It’s almost the middle of October, and it’s the very first day that something akin to the fall season seems to be happening in Southeast Texas. The wind blows what people consider in Texas to be cool air, but it’s still appropriate for almost everyone to wear short sleeves outside.
It’s a Monday, so people are back at work. Bankers are banking, writers are writing and boxers are boxing.
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and the Plex boxing gym, located just outside of Houston in Stafford, does nothing to discredit it. The brainchild of world renowned fitness guru Danny Arnold, the 40,000 square foot facility appears to the uninitiated to be quite busy today, though all the regulars say it’s actually quite slow.
There are a few of us mortals scattered about, some even participating in the enthusiastic training sessions going on all throughout the building on or off just about every kind of work-out machine or device one could imagine. For the most part, though, this place is packed with professional athletes eager to apply to their craft the latest and greatest in strength and conditioning training.
But something is different here.
Sure, there are NFL athletes here today. Members of the local NFL franchise are lifting weights. There are some NBA basketball players towering over people as they run up and down a staircase to nowhere. Some baseball players are shuffling about in intense sprint sessions.
Yes, perhaps every single type of mainstream professional sport is represented in the mishmash of competitors, but that’s not quite what makes this place special. Those sports have long been progressing in the realm of betterment.
No, there is another part of this place that is something new. There are boxers here.
Over in the far left corner is a boxing ring. Next to the ring are a myriad of punching bags, though they’re not the typical bags you see in a boxing gym. They’re brand new and in immaculate condition.
Some of the best fighters in the world are working them over, doing their best to make them look worn and used as soon as possible. Twin brothers and junior middleweight prospects Jermell and Jermall Charlo are there on the left, just about finishing up their bag work out. Former heavyweight titleholder Sergie Liakhovich walks by as he makes his way towards the exercise equipment, seeming to nod in approval of his crew. Middleweight contender Brian Vera is rampaging on the big bag in the center under the watchful eye of his trainer.
The man overseeing the action is acclaimed cornerman Ronnie Shields. Shields has worked with a who’s who in boxing, from historical greats like Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whitaker to his current stable of stars which includes the men menacing the bags, along with junior middleweight threat Erislandy Lara who’s due to appear any minute.
“It’s not typical…everything together, with the boxing and the fitness, is really remarkable,” Shields says. “The things we’re doing here…the guys are really loving it.”
It’s true. If you follow the more active among them on twitter, you’ll see genuine enthusiasm from Shields’ fighters, the likes of which are not usually expressed by those undergoing the rigors of training.
They love what goes on here at Plex, and honestly it seems like everyone does. From the first moment you enter the door, you can hear people working out together with an almost jubilant exuberance – it sounds more like a celebration than a workout.
“They have it really good here and all the nutrition they need,” Shields says. “They love it here.”
They love it.
This isn’t your father’s boxing gym. Heck, it’s not even your boxing gym unless you’re lucky enough to be here in Stafford with Shields and crew. It’s completely different.
“It’s a new thing but it works,” Shields says. “The good thing about it is that Danny is a master at conditioning. It why you see all the football players, basketball players, baseball players – they all come here because they know Danny will get them into the best shape possible.”
Danny is Danny Arnold, fitness expert and conditioning guru to some of the biggest names in professional sports. He started Plex fourteen years ago and today its bigger and better than ever. There are four locations in the Houston area, and adorned all around the bright, clean walls of the cavernous venue are inscriptions from pro-bowl NFL players, World Series winners, elite boxers and more, all lending their endorsement to the work done at Plex.
Arnold is a high energy guy. His enthusiasm seems contagious, and his vigor for fitness seems to permeate everyone and everything in the building. Everyone here today is working out harder than I’ve seen anyone work out anywhere, but they’re all smiles about it. They love it here.They really do.
Arnold’s captured something here.
“Just like all of us, we don’t have to have a horrible time to have an effective work out,” Arnold says as he gives the grand tour. “I don’t know why that three letter word, f-u-n, is forbidden in sports.”
Ah yes, ‘fun’. Perhaps more easily remembered in sports played with balls and rackets, it’s sometimes forgotten in boxing. They seem to have recaptured it here, and somehow it’s helped them work harder than ever.
“We expect so much more from them,” Arnold says.“They’ll tell you, their workouts are a lot harder than where they were before.”
Where they were before is perhaps the single most significant boxing gym in all of Houston: Savannah. The gym was opened by founder Willie Savannah in 1980. It’s changed locations and expanded into other neighborhoods, but boxing in Houston just isn’t what it is today without Savannah. Some of the best fighters in the world have come out of it. In fact, it’s where Houston’s most renowned trainer, Shields, started his own boxing career, and it’s where he’d always been since.
That’s all changed over the last few months. Shields made the move over from Savannah to Plex just this July, and he’s brought with him his impressive stable of fighters along with chief assistant, Creed Fountain, who was Shields’ trainer when he was a fighter.
