Ne-Yo talks boxing, new 'R.E.D.' album

The platinum-selling artist may not have been a jock in high school, but watch out for him in celebrity football games. Brian D. Kersey/Getty Images

When a world-renowned rapper or house DJ needs a male R&B singer to lay down a hook, Ne-Yo seems to be the unanimous choice.

As it turns out, Ne-Yo's also got the hook down beyond the recording booth. While the Grammy-winning singer loves to spread the message of love when he's performing, behind the scenes, he loves to fight.

When Ne-Yo was a kid, he practiced martial arts, and then years later while fulfilling his current career ambition, he began to box as a way to stay in shape for his shows.

Since then, he's met Mike Tyson, and has dreams of doing more in the fighting world.

With that, ESPN Playbook takes you inside the mind of Ne-Yo, who just released his fifth album, "R.E.D.," which stands for "Realizing Every Dream."

How's the album launch going?

I'm excited about people's feedback. I'm not in the business of selling albums. That's the record label's concern. My concern is whether or not people actually enjoy the music, and it's looking like they are, so I feel like my job is done.

You've obviously been through this process before. Does this time around feel any different?

It feels different. I can honestly say that before, how many albums I sold used to really be a concern of mine. I always used to validate whether or not people liked the album based on how well it sold, but that's not always the case. Now, it's validated off of people's responses, who saw it. People will walk up to me and say that X, Y or Z is their favorite song, and it will be a song that wasn't a single.

Just today, somebody told me that her husband proposed to her because of one of my records. Like that's the kind of stuff that validates whether or nor the album is good. That's all I really care about nowadays. I'm proud of the album and I'm proud of the body of work.

You have a nice message with your album title: "Realizing Every Dream." What does that mean to you?

I called it that because that's where I'm at in my life right now. I definitely realized my dream. I worked extra, extra hard to get this point, and it's kind of a celebration of the fact that music has been my first love pretty much my whole life, and every dream or goal that I set for myself from age 8 or 9, when I decided to do music, to now, that's pretty much what I realized, the power of music.

The message of this album is basically for people to understand that if you work hard enough, you can realize your dreams, too. That's the cut and dry, the simpleness of the message. It's not about hating on a guy who's made it; it's about doing what it takes for you to make it. Anything that I've done is possible for anyone else to do as well. You've just got to be able to work hard, and that's it. Dreams can be reality, too.

I feel like almost every time I hear a popular dance song nowadays, you're singing the hook. As they say in sports, do you feel like you're in the zone right now?

I really don't know. I can honestly say that I do music, period. It's not dance music, this or that. I do it because I love it, and I do it as a passion. I can honestly say that if there was no money in music, I'd probably still do it because it's something that I love.

Speaking of sports, I heard you're big into boxing. Just for working out, or do you spar as well?

It's honestly just for the workout. I studied martial arts for about five years when I was a little younger, and I've been a boxing fan pretty much forever. As of right now, it's just part of the workout. I don't go as far as to spar or anything like that. I would love to. It's definitely a great way to stay in shape. To do what I do, I've got to keep my wind up, I've got to get my stamina right and boxing definitely helps that.

How did you get into martial arts?

When I was young, my mom put me in a martial arts class. Actually my pops really got me into it, but I realized after that, I didn't have time to really get into it. As much as I liked it, martial arts is kind of a lifestyle. You've got to be in it all the way. I don't have the time anymore. I'd love to get back into it, though, to be honest with you.

I know martial arts is all about focus and discipline. Do you think learning the craft helped you in your music career?

Oh yeah, absolutely. The discipline that is required to do this and the discipline that's required to do martial arts is very, very similar. It definitely takes dedication, it takes focus, it takes patience and martial arts takes the exact same thing. So I can definitely say that my martial arts background helped me with this music thing. Again, all the more reason why I'd love to get back into it, but, like I said, it's a lifestyle. I really and truly don't have the time to do it the right way anyway.

I know you've acted a bit, so maybe we'll see you in a martial arts film at some point?

You know what? Honestly, man, that's like my dream role, to be in like a modern-day martial arts film. That would be dope.

Through your travels, what stands out as your favorite sports memory?

