Strength, stamina and smarts

Boxing gym's simple strategy is to keep members sharp intellectually and physically

In Silicon Valley's knowledge-based economy, where intellect is prized, voluntarily putting your head in the way of a flying fist might seem counter-intuitive.

But according to Tom Espinosa, founder of Contender's Gym, there is no better way to stay sharp.

"Boxing is about thinking," Espinosa says in a gravelly voice that sounds exactly like you might imagine coming from a former bartending school instructor who now runs a boxing gym in Mountain View. "It's a thinking man's game."

If you want to avoid taking a beating, you have to be quick -- both physically and mentally, Espinosa explains. You have to make the right decision and act on it right then and there.

Although he's not much for computers and social media -- he prefers to advertise with hand-drawn fliers and word of mouth -- Espinosa sounds a bit like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who once said his company's philosophy is to "move fast and break things."

Accordingly, Contenders Gym draws a diverse clientele. Espinosa says he trains computer scientists, doctors, lawyers, police, firemen, students and teachers. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the small warehouse space that houses the gym hosted four men in a range of ages, sweating to heavy metal music while they jumped rope, pounded at punching bags and took turns sparring with Espinosa -- jabbing at the padded focus mitts strapped to his hands.

"Love at first sight," is the way John Kimzey describes Contenders Gym. The former cross-country runner who is a researcher for a Palo Alto biotech firm says he has been working out with Espinosa for six months and he can't see himself going back to his old workout routine.

"It's incredible," Kimzey says of boxing. "There's no better workout."

Kimzey says he gets an "insane" cardiovascular workout at Contenders and has packed on lean muscle -- all without any fancy equipment. "It's nothing flashy," he says. "There's nothing extra you don't need."

Espinosa takes pride in the spartan functionality of his gym. It's basically a handful of dumbbells, some jump-ropes, a few benches, a few medicine balls, three punching bags, and a square patch of carpet, which can be roped off for sparring matches. "We got everything you need," Espinosa says surveying his gym, which is located in a small warehouse complex on Pear Avenue, just down the street from the Computer History Museum.

Sam Phong, a Milpitas resident working out alongside Kimzey, says he has been coming to Contenders for two years. He never boxed before he came to Espinosa's gym, but now he has hopes of going pro. Compact, with rippling, sinewy muscles, Phong is clearly in great shape, and he attributes his physical condition to boxing. "It's the best workout there is."

Espinosa says it would have been hard for him to avoid picking up the pugilistic sport. Growing up in Denver, his father and grandfather pushed him toward the ring. He wasn't all that convinced of boxing's merits, until an encounter with a much bigger schoolyard bully at the age of 14 made him realize just how powerful the "American art form" could be.

Espinosa vanquished his bully and from that day forward he was devoted to the sport. He even briefly flirted with the idea of turning pro.

He became a bartender and bartending instructor instead -- a job that eventually brought him to Silicon Valley in 2003, after some colleagues asked him to help him get their barkeeping academy up and running. After helping his friends with their business, his wife suggested that he start a business of his own, so he did -- founding Contenders in 2004.

Though he has taken other martial arts training courses and has a respect for other methods of self-defense, he maintains that when it comes down to it, a great boxer will be able to defeat any other martial arts master. "If you want to learn how to fight, you gotta go to a boxing gym," he says.

Steve Sarles, another regular at Contenders, agrees. After trying a few other martial arts gyms in the area, which he called "childish," he said he ultimately settled with Espinosa because he enjoyed his no-nonsense approach.

"I've learned what it actually means to box," Sarles says of his time at Contenders.

Espinosa says all are welcome at his gym so long as they are serious. To discourage anyone who might be looking for a workout program they can easily back out of, Espinosa charges his customers for three months upfront and in cash. "I want real commitment," he says. "I don't want posers."

For adults, it's $150 per month, with a $100 initiation fee. But once you join, Espinosa says, "You can come in six days a week and stay as long as you like. You can practically live here. You can make this your second home if you want. I don't care."

Talking with Espinosa, you get the sense that he certainly considers Contenders his second home, and has gotten very close to some of his clients. There is a plaque hanging on the wall commemorating the success of a former Contenders member, who says learning to box with Espinosa helped him beat his addiction to heroin.

He has a 9-year-old who regularly attends and he is clearly proud of Phong, whom he plans to help book his first professional fight in the coming months.

Espinosa says he is always eager to accept new members. "Anybody can join -- young, old, it doesn't matter," he says. "I'll teach you how to hit and not get hit back."

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