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Buddy McGirt, an old school graduate

Buddy McGirt
REUTERS/Teddy B. Blackburn
Buddy McGirt talks to Tris Dixon about his life and career as he prepares to be inducted into the Hall of Fame

JAMES “BUDDY” McGIRT is old school. He was brought up old school, as a youth he looked up to all things old school and now, in a way, he lives by old school philosophies even if he does so without living in the past.

He represents a different time. He was the boy who wanted to smoke pipes because of the status he believed it would afford him, he was the contender who hung out in East Coast business premises with links to organised crime, he was one of the stars on grainy 1990’s TV sets, a 15-round championship fighter who was taught boxing by men who are no longer here but who have been immortalised on the walls of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Buddy will join them in Canastota this weekend, enshrined for a career that saw him fight professionally for 15 years winning 73 times, losing six and drawing once.

During that span, he met the likes of Pernell Whitaker (twice), Livingstone Bramble, Meldrick Taylor, Simon Brown, Patrizio Oliva, Saoul Mamby, Gary Jacobs and Howard Davis.

You become eligible to be inducted into the IBHOF five years after your final fight, so Buddy has been on hold since 2002.

But he’d stopped waiting for a call from the Hall’s founder Ed Brophy. “I just said, if it happens it happens,” he begins. “If it’s meant to be it will be. I’m not going to get myself pumped up thinking I’m going to be in there and then for it not to happen.”

He’s going in with a couple of other old school cult heroes, the brilliant Donald Curry and the destructive Julian Jackson.

They, like McGirt, stand for a time that has come and gone.

“Don Curry was a very good technical fighter,” McGirt offers “He fought everybody. Julian Jackson, same thing. We weren’t them guys who said, ‘We’re not going to fight this one or that one.’ Whoever they said we’re going to fight we fought, no questions asked.”

Fitting the old school theme was his manager Al Certo, an East Coast tailor who was never able to shake off links to organised crime. Certo was around back when the mob influenced big-time boxing. He knew the fixers, the movers and the shakers.

Buddy saw a lot in his many visits to that Secaucus, New Jersey, shop, not least a stream of retired legends who frequented the premises. It was an old school place, frozen in time, where Willie Pep, Jersey Joe Walcott and aging Italian men in suits would come and go.

“You never knew who you were going to see in the showroom,” McGirt recalls.

Certo was accused of having underworld ties in a 1993 Senate hearing but always denied links to the Mafia.

There were several influences for McGirt but one was closer than the others, his mother Dorothea. She is no longer with us but was instrumental in Buddy’s success. She worked nights in a psychiatric ward for 30 years and her graft inspired McGirt to want to contribute his share of food on the family table.

“You always want to be someone and every kid wants to do something with their life,” he remembers. “I wanted that, but more importantly I wanted to make my mother proud. She raised five boys, one girl and as a single parent she bust her ass for us. She worked a job and never asked nobody for anything, I always wanted to make her proud and be able to give her money so she could live her life like I thought she should.

Was he a natural or just a hard worker? “A little bit of both,” he reckons. “I had the natural fighting ability but I studied a lot of the old fighters. I read about them because we didn’t have a VCR or nothin’ – so I would read about them over and over.”

He repeated the same trip to the library to take out the one boxing book on its shelves which resulted in an unlikely act of kindness when the librarian relented and gave little Buddy the book for keeps. He’d already torn out most of the pictures to put them on his walls anyway.

After 63 amateur fights over four or five years it was time to go pro – where the money was. “I thought I was going to be rich, you know?” he smiles knowingly. “That didn’t happen, but I started beating better fighters who had been around and I thought, ‘I could do something with this’.”

He was absorbing lessons in the gym, too, and one particular spar springs to mind.

 “Let me tell you, he’s dead now, he got killed, but the guy was called Davey Brown,” McGirt remembers. “He fought out of New Jersey, a featherweight and I know that from having two sparring sessions with him he was unbelievable. He fought Patrick Ford to a draw back in about ’82 or ’83. He was so slick. He stood in the centre of the ring on a quarter and said, ‘Throw any punch you can at me, you’re not going to catch me.’ Let me tell you, he sat there and slipped them, rode them, caught them and then he got tired and looked down and he was still stood on the quarter.”

McGirt’s education was swift yet, typically, old school. It took him six years and 38 contests to fight for his first world title, stopping 25-0 Frankie Warren – who’d already beaten him in a 10-rounder – for the IBF light-welterweight crown in 1988.

With the dust settled on his 80-bout career he says the best he faced was Whitaker while Mamby was the smartest.

Of Whitaker, who outscored him in 1993 and again in 1994, he says: “The first fight was more like a chess match, I love fights like that, especially outsmarting another man. That was my thing. But Pernell had one thing in his corner that I didn’t have, and that was Georgie Benton. Georgie was the master. If you have his mastery with Pernell’s ability, really? Who’s going to beat that? I came close, but up until that point any loss he had he was robbed.”

And every fighter has a pinnacle, a special night when everything works out. For McGirt it was Simon Brown, whom he beat over 12 for the WBC welterweight crown.

“For a couple of reasons,” he smiles. “One, I came out of the dressing room and I just knew there was no stopping me but the icing on the cake was, and you may think I’m crazy, I saw Lou Rawls singing the national anthem, because my mother loved Lou Rawls. So, I looked over at my mum and I saw her face and I said, ‘The world is mine tonight’.”

