PHOENIX – After sustaining a back injury in the military and undergoing two surgeries, Anthony Pressley found himself addicted to pain pills and gaining weight rapidly.
Before he knew it, he had eclipsed 300 pounds and was stuck in a cycle, eventually growing to over 400 pounds before deciding it was time for a change. That decision would not only change the course of his health but also the course of his career.
“It was like a slow burn and then all of a sudden, I was 300 pounds. I was like, ‘How the hell did that happen?’” Pressley said. “And then once I got to 300 pounds I was like, ‘Oh, I’m super depressed, I’m going to eat more,’ and gained 100 more pounds to feel better.”
Pressley’s weight gain was furthered by his depression at the time, which he didn’t recognize until one day listening to Joe Rogan discuss the topic on his podcast. Pressley heard Rogan discuss the different symptoms of depression and how to improve them and realized he was suffering from depression himself. With the problem addressed, he began using the tools he learned to improve his mental health and soon after, his physical health.
“So I lost my first 100 pounds with hardly any exercise,” Pressley said. “I would just go for little walks here and there, go out in the mountains for like a half a mile, or just being outside breathing, thinking. But it was all my food.
“I really realized within the first two months. I lost like 35 or 40 pounds, and I’m like, ‘I’m not doing s—.’ All I’m doing is controlling what I’m eating. I never feel hungry and I kind of felt like I hacked the system, you know, for nutrition and cooking and food.”
Through reading about nutritional cooking online and pooling together information from nutritionists on social media, Pressley quickly lost weight in what felt like an easy fashion. He had always been a good chef, with his cooking even drawing compliments from fellow shipmates in his Navy days, but it’s never something he considered could change his life, or even become a career.
Today, Pressley works full time as a performance chef for some of the top boxers in the world, including former heavyweight champion Joseph Parker and current champions Tyson Fury and Errol Spence Jr., who both rank among the top 10 pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
One of the first steps toward becoming a performance chef came when Pressley auditioned to be on “Master Chef,” a cooking competition show for amateur chefs, judged by one of Pressley’s heroes, Gordon Ramsey, among other celebrity chefs.
“I went and auditioned for the show ‘Master Chef’ and I ended up being Arizona’s finalist for the show, right? I didn’t quite make the show, but I was Arizona’s pick for the show,” Pressley said. “Afterwards, I had a bunch of chefs, I think five or six chefs, pull me aside and go, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing with your life, but food, you have to do something with food.’ … So then I just started meal prepping for my co-workers, and they were losing weight and seeing results. And all they were doing was eating the food that I ate to lose the weight.”
Despite not making it to the show, being the Arizona finalist gave Pressley the confidence to continue on the path he had started. Being a lifelong fight fan, Pressley was aware of the growing popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) in the Valley and took to social media to begin messaging fighters around Phoenix asking to meal prep for them.
He got a response from Shane “The War Rhino” Kruchten, a now-retired Bellator MMA fighter, and offered to give him half his training camp for free if Kruchten brought the food to the gym and ate it in front of other fighters.
That strategy connected him with more local fighters who helped him further grow the new business. Adding more fighters, however, meant more work for Pressley, who worked seven days a week for four straight years in trying to get the meal prep business started while also working as a pediatric nurse during the week. Some weekends he would make close to 400 meals in a night to then deliver out to fighters.
“It just made me have to go in and really focus on what the fighters needed and that was a whole other skill I had to learn,” Pressley said. “And I had some bumpy roads with it, but I figured it out and got a lot of help, got some mentors that really kind of showed me the path, you know, got me ready for Errol (Spence).”
Pressley’s breakthrough in boxing
One of those mentors was performance nutrition consultant George Lockhart, who eventually set up Pressley with one of his first big breaks, a job with Spence ahead of his unified title fight against Yordenis Ugas last April.
Today Spence is a consensus top-10 fighter in the world and holds three of the four welterweight titles, one of which he won in that fight against Ugas.
“(Showtime) did a whole little segment on me and Errol just talking about the importance of having his food ready when he needs it and the amount and the snacks and this and that. So it was pretty cool to see (the) career that I had,” Pressley said. “I kind of felt like I was spinning my wheels for a while at the end of that four-year mark. I didn’t know where I was going to go or if I was going to continue with food and then you get that break and then you get another.
“I go out with Brantley Gilbert, the country music star, and I (worked) with him for a while and we bonded … And then when I was out there I got the call to go (work) with Joseph Parker and Tyson (Fury) and I was in shock. I was like, ‘Tyson Fury bro, Joe Parker, hell yeah.’ Former heavyweight champion, super badass Tyson Fury and I’m like, ‘What the hell.’”
After the Spence fight, Pressley went to the U.K. to cook for Parker during training camp ahead of his interim heavyweight title fight against Joe Joyce. Pressley then rounded out 2022 by cheffing for Fury, a close friend of Parker’s, during training camp as he prepared to defend his heavyweight title in a rematch against Derek Chisora last December.
