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Buddy McGirt: ‘It looked like someone had put a hand grenade in my shoulder and it had exploded’

Buddy McGirt
Steve Eichner/WireImage
Before he became one of the best trainers in the world, Buddy McGirt was one of the best fighters in the world

“MY real name is James Walter McGirt. Rather than “Buddy”, my son calls me JW and my brother called me JW. My mother, though, started it. They picked it up from her. When I was a kid and she said “JW” it meant I was about to get my ass kicked.

My first pro fight, back in 1982, ended in a draw. I was still in high school and even went to school that day. My manager picked me up and took me to the show. When I got in the ring, the referee touched me to see if I was wearing a cup but all I had on was a little jockstrap. He said, “This is the pros. You can’t wear that.”

I had to go in the back and get a cup off somebody. I then got back in the ring and looked across the ring and when this guy took off his robe I was like: Damn! He was huge. That’s not the guy I saw at the weigh-in yesterday. I said to myself, “Buddy, you’ve got to go for broke.” And that’s what I did. There was no boxing. No slick and move. We went to war for four rounds and I was happy with the draw and the 200 bucks I got for it.

My first pro loss and first big lesson came four years later against Frankie Warren. The loss helped me become a better fighter. I was knocking everybody out, bowling them all over, and then, when I met him, that didn’t happen.

When I fought him in July of ’86 I walked from the venue to my hotel. It was like a mile walk. It wasn’t far. But I wanted to walk it. I told my family and everybody else, “No, I want to walk it by myself.”

I walked from the venue to the hotel and when I got to the hotel I told my manager, “Yo, when we get home, I’m going to need you to get me a fight.” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I’ve got to erase this loss. I’ve got to come back with a win.” He called me crazy but I told him I wanted to fight. I said, “I can’t walk around knowing I lost my last fight.” So, I fought two months later against Saoul Mamby, a former world champion.

That Warren fight made me a much better fighter. I was getting complacent in my career and that stopped in the first round of the Warren fight when he got in my ass. I was like, “What the hell?” It took me four or five rounds to figure it out. I was like, “What the hell’s going on here, man?” This guy was hitting me on the kneecaps and everywhere else. By the time I had started to figure it out, it was too late.

But, listen, I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I think if I had knocked him out, I never would have known I had so many adjustments to make in my style. I thought I could knock everybody out.

In terms of the Frankie Warren rematch, which happened in ’88, I’ll give it to you like this: after the third round I don’t remember anything. I mentally went into a zone that took me about a day to come out of. The ring felt like I was in a phonebooth. He made it feel like that. But at the end of the first round, I know I hurt him with a right hand. I connected with a right hand and his knee almost touched the canvas. I said to myself, “We’ve got him but it’s not going to be easy.” I was firing on all cylinders that day and I had to be. It was not an easy fight. It got tougher and tougher. I knew I had to go to a certain zone mentally to get through it.

I put myself in that state of mind. Even before the fight, I was like, “Buddy, we need to get in that zone. Don’t watch the ring card girls to see what round it is.” It was scheduled for 15 rounds, so I said, “We just have to go out there and put it on the line.”

I was on a mental high after that win but I didn’t really get the chance to enjoy being world champion the first time. I guess I was in that zone for a while and reality didn’t really set in until I had lost the title. It was then reality hit me.

When I was in training camp I said, “These guys are now going to respect me because I’m champion.” But they were kicking my ass. I was like, “Come on, Buddy, this ain’t in the script.”

In my first title defence I fought Howard Davis, God bless him, and stopped him in the first round. I thought I was unstoppable. Then I got my ass kicked by Meldrick Taylor and reality hit me. He was very talented and very fast.

When I got my second world title, I appreciated it much more. I didn’t take it for granted second time around. I just knew in my heart that night Simon Brown wasn’t going to beat me. I would have fought and beaten anybody that night. I say that because my mum gave me a look before the fight and I’ll never forget it. After that look, I turned around and looked at Simon Brown and said, “I’m going to kick your ass.”

Nobody was stopping me that night. That night I put it all together. It’s crazy, out of all the fights I ever had there are only two fights where I heard my mother’s voice. That was in the title fight with Frankie Warren and the title fight with Simon Brown. They are the only times I ever heard her voice when I was fighting. I never heard her voice again. When I heard her say “Come on, JW!” I turned to her and winked to let her know I was okay. In the Simon Brown fight my back was to her and she said, “Throw a combination to let me know you’re okay,” and I threw a fast combination and didn’t hear her anymore. That’s something I’ll never forget.

Buddy McGirt
Al Bello/Allsport

She was proud of me and I think that was my most satisfying moment, watching her enjoy my success. People would ask me if I was happy being world champion and I would say, “Yeah, I’m happy, but I’m happier about the fact my mother is happy.” When I became champ, people were always stopping by the house and she was always entertaining people. I used to look at the expression on her face when she was doing it and that was where I got my satisfaction.

