Life isn’t always filled with glitz and glam. People make mistakes, but having the willpower of renovating oneself or finding their higher purpose in life is the next step to take.
Chris Papanti, an entrepreneur, coach, and motivational speaker from the US went through a rough transition in his early adulthood. But, he took a moment of solitude to fall back on his love of sports and educated himself to make his body, mind, and spirit healthier than ever. Now, Chris is keen to help others reach their health goals, as well as to fight for justice.
Please state your nationality and the number of years you’ve stayed in Indonesia.
I’m an American. My first visit to Bali was in 2016; I was living in New York City, immersed in the typical NYC life – 80 plus hour work weeks, burning the candle at both ends. I always dreamed of travelling to Bali because I had heard from my friends it was such a beautiful place. I decided to do a retreat here to relax, reset my mind, care for my body, and then return to NYC rested and recharged. On that trip, I made wonderful and lifelong friends. They came and visited me in New York City over the years and I returned to Bali again and again – it became my happy place and a second home for me. Those four guys that I met on my first visit to Indonesia in 2016, Theo Burggraaff, Todd Gisondi, Mark Baker, and Made Raymond, are all now my partners in Boom Boom Boxing Club.
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Chris, please tell us about yourself.
I was born and grew up on the east coast of the United States. I come from a working middle-class family of Italian and Irish descent. Church was an event every Sunday. Faith and prayer provided a strong foundation for me in my life. Living in Bali has renewed and deepened my faith and spirituality. My father was an educator so education in my household was everything. He was also a star athlete so he raised me to believe that being a star athlete was my best way to a better life. The city I grew up in was gritty – you had to be tough, not just physically, but mentally. The neighbourhoods I hung out in were racially and socially diverse and the streets were full of organised crime and gangs. I knew that if I was going to make it there, I would have to adapt quickly to get along and stay alive.
I left home at fifteen to attend an elite boarding school on a full scholarship. It was my way out of the troubled place I lived. I wanted to get a better education and play competitive ball at the highest level available to high school kids in the states. My parents and I had met the Dean of the school, who was also the basketball coach, football coach, lacrosse coach, and History Department Chair. He offered me a place at the school. He was the kindest man I had ever met and he was a wonderful coach, teacher, and mentor. He became like a second father to me and his family became my second family. He was my idol and I wanted to be like him. That’s when I first dreamed of becoming a coach myself.
I was named captain of my team for the next three years. I made the boys high school All-State and All Tri-State first teams and earned an honourable mention as an All American. I was recruited by colleges and universities all across the country to play ball and instead of picking a school far away from home, I chose a school just up the road so I could be near my family. For a short while, it looked like the decision to go to boarding school had paid off. I lived and breathed sports. I thought I was on track to become a college star, maybe even play professionally one day. Then, one evening during my freshman year, everything changed. I got into a fight in the dorms helping to defend my roommate. The guys we fought pressed charges and although the charges were eventually dropped, the university’s administrators chose to kick me out of school for a year. That didn’t go over so well with my father. He decided that “tough love” would be the best way to teach me a lesson so I was told that returning to live at home with my family was not an option.
Sports was now gone and with it, my identity. Without the challenge of playing team ball or the structure that my coaches and training provided, I was lost. My father was quick to dismiss me. No longer being the star player on the team, I was left starving for an identity and sense of importance. We grew distant quickly. I returned to the streets of the same city where I had grown up as a kid. Living on my own, I started hanging around people that would eventually lead me into a relationship with people who would become my new family – people who would make me feel important, special and loved – or so I thought: an Italian organised crime family.
In that family, I soon became “someone”.
I had an identity again. They said I was special and the “old-time” mobsters saw how I craved the structure and a purpose. They used this fact to use me and my work ethic to their advantage. It didn’t hurt that at age twenty, I stood 6 foot 3 inches (190cm) tall and weighed more than 230 pounds (roughly 104kg). It was a well-known fact that I was the kid who never walked away from a fight. Most important to them, as I later learned, I was fast becoming their biggest earner.
My future seemed bright – just like my future in sports had. I had connections all over the country and nothing seemed to be out of my reach. My responsibilities grew and so did my earnings. Soon, I was the biggest earner they had. In 1999, the new life and family I had chosen caught up with me. I was arrested and over the next 11 years, I served time in supermax prisons throughout the United States. I was placed in solitary confinement for four of those years. Everyday survival required me to focus my mind, body, and spirit to fight to hold on for a future life of freedom.
My time in prison was spent reading books and training. The wardens at several facilities placed me as the head “coach” of the weight pit or recreation time (or yard time as they call it). Those gyms are the toughest of all gyms and the men in there were from diverse ethnic, racial, and social backgrounds that didn’t always agree or play nice. I earned the respect of these men and their leaders. I was picked to lead the other inmates to train. It was easy for me to see the positive effects that training had on everyone physically, but even more so mentally. It decreased violent behaviour and it was the one place inside where all races were one.
