Main Event

In a converted garage at M1 Concourse in Pontiac, men and women learn the fundamentals of boxing, and reap the benefits of training the body and mind.
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Going the Distance - Lila Lazarus, a former health care reporter for Fox 2 who now runs her own production company, trains reguarly at M1 Fight Club in Pontiac. // Photographs by Nick Hagen
Going the Distance – Lila Lazarus, a former health care reporter for Fox 2 who now runs her own production company, trains regulary at M1 Fight Club in Pontiac. // Photographs by Nick Hagen

Charlene Shaya is COO of Wixom-based J&B Medical Supply and a former Oakland County assistant prosecutor. Lila Lazarus is a former health care reporter for Fox 2 who now runs Lila Productions in Orchard Lake.

Both women regularly take part in a gathering designed to enhance their professional effectiveness, confidence, and focus by being encouraged to punch each other — and their trainer, Jeff Watters.

Welcome to M1 Fight Club, the Pontiac-based facility where people come to practice boxing and leave with a heightened spirit of energy and drive that can then be applied to their professional lives. By the way, don’t be surprised if many of the clients are female executives of major metro Detroit companies.

“Let’s face it, we feel tough,” Shaya says. “You’re not going to mess with us.”

M1 Fight Club would be easy to miss for anyone who doesn’t know where to look. Operating out of a garage at Pontiac’s M1 Concourse, it’s a boutique fight gym surrounded by an atmosphere of motor sports and classic cars.

That’s because former professional boxer Watters, who owns the operation with partners Steve and Kathy Minns, saw an opportunity to turn an underutilized asset into a top performer. “When I was still boxing, I would come up with out-of-the-box routines,” Watters says. “I got kind of a weird reputation with other fighters.”

Weird, but good, because the other fighters noticed that the routines got results. As far back as 1994, when Watters was in his early 20s and still trying to establish his own fighting career, he was being asked to help train others. His combined fighter/trainer career lasted until Watters turned 37. That’s when he was told that one more fight could end not just his career, but his life.

“I was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy,” Watters recalls. “I was getting ready to go to Puerto Rico for a fight and I was told, ‘No, you’ve got to go to Beaumont. You’re in congestive heart failure.’ ”

Watters didn’t believe the diagnosis at first. He had no symptoms, and he had just run the Chicago Marathon a few months earlier. But after initially resisting surgery, he had a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted in his chest.

With no more opportunity to fight, Watters recognized his good fortune at having already established a reputation as a fight trainer — but he wanted to do more than train other professional fighters. He saw boxing skills as critical to both the physical and mental well-being of non-athletes, and he wanted to make the training available to a broader audience.

Fight Club - Steve and Kathy Minns purchased a condo garage at M1 Concourse in Pontiac and added a boutique boxing facility inside called M1 Fight Club. They co-own the club with former professional boxer Jeff Watters.
Fight Club – Steve and Kathy Minns purchased a condo garage at M1 Concourse in Pontiac and added a boutique boxing facility inside called M1 Fight Club. They co-own the club with former professional boxer Jeff Watters.

At no point did Watters decide to specifically market to executive women. As he picked up a few clients, though, he discovered that his reputation was growing via word-of-mouth. In 2007, Lazarus was one of the first people to train with Watters. “I started with Jeff when I was at Fox,” she says. “My whole career was about convincing people to live healthier lives and wellness. And here, Jeff doesn’t let you phone it in.”

Clients show up ready to train and Watters cycles them through a series of exercises that includes shadow boxing, speed bags, jump ropes, and more.

Shaya likes the fact that thanks to her boxing skills, she could handle herself if threatened. She’s also found that the benefits of boxing training extend far beyond the physical.

“It helps with the sharpness of your brain,” she says. “When you’re doing boxing skills, you have to be on cue with your thinking. It not only helps with self-defense, it helps with stress. I love all of it.”

Lazarus and Shaya both express the benefits of getting up early in the morning and working out in the ring before going to work. The average person who’s trying to wake up in the morning probably doesn’t think about getting in the ring, but Lazarus says they should. “It goes against your grain to think this is going to give you energy,” she says. “Everyone feels so fatigued these days. But this gives you energy.”

According to Watters, it’s much easier to train women because men tend to think they already know what they’re doing. “Men will come in, for the most part, and spend time saying, ‘I know, I know, I used to get in a lot of street fights,’ ” Watters says. “You’re 55. When was the last time you were in a street fight?

It’s harder to get a guy to take direction, to throw a punch the right way, whereas most of the girls come in and, for them, it’s more of a foreign thing.”

Watters insists the women who train with him become much better fighters than their male counterparts, in addition to reaping the benefits in other aspects of their lives. “Boxing makes everything you do better,” he says, “and the women get that better than the guys do. The guys want to fight. They don’t necessarily want to learn how to do it. You have to come in here dumb, telling yourself you don’t know anything.”

Right Cross - Jeff Watters trains Lazarus during a recent boxing session at M1 Fight Club. She typically trains early in the morning, before going to work.
Right Cross – Jeff Watters trains Lazarus during a recent boxing session at M1 Fight Club. She typically trains early in the morning, before going to work.

In a typical training session, Shaya and Lazarus bounce around the ring with Watters, jabbing at his padded hands while being careful to get their feet and hip action right, which adds power to their punches. Both fighters seem surprisingly quick, but it soon becomes clear there’s a reason for that.

