Marco Rivera shakes off the flurry. Like he has a thousand times in the past, he keeps his guard up as his opponent’s gloves deflect off his forearms. He absorbs a shot to his biceps, followed by a jab slipping over the top of his right hand, glancing off his ear. A bolt of lightning crosses his pupils, but for only a moment, and clarity quickly returns.
He continues to shuffle his 146-pound frame around the ring, his feet carving the same circle as countless others have before him. The canvas beneath the warriors’ feet is cracked and worn, stained with sweat and blood of battles past. The crowd is a hazy blur, faded into the distance. Shouts of encouragement spill from opposite corners of the ring, but none penetrate the zone Marco finds himself in.
Just one problem — before he knows it, four rounds are in the books as the final bell clangs. While the referee raises his opponent’s hand in triumph, Marco silently shakes his head, dropping his eyes to the floor. “What just happened? I could’ve won that fight,” he thinks to himself. “I let it slip away. I just didn’t throw enough punches.”
It was a mistake he vowed to never make again.
Marco’s professional boxing career would span just two fights, a decision loss followed by a decision win. He would walk away from the sport after seven long years of faithful training, content to fade into the endless, empty bustle of the New York City he had known since childhood.
“I worked a lot of random jobs back then,” Marco says, shaking his head at the memory. “This is how confused I was in my 20s — I temped and I was content with that. I actually loved the fact that when I woke up I had no idea what I’d be doing that day.”
Marco grew up in the hardscrabble Bronx. He is one of six children; his father was an X-ray technician and his mother a nurse at the same hospital when they met, married and started a family. When Marco reached high school age, the family bounced around, first to Chicago, then to Puerto Rico, and finally back to New York. It was in the Windy City that he first discovered weight training.
“There’s a street that divided the east and west side of my neighborhood,” he says. “Each side had different gangs. The problem for me was I lived on the east side, but went to high school on the west side. Now, keep in mind, I had just moved from New York, so I was clueless about colors and all the other stuff. I had friends on both sides. I always feared that something would happen — that one side would confuse it when they saw me with friends from the other side, and I’d get jumped.”
To be ready, he craved strength. And it’s what led him to a small, hardcore club that he passed on his way to and from school. “The place was full of rusted-out equipment, and it had the dog-eared magazines and the posters of bodybuilders on the walls,” he recalls. “I peeked my head in there so much that eventually the owner let me come in. He told me I could train if I would help clean up. From there? Forget about it, it just took off.”
At that point, baseball was Marco’s first love. He never played for his school’s team, but he was a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop on every club and local team he played on, from New York to Chicago to Puerto Rico and back to New York. “I was a natural from the time I was a little kid,” he says. “I could catch the ball from the very beginning like I had been playing for years, and man, I could hit.”
As Marco says this, he’s taking leave of an upright bike, which he has ridden for 15 minutes, dialing up the resistance and focusing on the muscle contractions in his thighs and glutes with every revolution. We’re in Star Fitness on Commerce Avenue in the Bronx. Don’t let the bland moniker fool you: Look around, and you quickly realize this ain’t your typical weekend-warrior health club. It smells faintly of Pro Tan, chalk and perspiration, with a who’s who of local NPC and IFBB talent meticulously at work.
Marco plans to carve hamstrings and glutes on this chilly December morning — he prefers to split them from his quads. He’ll soon prove why, as his unbridled intensity leaves no muscle fiber untouched in a workout that spans an exhausting hour and 20 minutes.
His first stop is the leg-curl apparatus. After three initial sets of 20 reps, it’s down to business. He pyramids up each of four sets, increasing 20 to 30 pounds each time, as the weight falls from 20 to 15 to 12 and finally to 10 for the full stack.
That last set, however, doesn’t end there. Breathing heavy, water already beading on his clean-shaven scalp, he quickly drops 20 pounds and does 10 more reps with a powerful thrust to full contraction followed by a controlled negative. Barely letting the stack touch down, he deftly slips the pin up two spots and forges out 10 more reps, then repeats the sequence one more time, the metal clanking to rest after eight slow, grueling reps at his original 50-pound resistance.
