There’s a sequence in one of Rocky III’s training montages where Apollo Creed tries to teach Rocky Balboa how to dance. Not how to glide like Fred Astaire or how to thrust like Channing Tatum, but how to dance like Muhammad Ali. The distinctive styles are important, but the connection between fighting and any kind of dance—fighting and rhythm in general—is a strong one. Perhaps because he felt the similitude, Stallone put the Rocky III sequence together like a dance montage. It’s got the same cheesy editing and dreamy lighting that would later make montages in Flashdance and Footloose into delightful clichés. The sports training montage pioneered by the Rocky films was the foundation for such visual analogies in these and other films, and Footloose even gives us the reverse, a dance as training montage.
These sequences speak to a truth that even casual sports fans are keenly aware of: that boxing is all about rhythm. Boxing and rhythm are so intertwined that Sugar Ray Robinson once said “Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart, and that’s in rhythm or you’re in trouble.”
So why aren’t there training methods that teach with music, the most familiar and sophisticated source of rhythm?
It’s true that many of the traditional training tools for fighters—the speed bag, the heavy bag, the double-end bag, the jump rope—have their own rhythm, and fighters often remark on the rhythm of a fight. Pernell Whittaker angrily claimed that he had dictated the “tempo” of the fight, not Oscar De La Hoya, after judges awarded a dubious victory to the Golden Boy.
But as far as TheLead can tell, there has never been a training methodology that directly integrates the rhythm of music into a boxing workout.
John Wakefield wasn’t thinking about the natural connection between rhythm and boxing when he first set foot in New York Boxing gym (located in Canoga Park). Wakefield was a lifelong musician who’d been working in Los Angeles as a professional percussionist for many years. His initial reason to enter into the world of pugilism was the same as it is for so many curious people: he wanted to shake up his life.
“I really was just looking for something interesting for my eleven-year-old son and I to do,” he told TheLead.
John comes from a family of musicians who play every conceivable instrument, but he’s cut from a slightly different cloth. “I hated practicing instruments as a kid. . .but I was always tapping away, hitting things. Eventually my parents gave up and handed me a pair of drumsticks.”
So naturally the poor guy never had a chance. He was hooked as soon as he found himself surrounded by the thudding sounds of gloves on pads and bags. He decided to take a boxing deep dive. And as he went deeper, he discovered how much boxing is like studying percussion. It rewards the lifelong devotee with continuously unfolding levels of nuance. And, it also involves hitting things.
Femi on the congas.
Femi Oyeleye also comes from a family with a passion. The oldest son of a Nigerian boxing brood of seven siblings, he made waves last year when he signed with Mayweather Promotions. He went through a bit of a rough patch when he moved to Los Angeles from Nigeria to pursue his boxing dream with nothing but the clothes on his back (read about his journey here), but now he’s got a great team around him and he’s winning fights. An armchair analyst of prospective fighters would say that everything’s going according to plan. Unless some very poor matchmaking decisions are made, Lampley and Kellerman will be playing the Middleweight Name Game with Femi Oyeleye in a few years. But to Femi, as with any fighter who’s willing to give everything to be the best, the usual plan is not enough. He’s on the lookout for that something extra. Enter John Wakefield.
Athletes through the centuries have gone to great lengths in their training to find that something extra, that secret sauce—“wax on, wax off,” the chicken chase from Rocky II, and the prolific use of PEDs in sports come to mindIt’s not unusual for boxing gyms to attract all sorts of cultural nomads—the hipster tough guys, the hangers-on, the wannabe Hemingways. So and when John started hanging around the gym he didn’t realize that he’d be a person of interest. and for a time he was left to his own devices. But his day job was no secret, and it wasn’t long before Phil Paolina, the owner of the gym, found out that John was a drummer.
Paolina approached John about helping out with one of his fighters: Ukrainian boxer-puncher Anatoliy Dudchenko.
Anatoliy’s boxing roots came from the plodding methodical style of the Soviet athletic system—a pre-Apollo Italian Stallion if there ever was one. Neither Paolina nor Wakefield was exactly sure what Anatoliy needed, so John did what anyone trying to help a Ukrainian cruiserweight would do.
“I brought out the congas.”
