Paulie Ayala made a career out of knocking out opponents in the boxing ring. Now, the Fort Worth hero and former bantamweight and super bantamweight champion is taking on a different foe with his Punching Out Parkinson’s campaign.
At his University of Hard Knocks Gym in west Fort Worth, Ayala conducts several Monday-Friday classes, along with a yoga class and a Zumba class each week for people battling Parkinson’s disease. On Friday, April 1, he will host the second annual Fight Night benefiting the nonprofit POP from 6:30-10:30 p.m. at Ridglea Country Club.
“We raised some good funds and everybody had a good time at the first one in 2019, but we haven’t had it since COVID hit,” Ayala said. “I think this one is going to do well also, a lot of people are happy to be able to get back out and enjoy events like this.”
The evening will feature amateur boxing, a buffet dinner, drinks and a silent auction. For tickets, contact via text 817-946-8870 and mail your payment to 4455 Camp Bowie Blvd. 114-230, Fort Worth, Tx., 76107.
Ayala, who retired in 2004 and opened his gym, said the POP program began a dozen years ago after a woman walked into the gym with early onset Parkinson’s. She was looking for something that would help her battle the disease and maintain some quality of life.
Ayala looked online into a program in Indiana to see what he should be aware of in coming to her aid. He was invited to attend a seminar and from there the program was underway.
“I didn’t see myself going into a program with Parkinson’s. I just wanted to help this one lady,” he said. “Her neurologist sent several more because she saw the benefits. I saw it works, so why was I not going to help them also?”
Ayala’s program teaches non-contact boxing techniques designed to help his students regain coordination, strength and balance. The atmosphere is also an environment of camaraderie.
“They liked everything we did so much it became a community,” he said. “It’s like a team now. We’ve become a family.”
That original participant has since moved away to Colorado, but they stay in touch, Ayala said. “She still exercises. That’s the main thing, staying active.”
The group even had potluck meals once a month before COVID hit. They would often include a speaker who would update them on the latest research and studies. Ayala is hoping those become a regular thing again, perhaps as soon as April.
Ayala also works with Dr. Christopher Watts, Dean of TCU’s Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences, in the local fight against Parkinson’s. In addition, Dr. Vicki Nejtek of the UNT Health Science Center is conducting a Parkinson’s research study at his gym.
Each regular POP class lasts an hour. On Wednesdays, in Tina’s Tunes, they add 45 minutes from 9-9:45 a.m., and Friday’s yoga session is 9:15-9:45 a.m., with each followed by a regular class.
Each regular class also features music, a variety that caters to the participants and their memories, Ayala said.
“We try to play music from when they were living life without Parkinson’s,” he said. “The mind is a powerful thing. For at least this hour they can feel a sense of accomplishment.”
The boxing regimen in POP is more than just a workout routine. It is designed to improve movement, speed, hand-eye coordination, balance, strength, speech, endurance and self-image. Parkinson’s can take all of these away.
The workouts also vary. For example, participants may go through boxing drills with pads, dribble a basketball, volley balls off a wall, go through foot drills or resistance training, or some combination of exercises.
“By not doing the exact same thing every time it keeps it interesting,” Ayala said.
Before COVID, Ayala’s classes peaked at around 80 students. Currently, he has about 60 enrolled.
During the height of COVID the gym closed for about six months and held virtual classes, Ayala said.
“When they came back they were excited and ready to go,” he said. “They did the virtual, but there’s nothing like in-person. They like learning. I showed them a lot of little tricks, and when they came back they didn’t forget them.”
Testimonials for the classes are plentiful on the gym’s website.
“I joined Punching Out Parkinson’s six years ago, shortly after I was diagnosed. My doctor and I agree that the advancement of the symptoms of the disease have been significantly slowed due to my participation in this program,” said Don Wells.
Linda Armand described her favorite benefits: “The ability to group exercise and co-mingle with others facing the same issue. An avenue to exercise and maintain mobility. The people are more than just supportive at POP, they project a caring attitude when it’s really needed; can’t say how wonderful they all are.”
Attention to Parkinson’s has been brought to the forefront with the diagnosis of celebrities such as the late Muhammed Ali and TV/film star Michael J. Fox.
Ayala believes much more can be done in the battle.
“In some ways I feel a lot about it is still new to people,” he said. “But I think it’s starting to get the type of awareness it deserves. It just can’t be fast enough.”
Born and raised in Fort Worth, Ayala won a championship in his hometown in 2004. He said being able to help his fellow citizens in the city he loves most is special to him.
“It’s definitely fulfilling. Confidence is 80 percent of winning in any competition, and these people are competing against Parkinson’s,” he said. “And I’m going to keep doing it until there’s something better or there’s a cure.”