The women at James White Fitness are breaking the No. 1 rule of fight club: They’re talking about fight club.
It’s not just any fight club, and these aren’t just any women. “The Old Lady Fight Club,” as the unofficial members have dubbed themselves, is open to anyone who wants to put their body through a 45-minute cardio kickboxing session up to three times a week.
These women are tough: Some can flip a tire, do full push-ups, slam a 20-pound medicine ball against the ground and throw any kind of punch.
They weren’t always fighters. Several months ago, Angela Jimenez-Calhoun started training with James White, a former MMA fighter who owns a gym off of Highway 9. White — whose gym was formerly in a Campus Corner location — teaches submission grappling and the martial art Muay Thai, and started offering cardio kickboxing classes over the summer.
When she came to White, Jimenez-Calhoun was just looking to get stronger. She’ll be 55 next year, and wanted to rebuild endurance by running a 5K.
“Because I am 54, I noticed some significant changes as a woman in my body,” Jimenez-Calhoun said. “I'm thinking, ‘wait a minute, what's going on here? I need to get somewhere where I can start building up my endurance again and feeling like I can move around better than I was.’ Because you kind of get used to just doing things the same way and then you realize that's not working anymore.”
Soon, she brought other women along, empowered by the patience she found in White. What started as a personal training training session grew into Jimenez-Calhoun spreading the word among friends, and getting White to create his cardio kickboxing class.
“I thought 'there's got to be other women that feel like I do, that they need a space where they can feel comfortable enough to work on their body and and feel encouraged and empowerment,'” Jimenez-Calhoun said.
Now, on any given Monday, Wednesday or Friday at 6:30 p.m., White’s warehouse-like gym is filled with the sounds of rhythmic pop and rock music and a crew of women punching, kicking and squatting to the beat.
Cardio kickboxing doesn’t involve sparring with other people (that’s reserved for Muay Thai), but it is martial arts inspired. Participants wear gloves to punch bags and a dedicated dummy named Bob, and combine punch and kick moves with traditional cardio warmups.
The core group that attends regularly — and calls itself “The Old Lady Fight Club” — is a crew of five to nine women, all over age 40, who are learning to push their bodies.
Nationally, it's not too unusual for significant numbers of women to take cardio kickboxing classes; according to a 2019 study on the workout from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, about 65.5% of cardio kickboxing participants are women. But the study also points out that most female cardio kickboxers are between ages 25 and 44 — from ages 35 to 44 to ages 45 to 54, female participant numbers drop by nearly half.
On a wider scale, White said he knows martial arts spaces can be male-dominated, and can get intimidating. But he hasn’t been caught off guard by the amount of women who frequent his gym.
Opening new doors
“The interest in kickboxing and Muay Thai from women, it wasn't necessarily surprising because it is a male-dominated sport, but I've always known tough women — my mother and my both my grandmothers are very strong willed, tough, successful in their own right,” White said. “And so that doesn't surprise me, but I'm pleased by it.”
The “vast majority” of White’s clients — in private training and group classes — are now women, he said. The women don’t necessarily think of themselves as breaking down gender barriers in fitness — they just wanted a space for community and strength building.
“My career has been in a male dominated space and I was brought up as the only girl of four children, and so I've been a male dominated spaces my whole life,” said Joyce Johnson, one of White's newer clients. “So my parents were really good about teaching me at an early age is that your space is what you create it to be, so I don't really see a lot of gender barriers holding me back....to do kickboxing because it was male dominated, that wasn't a motivation for me. It was fitness and these women right here.
The fight club, which fluctuates in size weekly depending on who can make it to class, doesn’t just exist within the walls of White’s gym. The women go for drinks after class, attend neighborhood events with each other and go to community fundraisers. White will even cancel class on nights when they have community events so he can attend with them, they said.
White is no stranger to community involvement. He frequently hosts kids’ workshops or community classes, like the women’s self defense workshop he held at the end of October. In September, he held a kitten yoga event benefiting Noble’s Heartprints Animal Rescue; soon, he hopes to host a kid-sized American Ninja Warrior competition.
The gym and White’s training are intense, but he’s not the type to yell at trainees or push them harder than they’re able to go. He’s adaptable, working with clients and their bodies and laughing and joking with his trainees through the cardio kickboxing class.
“More than anything else, I hope that's what I've created here is a comfortable environment where people feel safe, they can come in here and be themselves,” White said. “...It's not martial science, it's martial art — it's a way of expressing yourself. And so if someone comes in here and they're not doing something that's technically proficient, I don't get hung up on that if they're not trying to fight. They're coming here to get into a workout, so if that's what they get out of it, then great.”
The right fit
Figuring out fitness for these women’s bodies was a new challenge for White and his clients, they said. There’s certain moves they can’t do anymore, but Johnson said White is always adapting for them.
“He's told me it has been a challenge to have an all-woman kind of training group because he's never done that before, especially women of our age — he's never trained, I don't think anybody over 30 years old or maybe 25,” Jimenez-Calhoun said. “But he's really quick on the adjustments.”
No matter your fitness level, there’s no judgement at this gym, said Johnson. Students aren’t competing with each other — they’re competing with themselves, pushing to do better than they did last time, she said.
“There's no kind of gym snobbery going on around, I wouldn't allow that,” White said. “Students want me to succeed and they want to have new people coming in and want to make them feel comfortable.”
The classes have offered the women several benefits in the months and weeks they’ve been attending. Of course, there’s the physical: they have new muscles, agility and stability, and find consistent progress in their workouts.
“My 22-year-old son was in Houston over the summer, and when he came home, he hadn't seen me in a couple months and he was like 'mom, you look buff,'” said Lisa Gerard, one of the gym’s clients.
But for this group of women, who have already weathered tough circumstances and build up decades of mental fortitude, a workout like cardio kickboxing also offers “an opportunity now to catch our bodies up to our minds,” said Johnson, who was new to working out when she first came to White’s gym.
“It's not just the age, it's life experience that this particular group comes together with a lot of mental toughness already, the brain is a lot tougher, and the motivation is probably a lot more built out than our bodies are,” Johnson said. “So it's kind of a mind over matter, at some point, that you're just not going to give up, you've been through worse things in your life emotionally, mentally, that now we need to get our bodies in the same shape, get our bodies up to speed with our minds.”
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