GLEN BURNIE, Md. (AP) — Paul Tillery paces the gym, waiting for his students. Dressed in ripped denim jeans and a black warm-up jacket, with his nickname “Coach Superman” stitched in red on the back, he takes a couple of bare-knuckled shots at a body bag.
The owner and operator of Hardcore Boxing and Fitness at Marley Station mall looks tired. He has reason to be — the 37-year-old former sailor works nights stocking shelves at a nearby BJs. He leaves work around 5 a.m., goes home and catches a few hours of sleep before heading to the gym around 10 every morning. He doesn’t leave until the mall closes at 9 p.m.
When asked how he muscles through such a demanding routine, Tillery concedes some days are better than others.
“A lot of prayer and basically excitement and energy of seeing my students,” Tillery said. “They make it worthwhile.”
As Tillery’s students trickle in after 5 p.m., traces of fatigue begin to disappear from Tillery’s face and body language. He bounces around the gym as pop and R&B music thumps on the radio.
Superman begins to fly.
Tillery doesn’t take home a huge paycheck. He says the $100 students pay every three months in membership fees go back into the gym – it covers rent, electricity, equipment.
He opened Hardcore Boxing and Fitness in 2009 in a small gym tucked along Ritchie Highway in Pasadena. In November, he moved the gym to Marley Station in the hopes of attracting more traffic.
It hasn’t been easy.
“I think the big misconception with my gym right now is — people think you have to fight,” Tillery said. “I just use boxing as an engine to get people back in physical shape.”
Tillery’s love of the sport started early in life. Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, Tillery played traditional sports like basketball, football, soccer and track — but never boxed, he said.
“It was always a sport I watched on TV, always admired,” he said. “It never was a sport readily available to me growing up.”
That changed when after a stint in the Navy, Tillery found himself in Chicago in the late 1990s and decided to finally try his hand at the sport.
He ended up winning two Golden Gloves titles as an amateur heavyweight before returning to the region in 2003, he said.
Tillery continues to box as an amateur. His next fight is scheduled for April in D.C.
Hardcore Boxing and Fitness has around 40 students, ranging in age from 6 to into over 50. Tillery is of the mindset that you’re never too young to start training. The overwhelming majority of his students are there a few times a week, if not every day, he said.
Tillery points out 16-year-old Glen Burnie High School student Will Unkle as one of his success stories. Unkle, a tall and lanky kid in red, white and blue boxing trunks a la Rocky Balboa, leads a class of about a half-dozen in warm-up exercises.
Like Tillery, Unkle says that he was always fascinated by the sport but never had the opportunity to try it, until coming across Tillery’s Pasadena gym last year. After one year training with Tillery, Unkle has dropped about 60 pounds, but Unkle’s transformation isn’t just in his body.
“There’s something about the sport that just makes me, me,” Unkle said.
But if you ask Tillery, he’ll tell you he’s not just training boxers, he’s molding character. He keeps his young students so disciplined that if a student’s grades are not up to snuff, he will refuse to train them.
At 6 feet 2 inches and 225 pounds, Tillery doesn’t look like someone you’d want to get in a scrape with. On the other hand, he doesn’t appear intimidating or unapproachable.
In fact, as he instructs his younger students about where to hold their hands or how to shift their body weight with a punch, he appears to have a natural rapport with them. He has the kind of demeanor one would expect from a kindergarten teacher rather than a boxing coach.
“Some of the stuff they do is pretty tough. He has a way of teaching I don’t know what it is,” Robert Cradle of Odenton said. Cradle’s 8-year-old daughter, Riley, began training at the gym shortly after it opened in the fall. She’s now fascinated with the sport.
“I think what she gets out of it most is the self confidence that she does something well,” Cradle said.
According to Tillery, instilling that confidence in the younger Cradle makes it all worthwhile. The coach believes he can instill that same confidence in anyone.
“It’s definitely a tough workout,” he said, “but anyone can do it.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)