As he recaptures his breath, he explains his approach. “A lot of guys will use curls as a warm-up, but I go all-out,” Marco says, pointing out the obvious. “I want to pre-exhaust my hamstrings. It’s something I do throughout my workouts. If your hams are tired, they’ll be forced to work harder on the compound exercises. I’ll do a glute-specific exercise sometimes before squatting or leg pressing and just exhaust them, and then the glutes will be working right from the start of the compound move. That’s actually how I’ve gotten my conditioning and detail in that area.”
At 41, Marco is no stranger to the athletic grind. But in bodybuilding, unlike baseball and boxing, he’s struck upon his true calling, and in many ways, a savior in some of his darkest hours.
He was tight with his older brother, Antonio Rivera. They worked together, hung out, partied. But he could only watch helplessly as Antonio — or Tank, as friends knew him — slid deeper and deeper into drug addiction. “He was lost, very irresponsible with himself,” Marco says. “He started getting sick, but kept getting high, not going to the doctor, and eventually gave up on himself.”
In 2005, Antonio suffered an asthma attack at home, lost consciousness, and died before the ambulance eventually weaved its way through the clogged Bronx streets. Marco wasn’t there at the time and still wonders if the situation would have turned out differently had he been home. “I think about it sometimes, if I would have been there,” he laments. “I knew CPR, I was a lifeguard. I feel like things could have turned out differently.”
Throwing himself into weightlifting, Marco was focused like never before, and found that exercise quieted the demons. “When Tank passed away, training allowed me to isolate myself,” he says. “I felt I had some place to dump my energy. When I lift, I think more about bad things than good things, believe it or not, only because that motivates me. Things that have happened to me, or that I don’t want to happen. I exaggerate some of it in my mind, but it has always worked.”
Two years later, Marco entered his first bodybuilding contest, the 2007 Eastern USA Championships in New York City. He’d finish fourth among novice light-heavies, but his interest was piqued and his career path set. Four years later, after a number of regional-level victories, he won the light-heavyweight class at the 2011 NPC Nationals in Miami, snagging the coveted pro card that would propel him into the IFBB 212-class fray.
When in Rome
Toweling off the leg-curl pad, Marco turns to the Smith machine for the next two exercises in his gauntlet. He drops the bar to hip level and locks the safeties, then, oddly, starts loading 25-pound plates onto each side. There is a method to his madness, however.
“I use quarters when doing this exercise, because the smaller diameter allows me to bring it closer to the floor,” he says. Beginning with two 25-pounders per side, he steps up to the bar with his feet splayed out slightly and just outside shoulder width and grasps the bar overhand, twisting it to free it from the safety latches. From this standing position, body tensed from toes to his neck, he slowly bends at the waist to lower the bar.
As the weight descends, Marco’s hips shift rearward, and once he reaches a point where his upper body is parallel to the floor, he reverses sharply but deliberately. “A barbell is fine, but I prefer the Smith because it helps your balance,” he explains between sets. “You can place your feet a little further in front of you or behind you and change the emphasis in your hamstrings.”
Before he begins anew, he mentions what he calls the most integral part of Romanian deads. “You get the most hamstring action on the way down,” he says. “When you’re lowering the weight, you want to push those glutes back as far as possible until you feel it pulling at the top of your calf, and then picture the hamstrings contracting as you come back up. Think about the hamstrings stretching and contracting on every rep. For this exercise to work, you need to be mentally engaged 100 percent.”
Marco completes four sets, adding 50 pounds each time and, on the final set, doing a multi-drop similar to the curl machine, sliding a quarter off of each side and knocking out 10 reps at each stop. “If my partner was here, he’d slide those off without me ever having to put the weight down,” he explains after the bar is finally perched.
Next on the Smith comes an exercise you wouldn’t expect from a 250-pound bodybuilder, especially in a macho neighborhood establishment like this one. Undeterred, he sets up for what we will call a glute-ham lunge, for lack of a better moniker.
