Bar Spar: The Boxing Competition Teaching Bartenders to Get in Shape and Duke it Out in the Ring

Harper Howell participating in Bar Spar, a yearlong program sponsored by Tequila Cazadores and The Bartender Boxing Organization
Harper Howell participating in Bar Spar, a yearlong program sponsored by Tequila Cazadores and The Bartender Boxing OrganizationMark Tomaras


Harper Howell II, a bartender at New York City’s Dear Irving, will be the first to tell you his gig isn’t the spitting image of health. It’s not uncommon for bartenders to chase shots of tequila with espresso to get through a shift. And convenience is often the deciding factor when it comes to food. (How many bartenders do you think come to work toting a Tupperware of meal prep?) More often than not, they feast at late-night haunts that serve up griddle burgers and baskets of fries—often in the company of other chefs, servers, and bartenders.

And as for a fitness routine? It might consist of sweating once or twice a week, if they’re lucky. The truly committed might wake up at dawn to run a few miles or sweat it out in the gym, but it takes a tremendous amount of discipline.

“Our lifestyles are hard with long, grueling hours,” Howell says. It’s easy to chalk up an unhealthy diet and a nearly nonexistent fitness regimen to not having enough time in the day. But every professional knows it boils down to making the time for what’s important. Though it never hurts to have a little competition as motivation.

That’s why Howell’s spent the past few months getting in the best shape of his life as a part of Bar Spar. It’s a year-long program sponsored by Tequila Cazadores and The Bartender Boxing Organization that pits U.S. and Canadian bartenders against one another. The bartenders will participate in local fights. Winners will go on to compete against other winning bartenders of participating cities. Those who reign supreme in the final fights will win a three-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Guadalajara and Arandas, Mexico, to visit the home of Tequila Cazadores.

Harper Howell bartending
Courtesy of @52chefs

Selected bartenders have to clean up their acts big time. Howell, for one, has undergone an intense three-month training regimen with professional trainers and adopted a nutrition plan to boot, transforming his lifestyle from quasi-healthy to peak physical condition. Now, he’s getting ready to enter the ring to fight. The competition kicks off Nov. 4 in Chicago.

Curious how he did it? Men’s Journal recently caught up with the 29-year-old bartender to talk about the regimen that changed his life, pushing your body harder than ever before, and what drinks to order the next time you’re out (naturally).

What does your training routine look like?

It’s sweaty. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat as much in an hour’s time in my life. My training routine is pretty vigorous. We train every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for an hour or an hour and a half—everything from conditioning, drills for technique, work on the bag, one-on-one sparring, and core work. Some days, we’re trying to hit each other in the face, and other days were more focused on the technique of our punches and movements. On off days, I go to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes to help with my stamina and also get some muscle-building in.

What aspect of training has made the biggest impact on your body?

The conditioning. A little cardio can go a long way. We don’t do much with weights. We mainly rely on our body weight to work out—a lot of plyometric moves and some HIIT. From those alone, I can tell I’ve gotten definition and my stamina has increased.

Harper Howell posing with boxing gloves
Mark Tomaras

What’s the biggest fitness lesson you’ve learned?

Discipline, focus, and personal dedication. I don’t come from a very active family. I was never very motivated to be aware of my fitness and health until later in life. This has been an eye-opener into what my own body is capable of. I know I have the ability to push my body and work harder than I ever have before.

What does your nutritional plan look like?

I try to meal prep as much as possible. I focus on meat for protein, then a mix of veggies. I’ll grab a protein bar, apple, or a nice trail mix (not the candy kind) so that even if I’m eating late, it’s not total crap and is still fueling my body to a degree. There are still days where I’ll snag a couple bites of ice cream or popcorn, but I’m not getting fast food. It’s amazing how small changes in my diet have made me feel. I don’t feel sluggish. I want to go to the supermarket to get fresh veggies and cook. I’m less bloated, and I’ve trimmed down.

How do you recover?

I do some light stretching if I’m feeling sore, then water, water, water. I carry a water bottle with me everywhere.

Any must-have products?

A foam roller and resistance bands.

How can you make sure social drinking doesn’t screw with your workouts?

Moderation. It can be hard for bartenders. But if I know I have an early morning, I’ll allow myself to go out and meet up with friends, but I’ll watch myself and the time to make sure I’m home at a decent hour to unwind and get a decent amount of sleep. It’s important to be aware of what your body needs to perform. Also, just because you’re out with friends, doesn’t mean you have to drink as much or at all. No bartender will ever pressure you into having another drink.

A guy walks into a bar and wants a “healthier” cocktail that’s still delicious. What should he order?

A Caballo Blanco. It incorporates tequila (preferably Cazadores), mezcal for a smoky aspect, pineapple and ginger juices, and some angostura bitters, topped off with club soda.

What’s a killer mocktail you’d recommend?

One that my best friend, Caroline Woodruff, made for a competition recently mixes a lot of fresh and vegetal ingredients that play well off each other. It’s called The Alternate Route. Here’s how to make it:

Ingredients

  • .1.5oz raw orange bell pepper juice
  • .75 turmeric/wild orange tea syrup
  • .75oz yuzu juice
  • .25oz lemon juice

Directions

  1. Add ingredients to a shaker with ice.
  2. Rim a glass with a mixture of curry and Himalayan sea salt.
  3. Shake mocktail, then strain over fresh ice.

What’s been your biggest takeaway from this experience?

I’ve learned to be conscious of how my lifestyle not only affects the now, but also the future. Heart and health issues run in my family—and they’ve been a huge motivator for me to make lifestyle changes now, push myself, and make decisions to continue my fitness outside of our three days a week of training. I have a newfound drive for health and fitness. Even after all this is said and done, I still plan on being proactive.

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