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Jan 3, 2018

Trainer Spotlight: Curtis Fikes “The Hulk”

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“Man, do you guys know how much Yu-gi-oh cards cost?” I shook my head and a smirk played across King’s face as we listened to Curtis’s story at the front desk. “When I used to get beat up in high school back in Houston they would tear up all of my Yu-gi-oh cards–I had to replace my entire collection twice!”

“Aw Curtis, that is so sad!” I gasped. “That is actually really sad,” King admitted. “But I mean, I was about to feel sorry for you–then you know,  I remembered you were from Texas!” He let out a maniacal laugh and stomped off to get his mic check ready for class. Curtis stood silent, his face downcast as the ghost of his former self floated past.

It was hard to imagine a guy like Curtis had ever been bullied in his entire life. One hundred and ninety-two pounds of solid muscle and able to deadlift more than five hundred pounds, TITLE Boxing Club Clarksville’s strength training coach and manager has earned his apt nickname, “The Hulk.” This normally docile guy who looks like he could be a goofy older brother turns into a raging beast in class–his face and Army-eagle-tattooed biceps turn bright red, sporting his American flag bandana and blasting his trusty 90’s mix. He was the first trainer I ever took a class with at TITLE Boxing Club Clarksville; dripping in sweat within three minutes of his warm up, and with a hook series that slammed his bag so hard you could probably have heard it from out the back door–I had never seen anything like it. “Who IS this guy?” I thought.

“I felt I was feminine,” he told me. “I was in 12th grade, I had never played sports, I never had my dad there in my life, and I just kind of threw myself in the middle of football. My mom didn’t even want me to go out for the team.”

“I went to go get my physical on my own; I did everything on my own, nobody knew who I was, I benched less than anybody in the entire gym. I was the weakest person on the team, I was fat and out of shape–they were opening a gym across the street called fitness connection. It was a franchise and it just opened so they were doing a big special–ten dollars a month to join so I started training there, with that and football every day, I got better and better and better. I never became a professional athlete or anything like that, but I stuck with it. I got knocked around a lot, and in the end I did start one game”

Curtis missed the jock train in high school, he was more of the book guy–a band enthusiast, honor roll student who got accepted into the University of Texas on a full academic scholarship into the school of Marine Biology. He loved science–the ocean–and was passionate about literature and music.

But despite his 10,000 dollar scholarship, he was still paying 8 to 9 grand out of pocket every year and just couldn’t afford to continue with his college career. He quit school and joined the army when he was 18. Not only did it help with the bills, he claims that the Army came along at a special time in his life when he needed to learn discipline. He ended up staying in for nine years, with two deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. “I loved it, I loved the Army, “ he admitted. “It was hard, hard work, but I needed it in that time in my life–I had great people around me.”

 

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During his military career he began to harness his strength, perfecting his physique to the absolute extreme and participating in bodybuilding and later strongman competitions.

I asked him what bodybuilding really entails–it was a field so completely and utterly foreign to me. All that I could picture in my mind were glistening muscled men in speedos with spray tans.

“Bodybuilding is all about aesthetics it’s the way you look,” he explained

“So it’s like a beauty pageant?”

“Sort of, but for the body. There are a lot of categories in it, and each one targets a different aesthetic approach and bodybuilding in men means how much muscle you can put on while keeping everything symmetrical–like you don’t want to have huge shoulders but no chest.”

“So it’s like sculpting your own body?”

“That’s exactly what it’s like–your diet, food is your plaster and the weights are what you use to carve it, detail it.”

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Curtis had finally gotten to a good place in his life–a decorated military career and he had finally synced: his physical body and mind were operating as one. He had just been promoted to platoon sergeant, and was gearing his guys up for a third deployment.

“I had trained my dudes for a whole year non-stop, we killed it, I was very proud of them,” he told me. “But then I tore my ACL and they stripped me from my platoon prior to deployment.”

They put him in the S3 shop at a computer–he spent over a year hacking away at a keyboard for 11 hours a day. The experience demeaned him, and feeling lost, he decided to abandon the military. “I decided no one will ever control my fate again,” he said firmly, “No one is ever going to do this to me again.”

