By MELISSA KAREN SANCES
For the Advocate
Ten heavy bags stood at attention on Theresa Allen’s front lawn, while 7 women surrounded a card table just off the driveway, wrapping their hands and gloving up.
My new cardio kickboxing instructor greeted me warmly and introduced me to my classmates, some of whom had been working out with her for years. That’s why we were outside on an April evening: Her class had outgrown the local gym.
Allen fiddled with the sound system — what looked like an old-school boom box — cuing up the theme from “Rocky.” It was so loud that the neighbors must have felt like they were ringside. She yelled enthusiastically over the music, directing us to the back of the yard. Between two trees, about 10 feet apart, she had tied a yellow clothesline, under which we were directed to bob and weave as part of our warm-up.
I knew she was a former Golden Gloves boxer, but I still wasn’t prepared for her power. Though Allen is only 4’11” and looks unmenacing in her short shorts and high ponytail, she is as scrappy as real-life Rocky Marciano, who, incidentally, practiced boxing on a stuffed mail bag that he hung from a tree.
Now she led our rag-tag procession, bobbing, weaving, marching over three step platforms, and shouting out each punch or kick.
“Right jab!” she yelled, her voice raspy, as she pounded the back row of heavy bags one by one and circled back to the tree. For 10 minutes, we cycled through right and left jabs, crosses, hooks and uppercuts, and then we did the standard kicks: front, side and roundhouse.
We hadn’t even started the workout.
Allen took the center bag closest to the street, while we all claimed our own. Each one was six-feet high and anchored with a two-foot base, but if you hit hard enough, the bag would shift on the lawn. Triumphant circles had been impressed on the green grass, browned and flattened by the boxers before me.
For the next 50 minutes, while Allen called out combinations — “Left jab, right cross, left hook, right roundhouse!” — she whaled on the bag like she had a title to defend. By the end of the workout, everyone was drenched in sweat. Except our teacher. Somehow, as she attacked her imaginary opponent with a final flurry of punches, she wasn’t even out of breath.
After class, she told me that she wanted to open her own business. After 25 years of working in the industry, Allen, 42, hoped to harness the success of the class and share a way of life that had saved her.
Four months later, we sat in her new office at Champs Fighting and Fitness in East Longmeadow. She looked at me shyly, as though she still wasn’t sure her dream had been realized, as though the scrappy 6-year-old girl who had to fend for herself still had to keep her hands up. Her foot bounced and her sandal slapped against her skin like the rat-a-tat-tat of a speed bag.
The first and last time Allen was knocked out, she was 21. Her boyfriend punched her in the face; she lost consciousness and toppled to the floor. “I got up right away,” she said, “and I got rid of him. And I was like, ‘That’s never f—ing happening to me again.’”
At the South End Community Center in Springfield, she boxed with Golden Gloves winners four times a week, and after a few months of workouts, the head trainer talked her into amateur fighting. She fought as a lightweight and sparred with males in her weight class, but she wasn’t scared, because she knew she had already experienced the worst — without mitts, without referees. “I would just get pissed off when I was losing,” she said wryly.
Allen earned her associates in health and fitness at Holyoke Community College and became certified in aerobics and personal training. After her son Jeremiah was born, she completed her bachelor’s degree in exercise science, as well as certifications in Zumba, Pilates and barre. During a stint at Canyon Ranch, a health and wellness resort in the Berkshires often frequented by A-list actors, she sometimes taught eight classes per day. One afternoon she impressed Bette Midler so much that the actor asked if she would be teaching tomorrow. Allen’s answer was characteristically down-to-earth. “I was going on this five-day beach trip, and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I got to be honest, but I can’t wait to get up out of here.’” Midler told her she didn’t blame her.
Over the years, Allen taught at gyms across western Massachusetts, but she always hoped to venture out on her own. She has amassed a loyal following of women and men through personal training and classes, and everyone is welcome at Champs.
Though she is still getting her business off the ground, she has her heart set on helping disadvantaged youth. As a teenager, Allen was in and out of the juvenile system, and working out became a healthy coping mechanism — and a way out.
“A lot of the kids that I was in these places with, they didn’t make it out the other side,” she said. “They’re in jail, or they’re strung out on drugs, or they’re dead. I would say only 10% of us actually became productive adults and didn’t go down a bad path. I feel like there’s got to be other teenagers like me that could benefit from learning a healthy way to vent, to release, to cope. It could save them.”
And then, with fiery humility: “I want to show them you can turn it around, you know?”
Theresa Allen can be reached at 413-273-3068 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Champs Fighting and Fitness is located at 165 Shaker Road, East Longmeadow. Drop-in classes are $10, and new attendees get their first class free. Visit http://www.champsfightingandfitness.com for more information.
Melissa Karen Sances lives in Easthampton, where she writes about extraordinary people and works on her memoir. Reach her at email@example.com.