TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) - When you think of boxers, you might think of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson or even local standout Robert Easter, Junior.
Add the so-called Bop Bop Bang champs at the International Boxing Club of Toledo.
A little slow, gray and wobbly, these Parkinson's patients don't look like your typical boxing champions. But with each toe touch, jab, or drill, members of the Knock Out Parkinson's program are working to knock out this disease and showing improvements they and doctors did not think was possible.
"They're fighting with this disease. It's bigger than any fight in the ring," explained Coach Harry E. Cummins, III.
Cummins is the founder and executive director of the gym that developed this boxing therapy group with the University of Toledo. Unlike other programs, the classes don't cost patients a dime.
As many as one million Americans, and up to 50,000 Ohioans, live with Parkinson's.
This neurological disease has no cure. It weakens the muscles and compromises a person's memory and mood.
Simple daily actions we take for gr anted can be difficult or impossible for Parkinson's patients.
"It's easy for you to blink your eyes or smile at me. But for some of them to take a step, to think about taking a step, they get stuck," said Dr. Beth-Ann Hatkevich of the University of Toledo.
Dr. Hatkevich oversees the medical part of the program, which began in 2014 with four patients.
Today, 95 are enrolled. Graduate students collect data and classes are now offered every day of the work week, growing to include Cardio-drumming and a stretching class called Delay the Disease.
Exercise has proved to help slow down, and in some cases, reverse the destructive progression of Parkinson's.
"There are five stages to Parkinson's. When I came here my doctor said I was at a three and a half," said patient Tammy Dunlap-Keill. "He's amazed at my progress. My systems here are down to a two and half."
Her improvement in her gait and balance means she can walk her son down the aisle at his summer wedding, something a few years ago she thought would be impossible.
Researchers say boxing's power, intensity, the repetitive, precise sequence of motions like jabs and shuffling, as well as the social interaction with people going through the same thing, can be a game changer for patients like Frank Tammarine.
Tammarine is taking a break from medication and their side effects.
Of the boxing bag, he says, each time he comes to the gym, Tammarine hits it with everything he's got because, according to him, it's "giving me life."
Mark Sommer, who like Dunlap-Keill was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's in his forties, agrees.
"It keeps us from staying at home, feeling sorry for ourselves," Sommer said. "The days I come here are the best days of my week."
Coach Harry hears how his Bop Bop Bang champs credit him with giving them a new lease on life, he tears up.
"My job is to motivate my boxers, people," he said. "They don't realize it but they motivate me."
Dr. Hatkevich and Coach Cummins say this year, they plan to add comprehensive analysis of the data they collect and life skills classes.
Until there's a cure, these champions say the movement, motivation, and community from these classes is helping them cope, and in some cases, slow down this disease one punch at a time.