Alan Armstrong plunges right- and left-handed jabs into the heavy bag, dancing slowly to his right.
His cheeks redden with every round. Sweat begins to collect in the shoulders of his cotton T-shirt.
Larry Hopkins taps the speed bag, settling into a rhythm. One, two. One, two. One, two. From the sideline, his wife tapes the workout. She also serves as a cornerman, tightening his gloves and fetching his water bottle.
All the while, Matt Miller, a clean-shaven former amateur champion martial artist whose legs are wrapped in tattoos, coaches over the music at Dynamic Mixed Martial Arts and Fitness.
For the next 90 minutes, the fighters belong to him. They’ve stepped inside his world, and the workout is intense. So is Miller, 37, whose belts hang on the wall and steely blue gaze cuts down any excuse.
“Go to the head. Now go to the body,” Miller says. “One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four…”
Miller’s 10:30 a.m. class on Mondays and Wednesdays doesn’t look like the others. The fighters move slower and punch softer. To be sure, they are far more gentler than the grapplers tying each other in knots on the next mat.
In another space and time, this class of silver-haired retirees, grandparents and former athletes might be gathered around a brunch table or tee box, not shuffling around an 8,000-square-foot fight factory at the corner of Kiernan Avenue and Stratos Way.
They’ve been called here, though, to train as fighters of a different cause. They’re taking the fight to Parkinson’s.
Every Monday and Wednesday morning, Dynamic MMA and Fitness hosts Rock Steady Boxing, a non-contact boxing-based fitness curriculum sweeping the nation. With a focus on high-energy workouts, Rock Steady Boxing is dedicated to combating the symptoms of Parkinson’s at every level, from the recently diagnosed to those who have lived with the disease for decades.
Parkinson’s is a degenerative movement disorder for which there is no cure. More than 60,000 people are diagnosed each year, according to statistics on the Rock Steady Boxing website. As the number of afflicted grows, so does Rock Steady’s reach. There are 457 affiliates nationwide, and the newest one services the Central Valley.
“The people in here with Parkinson’s will die with Parkinson’s,” Miller said matter-of-factly. “We can’t help that, but how can we improve their quality of life? How can we help them walk upright?
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years. There’s no way I could look at my kids if I didn’t do something to help these people. The fight is real. They are fighting for their lives.”
For many the fight has been exhaustive, requiring far too much exploration and travel.
With so few resources in the Central Valley, fighters like Tina MacDonald and Hopkins have scoured the Bay Area and other major markets for answers … for hope … for alternative healing.
In October of 2016, MacDonald’s husband, Rick Bartkowski, approached Dynamic MMA owner Paul Mendoza with a business opportunity. Bartkowski made it really, really hard to say no. He secured a $5,000 grant through the National Parkinson’s Foundation that paid for Mendoza and Miller to fly back to Rock Steady Boxing’s headquarters in Indiana for a week-long certification course. It also covered an $800 affiliation fee with Rock Steady Boxing, as well as brochures and pamphlets.
‘The people in here with Parkinson’s will die with Parkinson’s. We can’t help that, but how can we improve their quality of life? How can we help them walk upright? ... The fight is real. They are fighting for their lives.’
Matt Miller, Dynamic MMA and Fitness trainer
“We had to do this,” Mendoza said. “It didn’t matter about the income or the business opportunities. We knew we had to do this.”
In Indiana, Mendoza and Miller were exposed to the power of Rock Steady Boxing. Along with classes, they worked closely with the local fighters. Mendoza met a gentleman in his 70s named Jim, a former mixed martial artist.
When Jim found Rock Steady Boxing, he was unable to walk. Through intense forced activity, Jim regained most of his motor function. Not only could he walk, but Jim wrapped his own hands before workouts and assisted the trainers from time to time.
“The most powerful moments were the live classes,” Mendoza said. “It was so hard to be in that room and not get emotional. I’m looking and Matt and he’s looking at me from across the room, and we’re both fighting back the tears. I’m a four-time world champion and master-level instructor, but it showed me just how small I really am.
“It was humbling. Every single person in that room had their own 12-round fight.”
Mendoza and Miller brought Rock Steady Boxing back to Modesto, starting small with a 10:30 a.m. class in July. There are five fighters in the group ... with room to grow.
When Larry Hopkins walked through the doors, Parkinson’s had robbed him of the ability to tie his own shoes. He also leaned dangerously when he walked. Today, Hopkins is much more balanced as he bounds through one of Miller’s circuits. The room is designed to test a fighter’s agility and ability to multitask. The drills are as much mental as they are physical. As Miller describes it: “Three different things, three different planes.”
60,000 The number of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s annually, according to statistics on the Rock Steady Boxing website.
They weave through a series of cones, moving side to side and forward, while juggling a tennis ball from one hand to another. As they round the room, they hop, skip and shuffle through a speed ladder. Again, the tennis ball moves from one hand to the other. The last obstacle is a series of foam sticks laid out like mini hurdles.
“His balance is so much better,” his wife Donna Hopkins said. “In the circuit, he was leaning while he ran. Now he’s upright. You can see his progress and it’s only been a short time. It’s been so beneficial. … A person with Parkinson’s needs to be here.”
Armstrong won’t leave.
A former football and basketball player at Downey and Modesto high schools, Armstrong has been tested by his body.
In 1998, he was diagnosed with Stage IV kidney cancer. Ten years later, he began to experience symptoms of Parkinson’s. Initially, he failed to recognize those symptoms — slowed movement of his left extremities and a changing gait. His bout with cancer had left him numb to his physical well-being.
“I think I was tired of doctors and medicine,” he said.
In 2012, he was clinically diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He’s still tired of doctors and medicine, but he has Rock Steady Boxing to thank for lightening his daily load. Armstrong wears a 24-hour patch on the back of his arm that allows the medicine to seep through the skin, and he has reduced his oral intake from three to two times a day.
Armstrong has experienced a change in symptoms, too. His left arm reacts faster to the bag training, and he no longer has the “frozen face” look so prevalent amongst Parkinson’s patients. The 56-year-old Modesto native feels strong, and beams when the conversation turns to his workouts.
In a room full of fighters and inspirational tales, Armstrong has the heaviest hands and fastest feet. Like Jim in Indiana, Armstrong hopes to assist in the Rock Steady Boxing classes one day soon.
“I love being active,” he said. “I like being coached through all the exercises and activities, and learning boxing. Parkinson’s has given me an excuse to get back into the gym.”
Rock Steady Boxing
Rock Steady Boxing (RSB) is an exercise program designed to improve the mobility, balance and strength of people fighting Parkinson’s. Dynamic Mixed Martial Arts and Fitness is one of the newest RSB affiliates, and owner Paul Mendoza and trainer Matt Miller are RSB certified. They host a class every Monday and Wednesday from 10:30 a.m. to noon at the facility, 518 Kiernan Avenue in Modesto. For more information, contact (209) 544-1615.