“You can improve quickness,” Watters says. “People think quickness has to do with hand speed, but it doesn’t. It has to do with hip movement. Punching power, on the other hand, is something you either have or you don’t.”

Out of these sessions comes some eyebrow-raising advice. One might not expect a trainer working with female executives to give advice like “Don’t hook with a hooker.” But in the boxing sessions, the meaning of the term soon becomes clear. “If you’re sparring with someone who has a good left hook, you don’t want to lead with a left hook,” Watters says, explaining that such a tactic will almost always leave a fighter on the losing end of the exchange.

As he presents this often-repeated advice, Lazarus and Shaya nod knowingly. They’ve heard it and internalized it already. It’s part of the mental preparation that helps them make good decisions in the ring — and keeps them sharp when they get back to the office.

Most of this boxing fun is headquartered upstairs, in one of the many private garages M1 Concourse offers on a condominium basis. It was previously used by retired dentist Steve Minns and his wife, Kathy Minns, to house some classic cars. The couple once had plans to build out the garage to possibly include a kitchen, a bar, or some other amenities.

Those plans were curtailed when, in 2018, Steve Minns suffered a stroke. It forced him to sell his Novi-based dental practice and to reconsider how he might be able to use the M1 space. His post-stroke prognosis wasn’t encouraging, and didn’t necessarily include walking again, but he had been training with Watters for a year prior to that point, and Kathy Minns suggested Watters work with her husband on some boxing techniques that might serve as rehabilitative therapy toward regaining the ability to walk, as well as to promote other motion.

As the three talked, the couple saw an opportunity to partner with Watters on the use of their M1 garage and invest money in its development as a boxing gym. Today, Watters and the Minnses are partners in M1 Fight Club.

The creation of the club fulfilled a vision for Watters, who had hoped at one point that M1 Concourse would build him a garage specifically for boxing. While that never came to fruition, the partnership with Steve and Kathy Minns brought about the same result.

american flag title brand boxing glovesDuring group workouts, some participants have the job of “catching” the blows from their counterparts. If that sounds like a less-than-appealing task, there’s also plenty of training value to it. “It’s tougher, sometimes, catching, but it’s also a better way to learn the combinations,” Watters says. “I could do a boxing class on a rooftop and have 20 people, and not have a bag or anything.”

For that reason, Watters often brings little to no equipment to the sessions. As much as everyone values the training, he says there’s nothing like actual sparring. “If I say to my people that we’re going to punch bags, half will show up,” Watters says. “If I say we’re sparring, every single person will show up.”

Sparring involves head gear and plenty of safety measures, but it’s still fighting. Watters pulled out a recent photo of him with a gash above his eye to prove the point. This sparring isn’t a passive, leisurely exercise.

Beyond group sessions, Watters offers a series of 10 private sessions for $1,100. Those who would like to split a session with one or two others can sign up for 10 split sessions for $450. For groups, which Watters tries to limit to eight people, the cost per person is $250 for 10 sessions. And for those who want to train like professional boxers, Watters will put clients through six weeks of six-days-a-week training — along with the help of a nutritionist — for $2,500.

By design, M1 Fight Club has no other trainers. Watters does all the training himself because he wants to give clients the very specific experience he offers — the same one that got him the weird reputation with other fighters back in the mid-1990s.

In addition to the female executives who make up such a significant part of his clientele, Watters also trains players from the Red Wings and has a fair number of male clients. Often, he finds that the most important threshold a client must clear is learning not to fear the pain of being hit.

“After you know what it feels like, the mentality is different,” Watters says. “You realize this thing you were afraid of hurt, but it isn’t that big a deal.” 


Train and Recover

Kathy Minns had been training with Jeff Watters on boxing techniques for about a year when her husband, Steve, suffered a stroke. It forced him to sell his Novi-based dental practice and resulted in the couple bringing in Watters as a partner in the use of their garage at M1 Concourse in Pontiac.

From that sequence of events, M1 Fight Club came to be located in Garage No. 77. But Kathy Minns had something more in mind when she contacted Watters in the midst of Steve’s recovery from his stroke.

“Steve had only been home for a month after his stroke, and he was still in a wheelchair in the house here,” Kathy says. “I mentioned to Jeff that maybe the boxing would be good for Steve, and Jeff said he thought we could do it.”

Watters had worked with people who were recovering from concussions and other head injuries, so he was confident he could come up with an approach that would help Steve Minns. At the time, doctors were skeptical that Steve would walk again, so Watters devised an approach that would not only get him punching, but would also stimulate his brain.

“I was boxing before I had the stroke,” Steve says, “but at this point I was totally laid out, and my wife said to me, ‘Listen, Jeff is going to come to the house and you’re going to start boxing again.’ All I could do was sit in the chair and swing one arm. That was it.”

Over time, that changed. “Jeff makes these combinations that are unbelievable,” Kathy says. “He was punching this way and moving that way, and it helped Steve’s brain to connect. It’s not just physical, boxing; it’s mental.”

In the past two years, Steve has made significant progress, and he credits Watters’ help in leading him to such a solid recovery. “I didn’t think I had the courage or the ability to do it,” Steve recalls. “But Jeff said, you can do it. And we started just in the chair.”

Now 71, Steve Minns hopes others will take inspiration from his experience. “I want to encourage people who have had strokes or have some kind of disability,” he says. “You can do much more than you think you can, if you’ve got the courage to do it.”

Dan Calabrese

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