If it’s true what they say that our trials shape us and show us what we’re made of–Curtis proved the strength of his character through his setbacks; using a pitfall as a tool for evolution, instead of sorrow.

“After I tore my ACL, I would say I had an ego deconstruction. I broke myself down and I started figuring out–not in a bad way–but how can I become a better version of who I already am,” he explained “I took some time away and when I reengaged things, I did it from a leading from behind standpoint–I was watching, I was trying to figure things out–I was reading things outside of the box–how to increase strength, how to find myself.”

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He regained his strength and began competing in strongman competitions. “I love strongman because it’s as primal as it gets,” he explained. “You’re picking up things, pulling a car–there was one yesterday which was a Viking ship pull, like an old school Viking ship pull.”

“Wow! What could be manlier than that?” I laughed.

“RIGHT!” his face lit up. “Just pulling a Viking ship across the snow, how cool is that? So strongman competitions are where you’re going to have six events of different things–crazy stuff like that–functional strength—and it’s just as beastly as you can get and you go toe-to-toe with one other person.”

Strength training is his passion and he carried it into his fitness career. After moving around to a few different jobs after the Army, he finally settled in as his role as manager at TITLE Boxing Club Clarksville–a tough job in-and-of itself–but he also balances his managerial role with working as a personal trainer, leading a small group for functional strength-training on Sunday mornings, and teaching some of the most innovative and cutting-edge classes in the club. All of this on top of juggling home and work; maintaining his most precious role as a dedicated husband and caring father.

A workload that most would struggle to even sustain, Curtis still challenges himself daily to introduce new techniques to his students. His was the first class where I ever experienced dynamic moves like curtsy kicks and a spinning elbow or back elbow–a counter move in case you miss your cross. He designs workouts around signature moves of famous fighters, or even particular fights. One of his lessons involves alternating defensive and offensive maneuvers–with inspiration drawn from the Mayweather vs. Pacquaio fight. This last week he introduced a new move using two-bag punches. “The fighting application could be two person, the fitness application is you can do non-stop power into long distances,” he explained. “You have to throw long hooks putting in a larger greater work output, that’s why I saved it for the burnout.”

Curtis’s background in science has translated into his training–every day he is trying out new hypotheses. Everything about his classes is cognizant, taking into account the number of people in class and whether they were new guests or experienced TITLE Boxing Club members. Everything is perfectly paced, every move has thought behind it, and every single strike has a reason.

 

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His small group on Sundays, called the Gladiator Challenge, is designed around the idea of functional strength, in other words, any form of physical exertion that would be utilized in the real world (versus things like bench-pressing which serve no functional purpose). He is constantly introducing new exercises to challenge his students, everything from pulling themselves across the wood floors of the gym with a rope, to learning to catch a 100 pound bag with proper stance. “We need to learn the right way to do everyday things, like putting a baby in a low lying car, or carrying groceries; it’s the smallest things we do in life that are either going to promote health or hurt our bodies,” he said. “Pulling, pushing, dragging, carrying–these are the things we get out of touch with.”

“Take for instance the third world squat,” he ventured. ‘Do you know what I’m talking about?”

I laughed because I knew exactly what he meant–traveling in Asia I saw people crouched on their heels doing daily tasks for hours on end, a position that would be extremely uncomfortable for a westerner after just a few minutes.

“Your body is designed to survive– it will adapt to anything you do over and over again,” he explained. “So if all you do is sit all day, your body gets used to not being mobile.”

Curtis prefers to learn the skills that he teaches his students via the mentor and student model versus the traditional education system; which is often rather rigid and leaves out a wealth of individual and collective knowledge. He is a strong practitioner of individual study, and dedicates much of his time to absorbing knowledge from his mentors; men like Chris Bernard and Elliot Hulse, a guru who outlines the fallacy of the separation of the mind, body, and spirit.

“When it comes to strength and the mind ‘the flesh you are in is the channel for the strength of your mind,’” he told me. “Meaning if you want to have a strong mindset then you need to have a strong body to channel it, otherwise there’s a disconnect.” Curtis says that his ultimate goal as a trainer is to help people find the strongest version of themselves, and that that embodiment of strength may look very different depending on the individual.