Sure, there was disappointment losing to Whitaker the first time but the lowest ebb came in the rerun. Heading into a huge fight Buddy couldn’t get himself motivated. He willed himself through training camp. He tried to light the internal fire. Nothing. The urge to fight had gone.

“I didn’t want to fight no more,” he laments. “I was just going through the motions and my wife kept telling me to quit but I didn’t have anything else to go to.”

And therein began a negative slump that cost Buddy years, spiralling through nothingness, unable to hold on to what he had and not knowing where he was going. Welcome to life after boxing. “It was the toughest thing I ever had to deal with. And what was tough about it was not the fact that I missed the limelight but because I couldn’t do what I loved from when I was 12, I couldn’t fight. I was in my early 30s and it just wasn’t there. It was just boom, gone. What am I going to do? I came back and one year I was doing roadwork in Colorado Springs around the lake, looked at my watch and it said 8 o’clock. I said to myself ‘Normally at this time I’m eating breakfast, here it is and I’m just starting my roadwork’. I went back to my apartment, called my wife and said, ‘I’m coming home.’ She was like, ‘Are you sure?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. That’s it. I’m done’. I got on the plane and it was the longest fight of my life. I was thinking, ‘Okay, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ I had a family to take care of, the mortgage, car payments and the money isn’t going to last too much longer. I didn’t have any answers. That’s when I found out who my real friends were and, believe it or not, it wasn’t the people who were in my entourage.”

You can well believe that. He’d learned some valuable lessons, and one is to take friendships in boxing with a grain of salt, certainly when money is involved.

“This is what I’ve learned,” he preaches, with the ability to grin about it now. “When a guy hugs you and says ‘I love you’, that’s when you’ve gotta watch them. The bulls**t is about to start.

“I struggled for a year or two. Then I said to myself, ‘You’ve got to stop bulls**tting. No one’s going to come and drop a bag of money off on the porch’. You’ve got to go out there and do something.”

He went back to what he knew and started training fighters, with noted clients including Antonio Tarver, Vernon Forrest, Matt Macklin, Arturo Gatti and most recently Sergey Kovalev.

It is the work with Jersey City warrior Gatti he is best-known for. By the time he took on Arturo, the fighter had seen better days and retirement was calling. Buddy listened with his eyes, not his ears.

“I got him in the gym and watched his legs, the first thing I look at is a fighter’s legs,” he recalls. “If the legs are not there you’re wasting your time. I’ve seen he had good legs and I remember seeing him box once beautifully on TV, then he got away from it. I said, ‘We can do one of two things, we can sit here banging and maybe last a year or you can listen to me and maybe last another three or four’. Then, if he would get into a war with whoever he was sparring I would stop the round and start it over. It took a few weeks but he got it.”

arturo gatti
Arturo Gatti vs Mickey Ward Ed Mulholland/USA Today Sports

McGirt was undoubtedly fond of Arturo but rates Tarver and Forrest as the most-talented he’s worked with. Forrest was shot dead two weeks after Gatti lost his life in July, 2009. The trajectory of Buddy’s voice drops when he’s asked to reminisce on that period.

“That there – and getting out the game – the death of Vernon took a lot out of me mentally and everything, I was thinking, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ We had a great relationship. The last time we spoke he was at a chicken place – ordering chicken – and he said, ‘No, it’s not for me, Coach’. I said, ‘Bulls**t. That chicken’s for you.’ We laughed.”

Two days later Vernon was murdered.

Now McGirt has another Gatti-type project on his hands. Some say Kovalev’s best days are behind him but Buddy maintains there’s another side to the Russian.

“He’s sort of like Arturo was, he can box,” McGirt says. “He showed me an amateur fight of his and I watched it and said, ‘What happened to this guy?’ He said, ‘I don’t know’. I said, ‘I’m going to tell you what happened to this guy. He started knocking people out, everyone started calling you Krusher and you got away from what got you there’. He started laughing and said, ‘You’re right.’ So, I told him, ‘Let’s get back to it. You can last a little bit longer’.”

Sergey Kovalev
Sergey Kovalev can box as well as brawl Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Buddy had 11 fights after the second Whitaker contest. Nine wins and two losses. A half-hearted McGirt was still a problem but it was the peak Buddy that earned his plaque in Canastota. The retired Buddy spiralled loosely into nothingness, while collecting a few bad habits but now he’s content   

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to smoke a pipe and cigars. Always,” he smiles, of the habit he quit 18 months ago. “I remember famous people using Captain Black tobacco and it smelt good so I said when I retire that’s what I’m going to do.”

Perhaps it was the figures who frequented Certo’s tailor-shop. Maybe it was those who were sat ringside when he fought, or who celebrated with him when he won. Either way, the fighting, the pipe, they represent days gone by. The school Buddy McGirt was born, raised and fought in. The old school.

On Sergey Kovalev v Anthony Yarde:
The guy [Yarde] can fight. I can’t bad mouth him. He can fight. So we’ve got to be on point. He’s young, he’s hungry, he’s strong, we can’t slip up, we got to cross our Ts and dot our Is.
That’s true [he may not have experience], but on the other hand he’s young and hungry and those are the guys you have to look out for. I would know, I was one of them once.

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