case is different: A person might experience only shaking after 20 years; another could struggle to walk after five.
The disease’s most public face is 50-year-old actor Michael J. Fox, but it has also been linked with sports such as boxing and martial arts, where head trauma is common.
Two-time world boxing champ Paulie Ayala will be among the guest speakers Sunday at a benefit showing of the 2005 film Saving Milly at Grapevine’s Palace Theater, 300 S. Main Street. The film, which screens at 2 p.m., is based on political journalist Morton Kondracke’s memoir about being caregiver to his wife, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 47. Tickets are $12, and proceeds benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
By MARC RAMIREZ
Published: 28 April 2012 11:42 PM
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