For many of us, walking into a gym can be intimidating, but Worth the Fight Boxing and Fitness Studio (WTF) owners Gladys Santiago and Emily Stork have worked to create an open, accessible environment at their gym. From the outside, WTF looks like any other boutique neighborhood business — especially today, with the shades down to lessons the “fishbowl” experience for clients working out inside.
The first thing you notice upon entering the space is that it is spotless, a point of great pride and intention for Santiago. It’s also a little dark, with glowing red lights all along the steel beams that house the punching bags, each branded with “WTF.” The giant bags are on tracks, which allows for flexible setups that adapt to each class.
We sat down with the married co-founders of this queer/BIPOC/women-owned small business, who moved to Denver three years ago from New York. Santiago was in marketing and Stork was a lawyer, and both have given up those jobs to build this business together, which opened in February 2022.
westword: How do you describe WTF?
Santiago and Stork: Worth the Fight is a boxing fitness studio that appeals to beginners and more experienced athletes alike. We aim to be inclusive, to offer a fun, empowering workout that inspires people to come back. We don’t believe in the elitism that you experience in other gyms sometimes, where you have to work out all the time just to come to the gym. As gay women, we have been to gyms that are not that inclusive, and so it’s very important to us that ours is.
When and how did you get into boxing?
Santiago: I started boxing twelve years ago — used to weigh 270 pounds, never had any confidence to step into a gym. Living in Queens, a boxing studio opened up, and I was so nervous, I took my mother with me to the class and really enjoyed it, and I’ve been hooked ever since. It helped me in my confidence, my fitness, making new friends, and feeling more empowered and comfortable in my own skin.
Finally I found a workout that I didn’t feel bored doing, it wasn’t a chore, it’s something I could progress at, a skill I was building on. When we moved here, my career didn’t exist here, so this business was a way to create something for ourselves and still share my passion with other people. Denver is very fitness-focused, and this type of studio didn’t exist. There is not a ton of boxing in Denver, and really not much for fitness boxing. In NY there are so many, so we’re bringing this to Denver.
What are the most common questions people ask when they reach out?
Santiago and Stork: They want to know if you need experience, [and] the answer is no! Am I gonna get hit? Also no. Every single class, we go over the punches and defensive moves. They also want to know if it is just boxing, and we actually have yoga or strength training in every class. We also offer kickboxing and more advanced mitt work classes.
What makes WTF different?
Santiago: Hey, I’m not the typical fitness studio owner — I look like everybody else. We’re trying to change things and [show that] you don’t need to have a six pack to be fit. In my late thirties, I ran the fastest mile I have ever run, and not having that six-pack doesn’t mean I’m not fit. Recently we were shooting videos for promotion, and the videographer said, ‘Wow, you have the most gas out of everybody — you’re not even out of breath.’ It’s important that we are inclusive of all body types and abilities.
When people come in, the bags are intimidating, but someone will give a tour, and if they don’t have equipment, we’ll rent them gloves, show them how to wrap their hands. Our coaches are so wonderful. They identify goals with the client. Each class has a different theme, and we explain the format of the classes. Six rounds of boxing, three minutes each; in between is a one-minute active recovery. But within the rounds, we add to the combo; each time we build on it. If you feel ready, it’s an invitation, not a requirement, to add things. This is skill-based fitness, so you need to be forgiving and be patient with yourself. You’re learning a skill, and that takes time.
Stork: We pay our coaches well, and we train them a lot. There has been a lot of cutting pay in the industry, and that creates a worse class experience for clients. Our coaches have a valuable skill. We are not training people to get in the ring, but they’re expected to learn correct technique, and the coaches need to give good feedback, hold mitts, give people pointers — not like other classes, where people are swinging around and you can get hurt. We have very dedicated coaches.
How do you want people to feel in your gym?
Santiago and Stork: We want them to feel empowered, that they can accomplish something and leave here feeling revved up and proud of themselves. Most people have never boxed before, so they feel accomplished and proud of themselves for trying something new, and they feel stronger. You should feel proud for sucking at something new! You’re not gonna be perfect. Lots of us fear trying something new, looking silly. Here, it’s you versus the bag, and it’s darker so people aren’t looking at you. We want folks to feel ‘I am worth the fight, the time, the dedication.’
If someone wants to check out your classes, what is the best way to do that?
Santiago and Stork: People can sign up for a trial week. Unlimited classes are $29 for a week, and we recommend doing at least three classes to really get the full experience.
What are some of the challenges of having a small business that most folks don’t know about?
Stork: We’re new, so people don’t know about us. So we’re building awareness, and we opened when digital ads are now not as effective. when [Apple’s] IOS changed, it really changed. It’s not sustainable to throw money toward digital marketing when now it’s like playing a slot machine.
Santiago: Finding the right coaches is hard! I am a perfectionist, and detail-oriented about the type of experience I want people to have. We want to provide a white-glove level of experience in a fun environment, so it’s hard to find people with the right combo. We are lucky to have had the same team for a while. Our efforts to get press and coverage has been hard because we’re not a chain, so it takes people learning what we’re all about.
Stork: It has been incredibly disappointing how difficult it was to get permitting, and in the beginning, we ended up losing members because we had dates that people anticipated us being open, we had a contractor give us the timeline, and then it was delayed four months , so the space sits, and we had to pay rent the very first month they were open. Landlord dynamics with out-of-state people can be challenging, too, but we are thankful to have this space and to be open!
What is a small business achievement you’re really proud of?
Stork: Being cash-flow positive is a very hard thing that we achieved quickly, and we’re proud of that. [We’re] also proud to have opened, considering how much we faced. We have a really strong team of coaches who we have nurtured, and it’s awesome seeing them progressively get better and more comfortable. Seeing it all come together is like live theatre, when the whole production is firing on all cylinders.
Why should people support small businesses?
Santiago and Stork: Besides stopping everything from becoming a Citibank and a Starbucks, supporting dreams instead of shareholders far away, you’re employing people in your neighborhood. There is more consideration for the employees and customers at a small business. We put a lot of thought into developing people and building different skill sets. A bigger company only wants results, but with us, we’re building it together as a team and building personal relationships with the customers.
What is your favorite small business to support in Denver?
Santiago and Stork: We love Campo! It’s started by another couple from New York, and they sell smoothies, salads. Husband is a perfectionist, and watching him make a salad is like watching him create art. We also love Toasts N Roasts — we get coffee there every day. We were there her first day opening, right before COVID hit, with just her running it, and it has been so cool to see her expand. It’s very encouraging, and a good reminder that it doesn’t happen overnight.
Worth the Fight Boxing and Fitness Studio
1999 Pennsylvania Street