“How did you find your own strength?” I asked.

“Honestly,” he paused for a moment. “I still don’t think I’m there yet.”

“I’ve come a long way in my physical body, but I feel like my mind lacks the strength I need yet. But I mean, you’re always growing; if you find yourself comfortable–I automatically red flag it, it’s a sign that you need to change.”

“I think intelligence-wise, I’m ahead of the game, and in personal training. But personal focus, I haven’t even touched on it. It upsets me because I’m trying to figure it out and I don’t know how– and that’s how it is too when I think of fitness–I don’t just want to be a part of it, I want to lead it–I want to be the evolution of it.”

“I heard an analogy, that it’s like the branches of a tree that keep growing out and keep creating new branches and new branches and new branches–well, I want to be the next tip of the tree that grows that new branch–I don’t want to be, you know, just another leaf on the tree, just on there somewhere. I want to create something.”

“That must be tough,” I pondered. “I imagine it can create a lot of anxiety, if you have that kind of drive and that kind of passion. Then when you’re not there yet–I guess it could be unsettling if you aren’t keeping up with your ambition.”

“It’s a lot to handle. I think it’s a good thing as long as you know a positive way to spin it. I’ve gone through up’s and down’s– it’s been rough. I think ever since I got out of the Army. I know that I’m meant do something great, I just don’t know what yet.”

We talked mental journeys, the paths to enlightenment that seemed almost beyond mortal grasp–and the chatter that obscures them. We talked spiritual guidance, Allen Watts, and new religions. He told me about the Bahá’í Faith, a practice that talks about how everything in the world relates to each other.

“It’s kind of like Avatar,” he explained. “That interconnected network of living things.”

“Everything in this world is about finding a connection. You’ll find a connection–exploring is how you do it–it’s the same in your fitness journey; you gotta see if you want to be a boxer or Crossfitter. There is so much to be discovered, I’m not particularly religious but I am an enthusiast of beautiful literature–books like the Quran, the Bible–there’s a lot to learn from that stuff.”

There were so many layers there, underneath the muscles. The more I talked to him the more I saw another side to Curt, philosophical and altruistic. He was someone who I could talk to both about proper lifting technique and which pre-workout to drink, but also eastern religions and yoga.

And he hasn’t stopped growing–one day Curtis hopes to transform further–to cross over and take the knowledge that has been passed down to him and stand on a stage himself telling a crowd of people the secret to harnessing their inner strength. But until then, he will continue on his journey of self-discovery–transforming the lives of others as he did his own and constantly seeking to evolve further in his training. “I find a lot of third party stories help people relate,” he told me. “Like if I can do it, you can do it.”

“Ok, one last thing,” I asked. “Why the Hulk?”

the hulk

“I love the Hulk because I’ve never been a fan of the all good superheroes: the Captain Americas that are all ‘we’re going to save everybody and sacrifice ourselves’ I like the Punisher and the Hulk–I’ve always been attracted to them, then I chose the Hulk because I’ve always loved strength. I want to lift more, I want to be a beast and who’s more beastly than the Hulk? That’s literally what he does, the more angry he gets, the more ferocious he gets.”

“But it also appealed to me in the sense of I know what it’s like to go from being a nerdy nobody to someone who has strength,” he said. “I’ve been Bruce Banner, and I’ve been the Hulk…so there’s both sides of that to me.”

Brute force, over-aggression, and shallowness are the obvious assumptions for someone of Curtis’s background—but he couldn’t be farther from that. His life has been guided by humility, acute emotional intelligence, and the an incessant drive to innovate–perhaps the last things you would expect from an ex-infantryman, former bodybuilder and strongman. Getting to know him has challenged all of my former preconceptions and has shown me that there is a hidden depth to all of us–a deep-seeded facet to the human condition just waiting to be uncovered; if only we will take the time to scratch the surface of those who come across our paths, and allow them to transform our lives.

Article by Kirsten Hall


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