Wenyen Gabriel made offseason news when it became known his workouts include boxing. To continue the pugilistic theme, there’s a poster of Muhammad Ali in his room at Wildcat Coal Lodge.
“I like how motivational he was as a person,” Gabriel said of Ali. “How he was outside of boxing and his demeanor while he was boxing. His confidence.”
Gabriel acknowledged the obvious. He was born (in 1997) well past the time Ali was an athletic and cultural icon.
“Of course,” Gabriel said. “But what he did still lives today. His impact on our community and our culture. So it’s still alive.”
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Ali’s impact was memorably expressed at his memorial service last year. A minister said Ali transformed the persona of blacks from “nobody-ness” to “somebody-ness.” This change, Gabriel suggested, is how Ali continues to impact lives beyond the grave.
“It’s going to trickle down to our kids,” Gabriel said. “And I know it’s going to live on for a long time. … It’s crazy how I’m well past his time, and I can really feel it.”
Gabriel did not suggest that his boxing workouts this past offseason were an attempt to emulate Ali. It was almost coincidental. His trainer happened to teach boxing.
“So I decided to try some boxing for conditioning,” he said, “and I just got into it. … It was pretty fun. All of a sudden, I had to start looking for new sparring partners and I started getting into it.”
Kentucky basketball being a realm where hyperbole thrives, Gabriel instantly became more than a novice. One website declared video of him throwing punches “pretty impressive.” Another website labeled him “Wallopin’ Wenyen.”
Gabriel said neither he nor others in the workouts were walloping anyone. They concentrated on conditioning, using the speed bag and heavy bag.
“We sparred at the end of every workout,” he said.
When asked if he threw any knockout punches, Gabriel said, “We’re not trying to knock each other out. I really learned how to use my length a lot. That’s what really helped me out with boxing.”
It’s a safe bet that UK Coach John Calipari will implore his players to show more fight this coming season. If form holds, he will call repeatedly for his players to fight. Fight!
Gabriel hopes the boxing can help improve his basketball ability, just not in the sense of literally fighting an opponent.
“Basketball is almost like a fight …,” Gabriel said. “It’s, like, how you use your will to push through. In basketball a lot of times, you can just outwill the other team and win the game. In fighting, you can outwill your opponent.”
Gabriel’s will to box needed improvement. Of his initial reaction to boxing, he said, “I got tired quick. What?! This round is long as heck. Yeah, it was fun after that. It’s a mental game as well.”
His freshman season was something of a culture shock. Gabriel was not ready for the physical and mental demands that come with playing for Kentucky. His impact decreased as the season played out. He made only one of 19 shots after Feb. 21.
“You come in, you really don’t know what to expect,” he said. “Now, coming back, I know what to expect. And I can actually have a plan for it and I can be prepared for it.”
Gabriel said that all of his weightlifting numbers increased. “My mobility is the biggest thing,” he said. “I’m really proud of that.”
UK Coach John Calipari all but gushed about the improvement he saw upon Gabriel’s return to Lexington. For a Kentucky team expected to be remarkably reliant on freshmen — even by Kentucky standards — this improvement was most welcomed.
“Wenyen Gabriel is playing much better, thank God,” Calipari said. “So he’s not the same guy he was a year ago.”