“It was a huge decision because I had been at Savannah forever,” Shields reflects. “Willie was my manager, and then when I started training fighters…well it was all there. But this was a perfect fit, and the fit wasn’t for me. The fit was for all the guys…to give them the best opportunity to enhance their careers.”
It wasn’t a decision he took lightly. Willie Savannah was his mentor, and the two had been together longer than he cared to count.
“He’s like a father figure to me,” he says of Savannah. “We had been together for a long, long time. I sat down with him and talked to him for a long time and explained to him why I needed to make the move, and he was a hundred percent for it, so we didn’t leave on bad terms.”
Shields and Arnold met the way most important and life-changing events often seem to occur, through a mutual acquaintance. This time, the acquaintance was Mikado Hinson.
Hinson is a boxing evangelist of sorts and in all senses of the term. He’s served as spiritual advisors to boxers in the past (e.g., Chris Byrd), and he’s the also the chaplain for the University of Houston football team. But he evangelizes for boxing, too.
He’s the guy telling everyone one he knows about the sport of boxing. Heck, the first time I met Hinson, he was doing his best to get all-time NCAA passing yards record holder Case Keenum more interested in the sweet science by taking him to an open workout at Savannah.
Hinson encouraged his two friends, Arnold and Shields, to connect after one of Shields’ fighters, Mike Lee, was looking for a new strength and conditioning coach.
“I knew Danny and Ronnie would work well together,” Hinson says.“Plus, they both want to see their athletes achieve the best. Good people plus one vision equals a powerful team!”
The rest is history in the making.
“We’ve always done sports performance and sports medicine, but never have we felt comfortable enough to bring the technical side, the sports part into the fold because we’ve never felt someone was on our level like with Ronnie Shields,” says Arnold.
“His attitude and his experience…I’m just so impressed with the guy.”
Both men are impressive in their own right, but together they’re doing something almost entirely new in the sport of boxing. Sure, there have been fitness gurus in boxing gyms before, but has it ever been done the other way around?
“It’s like we’re training with that Russian [Ivan Drago] in Rocky IV,” one of the fighters says with a laugh in between workouts.
Arnold says the history of his relationship with the NFL allows Plex to have all sorts of specialists on staff and ready to help train. They’re everywhere. They have chiropractors, doctors, nutritionists – you name it and they have it.
“We utilize everything you can imagine,” says Arnold. “At the end of it, you get a better athlete. That’s the whole goal: building a better boxer.”
Arnold believes in specialization. It’s helped him get to the top of his field, and he sees it as being one of the greatest benefits Shields now has at Plex.
“We have better tools and resources, so Ronnie can excel. It allows him to do what he’s good at which is boxing.”
It hasn’t been easy. Boxing is a sport attached to its history like no other. Tradition is paramount, and it’s hard to convince those in the fight game what worked for Jack Dempsey won’t work for them, too.
“Rather than doing something just because of tradition, we decided we’re going to do something because it’s the right thing to do,” Arnold says. “It works because Ronnie is so open-minded.”
It’s not lip service, either. Boxers train differently at Plex.Traditional boxing road work (jogging) is discouraged because Arnold believes boxers already take enough high impact abuse on their knees and ankles as it is. Sparring sessions are recorded so both fighter and trainer can watch film of it together afterwards, and fighters have to weigh in every single day.
“Uh yeah, it’s….different,” one fighter says about the terror of everyday weigh-ins.
Arnold and staff have each fighter eat 4-5 meals a day. Everything they eat is tailor-made and balanced for the individual person. They eat what they should, when they should and more of it, with the idea that when fight week comes around, making weight is not even close to being a problem. Arnold says this allows the fighter to eat more regularly during the week leading up to the fight, and helps keep him from having to cut water weight.
Because of this, he believes you’ll see a faster, stronger boxer on fight night, and it’s something he takes great pride in.
“It was mindboggling to me how old school boxing was,” he says. “I’m not saying we should disrespect tradition. At the same time, I am saying we’ve got to do things because of the right reasons.”
Arnold knows the proof will be in the pudding though, and both him and Shields like what they’ve seen in the ring these few short months they’ve been together.
“Our fighters are putting a whoop-ass on them,” as Arnold puts it.
Undefeated junior middleweight Jermall Charlo concurs. He thinks you’ll see the best version of him in his next fight, October 26th in Austin.
“It was scary at first,” he says about the change in approach. “We’re getting used to it. We’re checking our weight every day. We’re eating well. You won’t see any Plex fighters dehydrated in the ring!”
Shields and Arnold are confident in what they’re doing at Plex, and they believe it will change the boxing world. In fact, Shields says his fighters are already hitting harder, being more explosive and fighting better come fight night.
“People are starting to call now,” he smiles. “Everyone is going to try and copy this.”
If they do, it’s hard to see how it could be done any better than this. If a new age in boxing is coming, and indeed it appears as if it might be, Ronnie Shields and Danny Arnold seem just the team to pull it off.
“Good for us and bad for the boxing world that it hasn’t kept up with the times,” says Arnold. “We’re going to change that.”
Don’t be surprised if they do.
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