Standing at six-foot-six, decked out in training attire with bright red shoes, Darren Waller ducks into the ring. As he straightens out he towers over Alberto Ortiz, owner of Work Train Fight, the gym Waller is training in that day in partnershpi with Icy Hot. The ring overlooks Broadway in the NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan yet the cacophony of the New York City sidewalks can't be heard. The gym echoes with loud hip-hop music and instructions from Ortiz. His commands are fired off as quickly as his feints. He dances around the ring from Waller, shadowboxing with the New York Giants tight end.
Jab left! Jab right! Uppercut! Hook! Left! Right!
Waller's fists fly forward. His breath hisses out from between his teeth. He floats around the ring, incredibly light on his feet. Every trait that made him one of the NFL's top tight ends is on display-- the quickness, the power. He's punching air that day but with the force behind each extension of his arm, he may as well be firing out to block a defensive end.
A buzzer sounds as the rectangular, red digital clock on the wall hits quadruple zeroes. Waller's time in the ring is done. With a grin, he fist-bumps Ortiz and heads to the wrecking ball punching bag. He's not finished yet. Waller straps on gloves and re-assumes his form, hitting the bag with such force that the thuds can be heard above the music. Watching Waller, it's clear he's taking great joy in the process, in honing his craft this way.
"I like boxing because it whoops your butt, man," Waller tells The Big Lead once his workout is finished. "You can’t really run from it."
Waller has been boxing for around three years. He first attended a class back in Georgia, where he spends much of his offseasons, where a friend of his was the instructor. Waller said he was exhausted at the end but enjoyed it so much it's been part of his routine since.
It probably doesn't come as a surprise that a professional football player would appreciate boxing. The physical aggression required to play in the NFL is found in few other sports. Boxing is one of them.
"I’ve never met an athlete who doesn’t like to punch things," Ortiz says.
It is the first time Waller has been to Work Train Fight but Ortiz says his gym is no stranger to hosting professional athletes. It should not be shocking to hear that his main clients in that arena are hockey players. Fighting and knowing how to fight well is a huge part of the sport.
That is not the case for football. Waller isn't going to hop in the ring and actually trade punches. There are, however, plenty of direct applications for how Waller trains in this arena to how he performs on the field.
"If you’re in press coverage, you don’t want the guy to touch you," he says. "When he reaches, you don’t want to miss his hands and allow him to get his hands on you. It’s about, how can I connect to his hands or how can I club his shoulder, making sure I connect. Making sure my hands go where I want them to go. It definitely helps with getting off from releases, hand placement in blocking, fighting for that extra hand positioning.
"Those little things that can turn into big details. If you don’t get that clean release then you can mess up the timing of the route and in the NFL it’s small windows."
Additionally, Ortiz believes the type of conditioning boxing training offers is appealing to athletes because it keeps them in shape both physically and mentally without risking re-aggravating old injuries.
"Boxing gives [athletes] a way to do full body conditioning that gives them a competitive edge," Ortiz explains. "We all like to hit things and we all like to make sure we stay in shape for our competition times and stay in shape in the offseason without re-aggravating any old injuries. I find that boxing is a very natural movement. It’s just arm extensions, squats, and some twisting combined in a certain type of way. Boxing training itself is not really taxing to the body. Fighting is obviously taxing to the body but that’s a whole different thing, right? Boxing training is not taxing. It’s a way to give them a sport that’s different, give them a mental break from their own specific sport but not a mental break from their competitiveness and constant need to learn with their body."
Waller has an appreciation for the mental side of things. Football is the most violent of the three biggest American sports, and it also requires mental aptitude. Training the mind is just as important, if not more so, than training the body. Boxing does both.
"It’s a challenge," says Waller. "It’s a mental challenge as far as the combinations, keep maintaining technique, even when you’re tired. For football there’s a striking element, an aggression element. Processing the combinations once the instructor starts going really fast can be similar to processing what coverages are unfolding before your eyes or seeing something and reacting."
Boxing also has the unique trait of literally teaching you what to do once you get hit. As the famous saying goes, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. It's not just about physically imposing your will onto your opponent. It's about training yourself to react accordingly when they hit you first. Ortiz believes this is where the draw in boxing lies for football players specifically.
"With boxing, when punches come your way, you cannot freak out," he says. You gotta stay calm, cool, collected. Like football it’s about staying calm when things are coming your way, but not overdoing it. In the boxing ring, if you’re too angry, you’re going to move straight and everybody knows where you’re going."
Just as important as all the above is recovery. Waller uses Icy Hot Pro products and says they are ideal for the particular kind of soreness he deals with after boxing training.
"Your knuckles can get bruised up a little bit when you're tearing bags up. Muscles get sore. You can rub it on anywhere. Icy Hot is something that helps with the small things that you want to get to go away, like bruises and lumps. It’s really key with those things."
Boxing, like football, is multifaceted. The objective-- hit the person in front of you-- seems simple enough. But it takes a lot, both physically and mentally, to maintain elite performance. Waller appreciates boxing as a means to the end of being great on the football field. The quality that drew him to the sport initially, though, doesn't have anything to do with his profession. It's the same quality that draws many to the ring.
Boxing is, if anything, a great way to blow off steam.
"If you have anything built up, you can take it out on the bag. It can be more of a healthy release. It’s something I enjoyed and never thought about deviating from."