MUHAMMAD ALI once said, “Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.” Perhaps it depends on where those people are trying to go. Trainer Mike Stafford has no intention of straying too far from his roots in Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s where he grew up, where he found boxing, and where he built an impressive résumé that includes three world champions.
Stafford avoids the limelight. Following Robert Easter’s IBF lightweight title-winning decision over Richard Commey last September, the 60-year-old trainer could be seen hanging out in the shadows, quietly basking in the moment while cameras followed the new champion and his promoter, Adrien Broner—both Stafford disciples. When the media dispersed, Stafford made his way to Commey’s locker room, pulling fighter and trainer aside to congratulate them on their efforts in the tight 12-round shootout.
It’s hard to reconcile this low-key, old school coach as the man who works with the ostentatious Broner, the fighter who has managed to claim major titles in four different weight classes, yet offended practically everyone he’s encountered along the way. But Stafford can relate to his charge. Like Broner, he was raised in the West End district of Cincinnati. Cincy was always a fighting town although not everyone punched for pay.
“Growing up I was around prostitution, drug dealing…everything,” Stafford recalled. “In the sixties, race riots tore up our downtown community. Sometimes I’d wake up and there’d be national guards on top of the roofs and tanks rolling down the street. I stuck with sports. I was a local football star but boxing was my other love. You had to have boxing skills to protect yourself.”
Stafford never left Cincinnati, raising son Mike Jnr in the same town. When a seven-year-old Mike got into a fight with an older kid and sent him to the hospital, Senior marched him down to Millvale Golden Gloves Gym, run by Mezaughn Kemp, a well-known figure on the local scene—and someone Stafford insisted is mentioned here.
Stafford comes from a rich boxing tradition in the Midwest, a region that has produced some of the finest fighters to ever lace ‘em up. From Ray Robinson to Joe Louis to James Toney to Floyd Mayweather Jnr, many of boxing’s greatest practitioners honed their craft in those states.
Stafford studied under Kemp, working with the younger kids. Training was a way to stay close to his son and provide a structured programme for neighbourhood kids to follow. By the mid-nineties, he was a force on the national scene, working with several U.S. Olympic squads and earning induction to the National Golden Gloves Hall of Fame. Amateur legends such as Ricardo Williams and Dante Craig all learned under Stafford, who employed recovering addict Aaron Pryor to help out.
During his time in the amateurs Stafford met St. Louis-based trainer Kevin Cunningham. Cunningham reared Corey Spinks and Devon Alexander, both of whom became world champions under his watch. He and Stafford not only competed against each other, they would often send their pupils to train with the other for months at a time.
“The U.S.A. amateur boxing program is what kept the old boxing techniques alive,” Stafford says. “Some of these new coaches are content raising one fighter. But there is so much you can learn being around and working with other coaches and boxers. That’s how the legacy is passed on.”
Stafford still maintains a knowledge exchange with trainers from the amateurs, guys like Cunningham, Barry Hunter, Virgil Hunter and Nazim Richardson.
“People don’t realise this but nobody has done what Mike has,” says Virgil Hunter. “Mike has three world champions that he started from the beginning; the root to the fruit. Broner, Rau’shee Warren and now Robert Easter Jnr. While everyone is running around saying how great of a coach they are, they overlook these facts. And all these kids can fight.”
Broner, of course, is still the biggest name in the stable.
“Adrien’s dad brought him down to the gym when he was about seven years old,” Stafford said. “Since Adrien was supposed to be tough, I put him in there with Rau’Shee. Both were 55lbs at the time and Rau’Shee was eight or nine years old. Rau’Shee had fought everyone in the country and a lot of them were bigger than him. So he and Adrien sparred all the time. Rau’Shee made Adrien cry a lot. He was the test of the gym back then. If you could make it through three rounds with Rau’Shee then you were on my team.”
These days, Broner is more famous for what he’s done outside the ring than in it. When Broner’s run-ins with the law comes up, the most recent of which was an alleged attack on someone outside a bowling alley, Stafford’s voice lowers.
“I think Adrien’s run into a streak of bad luck. I’m not trying to take up for him but he’s got to realise that he’s got to manage himself a little better than what he’s doing now. He’s got About Billions Promotions and Cincy World Class Boxing Gym so he has a lot of responsibilities. He needs to take care of home first.”
Cunningham, who has known Stafford for 21 years, isn’t as long-suffering.
“Mike’s best attribute is that he’s a genuinely good person,” he says. “This boxing business is ruthless, full of snakes. When you transition from the amateurs to the pros, and you get an elite fighter, you have to tighten up the ship. Adrien has all the tools to carry the torch from Floyd Mayweather but his actions outside of the ring are affecting him inside it.”
Barry Hunter, head coach at Headbangers Gym in Washington, D.C. (and the man behind the Peterson brothers, and Austin Trout among others), agrees.
“Mike is a great human being,” he said. “Mike tends to see the good in people when other people only see the bad. Especially in the youth. Adrien has the type of skillset and potential to be the man in boxing. If he ever realises just how much of a gift God has given him, I think he can be something the world hasn’t seen in a long time.”
Stafford is the anti-Broner. Conversations with him inevitably return to the budding fighters he takes great pride in building from scratch. Media attention is of little use to him.
“I don’t knock any of these trainers who get more coverage,” he says. “Freddie Roach is in a good situation where he can get a guy coming from another country or another gym and he takes them to the next level. If I was Abel Sanchez and I got someone like Gennady Golovkin, I’d take those accolades too.
“Here at the Cincy World Class Boxing Gym, I start my kids from day one,” he continued. “I’ve got 15 kids who are eight-years-old. Some of them are Silver Gloves champs. And I want you to remember these names: Jermain Brown, Dasean Minor, Antonio Grant, Cameron McKinstry, Brian Frazier, D.J. Foggie, JaVaughn Dula, Duke Regan, Desmond Jarmon and Desmond Jarmon II. I expect even more world champions to come out of this gym.”
Stafford’s avuncular nature has endeared him to fighters and their families. He still picks them up, drops them off and makes sure they have a warm meal in their stomach.
“These kids come from rough areas,” Stafford says. “And I’m always going to do my best to develop and help them. Does it matter if the whole world knows? No. As long as it matters to the ones who matter to me.”