“That was another moment I’ll never forget in my life. I was sitting in Joe’s dressing room before the Joyce fight and Tyson walked up to me and he said, ‘I don’t want you to go home. I want you to stay,’” Pressley said. “I was like, ‘Okay,’ and he says, ‘I want you to do my camp. I’ll give you a week off. I’ll give you the keys to the fight camp house. I’ll give you a vehicle to use. I’ll give you all this stuff, most importantly, a week off.’
“So I literally was sleeping at Tyson’s house all alone. Waking up every morning, walking down the stairs where he walks and I’m just like, ‘What the hell?’ And then Tyson shows up (for camp) and every morning I wake up before everyone to get everything ready and I hear, ‘Splish, splash I was taking a bath’ and Tyson’s screaming, singing, waking up (his brother) Tommy, waking up (his dad) John.”
Pressley prepared all of his fighter’s meals, at least three meals a day, for the entirety of a multi-week training camp and up until fight night. As a part of Fury’s team, Pressley watched the Chisora fight at ringside. Little did he know, that’s where he would finally come face to face with a hero of his, Gordon Ramsey.
“A year prior to that I was cooking for my buddies and we were watching Fury’s fight together. I’m like, ‘Man, this is awesome, we get to watch Tyson Fury,’ and then flash forward I’m sitting ringside next to Gordon Ramsay,” Pressley said. “I talked to Gordon Ramsay for like the whole fight and I finally worked up the courage to say, ‘Hey, you are the reason I’m cooking, you’re the reason I’m here, Gordon.’ I told him my whole story. At the end of the fight, he put his finger in my chest and said, ‘I want to work with you in the future.’
“He has me scan this (QR) code for his personal cell phone number. I’m like, ‘Holy s—,’ and so I scan the code and my girl’s like, ‘Holy s—, text him.’ So I waited like two days and I texted him and he texts me immediately back. Everything that we talked about, he listened to what I said and he remembered all these little details and he told me anytime I’m near one of his restaurants to give him a day’s notice and he’ll set up a showcase for me and just bring all the food out and really take care of me and I was like, ‘What the hell, this is amazing.’”
In that moment, all of Pressley’s efforts – his seven-day work weeks with two jobs – all became worth it and although he would want no other job, that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard work.
‘The physiology of hunger is very, very strong’
As a chef and nutritionist for fighters, there’s arguably no man more responsible for a fighter’s physical health as they cut weight ahead of a fight. Given the dangers of weight cutting, many boxers have been vocal about the importance of bringing on a chef to help them manage their cuts more effectively.
“I think there’s a lot of athletes that have worked with dieticians that say, ‘Wow, that was really a big help.’ So it’s one tool in the toolbox and certainly if you’re putting all this effort into training, you have to realize that performance doesn’t start with training. Performance starts with eating and fueling for your workout,” Nancy Clark MS, RD, CSSD, said. “And unfortunately, in weight class sports, food is the enemy. It’s fattening. You tried to stay away from food. But no, you need to be eating and fueling and it just gets confusing how to do that. So working with a sports dietitian offers a huge advantage.”
Clark is a registered dietitian and a specialist in sports dietetics. Living in Boston, she has worked with members of the Celtics, Bruins and various Olympic athletes. She was even featured on the back of a Wheaties box for her work in the sports nutrition field.
“So you know, I look at it, the only time to lose weight is at night time, when you’re sleeping. And so what (many) athletes in weight class (sports) tend to do from my experience is that they skip breakfast, they starve themselves, they have a lettuce leaf for lunch, they drag themselves through workouts and then by night time they’re ravenous,” Clark said. “And they (sometimes) blow it just because the physiology of hunger is very, very strong.”
Pressley has primarily worked with heavyweights and although they still lose weight ahead of fights, there is no weight limit in the heavyweight division to cut down to. Spence, on the other hand, has been in the welterweight division for 10 years, something that he recently stated has put a strain on his body when cutting weight.
“They got to be able to have enough fuel for both of their workouts. They’ve got to be able to be in a deficit, and still be able to perform at the highest level because they got a huge fight coming up. So it’s a lot of responsibility,” Pressley said. “And with Errol, I think we ate eight times a day. Just small meals. So it’s like a lot of tedious work goes into making sure we dial it in perfectly.”
Given a fighter works their body harder than the average person yet eats less than the average person as they cut makes it a hard balance for a chef or nutritionist to strike. Many tactics are employed to help with the cuts but the process should start before camp even begins.
“Well, there’s two things about weight,” Clark said. “There’s long-term weight management and short term. So for a boxer you’re looking at what, the two weeks before (a fight)? So ideally, for the past two or three months they’ve been chipping away and gradually losing weight.
