Joltin’ Joey DeMalavez: The Real Life Rocky

How, in the era of Soul Cycle, a foul-mouthed, tatted-up 49-year-old boxer from Manayunk built the star-studded fight club everyone wants in on.

Photograph by Steve Boyle

Photograph by Steve Boyle

The Joltin’ Jabs gym on Sansom Street is just a few blocks away from Rittenhouse Square, but be forewarned, ye who enter — you won’t be pampered, coddled or comforted. You will sweat, and you will suffer.

The man responsible for your pain is sitting across from me on a folding chair, surrounded by heavy bags and speed bags hung from the ceiling — the tools of his trade. Joey DeMalavez — former pro boxer, current Philadelphia trainer du jour, future shoo-in for reality-TV stardom — wears red track pants, a white knit cap on his shaved head, and a Joltin’ Jabs long-sleeve shirt that doesn’t hide his ample biceps or the tattoos that run up his neck and down to his wrists. There’s a skull on his right hand, an open Bible with a heart on the left one, and a bold letter on each finger that together spell out JOLTIN’ JABS.

A diamond stud beneath his lip punctuates a trim goatee. When he opens his mouth, hold on, because that voice — if you didn’t know better, you’d think his sandpaper rasp was honed by years of whiskey and a four-pack-a-day habit. Joey looks like he should get steady work in Hollywood as the kind of guy who kidnaps the relatives of Liam Neeson. In reality, Joey’s story has its own big-screen potential — the scrapper from humble beginnings who never gave up, whose unvarnished magnetism has set him apart from all the other trainers of the moment and has thrust him into the spotlight.

Joey walks me through his past 12 hours, which sort of encapsulate the drama that defines his life. His 21-year-old son, who helps run his flagship gym in Manayunk, was sick and spent the night in the hospital, so Joey stayed with him and didn’t sleep. He made it to Center City in time for three classes, and now, at 9:30 a.m., he’s still wired, like he’s had a Red Bull transfusion. He’ll be 50 in August and could pass for a decade younger. He drinks more than a gallon of water a day. Sleep, he says, is overrated; four hours a night for him, tops.

I ask Joey about his teaching technique, and he’s up on his feet demonstrating the “Philly style” of boxing, a defense-first stance perfected by Bernard Hopkins, with one shoulder pointed at the target rather than squared up. He walks me through some typical banter with his students, and when Joey speaks, there’s no doubt where he’s from. “If you were fightin’ and you came out wit’ dem hands down, dey’ll counterpunch the shit outta ya,” he says. “Put dem damn hands up. Start bouncin’. Two signs of fatigue are lowerin’ the hands and flat feet. Get on the balls of your feet, put dem hands up.” After a few rounds, the buzzer will sound, and Joey the Drill Sergeant becomes Joey the Life Coach. “Youse all wonder how a boxer keeps his hands up for 12 rounds. You’re doin’ it! You’re fuck-in’ doin’ it!”

In this age when a gym like Planet Fitness promotes a “Judgment Free Zone” to make working out feel like a warm hug from your nana, Joey’s approach is unapologetically old-school, honed by decades spent in gyms across the city, fighting in rings and occasionally outside of them. Boxing as a sport is all but dead, yet his Joltin’ Jabs gyms have earned a cult-like following among both bros and women in Lululemon, with a celebrity clientele that includes Charles Barkley, district attorney Seth Williams, TV newsman and ex-Eagle Vai Sikahema, a Bachelorette contestant, and what seems like every member of the Action News team who exercises. Cecily Tynan, who is arguably the fittest woman in the Delaware Valley, could train with anyone she wants. She goes to Joey. “The workouts transform your body,” Tynan says. “But a lot of the appeal is Joey’s personality. When you first meet him, he’s kind of scary. Then you get to know him.”

To the uninitiated, though, it’s a head-scratcher — so much devotion aimed at a dude covered in ink, throwing insults and f-bombs like right hooks and charging a gut-punching $27 a session. As Joey himself would say: “Dis fuckin’ guy?”

IF YOU’RE HOPING to read a story about a Philly boxer that somehow avoids reference to a certain fictional one with a penchant for long jogs through the Italian Market, I apologize, because the story of Joey DeMalavez is awfully similar, at least in terms of the underdog theme. He grew up in a working-class home in Manayunk, long before the bars and boîtes moved in, when drugs were a scourge and gangs like Apple Street and Baker Street terrorized the neighborhood. As a kid, Joey had a taste for Coke and soft pretzels that led to a belly. So at 14, he walked into the North Light Boys Club and discovered boxing. “I started losin’ weight and feelin’ good,” he says. “I remember thinking all day about gettin’ into the gym at night.”

