It's a sweltering 90° June day on Chicago's West Side, and inside JABB gym the temperature is rising. Two fighters are trading punches while trainer Mike Garcia watches. One is Theron Johnson, a 22-year-old super heavyweight and Chicago Golden Gloves winner with a 30--6 record as an amateur. Though Johnson has great potential, he doesn't have the full attention of Garcia, whose mind is focused on the opponent, a 37-year-old novice with no fights to his credit. "Keep your hands up," Garcia says. "Move your feet, get that jab in there." Garcia's charge is Kendall Gill, a 15-year NBA veteran preparing for his ring debut.
When Gill arrived at JABB last year, fighting wasn't in the plan. The Chicago native, who spent the 2003--04 season with the Bulls, was looking to keep his body in shape. He spent the summer working out with Garcia's partner, Dominic Pesoli, who helped him drop 30 pounds from his 6'5" frame, whittling him to a svelte 199. "Boxing training is nothing like NBA training," says Gill. "It requires much more endurance than I ever imagined."
Gill continued his workouts through the fall, then in December signed a free-agent contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. He appeared in only 14 games and was waived a month later. "That had never happened to me before," says Gill of his midseason release. "It hurt a lot."
Soon he was back in JABB, this time with a new idea in mind: to fight professionally while preparing for another shot at the NBA. As a kid on the South Side, Gill admired fighters like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. At age eight he took boxing classes at a rec center. "I have so much respect for guys in the ring," says Gill. "You can get killed in there. Believe me, every time I step into the ring, I think about that."
Garcia has Gill on a rigorous regimen. Six days a week Gill rises at 5 a.m. for a five-mile run. In the afternoon he heads for the gym. There, he shadowboxes for four to six rounds, hits the focus mitts two or three more, then goes three rounds on the speed bag before hitting the weight room for 15 minutes with the jump rope and up to 500 sit-ups and 50 push-ups. If he has the energy, Gill runs another couple of miles at night.
"Boxing has become my passion," says Gill, who studies fight tapes of 40-year-old middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins for motivation. "I love basketball, but in boxing you don't have to worry about a coach with an agenda or lazy teammates who don't want to run the plays right. It's just me; I control my own destiny."
To further prepare Gill, Garcia imported sparring partners with varying degrees of experience. Besides Johnson, Gill has faced off against light cruiserweight world kickboxing champion Mike Nevitt and 6'4", 240-pound Ultimate Fighting champion Andrei Arlovski. "When I started, Dominic asked me whether I wanted to fight cruiserweight [weight limit: 200 pounds] or heavyweight," says Gill. "I went one round with Andrei and told him, 'Definitely cruiserweight. Now get me out of this ring.'"
As an NBA player Gill averaged 13.4 points for seven teams and had a reputation as a hard-nosed defender with excellent footwork. Those on-court strengths have carried over to the canvas. "He's a natural boxer," says Garcia, a former featherweight. "He's got a strong jab, and he moves better than most pros do. He's not going to embarrass himself out there."
He certainly didn't in his ring debut last Saturday night at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. Gill knocked out Trevor Biley at 1:58 of the first round. "My first fight was everything I could have hoped for," says Gill, who hopes to get an invitation to a NBA training camp this fall. "I wish I could have had a little bit more of a challenge, but hopefully that will come next time. When I go back to the NBA, I'll be competing against guys much younger than me. I've got to go in there and whup everybody's ass."
Just Add Punch
Four other athletes who took a shot in the ring
Ed (Too Tall) Jones To his 106 career sacks, the 6'9" defensive end added, in his pugilistic debut, a notorious knockdown at the hands of 6'3" Abraham (Yaqui) Meneses. Jones picked himself up to win that one, and finished 6-0-0, with five knockouts.
Alonzo Highsmith At 27-1-2 with 23 KOs over four years as a heavyweight, the former NFL running back had arguably the most successful ring career of any boxing convert.
Mark Gastineau The NFL's former single-season sack leader went 15-2-0 against an assortment of doormen and movers; one of his two losses was a TKO by Highsmith in 1996.
Frank (the Animal) Bialowas The Maple Leafs enforcer turned heavyweight won his March debut in 1:46 of the first round; in his follow-up fight on June 3 he was knocked out in the third round.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
TODD ROSENBERG (2)
Sparring in a Chicago gym, the svelte Gill learned the art of the jab.