When boxing teacher John O’Brien sends his students to the equipment room at the FitRec Center for gloves and pads, they often notice a laminated news clip tacked to the door. The headline reads, “Hull Native Returns as National Boxing Champ,” and the story beneath it recounts how O’Brien won the 201-pound National Masters Championship in 2006 and again in 2007.
“He’s like a legit champ,” says Sarah Dolaty (CGS’12), who took O’Brien’s class last fall to help keep weight off. “When you realize the person teaching you has been to a high level of the sport, you should soak in everything from them.”
O’Brien, 63, teaches one of FitRec’s most popular classes. For close to 12 years now, he’s taught two sections of boxing, each with 40 students, and both almost always fill up. O’Brien says his students have no aspirations involving the ring, but they are looking for one of the hardest, most thorough workouts any sport offers. With O’Brien, they get that and more. As they chisel their abdomens and pump their biceps, students learn the foundations of classic boxing from a fighter who’s spent long hours in and around the ring.
No doubt movies like Mark Wahlberg’s The Fighter have made boxing cool in recent years, but Elizabeth Hurley, a longtime FitRec administrative assistant, says O’Brien’s classes have long been in demand, easily drawing more students, including women, than those taught by earlier instructors.
“I think it has to do with John,” Hurley says. “He’s so serious. He knows boxing. Just look at him and you know he was a boxer.”
During a morning class on FitRec’s second floor, O’Brien lumbers among his students on stiff, bowed legs, his thick arms and big hands hanging loosely at his side. The bridge of his long nose is crooked. His low growl of a voice has a touch of weariness when he intones “Beeeuuutiful” as his students jab at the air.
O’Brien drops into his boxing stance to demonstrate how to pivot. He raises his fists close to his cheeks and tucks his elbows to his chest. With his right foot forward, he begins to circle, pushing off from the floor with his left foot. “Pretend that right foot is nailed to the floor,” he says.
Then he spins, as lightly as a ballerina, and the weight of his broad shoulders and solid torso seems suddenly to vanish.
O’Brien grew up in Cambridge. At 17, he stepped into the ring for his first amateur fight, against a kid in Gloucester “with a pretty good jab.” He won in three rounds.
He became known as a puncher, a classic kind of boxer who stays in close to the other fighter’s body. Think Sugar Ray Robinson or Oscar De La Hoya. He fought 50 fights overall, winning about 95 percent. Back in the 1970s, amateur fighters did not wear headgear, nor did officials stop fights for bleeding. In one fight, O’Brien’s opponent smashed the bridge of his nose halfway into the third round. He fought on with blood gushing out of his nostrils as his nose ballooned. He lost by a split decision.
“I liked the challenge of fighting, of setting a goal and preparing,” he says. “The thing with boxing is the journey and not the destination.”
O’Brien says he considered going pro, but that would have meant giving up his union job as a carpenter and probably earning far less. So he fought as an amateur, eventually winning the Southern New England Golden Gloves in 1978, at 175 pounds. A year later, he walked away from the ring. Almost 30, he was getting too old, and with five kids, didn’t have the time.
For the next 20 years, O’Brien stayed in shape with carpentry and karate, earning a black belt and winning titles. In 1995, he helped train a friend for a masters boxing tournament, then decided to fight himself.
“Boxing is like drugs,” he says. “You miss it when you don’t do it.”
At the start of his class at BU, O’Brien stands in the middle of a ring dance of sorts. His students, mostly men but with a half dozen women, one in a hijab, shuffle around him in small sideways steps. They face forward, eyes looking ahead, holding their fists close to their faces. Arms crossed over his chest, unsmiling, as he often is, O’Brien inspects them as they circle past. He rubs his moustache, tugs lightly at the gold chain around his thick neck.
“Get your head up and your chin down,” he says. “Good, now move it to the left.”
The students pause, then bounce the other way. Spots of sweat spread on their T-shirts.
“I thought boxing would be just punching, but it’s a summation of all these little movements,” says Dolaty. “It doesn’t look like it, but the footwork, going around and around, is really tiring.”
O’Brien teaches boxing from the feet up, he says, because even a powerhouse swing won’t save a fighter who can’t move well. He also does it to test his students and see if they can stick with the boring stuff, the shuffling and the endless crunches and one-armed pushups, to see if they have guts.
“If they stick with that,” he says, “I teach them how to punch.”
And that is what he is doing now, running them through boxing’s 14 punches. For safety reasons, the University doesn’t allow the students to spar, so they practice hitting only with gloves and pads. Jabs, hooks, and uppercuts are thrown, and irregular thumps fill the air. O’Brien weaves among them, adjusting the way one holds his pads, pulling pairs closer together, showing a female student how to shoot her fist straight from her shoulder.
“He’s a good teacher,” says Sean Slattery (CAS’14). “He shows you what you need to do, rather then telling you what you’re doing wrong.”
“If you’re having trouble, he comes right over to you,” says Mikki Silva (CAS’14). A high school wrestler, Silva struggled to pick up the boxer’s stance when she began. She kept forgetting to keep her body angled, with one foot behind the other. As the class went through the endless drills, O’Brien would keep an eye on where her feet were, she says, and always matter-of-factly correct her.
Since he retired from carpentry in 1999, O’Brien spends six days a week boxing, either teaching or working out himself. Around 8 o’clock at night, he returns to Hull, where he lives with his second wife, Mary, and their daughter, Maureen, who’s an amateur boxer.
When he’s not at BU, where he also teaches kickboxing and the fitness class called Bootcamp, O’Brien can be found shadow boxing in the South Shore YMCA pool (the water is forgiving on knees stiff from years of carpentry), in Hanover, Mass., or at the Cyr-Farrell Gym in Quincy, teaching from junior-high kids to businessmen.
At BU, he says, boxing is most often a stress reliever, a couple of hours’ break from hitting the books. In Quincy, where he teaches for free, the kids need the discipline and self-esteem that boxing provides. They all also need good male role models or in some cases just a place to go.
O’Brien acknowledges that the Quincy classes can be depressing. Some of the kids come from difficult homes. One has lived in foster care since his prostitute mother threw him out. Another, who had hopes for the Golden Gloves, showed up high on heroin. “I told him I couldn’t train him anymore,” O’Brien says.
At BU, students never feel the blow of O’Brien’s glove, but in Quincy it’s another story. Like all boxing gyms, sparring is a crucial teaching tool here. On a December afternoon, O’Brien dons head gear, an abdomen guard, and gloves, his knee braces showing below his shorts.
A pale kid with rhinestone earrings, who barely comes up to O’Brien’s shoulder, braves the ring first. As O’Brien punches him lightly, the kid’s headgear loosens and tilts to the side comically. Then a tall, soft-fleshed teenager in stocking feet steps in the ring, followed by a kid everyone calls “Baltimore,” and last, a lean, dark-eyed teenager who punches hard at O’Brien. As he swings, O’Brien tells them to come in closer, to get out of the corner, to change their stance. He exhales a hearty “Ha, ha” as he lands his punches.
After three rounds of three minutes each with four kids, O’Brien steps heavily through the ropes. He’s breathing hard and sweat glistens on his face, chest, and arms.
“Who wants to fight?” he calls, his mouth guard muffling his words. “Who’s coming in with the old guy?”