Through boxing, Joey met Steve Traitz, who helped fund the Montgomery County Boys Club and trained a stable of talented young boxers, including his sons, Stevie and Joey. If the Traitz name sounds familiar, it’s likely because the patriarch ran Roofers Local 30 in the ’80s, back when those hot-tar slingers were the most violent labor union in the city. Traitz served nearly a decade in prison on racketeering charges; his sons did time for their roles as union goons and, years later, for their entrepreneurship in a multi-state meth ring. Not exactly the kind of mentors you want on your LinkedIn page. But the elder Traitz took Joey under his wing. “Mr. Traitz promised that he’d help me train for the Olympics,” Joey says. When Traitz went away, Joey’s boxing career stalled.

Joey landed jobs delivering bread for Stroehmann and Amoroso, a career move that conveniently allows us to picture the training montage as he drops off a few dozen loaves at a high school, sneaks in a run at the track, hits the mom-and-pop delis, and then heads home to box. But his 20s and 30s were marked by what he calls “my trials and tribs,” involving fast cars, pretty girls, and a couple of street fights that landed him in court. Joey entered “Tough Man” boxing tournaments to make some cash and put his hands to better use, but his life remained turbulent. His father died. He married, had his son Joey Jr., and divorced. He had another son — Cody, now 17 — with a different woman. (“They hated each other,” he says of his exes. “Now they live on the same island in Naples, Florida. They cook in each other’s kitchens. True story, man.”) A claim on a lost diamond in 2000 turned into an insurance-fraud charge that Joey calls a “misunderstanding” but resulted in a fine, community service, and two years of probation.

For every modest ascent in his roller-coaster life, a fall followed. In 2004, he semi-secretly turned pro at 38, hiding the occasional black eye as best he could while still delivering bread six days a week. “Joltin’” Joey had a 3-1 record heading into a televised fight at the Spectrum against an up-and-comer who was eight years younger and undefeated in three fights. “I stretched him in the first round, on TV,” Joey says with a smile. A year later, with another win on his record, Joey took a fight at the Blue Horizon that he knew was trouble — a dangerous southpaw in his 20s. Joey lost a majority decision. “I beat him ring post to ring post,” he recalls. “I got robbed, because I was the old guy. And my mom’s rotting of cancer in the front row.” As Joey tells me his mother died six weeks later, his eyes turn glassy.

He won his last bout a year later, in 2007. The victory was bittersweet — he was 40 and fed up with his day job, and he decided it was finally time to follow his dream and open his own gym. “I knew,” he says, “that I was hiding my talents behind being a bread guy.”

Joey laid the groundwork for his future success on, of all places, the shoulder of the Schuylkill Expressway. The 96.5 FM morning show was looking for someone to train a host to box Partridge Family star-turned-deejay Danny Bonaduce. Mid-delivery run, Joey pulled over, called in, and made his pitch. “Joey from Manayunk” won the gig, and even though his man lost the fight (“He beat Bonaduce up … I cried that night”), Joey caught the eye of NBC 10’s Vai Sikahema. Sikahema knows the sweet science — his father trained him as a kid — and he needed a trainer for a celebrity boxing match against ex-ballplayer Jose Canseco, in Atlantic City. After talking to Joey for a few minutes, Sikahema was sold. “Joey’s an easy guy to get to know and like,” Sikahema says. “He’s so genuine. He really knows the craft, understands it. And he knows how to push your buttons.”

Here’s where the hustle and charm of the bread guy — saying hi to the lunch ladies, talking sports with the deli owner — meet the steely street smarts of the fighter. Joey’s rap to motivate Sikahema went something like this: “He’s gonna walk right through you. You’re a news anchor, man. I can guarantee Canseco’s not wearing makeup. You sit next to pretty women all day. This guy’s a borderline Hall of Fame player.” As Sikahema recalls, “It was incessant. When that bell rang, I was ready to destroy that guy.” Moments before the fight began, Joey shouted to the judges, loud enough that Sikahema could hear, “You guys can go home. We don’t need you.” The message: We’re knocking this clown out. After all the head games, Joey knew when to pump Sikahema up. Canseco didn’t survive the first round.

Meanwhile, Joey had quit the baked-goods biz to open Joltin’ Jabs on Main Street. Business was slow at first, but a move from a basement to street level helped, as did support from another celebrity client — Charles Barkley, who’d seen Sikahema drop Canseco and wanted to lose weight. Soon, the former Sixer great was sweating and swinging away in the window of Joey’s gym and on national TV, giving Joltin’ Jabs a shout-out for helping him slim down. “I’ve never met a person more passionate about training,” says Barkley, who still hits the heavy bag with Joey in the summertime. “’Cause you know, working out sucks. I’m an old guy with a fake hip. But when I work out, I want someone to kick my ass.” Sikahema calls the pair “bosom buddies. Chuck is a real loyal guy when you’re part of his inner circle, and Joey became part of it, I think because he was so honest. He said, ‘You’re fat, man.’ Chuck listened to him.”

