Sweat poured off Jeffrey Nockelin’s face last Thursday morning as he ducked under his sparring partner’s gloved hand in the small gym. His torso swung back up under the blow and Mr. Nockelin unleashed a pair of jabs into his partner’s padded gloves.
He exhaled as another swing from his partner flew overhead, and wound up for more punches. The two made their way across the matted floor of Mr. Nockelin’s gym in Greenport, the pace never slowing.
Tinny rock music blared from a small radio nearby but was drowned out by the sound of his training.
Smack, smack, swish.
Smack, smack, swish.
Mr. Nockelin, a native of Greenport, has a lot on his list of accomplishments. He’s a fitness trainer who started his own business, a father of two and a cancer survivor.
But there’s something else he wants, something he can hang on the wall next to the tall mirrors and the old boxing posters of Ray Mancini and Muhammad Ali: a belt from this weekend’s amateur boxing competition at the legendary Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.
“Even though I’m 47 now, I stay in good shape,” he said after the training ended. “I want to throw my hat in the ring one more time.”
That’s what last Thursday’s workout was all about. It marked one of the final training sessions in a nearly three-month regimen for the biggest fights of Mr. Nockelin’s short amateur career.
Mr. Nockelin said he didn’t enter the competition in the light heavyweight division for the money. After all, there’s no cash prize. He just wants to prove to his clients — and himself — that he can still make it.
“The body’s an incredible machine,” he said. “I want to test mine.”
It’s something his partner of 10 years, Naomi, fully supports.
“I’m totally pumped for him,” she said while sitting on a bench at the gym days before the tournament. “Since day one I knew he had a passion for this. I’m just super confident in his abilities.”
Mr. Nockelin’s 8-year-old daughter, Olivia, said she’s also excited for her father to fight in the matches, though she admitted she’s a bit nervous. What if he gets hurt, she wondered.
“He might come home with a huge black eye,” she exclaimed.
As she talks, Mr. Nockelin’s 3-year-old son, Jeffrey Jr., runs around the gym, punching a child-sized speed bag stuck to the floor while his dad smacks his own bag to pass the time.
Even when he’s not training, Mr. Nockelin is training.
Jeff Jr.’s interest in his dad’s favorite sport echoes Mr. Nockelin’s own childhood growing up in Greenport.
He was a tough kid who loved to watch boxing. He roughhoused with his cousins after school and even built a boxing ring with them in the loft of a barn, using posts and some old rope. They’d spar with each other in the humidity and the heat.
But in his early 20s, Mr. Nockelin began losing weight, dropping down to about 135 pounds from 195 pounds.
Eventually, he went to the doctor for what he thought was a bad chest cold.
It was not.
An X-ray revealed that Mr. Nockelin had a malignant tumor the size of a grapefruit growing against his heart and pressing into his lung. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and underwent a year of grueling, but successful, chemotherapy.
Once Mr. Nockelin was cancer-free, he launched back into his workout routine with gusto, devoting himself to getting back in shape and gaining back the weight he had lost.
“I started building my body back up,” he said. “I always had a chip on my shoulder. After going through something like that, you feel like you’ve got to prove yourself.
“I want to show people I may have had cancer, but I’m not damaged goods.”
Mr. Nockelin moved to Seattle and trained with famous boxers, including Greg Haugen, a four-time champion. He fought a few times at an amateur level, but mostly focused on personal training. He also loaded airplane luggage to make money, but lost his job when the airline laid off its workers.
He moved back to Greenport and started his personal training business and gym in a small studio off Route 25; he named it the “School of Hard Nocks.”
That’s where he was last Thursday afternoon, working through a final set of drills with his sparring partner and client, Jason Odell.
Mr. Odell said two thing come to mind about Mr. Nockelin: perseverance and punching power.
“Jeff’s really good,” he said. “He can kick my ass. I know he takes it easy on me.”
As Mr. Nockelin ducks under Mr. Odell’s blows, an 81-year-old man wearing a sweat-stained white baseball hat watches, his hands akimbo on a brown leather belt and light-washed jeans.
Phil Suydam never got in the ring professionally, but boxed through his parish team as a kid growing up in Manhattan.
He even worked out with famed boxing trainer Charley Goldman, who coached the legendary Rocky Marciano. But that’s as far as Mr. Suydam went.
“Getting a little older, I let it go,” he said. “I was too busy raising a family … I’m no spring chicken.”
But he’s been back in the gym for the past few months training Mr. Nockelin, calling out combinations and exercises during the workouts.
The two met years ago, when Greenport was set to host a boxing exhibition in which Mr. Nockelin was scheduled to fight. That event was later canceled, but Mr. Nockelin and his new coach kept in touch.
“We get along great,” Mr. Suydam said. “He works hard as hell. He’s very dedicated to what he’s doing.”
When this latest tournament came up — at the same gym where Cassius Clay prepared for his title bout with Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran and Jake Lamotta also trained — Mr. Suydam agreed to train Mr. Nockelin again. At first, Mr. Nockelin was too bullish around the ring, too willing to aggressively trade punches, Mr. Suydam said.
“He had a little bit of a temper in there,” he joked.
Mr. Nockelin is more tactical now, more able to step back and assess the situation in the ring. More important, he’s competitive enough to hold his own.
“He’s got the talent and he’s got the heart,” Mr. Suydam said. “This is a worldwide tournament. They’re coming from all over the world. He’ll be fighting top-notch amateurs from all over … I expect him to do very well.”
Mr. Odell was even more sure of Mr. Nockelin’s chances this week.
“He’s going to win,” he said. “He’s going to win the title.”