At this point on the calendar, Anton Watson is all basketball all the time. His fifth and final season in a Gonzaga uniform is fast approaching with the regular-season opener vs. Yale on Nov. 10.
But a while back, Watson and the Zags had a couple weeks off to recharge their batteries before the onset of fall semester classes and practices. Most of his teammates returned to their hometowns, but Watson, who grew up in North Idaho and has lived in Spokane for years, was already home.
Watson wanted a break from basketball, but not from preseason preparations. GU video coordinator Kurt Bambauer asked the 6-foot-8 forward if he was interested in boxing workouts.
“We had like a two-week break where everyone went home and I was kind of chilling,” Watson said. “Kurt asked me if I wanted to try to do some boxing workouts, something other than basketball. I was up for it.”
Former Zags guard Mike Nilson, Gonzaga’s director of performance and nutrition, had trained at Rick Welliver’s Spokane Boxing gym and helped Watson and Welliver connect.
Watson went to the gym every other day for hour-long workouts. He quickly discovered boxing tests everyone, even high-level collegiate athletes.
“It’s tough,” Watson said. “It’s straight conditioning, just work. It’s pretty fun, but it’s pretty hardcore. It was definitely harder than I thought.
“I thought we’d just come in and be punching bags, but he had us doing planks for three minutes straight. I was like, ‘Yo, this is a different type of workout.’ “
That’s a common response from newcomers to Welliver’s downtown gym. He’s worked with pro hockey players and area college and/or prep wrestlers, football, soccer and volleyball players. He’s also trained a few triathletes and CrossFit competitors that bit off more than they could chew.
“They’ll say, ‘I want to box.’ OK, and you see these guys halfway through a workout kind of break,” Welliver said. “This is different.
“It’s such an intense workout. There’s a reason why they call (boxing) the sweet science. It’s the only sport you don’t play. You play football, you play basketball. Boxing reveals character quickly and you’ve either got it or you don’t.”
Welliver was impressed with Watson’s performance in the gym.
“I treated him like everyone else and he ate it up,” Welliver said. “I showed him how to box, shadow box, a lot of hand pads, hit the bags, a lot of conditioning. Basically the same thing we do with everybody, a workout specific to boxing.”
Boxing workouts have become fairly popular for professional athletes. NBA players Damian Lilliard, Joel Embiid, Jusuf Nurkic, Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma have posted boxing drills on their social media accounts. Shaquille O’Neal used to do MMA workouts in the offseason and Carmelo Anthony trained in boxing gyms.
Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby spent part of his most recent offseason training with UFC middleweight champ Sean Strickland, often going three rounds in the octagon.
Watson didn’t do any sparring but he did glove up, working on combinations and firing away at punching bags. Assistant coach Stephen Gentry accompanied the Gonzaga Prep grad and “the first day he was struggling, I ain’t gonna lie,” Watson said.
“A lot of bag drills, speed drills, intervals hitting the bag for 15 to 20 seconds, putting together two, three and four-punch combinations,” Welliver said of a typical workout. “It’s super ballistic. Kind of the bottom of my gym we do a lot of old-school stuff – crunches, planks, push-ups, sit-ups, leg raises.”
Intense conditioning drills was exactly what Watson was looking for – and they came with a bonus benefit.
“It was fun to get my mind off basketball,” he said, “and do something else and try something new.”
Watson has been dedicated to training and healthier eating for months. There were questions about his conditioning in May when official test results were released from the NBA G League Elite Camp. Watson was last among attendees with 19.1% body fat and a weight of 241.4, well above his listed roster weight of 225 last season.
That was then, this is now. He’s noticeably thinner and weighs 229 pounds with 12% body fat. He credits sticking to his routine over the last four-plus months, including the boxing workouts.
“That has feeling better,” Watson said. “Just my eating habits are so much better. I’ve been going to the store and getting my own food, fruit, I think that’s the biggest thing for me. But once we start playing that’s when I really start losing weight.”
Watson can feel the difference on the court.
“I definitely feel more bouncy,” he said. “I think injury wise, my body feels better, my knees don’t get as sore anymore, my ankles feel better. You can definitely tell if you lose a couple pounds.”
Welliver said Watson is a natural who “could be good at anything he wanted to do.”
Asked if Watson picked the right sport with basketball, Welliver responded, “he’s in the right sport. He’s going to max it out. But I’ll tell you what, if he ever decided to become a fighter, I would train him in a heartbeat.”