Westwood Health & Fitness is not just a workout facility for Kule. He’s found camaraderie there. Pal Ron Starace makes sure Kule takes his medicine at 9 a.m. each day. Burton Hall will call Kule’s home if he doesn’t show up.
Then there’s O’Neill, whom Kule met just a few years ago.
O’Neill, 51, said he mostly kept to himself at the gym. Kule approached him one day when he noticed the NYPD boxing T-shirt the former undercover police officer was wearing.
After thanking O’Neill for his service, Kule asked if he had seen a “60 Minutes” special that touted the benefits of non-contact boxing for Parkinson’s patients. Kule was already involved in a program called Rock Steady Boxing for those battling the disease, but hoped to pick up more skills. O’Neill agreed to train Kule, and they “hit the ground running,” he said.
O’Neill said he sees Kule not as a Parkinson’s patient but as an improving fighter whom he would ask to perform any kind of movement or combination that he would ask a professional fighter to try. And Kule gets it done.
“He’s one of the best fighters that I’ve ever had the privilege of training with, because he doesn’t have the quit gear,” said O’Neill, who has trained in boxing since he was 18. “You can teach a jab and an uppercut and a hook, but you can’t teach heart — this kid’s all heart.”
James Beck, vice president of scientific affairs at the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, a division of the Parkinson’s Foundation, said exercise like boxing requires participants to think about how to move their feet and interact with a partner, helping with cognitive problems Parkinson’s patients can experience.
But perhaps most important is the social aspect, which “keeps the mind limber,” Beck said.
“Interacting with people helps combat something that people with Parkinson’s often feel, and that’s a sense of isolation,” Beck said.
Indeed, the relationship between O’Neill and Kule has transformed into a friendship that Kule says has “given him another dimension of life.”
Kule’s booming laugh, less frequent since he became ill, makes an appearance with the ribbing that O’Neill offers up after their session. The pair spar with ease in and out of the ring.
But when training, both are serious about the progress being made.
“He has this imperishable truculence,” O’Neill said of his friend. “He just wants to keep moving forward and he loves the competition. The kid can fight.”