The highlight of my sweat-soaked visit to Box N Burn in Santa Monica? Training with the pro who’s taught Thor how to punch.
There’s something about sparring with a bronze medal-winning Olympic boxer that takes a workout up a few notches. That realization strikes me like a swift left hook during my first visit to Box N Burn, Santa Monica’s spacious boxing-for-fitness gym. Box N Burn is consistently dubbed one of the best workout destinations in America by everyone from Yelp reviewers to fitness insiders, and I’m ready to find out what the fuss is about. It’s an overcast Friday when I walk inside the gym’s wide garage-door entrance. Inside, I quickly find myself in the ring. My heart rate, already fluttering forcefully, shoots to 177 in the minutes after Tony Jeffries—former legendary British light heavyweight and now co-owner of Box N Burn—appears and asks with a grin, “Have you boxed before?” He calls out punches—one-one-two, one-two-hook—while holding target mitts level with his broad shoulders, one inked with a portrait of a tattooed, punk Queen Elizabeth. It’s my second time boxing, and I strive to impress … or at the very least not make a total fool of myself. Some punches hit hard with a satisfying smack; others barely make a sound. All the while, Jeffries quietly coaxes me into better technique: “Fist up. Rotate the hips.”
His demeanor is chilled out, but there’s something—maybe his voice, maybe the spark in his eye—that evokes tremendous strength, both physical and mental.
“Ever since I learned to walk, my granddad would get me into boxing stance and throw punches,” says Jeffries when we sit down to talk—my breathing still a bit labored—after class.
When Jeffries was barely into double digits, his dad began “forcing” him to train in his hometown of Sunderland, England. “I say ‘forced’ because I wanted to play outside with friends, get up to no good. But he wanted me off the streets.”
Jeffries’ gifts became evident a few years later when he won the national championship at age 13 (he’d go on to win six more). He still remembers the glowing feeling of “walking through the streets of Sunderland thinking, ‘I’m the champion of the whole country! Not just Sunderland—the full country!’”
Success snowballed: fights in Russia; a European championship; a prestigious Young Boxer of the Year award in England. At 15, he entered an eight-year Olympic training program. It seemed like a lifetime, but the culmination was winning bronze in Beijing in 2008: the highlight of his life.
After the Olympics, Jeffries went on to an undefeated professional career. But punching too hard for his undeveloped body early on had damaged his hands. He eventually lost the ability to even turn a key or zip his trousers. His hands still bear gnarly scars from failed surgeries.
He was forced into early retirement.
In 2012, Jeffries and his wife moved to Los Angeles in search of something. Within months, Jeffries had started a by-donation boxing bootcamp with trainer Kevan Watson, whom he’d befriended in Santa Monica. In November 2012, they opened Box N Burn in an empty warehouse space.
Within 18 months, Box N Burn had amassed such a following for its somehow meditative Olympic-style training workouts, Watson and Jeffries were compelled to open a second location in Brentwood.
Boxing for fitness has since become uber trendy, but Box N Burn pioneered the non-contact concept. (As Jeffries likes to say, “Get fightin’ fit without getting hit.”)
Back in the gym on that cloudy Friday—before I’ve sparred and chatted with Jeffries—a staffer finishes wrapping my hands just as the 9 a.m. signature Box N Burn class kicks off. My favorite Led Zeppelin song reaches its crescendo while a dozen other participants appear and begin bouncing in place.
We’re led by a pair of energetic trainers who are always giving pointers and doling out encouraging fist bumps, and we cycle through six stations. Two stations (one in the ring, the other at heavy bags) require gloves. The other stations involve kettlebells, medicine balls, jump ropes, and good old-fashioned body weight for a series of HIIT-style intervals.
The clientele is 70 percent female and surprisingly helpful: When a fellow student notices my perplexed pause between moves, she shows me what to do.
The beauty—and face-contorting strain—of this hour is that I never stop moving. Nor do I want to, until the sweet release of yoga-style stretching in the final minutes after an abs segment.
What I’ve just forced my body and mind through, Jeffries tells me, is a condensed version of his pro fight training. And that makes me feel even better.
Jeffries’ clients have included Chris Hemsworth (Thor himself!), Robbie Williams, and Ronda Rousey, but those recognizable monikers aren’t the only ones he’s interested in. “I think it goes a long way that we learn people’s names,” says Jeffries, who fist-bumps everyone, the mailman included.
The emotionally intelligent trainers at Box N Burn aren’t wannabe actors or models, but career fitness professionals wanting to be part of something that helps people, both body and mind. That could be through classes like the one I tried, or by leading specialized classes for those with Parkinson’s disease or for kids six and over.
“There are gyms where they just shout at you to go harder and faster and try to kill you, but here we teach real boxing techniques,” says Jeffries. “We want everyone to love this community and environment.”
Kathryn Romeyn is a Los Angeles- and Bali-based travel and wellness writer whose curiosity about the world leads her on beautiful adventures that are fodder for a newsletter (journeys.substack.com) and Instagram (@katromeyn).
This article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of alive US, under the title "I Tried LA's Favorite Boxing Workout ."