The desire to lose weight and racial battle fatigue inspired Dr. J. Luke Wood to take up boxing. Now he’s aiming to move up in the sport.
The title of the session stood out amid the many academic-sounding events at the Chicago conference: “Boxing for Health and Wellness.”
The “moderator” of the event, Dr. J. Luke Wood, showed up for the session wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Me — I’m in khakis and a polo shirt that felt strained in the gut area. I figured Dr. Wood was going to tell session attendees how boxing and mindfulness are related, not expect us to do anything. His wardrobe indicated otherwise.
The correct word is actually “attendee,” not “attendees,” since no one else showed up for the 6 a.m. session on the second day of The Council for the Study of Community Colleges Conference. The other session moderator, Wood’s good friend and colleague at San Diego State University, chose to stay in bed, telling me later it was because he hadn’t yet recovered from the Chicago/California time difference. Fair enough.
It’s just me and the scholar boxer this early morning.
The forty-one-year-old Wood is an amiable, immediately likable guy who is the vice president for student affairs and campus diversity and a Distinguished Professor of Education. He’s got more job titles within his field, but I was most intrigued by the fact that he boxes, which I discovered on social media prior to the Chicago conference.
Before getting started, Wood and I talk briefly about Rocky and Creed movies. He tells me about his appearances on Dr. Phil, where he participated in a debate about claims of discrimination against white people in areas of education. Dr. Phil announced the hanging up of his show not long after Wood’s appearance, making me think later of boxers over the years who have weaved into and out of the sport.
“Why don’t you stand up!” Wood says, getting things started. We warm up by rotating our left and right arms in a circle motion in both directions, twenty times each. He tells me I’ll feel a burn in the shoulders while doing this, and he’s right. But it feels good.
After rolling our shoulders backward and forward and stretching our arms, Wood explains why he got into boxing. A major part of it was his weight. He was at 262 pounds and knew he had to do something. Boxing was the answer because it stimulated him at the gym. The non-contact shadow-boxing workouts he did made the pounds melt away. Wood had officially joined the more than five million people in the U.S. who box as a way to get exercise, according to Statistica.
When his weight got into the 210 range, Wood noticed he was in better shape than others who had taken their boxing exploits to higher levels. He started shadow sparring and then shoulder-body sparring with partners, activities in which the physical contact gradually increased.
As we dive into the lesson, Wood teaches me how to stand as a boxer and how to stay centered back, not centered forward. In a sport of “inches,” if you lean forward too much, you’re going to get whacked, he tells me with a laugh.
We go through the common types of punches, starting with the jab, the most crucial one because it sets the tone for a fight. Head down, eyes on your opponent, protecting the side of your face with your shoulder. Guarding yourself in the adrenaline-fueled sport of boxing is every bit as important as the punches you throw. Wood views his arms as a sword and a shield, one acting as a “weapon,” the other serving as “defense.”
“You know how you’re leaning off to the side a little bit?” Wood asks me as I jab at the air.
“Uh-hu,” I mumble, expecting a poor critique.
“That’s fantastic, actually.”
Turns out it’s harder to hit an opponent when you’re not on the “center line,” as Wood describes it, and the punches you receive hurt less because they glaze off at an angle rather than landing directly.
The second aspect of Wood’s journey into boxing had to do with racial battle fatigue, a term first heard in 2008 from William A. Smith, a professor of ethnic studies and education, culture & society at the University of Utah. RBF is described by Smith as the “cumulative result of a natural race-related stress response to distressing mental and emotional conditions.” Such conditions, Smith says, stem from “constantly facing racially dismissive, demeaning, insensitive and/or hostile racial environments and individuals.”
Within the sterile rectangular room we’re in that has grayish tones, six rows of empty seats on two sides, and a dark-brown podium with a mirrored plaque that reads “Intercontinental Chicago Magnificent Mile,” Wood tells me about RBF symptoms — physical, physiological, and cognitive — that are common, and ones that have likely affected him: anxiety, worry, anger, resentment, frustration, tension headaches, elevated heartbeat, extreme fatigue. There were more he listed and ones I found online. Boxing offered a respite from all that.
“Those are all things that I had found, at least personally, that I can have a more intense day, and box, and then I feel like, ‘Okay, I’m back to point zero,’” Wood says.
My arms slice through the air as I learn new punches such as the hook and uppercut while concentrating on my footwork. At one point Wood pulls a boxing glove out of his bag. He holds it high and moves it around, telling me to try to hit it.
“Imagine that is not my fist,” Wood says about the glove, “but that’s my head. Why would you want to keep your head moving? Because it’s harder to hit you, and even if they do hit you, it’s a graze rather than a straight shot.”
Wood calls out the numbers of the punches I’ve learned so far and I throw them on command, but now there’s the extra element of moving back and forth with a defensive mindset. After thirty-five minutes into the session, I’m more out of breath than I thought I would be. Yet the hardest part is keeping track of all the instructions correlated to each punch and thinking about my overall movement.
There is no such thing as a dumb boxing champion, Wood tells me. In fact, he says, the best fighters have “super-level intelligence.”
“Every single person that you see who’s an elite-level boxer is a person who, if they had wanted to apply their mind differently, would have been a doctor or an engineer or something else, because it’s that level of thinking,” Wood says.
Many who know Wood might say he has a sharp mind as well. He’s aware of the risk of traumatic brain injuries when it comes to boxing and says he has not taken a ton of head shots so far. When they do happen, he makes sure to turn his head to alleviate some of the impact. Still, it is boxing.
“If you don’t want to get hit, then you should probably pick a different sport,” he says.
Dr. Wood now weighs 188 pounds and works out twice a day Monday through Saturday and once on Sundays. All that is separate from his lifting regimen. He has three amateur fights under his belt, two unsanctioned and one sanctioned, and has come out on top in all three. He started in the Elite Division but now must participate in the Masters Division of USA Boxing because of his age.
What’s in store for the boxing career of the scholar boxer who loves the sport and seems to put one hundred percent into everything he does?
“Because I’m at this kind of weird age where I can’t get the kind of higher-level competitions that I’d like,” Wood says, “I’m probably going to take a couple of low-end pro fights. That’s the goal.”
As I thank Wood for teaching me a bit of the boxing ropes, as it were, we run into Soko Starobin, another conference attendee who is about to lead a “wellness engagement” event in the same room. Her talk will highlight the elements of mindfulness and manners through Japanese tea engagements. Starobin is one of those people whose calm, elegant presence could lower a person’s blood pressure by fifty points in the space of seconds. She stops Wood and I to offer a holistic tidbit.
Starobin tells us of a Japanese saying that encompasses the beauty of the symbiosis within a person who combines scholarly endeavors with physical activities.
“When you put them together, you’re complete,” she says.
I look at Wood, the embodiment of the cerebral and the physical. He has an appreciative look on his face and is smiling.
Photo and video by Sal Nudo