You don't wanna catch hands from Bud Dupree.
"He actually broke the punching shield we were using. It literally exploded."
That little nugget comes from Rich Cantolina, Dupree's personal boxing trainer here in Pittsburgh since Dupree arrived on the scene in 2015. After being selected in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Dupree generated massive buzz around the city, with fans eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next great Steelers outside linebacker.
Cantolina was among those interested.
"The day we drafted him in the first round, like a typical Yinzer, I immediately went to his social media to see what the buzz was around this guy," Cantolina was telling me. "I stumbled across a video of him hitting a heavy bag. So I commented on that video saying, 'When you get to Pittsburgh message, me and we can work on those hands.' "
This was out of character for Cantolina, who noted he never reaches out in this way because he knows the athletes rarely check every tweet or direct message that comes their way. And if they do check, they'll typically ignore any sort of offer like this one. But Dupree didn't.
"Months later I had a message in my Instagram from Bud saying he was ready to start training, and for the longest time I thought it was fake. It was too good to be true," Cantolina said. "But it wasn’t. He showed up at the gym ready to work. I still remember the first time I met him in person, thinking how far I had come from being this little die-hard Steelers fan since I was a baby to now training an actual Steeler."
For Dupree, the move didn't simply stem from an interest in the sweet science. He does mention he enjoys the sport and appreciates its intricacies, but for him, boxing has a practical application to his job as an outside linebacker.
"[Boxing is] a lot of conditioning, core training, speed with the hands," Dupree was telling me at the Rooney Complex. "You need that for pass rushing."
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And while Dupree is a "freak of nature," as T.J. Watt told our Dejan Kovacevic earlier this offseason, boxing does not simply reward the best athlete. There's strategy and a high level of processing required. There is a physical component, sure, but even the best athletes will struggle their first time stepping into the ring.
That is precisely where Dupree impressed Cantolina the most.
"Everyone in the gym the first day and first few training sessions was amazed by his natural boxing ability," Cantolina said. "I mean, it’s not every day you get a natural athlete like Bud walking into the gym looking to learn, but still, it’s a very difficult and frustrating sport to learn. At times I can tell he gets frustrated, but he always pulls it together and works it out.
"I don’t know if I have ever seen a more natural athlete, or someone pick it up so fast and so technically sound as he has. I mean, he’s pulling off some very high-level angles and combinations that people that trained for years can’t even do. I push the limit with him for sure, always, but as much as I work on building up his speed and power, that kid was born with the heaviest hands I’ve ever seen."
Hence things like, you know, that exploding punching shield. Although that particular brand of knockout power isn't necessary on the field, Cantolina says he understands how the work in the ring can translate to Sundays. From feints and head movement to footwork and hand speed, it all works together to improve Dupree's game.
"I’ve seen a different Bud this year and I think this will be his breakout season, especially with our upgraded defense. I see him really coming into his own this year and I’m thankful to be a part of his journey," he said.
Yeah, but of course the trainer's going to say that. I wanted to hear it from Dupree himself:
“I can tell, you know, just from training, live training, then start doing boxing and pass rushing, trying to implement that into my game," Dupree was telling me. "It’s all about just seeing their hands just like seeing a punch from an opponent, then being able to maneuver. Also, it’s all about using your speed with the hands and getting hands off you.”
Interestingly enough, when you step onto the practice field at the Rooney Complex, if you turn 90 degrees to your left, you'll see a suspended row of heavy bags. I didn't confirm if the team put them there on Dupree's orders, but I did confirm this: Asking Dupree who has the best hands on the team, he offered the following with a laugh.
Hey, I wasn't going to be the one to dispute it.
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