Branden Albert collapsed onto the top rope after a three-minute jab session, and you could almost hear the turnbuckle cry “uncle.”
Men Albert’s size — 6-5 and 310 pounds — aren’t meant for a boxing ring.
And they certainly aren’t found there, skipping around and unleashing uppercuts, less than six months after reconstructive knee surgery.
“How are you feeling?” Albert, the Miami Dolphins’ franchise left tackle, was asked during a short break last week.
“Tired,” he said, sweat beading down his face.
Seconds later, Matt Baiamonte, the Wynwood-based boxing trainer who works with Albert five times a week, snaps his pupil back to the moment. Another three minutes in the ring. And then three more. And then work on the heavy bag. Followed by 10 minutes of abdominal work.
The fate of the Dolphins’ upcoming season might hinge on the strength and durability of Albert’s right knee, which sports a four-inch scar from surgery to his ACL last fall — his first surgery of any kind.
But if Albert’s return to football falls short of his high expectations — “All-Pro, that’s my goal,” he said between reps — it won’t be because of any personal failing.
Training camp might be four months off, but Albert is already in two-a-day mode.
Most days, he wakes up early and either rehabs with the Dolphins’ medical staff or lifts with personal trainer Manning Sumner at Legacy Fit in Miami. Then he rests for a couple of hours before lacing up the gloves with Baiamonte, who studied the sweet science with famed trainer Angelo Dundee.
“I was sitting on my butt for two, three months,” Albert said. “I got enough rest. It’s time for me to work.”
And although he won’t participate in on-field football activities this spring, the finish line for Albert’s recovery is in sight. There have been no complications. He’s past the doubt that crept in early in his rehab. Albert plans to be on the field for opening day.
Albert is still not ready to run at full speed — “soon,” he promised — but in the weight room and in Baiamonte’s gym, “there’s no restrictions.” Some players balloon when they’re immobilized by injury; Albert’s weight is basically the same as it was when he reported to training camp last summer.
Said Albert: “I’m never in pain. It’s just weakness. Right now, it’s all getting my strength back. All the hard stuff with my rehab is over with. The first three months were probably the toughest rehab, getting the motion, getting my flexibility back and getting the scar tissue off. All that’s over with. Now it’s just getting the strength and getting active again. That’s going to come with time.”
Baiamonte, whose famous list of clients includes the ageless Bernard Hopkins, marvels over the transformation he has seen in Albert over the past six months.
He was one of the first to visit Albert after the surgery, when simply getting out of bed was cause for celebration.
“He could barely limp,” said Maricela Cornejo, a professional middleweight boxer who works on Baiamonte’s staff. “Now I see him jumping rope. I love it. I think this will push him further than he’s ever been.”
Added Baiamonte: “He’s one of the hardest-training guys I work with. … I think he’s a little too hard on himself, coming back. Every day he’s progressing.”
In fact, Baiamonte often has to tap the brakes for fear of a medical setback. Before the injury, Albert could do 10 minutes with the jump rope. Now he limits the time to save pounding on his leg.
But when they’re in the ring, Baiamonte is just as worried about protecting himself. He calls Albert a heavy hitter, and when they’re working the mitts, Baiamonte has to leave more leeway than usual so Albert’s forceful uppercuts don’t catch him in the jaw.
Soon, these sessions will go on hiatus. The Dolphins’ voluntary offseason workout program begins April 20, and Albert vowed to “be there every day.”
Albert can’t wait to get back in the offensive line meeting room for the first time since his injury. The Dolphins appear poised to rely on young guards Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner this fall, so Albert plans to coach them up, even if he can’t yet join them on the field.
“He’s pushing himself every day,” Albert said of Thomas, who also trains with Sumner. “I’m very impressed with Dallas right now. I know Billy’s hungry. They’re two, big physical guys that play football. I think with the coaching and the right mentality, those guys can be good for us. I deep down believe that.”
Albert wants to be more than good. He believes he was “at the top of my game” before mangling his knee in Detroit on Nov. 9 — and he wants to get back there.
“I think that’s the doubt I had,” Albert said of his winter blues. “It’s so hard to play well in this league. It’s so hard to be a Pro Bowler, an All-Pro. It’s hard. You’re going against competition every day.
“When you get there and you’re at the top of your game, and something like this happened, it’s like, ‘Damn, I was at the top of my game, doing good. The team was doing good.’ My thing is proving my worth. I never wanted to come down here and have somebody say, ‘Well, he shut it down when he got paid.’ That’s not what I’m about. I want to keep winning, keep making Pro Bowls, All-Pros, and keep improving.”
Baiamonte insists Albert is — one punch at a time.