Bringing the bar up to shoulder level, Marco sets up so that it appears he’s preparing to squat, ducking under so the bar lies across his upper back just above his shoulder blades. He then shifts his feet so that his front is just behind the plane of the bar supporting him, while the other is extended out behind him, heel up in a lunge stance. His upper body is in what he calls the “Superman” position, with core tight and shoulders angled forward, in which it’ll remain throughout.
“Because that front foot is a little behind the bar, you’ll be taking the quads out of the move,” he explains. “From this stance, I bend at the front knee to lower myself as much as I can, then drive back up, going up and down for 20 reps with one leg before switching. The range of motion isn’t that large, but you’ll feel the contraction through your glutes and hamstrings if you’re doing it right.”
Although weight isn’t paramount, he’ll go up from 135 to 315 over the course of three to four sets, working down to the eight to 10 rep range on the final set, where he sometimes incorporates a drop set if he’s feeling particularly diabolical. “I highly recommend you do a drop set at the end of these,” he says emphatically. “You’re gonna feel it — you’ll end up with such tightness in your hams and glutes that you’ll find it hard to walk.”
But walk Marco does (with just a little bit of a weary hitch in his step), because up next is his favorite leg exercise, one that serves double-duty on both quad and hamstring day. For walking lunges, he starts with a 30-pound dumbbell in each hand and makes use of the ample walkways between the rows of red-and-white machines.
For these, he takes an exaggerated step forward, dropping his hips deep and making sure the weights end up alongside his lead leg — “I want the dumbbells there so I can put maximum resistance at that leg for the knee extension,” he explains after a set — and then drives off the front heel while bringing the back leg forward. Thirty steps in all, 15 for each leg, 10 (yes, 10) sets in total, working up to the 100-pounders by the concluding jaunt.
Before the Bell
After wrapping up the session with 12 sets for his calves — calf raises on the leg press, first both legs and then each at a time, followed by seated calf raises — Marco is ready to head out. A building engineer at the posh Trump SoHo hotel in Manhattan, he’s part of the team that keeps the lights on, the hot water running and the behind-the-scenes activity humming without a hitch, and his shift starts in about 90 minutes. But on his way out, he takes a moment to outline his ambitious plans for the coming year.
Back in 2011, when Marco first turned pro, he approached it a lot like his workouts: he didn’t squander a moment. “You see people interviewed post-Nationals or post-USAs, they all want to take a year off,” he says. “I don’t get it. You just turned professional, that means something. My attitude was I want to get right into the lion’s den ASAP. I want to see what it’s all about, see what I look like standing next to the other competitors.”
And in what proved to be fortuitous timing, the nascent 202 class in the IFBB was switching to a 212-weight limit at the tail end of 2011, meaning Marco could compete at a comfortable competitive bodyweight. He jumped into three 212 shows last year, finishing second in the Orlando Show of Champions and the European Pro, while earning fourth at his hometown New York Pro.
He also has some extra motivation to excel: his fiancée, Yeshaira Robles, who once frowned on his extended stays at the gym over the couple’s 14-year history, decided to join him a few years ago. Now a top IFBB competitor in her own right, Robles came in second in the 2013 Bikini Olympia. “We don’t complicate things,” he says of the balance they strike between their career and relationship. “We don’t waste excess energy, so that way we have so much more to give to each other in our personal lives. I’m not going to say it’s not hard sometimes, because it is, but even when it gets a little shaky, we know tomorrow’s another day.”
Now, as Marco takes aim at 2014, he says he’s learned one important thing from his first six pro events. “What I realized is that I belong up there with these other guys,” he says. “I can beat them. I intend to win a lot of shows in the next year.”
In a way, it traces back to that moment right after his first professional bout, when he made that promise to himself to never stop punching. “In my life, I’ve missed out on opportunities,” he says. “I probably could’ve been a Major League Baseball player had I followed through. Boxing, who knows? So when it came to bodybuilding, I told myself, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to go for it all-out.’
“Now, because of bodybuilding, I’ve managed to clear a lot of negative things out of my life. When you live this lifestyle, you don’t have time for the nonsense. You don’t spend time on the streets, hanging out, drinking. It just simplified so many things to where I could manage my life to perfection. I’m so grateful for it.”