Dancing To A New Tune Ballet Teacher Lets Holyfield Stay In Championship Form

Posted: April 18, 1991

ATLANTIC CITY — For the past six months, male visitors to Marya Kennett's ballet studio in Goshen, N.Y., have been acting, well, just a bit odd.

"Sometimes, when I'm teaching class, I'll look up and notice the fathers (of her pupils) peeking through the door at me with this strange look on their faces," Kennett said. "It's a look that says, 'That's her. She's the one.'

"And the little boys will come up and, you know, get into a boxing stance. It's so cute."

Not since Ingrid Bergman, playing the role of a well-intentioned nun who helps a nerdy student stand up to the class bully in the 1945 film classic ''Bells of St. Mary's," has a less likely figure been linked to boxing. But Kennett, a petite, feisty woman whose 63 years in dance had brought her recognition only within the arts community, now finds herself a celebrity of sorts as a key member of Team Holyfield.

The spotlight does tend to find you when you're associated with the heavyweight champion of the world.

"It's really amazing," Kennett said of her greatly expanded fame. "So many people who don't know the first thing about ballet come up to me now and want to talk about boxing. As if I knew anything about it."

Kennett, who is 70 but could pass for someone 20 years younger, doesn't claim to know a left hook from a pirouette. Until last September, she hadn't even heard of Evander Holyfield. The first prizefight she ever saw was Oct. 25, when Holyfield won the undisputed heavyweight championship on a third- round knockout of James "Buster" Douglas.

Her second visit to a boxing arena comes tomorrow night, when she watches Holyfield defend his title against 42-year-old George Foreman in Atlantic City's Convention Hall.

"I can't say I've become a boxing fan," Kennett said. "I am a fan of Evander Holyfield."

Holyfield is a fan of Kennett's, too.

"Marya has helped so much," Holyfield said. "I'm a lot more flexible since I've been working with her. I don't get hit with the shots I used to get hit with. It's not that I didn't used to see the punches coming; I was just too stiff to get away from them sometimes."

Officially, Kennett is Holyfield's "flexibility coach," part of a massive retinue that includes conditioning coach Tim Hallmark, weight trainer Chasee Jordan, computer analysts Logan Hobson and Bob Cannobio, personal assistants Mike Weaver, Anthony Williams and Willie Holyfield and, of course, more traditional boxing types in co-trainers George Benton and Lou Duva. Her job is to keep the heavily muscled Holyfield as limber as possible.

"I think some people have a misconception of my work with Evander," Kennett said. "I am not teaching him ballet or anything to do with ballet. Can you imagine him doing grande jetes in the ring? That would be ridiculous.

"Evander is a wonderful athlete, but at this point in his life it would take me 20 years to transform him into a ballet dancer, if that were the idea. It isn't. What I do, basically, is to stretch him, keep his muscles limber so that he's ready to go on fight night."

Kennett works with Holyfield every morning. She puts him through a torturous 90-minute session in which she does more than simply instruct.

"She's over 60 and she can do many of the things that even I can't do," the champion marveled. "It's the hardest part of my training. We work on my abdominal muscles, and there's this one type of situp that I couldn't even do once when we first started. And she kept going! She's incredible."

How Kennett became associated with Holyfield makes for an interesting story that, depending upon one's viewpoint, has two beginnings.

The first beginning dates back 20 years, when Holyfield was 8 and took up boxing. That's when he pledged to himself that he would become heavyweight champion someday.

On the road to making that goal a reality, Holyfield, always an independent thinker, began to wonder if there might be alternatives to some of the long- established concepts of boxing training. He was learning proper technique, to be sure, but a stamina problem at the outset of his professional career led him to ask questions for which he had no answers. Was there a better way to improve his durability? His strength? His flexibility?

Holyfield's endurance was greatly enhanced when Hallmark, who had been recommended to Duva by a physician friend six years ago, came aboard. Since then, Holyfield, sometimes on his own initiative, has brought in Jordan, Kennett and the computer guys. It should be noted that the stodgy traditionalists in the camp did not greet all of the additions with enthusiam.

"George Benton was skeptical at first," Kennett acknowledged. "But I got him to change his mind about me. George has this bad shoulder; he couldn't raise his arm above his head. After I started working with him, he was able to do things he hadn't been able to do in years.

"He said, 'Yeah! I see what you mean now!' After that, George never questioned my being around."

Holyfield's search for someone like Kennett might have begun as a vague notion in his childhood, but contact was established in September 1990 by Lisa Direbiere, a former dancer married to Showtime executive Jay Larkin. Since Showtime had televised a number of Holyfield's fights, Direbiere, through Larkin, knew of the fighter's interest in improving his flexibility.

Enter Kennett, who had never worked with a professional athlete - "unless you include ballet dancers, who are exceptional athletes in their own right" - but decided to lend her expertise to Holyfield because "I thought it would be fun."

In Holyfield, who weighed in last night at 208 pounds, she found a fighter with a body seemingly sculpted from marble, but whose range of motion was severely restricted by the very muscles that made him so impressive-looking.

"He was so tight," Kennett recalled. "It was like he was a prisoner trapped inside his own body. But what a body! I really believed I could help him. And I think I have; he can do things now he couldn't do before."

Kennett said that Holyfield, had he committed himself to formal dance training in his youth, might have developed into a great ballet artist. She also can envision such legendary dancers as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov as boxing champions.

And her assessment of Foreman, the hefty cheeseburger king who weighed in at 257 pounds? Might he, too, benefit from her ministrations?

Kennett wrinkles her nose at the audacity of the suggestion.

"I don't think I could do anything with him," Kennett said. "I would never tackle such a project. It's too late."

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