‘Bull’ helps put the brakes on Parkinson’s Disease
By Paul Natinsky
For Wael “Bull” Abboud, teen years spent watching Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee and Evel Knievel ply their trades led to a boxing and kickboxing career, which took a surprise twist a few years ago.
“I went from that to jumping into karate, to kickboxing. Won an amateur kickboxing title in 1991,” Abboud said.
He became impassioned with boxing in 1989 and worked out at the legendary Kronk gym in Detroit. In 1992, Abboud won his pro debut, a unanimous decision.
He tried to become the first Iraqi-born Chaldean to win a title, but “God had other plans for me,” he said. Abboud fought an uphill battle as an undersized middleweight, a weight class where he said it is hard to make a living. He fought three or four times as a pro, often against slimmed-down heavyweights, before turning his talents to teaching.
Abboud, now 54, has owned boxing gyms his whole career dating back to 1991. He opened Bullz Boxing in 2013. “It’s more of a family friendly gym. We’re not looking for the next million dollar baby,” he said.
Bullz Boxing is located in a 200,000 square-foot building in Oxford called Legacy 925. It features a number of entertainment and activities businesses such as an arcade, archery tag, go-carts, a gym, restaurants and athletic fields. It was upon opening at Legacy 925 that Abboud turned the first page of his life’s next chapter.
When he opened his gym in Oxford, a man named Jim Rice visited and asked him if he had ever heard of a program originated in Indianapolis, called Rock Steady Boxing, boxing for people with Parkinson’s disease. At first, Abboud said he was a little uncomfortable dealing with Parkinson’s patients and pointed out that boxing possibly caused Parkinson’s in his hero, Muhammad Ali.
Rice was persistent, but the clincher was when Abboud saw an HBO special on Rock Steady. Seeing was believing. After observing the program in action, he and wife Marie made the drive down to Indianapolis to get certified.
According to RockSteady.org, “Rock Steady Boxing, the first boxing program of its kind in the country, was founded in 2006 by former Marion County (Indiana) Prosecutor, Scott C. Newman, who is living with Parkinson’s.”
Rock Steady Boxing initially began through the friendship of two men, Scott Newman and Vince Perez, after Newman had been diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at the age of 40. Refusing to let his friend go down without a fight, Vince turned to his experience as a Golden Gloves boxer to design a program that attacks Parkinson’s at its vulnerable neurological points. His intuitive insight is now proven to have merit through an increasing body of medical research.
Realizing that their experience might be replicated for others, Scott and Vince founded Rock Steady Boxing as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. As word of this unique program spread and the demand for the classes increased, Rock Steady Boxing created classes to meet the fitness levels at all stages of Parkinson’s – from the newly diagnosed to those who had been living with it for decades plus.”
“When we were down there, I really didn’t want to leave,” said Abboud. “I just felt like this is a really cool program and this is the plan God had for me. I wanted to be the world champ, but God was like this thing here you are doing to help these people with Parkinson’s is an extremely significant thing to do with (your) boxing skills.”
The participants feel Abboud’s passion and that he is there to help them, he said. Marie said many participants feel a sense of empowerment through the program. About 80 percent male, participants weakened by Parkinson’s gain a sense of renewed strength through Rock Steady.
Studies from the 1980 and ‘90s demonstrated that intense physical exercise helps lessen the disease symptoms, and, well boxing is nothing if not intense physical exercise.
“I tell them all the time—and the guys get a kick out of it—that I train them just like a pro fighter. The only difference is there is no contact,” said Abboud.
He said Rock Steady clients skip rope, work the heavy and speed bags and perform other boxing related activities, but there is no contact directed at them and certainly no sparring.
In keeping with Abboud’s family gym mission, none of Bullz’ classes require sparring.
For those who want a little contact and are healthy enough for it, Bullz uses what Abboud calls “big gloves” that contain about twice the padding that professionals use in matches.
Abboud’s experience with Parkinson’s patients is expanding as he develops programs such as the newly launched “over 50” program and classes working with children and schools, bringing the mental and physical confidence from boxing to those who need a boost.