The real truth finally came out in my case and it helped me to win an appeal that returned my liberty to me. My gratitude to the officers in law enforcement who had the courage to introduce this new evidence knows no bounds. When I was released in 2010, I headed to New York City and ultimately landed in the borough of Brooklyn. On parole, I was obliged to find a place to stay and to get a job. I found a small apartment that I didn’t know how I was going to pay for and then I found a gym in Manhattan where I could train others to make a living. I kept telling myself, “keep fighting, keep going, and work harder”.
I set about synthesising all my years of experience and the study of training into a personal fitness programme that allowed me to work with celebrities, supermodels, professional athletes, and prominent world business leaders. I had devoted my time to educate myself and develop training programmes for my brothers “inside” as it had fully prepared me for training clients on the “outside”. My entrepreneurial spirit emerged soon after that and I began to develop and manage multiple fitness, lifestyle, and leisure ventures in the U.S, Australia, and Asia, as well as other lifestyle spaces beyond physical training.
What brought you to Indonesia?
Several things really drew me to Bali. On my first visit, I just fell in love with the culture; the spirituality of the island transcends and permeates all life here. The people are wonderful and all the smiling faces! People are just happy here. Just saying this makes me happy.
Personally, I like waking up to the sound of roosters instead of emergency vehicle sirens and I prefer looking out my windows across a rice paddy field instead of the concrete jungle of NYC. This place has always felt like home to me.
Professionally, I saw a space in the fitness market. Bali has gyms like Soham, Bodyfactory, and the amenities they offered. Crossfit has a great coached facility in Wanderlust. There is the top fight gym at Bali MMA where they offer fantastic coaching and, in my view, the top MMA training with their team of coaches and fighters that grows larger every day.
I saw a window in the group fitness space. Living in America, I was part of a fitness game that is at the top of the experience curve and I was blessed to learn and work alongside some of the best coaches in the world. After doing massive market research on Bali, I felt now was the time to bring the concept and programming I established in NYC to South East Asia and to use Bali as my test market.
What do you think of Bali as a place to live in and not just simply a travel destination?
Bali, in my view, is one of the great melting pots of the world. People from all walks of life and countries come to this island, hoping to experience its natural beauty, learn more about life and themselves, as well as experience the joy of spirituality. It’s got a vibrant expat community and welcoming locals. Here, we all are one. There’s no pressure to have the biggest home or the fanciest car.
Bali is a place where you can be your most authentic self, whatever that means to you. “You be you” – I love this about Bali.
The beaches, the rice fields, the weather, the social life, the food, and the overall culture are friendly and laid-back. COVID-19 has only made the attraction to these things an even stronger desire in each of us.
Do you split time between New York City and Bali?
Yes, I do. I don’t think I could ever leave NYC permanently. NYC holds a special place in my heart. It’s where, after 11 plus years in a cage, I moved to. It’s my home! For me, there’s no other city on the planet with an energy that can compete with New York. The fast pace; the buzzing traffic; the hustle and bustle of all the people; the 24-hour life; and the creative spirit of New Yorkers are some of the things I miss.
In NYC, there are people everywhere – millions of them – all out walking, talking, laughing, and doing things that you have absolutely no clue about, I love that! When you walk through Times Square ?at 5am and it’s jam-packed with people who have travelled thousands of miles just to be in that space, you realise how blessed you are to call it your home. Going for a jog through the streets of Brooklyn allows you to appreciate city life and the spirit of New Yorkers. You’ll see the architectural beauty of the brownstones, the hundreds of people walking the sidewalks, the smell emerging from the coffee shops and pizza parlours opening for the day on every corner.
To be able to watch professional sports teams compete or superstar musicians perform at Madison Square Garden and then go out for the best food in the world at an Italian restaurant or to Peter Luger Steakhouse for the best steak served anywhere is a privilege. I enjoy watching chess battles in Washington Square Park or picking up hoops games on a corner blacktop playground and then heading to my favourite restaurant in the city, owned by my dear friend, Chef Dan Kluger, for an amazing meal. What is better than that?
NYC gave me a second chance. In NYC, everyone wants to belong to something, especially when they are busy creating or reinventing themselves. I came there with nothing and it helped to give me a new identity. Everyone knows someone in NYC, and I’ve never been to a place where once people know the real you, they are so happy to have the opportunity to connect with you. The saying coined from the song New York, New York is one hundred percent true: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. NYC is my forever home, even if my new home is here in Bali next to a rice paddy field.