I remember it was the Super Bowl [in 2008] with the Patriots and Giants. Pretty much everybody in my crew was a fan of the Giants. And there was one particular guy in my crew who's a super Patriots fan, and when they lost, I just remember him -- and when you see a picture of it, it's the saddest picture on the face of the planet. Like everybody's left the field and it's empty, and he's just standing there staring at the field like, "This is not possible that we lost." It was the funniest thing on the planet. I kind of wish I had that picture. It's hilarious about how hard he took that loss. We had seats way up top in one of the suites, and we were sitting next to Tom Brady's mom. The lady was like, "That's my son."

How did you end up with a bunch of Giants fans in your crew?

The majority of the people that work with me are from New York, and there was just one or two people that were Patriots fans. They were the oddballs of the crew. They just knew they would win because the Patriots were like murdering everybody that year, but the game didn't turn out that way.

Is football your favorite sport?

I honestly don't get to watch that much football at all. As far as playing football, that's probably the sport that I would be OK at. I actually played in a celebrity game just recently with a few people, and I honestly didn't know I was as good as I am. I'm pretty quick. I didn't know that. I was happy about that.

What position?

Oh, running back. I'm gone. I've got wheels.

Growing up, was there a sports figure you looked up to?

Honestly, Mike Tyson, man. Boxing is my sport. Mike Tyson was definitely my guy when I was growing up. I mean, the guy was unstoppable when he was on top of his game. Nobody could touch him. I remember his loss to Buster Douglas [in 1990], and my heart fell out because it was the worst day of my life. He was not supposed to lose that fight. He was not supposed to lose that fight.

Have you gotten a chance to meet him?

I actually have met Mike. I met him once or twice actually, and he's an interesting guy [laughs]. I'll say that. He's definitely a character.

Yeah, he even had his own pigeon racing show on Animal Planet.

I didn't get to see that, but I heard the thing about the pigeons and all of that. He's a guy that's lived the life. I'll say that much.

Since you grew up in Las Vegas, I assume you've been to some boxing fights.

You know what's crazy? Growing up in Las Vegas you would think so, but I've never been to a fight.

Never? Not one?

Never in life. Not one. I've watched a million of them on TV, and people that have been to fights have always told me that it's honestly better to watch it on TV, because at the fight, you're not really paying attention to the fight; you're paying attention to everybody that's sitting front row, which I kind of figured. I've never really had the desire to go.

It's like the scene in the movie "American Gangster" where Denzel Washington's character and other celebrities are rolling up to the red carpet.

Exactly, yeah. If you're truly a fan of boxing, it might be better to sit at a sports bar or at the house, or something like that. You can actually watch the fight.

At home, do you have a prized piece of sports memorabilia -- perhaps something from Iron Mike?

Nah, unfortunately I do not. I'm not really the huge, huge sports guy, just because in high school, I wasn't very good at it. And then once music came into my life, it took over everything. I remember being on a basketball team, but never playing. I remember trying out for the football team, but I got hit one time real, real hard, and I was done. I was like, "You know what? Yeah, this probably isn't for me. I'm going to go sing a song."

You mentioned how you heard from a woman today about your music. Do you also hear from any athletes about how they use your music for their significant other, or maybe to get them in the right state of mind before a game?

To be honest with you, yeah. Oddly enough, you would think it would be some of the more up-tempo records. I definitely get a response from some of those guys. Some of the slower stuff surprises me. Like I can imagine as a football player, you're on pins the majority of the time, so you want me talking to you to kind of bring you down off that high. I've been told by a couple of different guys that they appreciate the music and they appreciate just the mellowness of certain songs. It was odd to me because I'm thinking they would get into more up-tempo stuff, but it's the slower stuff that they seem to latch on to.

Is there an athlete who you love to hate?

As far as present, I don't really have one. You know what? I'm following the Lakers right now, and everybody's all worried because they've been losing. But I honestly feel like that's just for right now. They've just got to get the recipe right. They've got all the right ingredients, but they've just got to get the recipe right. Who I would love to hate? Man, I don't know. I can't really think of an athlete that I hate necessarily.

Give me a sporting event you'd love to perform at.

I've actually done a few halftime shows, I've sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" for a couple of games. That's always great. Like I said, I've never been to a boxing match. I'd love to do "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a heavyweight fight. Floyd [Mayweather] is my guy right now. I'd love to do "The Star-Spangled Banner" at one of his fights. I think that would be incredible.