“They always want to surround their workout with food. So they’re either fueling up or they’re refueling, it’s one or the other. If they’re training in the morning, they want to fuel up beforehand, they want to refuel afterwards and then the rest of the day they have to push themselves away from having seconds or from overeating.”
Relating to food at the root of nutrition
As the official weigh-ins grow closer and the weight cuts gets more serious, certain tactics can be employed by a chef to trick the fighter’s mind into thinking they are eating the same amount as usual.
“So when you’re going to cut, you just use little tricks like smaller plates, so it looks like a lot of food. Having a lot of vegetables you know, communicating with them, ‘Alright, so this is a smaller meal, don’t worry, it’s enough fuel to get you through that hard workout. You’re not going to feel any energy decrease.’ So I would just put it in their head even though they’re gonna feel it,” Pressly said. “I kind of psychologically kind of talk them up.”
Nutrition and diet have played a key role in the career of retired professional boxer Julius “The Chef” Jackson. Jackson is the son of legendary boxer Julian “The Hawk” Jackson and received a degree from the Florida Culinary Institute in 2008, the same year he qualified for the Olympics representing the Virgin Islands.
Cooking and food had always been part of Jackson’s life, but the knowledge he learned at culinary school gave him tools he could bring into his boxing career as he dealt with cutting weight.
“I think there are a couple angles that culinary school helped me with. One, I learned how to pair different items with different things. So a lot of people that are cooking healthy don’t always know how to make it flavorful or how to balance flavors,” Jackson said. “I was able to do that with salads, with dressings and things that wouldn’t help me gain weight, you know, weight cutting is the biggest thing for boxing.
“And then two, I was able to learn how to prepare the same item in different ways, so it doesn’t get boring. You know, I can do chicken so many different ways rather than just grilling it, nice and dry on the grill … In training camps I trained with Triple G, Gennadiy Golovkin. I’ve trained with these guys and stayed with them and they would watch me cook and be like, ‘Man, how do you make that so many different ways?’ You know, I say well, ‘I went to school.’”
The same sentiment was echoed by Pressley, who said variation is key when preparing food for fighters. When eating is as structured as it is for fighters cutting weight it’s important those meals are varied day to day, for the fighter’s sanity. Healthy snacks throughout the day are one way to vary a fighter’s eating habits and schedule.
“Mentally I wasn’t bored with what I was eating. So out of all my camp, you know, I had brothers, we were all fighting on a high level. And I always was on top of my weight and how fast I was dropping. I didn’t have to skip meals,” Jackson said. “Sometimes they would have to skip dinner and I’d be like, ‘I don’t have to skip dinner.’ I made it easy because mentally it was easier, I could play with different flavors and eat different things and still maintain the weight.”
The future of performance chefs in combat sports
Given how big of a factor weight cuts play in a boxer’s life, many prominent fighters have brought chefs to their team. Caleb Plant, who recently took on Phoenix’s David Benavidez, has been vocal about his use of a chef as he prepares for fights while fighters like Spence have similarly emphasized the importance in the wake of his previous win.
“If you don’t have a guy like me, or George Lockhart … you’re going to struggle to be properly rehydrated after you do a water cut and you’re going to feel like s—. If your brain isn’t hydrated, you’re more susceptible to knockouts. And if you rehydrate yourself too much, you’re gonna feel like s—,” Pressley said. “And there’s all these calculations that go into each one of those little three bottles that we do for those guys. So yeah, at that level of boxing, they make so much money it’d be almost silly not to have somebody prepare your fuel for you.”
While some people like Jackson are lucky enough to have the knowledge themselves, most fighters aren’t as well versed in food and nutrition and need an outside source to best help them cut. Despite that, Pressley said he thinks there are only 10-15 people in the world who do what he does with fighters.
“I think it’s super important. One, not just for making weight, but two, the more nutrition we have as fighters, the better we are after the career,” Jackson said.” So if you’re putting a lot of strain on your body, because we do that, we push ourselves to the limit, and then we’re also taking a lot of impact and damage to our brain and to our bodies.
“The more nutrition we have, the better we can recover. So recovery is very important and so if people have that knowledge on the nutritions you need, the vitamins and the minerals you need to consume to help with recovery and longevity, that definitely helps especially when their career is over. I think more fighters wouldn’t have taken on so much damage if they were eating well, eating right and getting the right thing. So I think it’s 100% important.”
As the focus on fighter safety increases and more fighters open their eyes to the importance of nutrition, it’s likely we’ll see more performance chefs like Pressley burst onto the scene. However it’s unlikely any will have the same rise that he did, working his way from 400 pounds and overweight to head chef for some of the planet’s finest athletes.
“I seem to have found my niche and I seem to be pretty good at it and it doesn’t feel like work to me,” Pressley said. “So I think I will (continue) and then … I’ve got a cookbook out and I’m going to write another one. I really like giving, sharing results for my recipes that give these guys results … you can still hit your numbers and eat really well.”