When John Chapman was in the fifth grade, his dad, a boxer in the military, gave him a speed bag. This ignited a spark that would lead to 42 years in kickboxing. Little did John know, when he was nine years old, he would someday use boxing to manage his Parkinson’s Disease (PD), as well as positively impact others battling with the same diagnosis.
I recently had the pleasure of putting on the gloves with Johnny, as his friends call him, and I was inspired to hear his story, struggles, and triumphs. To understand where he is now, it’s important to know his complete journey.
The Fort Walton Beach native became an elite competitor, and by the age of 15, he was racking up kickboxing titles in Northwest Florida. He went on to be a champion in his division, not only in the state of Florida, but on the East Coast as well, and ultimately turned professional by the time he turned 20. John quickly moved into the Top 10 World rankings and was #3 by age 26. Two years later, he earned the title of United States Light Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion. Before he retired at 33, he had accumulated multiple titles all over North America.
When asked what moment in his kickboxing career was the most significant and special, John answered, “When I was 24, I went to Montreal, Canada and beat the Canadian Champion.”
While all the victories are memorable, the 51-year-old doesn’t want to be known for the titles and the ornate victory belts he has to show for them. “There are winners and losers in every sport,” John says. “Just because you win a title or a championship doesn’t make you a winner. Your character and integrity define the real winners. I want to be known for helping others that
struggle with what I do, whether emotionally or physically.”
Kickboxing isn’t the only fighting he’s done in life. John says, “When I was at the top of my game, people would say, ‘Here’s the Golden Boy – let’s party with the champ’ and I bought into the hype that I was some up and coming celebrity, infallible to the disease of addiction, but I wasn’t. After I retired, I continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol. I had some dark times fighting my own demons. That was the biggest fight of my life, but it also led to me having an attitude of gratitude today. I’m not ashamed of it, nor proud of it, but by the grace of God, I lived to tell about it.”
John later became a registered nurse, while continuing to train and stay in great physical condition. In 2015, he became certified as a personal trainer. “Rod and Angela Perkins and Adam Chatterton encouraged me to start personal training and opened their doors and allowed me to start my business at their gym, Paradise Fitness Gym at Carillon Beach,” explains John.
In recent years, the decorated kickboxer has found himself entering the ring again, but this time the contender is an unlikely and most unwelcome opponent. Eight years ago he noticed his left hand shaking uncontrollably and his speech was slurred at times. In 2016, he was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. It often starts with a slight tremor that’s barely noticeable. While tremors may be the most well-known sign of Parkinson’s Disease, the disorder can also cause stiffness and slow movement.
Ironically, movement is exactly what John is using as a method to manage his own illness, but also in working with others suffering from the debilitating disease just like him. After spending time with this competitor, it’s not surprising to discover he chose to use boxing to battle Parkinson’s. He’s integrated the sport into his personal training and unique fitness classes, and one-on-one sessions with clients facing the same challenges.
“My experience with the human body and mind, mixed with my nursing background and tireless amounts of hours spent researching Parkinson’s, not to mention being a world-ranked athlete, sets me apart from most other trainers,” John says. “Whether it be in the gym, me having Parkinson’s, or my personal experience with the affliction of addiction; I just want to help others.”
His slogan is, appropriately, “Chapman’s Champions – Where’s Everyone’s a Champion.” John believes that weightlifting and resistance training, along with boxing, help to improve strength, balance, coordination, fat loss, and an overall sense of well-being. While that’s a staple in his daily approach to health, he also has to rely on necessary prescription medications that
help with the tremors. However, John feels the best prescription is being in the gym and working alongside others that mirror what he deals with every day.
When I asked the champ why he does what he does, he explained, “I want to give others hope and something to look forward to; to help take their mind off the disease.”
I had the opportunity to talk with the wife of one of his clients, Cathy Hudson, while she was visiting Panama City Beach from Delaware. Her husband, Philip, battles Parkinson’s and most recently was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer’s disease dementia. Cathy’s husband participates in a Parkinson’s Sussex County Delaware Support Group and goes to the gym to work out with certified PD trainers.
“We were concerned about being away from Philip’s support group for two months,” Cathy says. “His trainers encouraged him to keep exercising and try and find a support network at the beach. Our family believes Johnny was God-sent! He trained Philip one-on-one so he wouldn’t lose what he gained from home. I instantly saw his passion for helping my husband – they seemed to understand each other during the training sessions.”
I asked John what advice he had for others affected by PD and he said, “Get active! You can still be highly functional by being active and getting involved in something you’re passionate about. It’s not the end, but the beginning. Most importantly, it’s not a sprint, but a marathon.”
Chapman’s Champions encompasses other programs as well, such as Boxing Boot Camp. “Boot Camp is a mixed gender class and for all ages. It strengthens your mind, body, and confidence to reach beyond your goals,” John says. “It’s for all levels of fitness and consists of scientific boxing, calisthenics, aerobic activity, and self-defense. It’s different from traditional weight lifting and resistance training in the sense that it includes full body movements and plyometrics and is a great addition to traditional weightlifting for overall strength and conditioning.” John also offers personal training specializing in the proper technique of lifting weights, hypertrophy and fat loss.
What does the future hold for the man with so many titles under his belt? John Chapman is considering becoming a mentor to others trying to punch out Parkinson’s, one day at a time. He also plans to acquire another title with a different ring, but this one will be on his finger. The scene is set for him to marry his biggest fan and supporter, Betsy Hulsey. John says, “She continues to encourage me to fight the fight, walk the walk, and talk the talk. She believed in me when no one else did.”
For more information about “Chapman’s Champions – Where’s Everyone’s a Champion” call 850.624.2011.