Joey tells me a story about hanging with Chuck in Vegas, a story that Joey would rather not see in print, though he reluctantly agrees to let me tell it. It speaks to what friends see as the secret to Joey’s popularity, more than his love of the sport or his hustle. Barkley is playing poker at the high-roller table, and Joey’s merely a spectator. Chuck, up big, gives the dealer a generous tip and flips Joey a chip worth — well, let’s say for a guy running a gym, with $1,200 monthly child-support payments, it’s life-changing. Joey passes the chip back: “I’m good, Chuck, thanks.” It seems fitting that the moment Joey holds dearest occurred later, while the men stood side by side at urinals. “I have a lot of acquaintances, man,” Barkley said. “I only have a few close friends. You’re one of them.” (“You know how hard it is to make a guy stop midstream,” Joey says. “That got me.”) Barkley says the two are still close: “When you’re a friend of Joey’s, he’s a friend for life.”

What you see with Joey is what you get — warts and all, a guy from the street who’s had his trials and tribs and looks like he may have recently escaped from prison through a hand-dug tunnel, but beneath all that is an excitable, emotional man-child who connects with people. (Though he may sometimes get carried away. Joey once paired a male client with a smaller woman to spar; the client caught his partner with an uppercut that rolled her eyes back and knocked her to the floor. She was fine, but the guy was horrified.) What resonates are those teary moments about his mom and the pride in calling Barkley a real friend; that’s the spirit that’s palpable in the gym, even when he’s calling you fat and beating you up.

A year and a half ago, Seth Williams started a weight-loss challenge to get in shape and raise money for ALS; 100 days later, he’d lost 45 pounds. “It’s an incredible workout,” Williams says, “and Joey’s an incredible guy. I needed someone like him to motivate me.”

Sikahema jokes that as a happily married Mormon, what truly amazes him about Joey — who was once a Daily News “Sexy Single” and posed naked for this magazine — is the fact he’s always had a gorgeous woman in his life. The most recent was Action News health reporter Ali Gorman, a blonde 10 years Joey’s junior who grew up on the not-so-mean streets of Voorhees. I tell Joey I met him once a few years ago, at a Christmas party. He arrived with Gorman, and in a room full of crewneck sweaters, the proverbial needle scratched the record: Who is this guy with the lip tattoo on his neck and hands that could chop cinder blocks? They split after dating for about two years but remain close. “We were a bit of ‘opposites attract,’” says Gorman — a friend described the couple as Danny and Sandy. “But the tough exterior, that’s the outside. The Joey I got to know really has a heart of gold. And he’s fun — that’s what people see in his workouts.”

Spend a little time talking to him, and the appeal is obvious — bad boy on the outside, sensitive heart-on-sleeve guy at his core. Mark Natale is a former client who now lives in Miami and spent years building fitness centers across the country. “A lot of people in this industry put on airs,” Natale says. “Joe is authentically himself. He transcends what he does because it’s not just about the fitness aspect. He gets you to do things you didn’t think you could. I think it’s a reflection of Joe himself — he’s gone farther than he thought he could and is pushing to do more. It’s more about the fight in your life than the workout that’s in front of you.”

FOR A GUY like Joey — with these dreams, this drive, dis story, man — when you’ve come this far, you need to keep going. He hopes the gym on Sansom is the first step toward a new high point. Joey’s partnered with the local Parkinson Council, since research suggests boxing is an especially effective workout for battling the disease. He’s also determined to build his brand by (of course) getting on TV: A client introduced him to a former Oprah Winfrey producer who’s helping Joey pitch himself to the Spike network and celeb-trainer Jillian Michaels, and Gorman worked on his video audition for Shark Tank, where he hoped to score an investment to franchise his gyms. Joey says he reached the Philly finals but never heard from the show after that. He’s convinced his past legal woes scared them off. If he’s right, it’s a shame. He’s a reality star waiting to be discovered.

His goal these days is to expand Joltin’ Jabs across the country and leave a business for his kids. For now, he’s running both Sansom Street and Main Street practically alone, aided only by his oldest son. He teaches every class and runs back and forth between gyms every day. Joey is typically blunt about the challenges of his current business model: “I should have a GM making sure I’ve got enough water, enough hand towels, toilet paper” — tasks he still handles himself. Joey’s scrappy self-reliance sometimes works against him, like a shadow-box opponent who actually hits back; he’s not seeking out investors or hiring a staff to take some weight off his shoulders.

Natale is convinced Joey could franchise Joltin’ Jabs by carefully handpicking trainers, to maintain his unique brand. I’m not so sure. The key to Joey’s success — which, financially speaking, Joey admits is still modest — is that Philly realness, the guy who can flirt with the ladies, insult his clients, and then build them up again, because it’s not an act. How can he expand Joltin’ Jabs beyond the city limits and his own? He has no idea. But then, neither did the pudgy kid from Manayunk who just wanted to lose a few pounds, meet a pretty girl and make a living. So Joey still dreams.

Before I leave, Joey repeats that the physical demands of his class are nothing compared to the mental game. “It all starts with that seven-inch circle,” he tells his students, lowering his voice to a whisper for effect. “It’s called your fuckin’ mind. NOW LET’S GET IT!”