The early stages of John’s rhythm training sound like an advanced speed bag regimen. The conga drums have a lot in common with this age-old fighter’s tool, but the drums gave John more freedom in changing Anatoliy’s rhythmic patterns.
The drum work turned out to be a natural fit for someone who punches stuff for a living, and somewhat surprisingly, Anatoliy caught on fast—almost too fast. To mix things up John decided to change the tempo and introduce other variables, and that’s when he realized there was a second, deeper level to the training.
In an orchestral performance there’s something similar to what sports folk call “momentum.” Orchestral music is a field where team-wide perfection is required, and when one person makes a small mistake, it’s not uncommon for veteran players to respond by making mistakes they themselves would never make. This can lead to a loss of momentum and what John calls a “collective collapse.”
“I realized that beyond the physical aspect of the training, there was immense value in getting a fighter into a musician’s state of mind,” John says.
A fighter, like a musician, must execute a complex rhythmic task while being flustered (in some cases, pummeled) by external stimuli. As Mike Tyson once said: “Everyone has a plan until they get hit.” Neither the musician and the fighter can control what happens outside of them, but they can discipline their minds to function despite severe distractions. A similar approach to mental discipline can help the fighter and the musician avoid the loss of momentum and collapse, even something is going seriously wrong in their space.
“The more you can control your mind, the more you can minimize the negative,” John says.
John and Femi working the pads.
The percussion training continued to evolve and quickly became an integral part of Anatoliy’s regimen. The boxer insisted that John be present at his camp, and even travel with the team to his fights. By then, the creative highs John experienced when he developed the training methods were being usurped by the need to consider the business side of his technique. In Los Angeles no good thing goes un-monetized, and John was beginning to feel the need to brand his innovative training regimen. It wasn’t all going to be fun.
And there were the gym politics. John found himself in the middle of a nasty breakup between Anatoliy and his trainer, and when the Paolina-Dudchenko partnership came to an end he no longer had a professional client to experiment with. That’s when he converted his garage into a boxing gym and laboratory.
Other clients came along. A high school offensive line coach asked if he could bring his players in, and there were brief dalliances with soccer and basketball teams. These experiences taught John two things. First, he learned that even though the percussion training works for other sports besides boxing, it is difficult to impart to groups. And second, he learned again that he didn’t want to deal with the business elements. Being a freelance musician had convinced him of that.
And being in LA’s entertainment industry and a student of some of the world’s more esoteric music, John was no stranger to seeing creative innovations go unnoticed. It was fun and stimulating and that’s was enough for him. He decided to concentrate on his children and his career and put the percussion sports training on the backburner.
But those around him knew a good thing when they saw it, and he couldn’t get away from his strange invention. He was asked by an educator in the family, his sister-in-law, to film his method to use for “brain breaks,” a new craze in pedagogy where the students do some controlled movements between mental activities. Eventually word of his method got to Dr. Anne Larson, a professor of kinesiology. For a moment it looked like John was going to work with college athletes. But though he relished the chance to work in a range of different sports, he couldn’t get boxing out of his mind.
“The training was born out of boxing and fits the sport perfectly,” he told TheLead.
Exactly two weeks after the Cal State call, he met Elizabeth Wilson, Femi’s manager.
John couldn’t resist a return to the boxing world, and in Femi’s training environment he found the perfect situation to test and further develop his methods.
“Femi is a fast learner. I had to come up with new methods to keep up,” he told TheLead.
With Femi, John has developed a range of “configurations,” as he calls them, some involving the conga drums, some involving bag work, some involving trash cans or 5-gallon water containers from Home Depot, and some integrating all of them. He’s pushed the usual tempo-changes to the next level, which includes doing sequences backwards and shouting out commands in different languages. It’s a little complicated if you’re not a musician or a fighter—and even if you are—but essentially the goal is to combine the athlete’s mental ability to see an opportunity with his physical ability to capitalize on it. In short, to perfect his rhythm.
Does it work?
With John as part of his extended team, Femi coasted through his second professional fight and is resting up before preparations begin for a third. For Femi, the jury is no longer out on the training: it’s the real deal and will be part of his regimen moving forward. As for John, he’s looking for new clients and has made peace with the whole branding thing. The beat goes on.