Michael Itter, more commonly known as “Big Mike”, weaves his way through the maze of heavy, plastic boxing bags hanging from the ceiling of TITLE Boxing Club.
Big Mike lives up to his nickname. He’s sturdy, with 185 pounds of lean muscle spread over his 5’8 frame. On his tan face, a set of intense, blue eyes sit above a set of huge, bleached white teeth. He has a permanent five-o’clock shadow that he scratches when he’s pensive. You’ll likely find Mike strolling around wearing a snapback and an allblack tracksuit, even off the clock.
When Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” starts booming through the loudspeaker, Mike casually drops that he first heard the song on a bootlegged CD during his first tour in Afghanistan. He enlisted in the military after 9/11 when he was 17. During his two tours in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan, he served in the infantry, front line and ranger battalion, leading over 500 patrols overseas.
When Mike was 15, he was placed in the state foster care system in Aurora, Illinois. Among the “angsty bullies” in the group homes and foster homes where he stayed, Mike learned how to fight.
He recalls his first fistfight with a local kid from high school, someone who was supposed to be this “real tough guy, but he was obviously just running his mouth,” Mike says. He thought he ended the fight with a knockout punch, but not quite. “The kid came to, grabbed a log from his front yard, and hit me in the forehead so hard I passed out.” When Mike woke up, he says, “my face was legit fucking destroyed. My buddy just laughed when he saw me and said ‘dude, your nose is crooked!’” But he credits the loss to the log – not the bully. “It would take a real bad motherfucker to whoop my ass just with their hands,” Mike says.
For Mike, fighting was a way to survive in the foster care system, but he also came to appreciate the shuffle as an art. One of his foster care fathers owned old black-and-white tapes of Muhammad Ali, and would ask Mike to commentate Ali’s fights with him while knocking back beers in a plaid Lazy Boy. “Watching such a phenomenal fighter with someone who was so enthusiastic about it… boxing just soaked into my mind,” Mike remembers.
Mike started to incorporate formal boxing training into his personal workouts, and joined the army boxing team after he enlisted. He was a renowned fighter on the team, known for his knockout punch, and earned an award during his second tour for master fitness in the military, a progressive fitness award that recognizes soldiers who are “overly, exertedly [sic] fit,” Mike smirks. He was personally asked by his commanding officer to train outof-shape soldiers so they would pass their fitness tests. Through his work, he discovered the joy of personal training.
Joseph Fitter became friends with Mike during their first tour in Iraq. Along with other soldiers in their unit, the two men put together a makeshift gym at their base with donated exercise equipment. “Mike was still a dedicated, hard-working dude, but he was about half the person he is now [literally] – he was 145 pounds,” Fitter recalls.
Mike began his winding fitness career as a strength and conditioning coach for high school athletes after completing his second tour in Iraq. He met his current fiancée, Diana Lilliebridge, when he worked at Pro Gym in Oswego, Illinois five years ago. In a unique version of a fairytale gym romance, Mike was a personal trainer and Diana worked at the front desk. He played it cool at first, abrasively handing Diana a piece of paper for her to write her number down and then tucking it in his back pocket. But his soft side came out very quickly. “When we began dating, he would do all my work chores for me – take out the garbage, leave small presents like flowers with a card in the breakroom or balloons with stuffed animals on the car,” Diana says. Soon, Mike moved up to manage different fitness gyms across Chicago, including XSports Fitness and Club Pilates. Each move, Diana came with him.
Mike found his way to Evanston last September when he accepted a general manager position at the new TITLE Boxing Club on Davis Street. The gym’s owner, Paige Hopkins fixated on Mike’s application. “Mike’s success factor is his personality and passion for what he’s doing,” Hopkins says. “He’s got that magnetic personality that everyone likes being around - I’m touched by his commitment to the people who come to TITLE.”
His 8 a.m. and noon boxing classes are almost always full. They usually start a couple minutes late because Mike is busy wrapping new members’ hands, queuing up the rap playlist that dominates his classes and making sure everyone has water. Attendees line up at his desk after class, asking questions about technique, wanting to see photos of his son, Mike Jr., or just chat about their days.
Northwestern junior Lela Johnson worked closely with Mike on TITLE’s PR team when the location first opened, and became a member of the gym soon after. “Mike is by far one of the most energetic and passionate members of the team,” she says. “[He] keeps the energy high, which is crucial for interval workouts.”
Mike learned that passionate technique from his time in the military. “I think attitude is everything. The military breaded a lower aggression to where it’s more about motivating and inspiring, and that’s where everything comes from,” he says. “Knowing that you’re breeding somebody from the ground up into almost a new individual mindset is what comes from the military and that’s how I coach my classes. It’s all about motivation, inspiration and making people feel better.”