For the Pernell Whitaker fight, in ’93, I was in a situation where Madison Square Garden, who was my promoter, had seen all their top fighters lose and I was coming back from an arm injury. If I would have lost, they were going to stop doing boxing at Madison Square Garden and people in the boxing department would have lost their jobs. My fight was the day after Thanksgiving and one guy called me up on Thanksgiving to say, “Buddy, I love my family, you have to win this fight tomorrow night.” I said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got it.”

Ten days before the fight, however, I got sick and had to stay in bed for like three days. Everybody was panicking but I told them not to worry. When that week started, I told them, “I’ve got it.” When I then saw my mother, it was the key.

My first arm injury happened in 1990 and they told me I would never fight again. But I came back six months later and wound up beating Simon Brown. Then I got injured in December of ’92 and my manager took me to a doctor who said, after numerous scans, it was only tendonitis.

For the last 10 days when I was training to fight Genaro León all I did was shadowbox. I couldn’t hit the bag or do anything else. The doctor was giving me ultrasounds and all that, which I came to find out later was all bulls**t. I fought Leon and right away I’ve got to fight Pernell. They took me to another doctor and he said it was only tendonitis and they had me doing rehab. But I was like, “This s**t’s not right here.”

But I’m in the grind so I said, “Come on, Buddy, we’ve got to deal with this tendonitis.”

Then the doctor took me into this room, pulled up the MRI scan, and the doctor pointed to all this white stuff and said it was tendonitis. I didn’t know what the f**k I was looking at. The day of the Whitaker fight the doctor called me and asked me to come to the hospital. He then took me into the dressing room where the doctors change and he gave me a shot in the arm. He said, “This is going to help your tendonitis.” I said, “All right, no problem.” I then fight and the next day Ross Greenburg, who worked for HBO, called me and said he had a doctor in New York he wanted me to go see. When I went to see him, I took the old MRIs and he looked at them and told me I needed surgery. He told me my rotator cuff was torn. He did a press conference after the surgery, the doctor, and he said that when he opened me up it looked like someone had put a hand grenade in my shoulder and it had exploded. He told me, “That’s it, James, your career’s over.”

Now I started putting two and two together. These people thought that my career was over, so were saying, “Get the payday.” But I had other plans. I was like, “F**k this, I’m coming back to prove everybody wrong.” So, I busted my ass. This was in March. They said if I was to fight again it would be in a year or I’d never fight again. I fought in November. Within that year I fought Nick Ruper, James Hughes, Livingstone Bramble Kevin Pompey, Pat Coleman, and Pernell Whitaker the second time.

After beating Pat Coleman, they said to me, “You’ve got the rematch with Pernell,” and I sat down in the dressing room and started crying. My wife said to me, “What the hell are you crying about?” I said to her, “I did what they said I couldn’t do. I don’t want to fight anymore.” She said, “What?” I said, “I’m done. I did it all against the odds. I proved everybody wrong.” She said, “All right. Announce your retirement in that case.” I said, “All right,” but instead went home and not long after that I said, “I’ve got to take this fight again.” She said, “Why the change of heart?” I said, “It’s because a certain man has been sending me letters.” That man was called Uncle Sam and he was saying to me: “You better take this fight, man, because we need to talk about this money you owe.” Meanwhile, I had a lawsuit against the doctors. For this I gave a deposition and my deposition was so freaking good that the lawyers of the doctors I was suing said that if I ever wanted a job I should call them. My own lawyer said to me, “Buddy, if your manager comes in and tells the truth tomorrow, we’re going to sue them for about 30 or 40 million dollars. You’ll be a rich man.” I said, “Cool.” Naturally, I’m thinking my manager – God bless him, he’s dead now – will go in there and tell the truth. But the guy didn’t, of course. He went in there and went against me. He went totally against me. That’s all they needed to hear. He said, “I told Buddy before the fight not to fight.” You know what he said to me, though? I’ll never forget it. We were in the limousine going to the weigh-in ahead of the fight and it was ten o’clock at night in Manhattan. We were going through the Lincoln Tunnel and he said, “If you want to pull out now you can.” I said to that, “Let me ask you something, champ. Why didn’t you say this to me two weeks ago? Why are you telling me now on the way to the weigh-in? You know I can’t pull out now. You’re doing it because of your conscience. You know my arm is f**ked up. But that’s all right.”

That was basically it for me. After I fought Pat Coleman all the desire to fight left me. I just went through the motions after that.

It was rough for a few years. Uncle Sam wouldn’t let up. He wouldn’t take his foot off my neck. He was putting a lot of heat on a brother. Thank God I met an accountant who was able to help me out. But for years Uncle Sam was not letting me breathe. At that time in my life everybody disappeared.

Retirement was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my life. At the time everything was going on around me – including that man, my pen pal, sending me those letters – and it was rough, trying to make that adjustment from fighter to trainer. When you walk in the gym you ain’t ‘The Champ’ no more. You’re just ‘Buddy’. That’s how they treat you. I was like: Wow. The crazy part is you look at some of these people and think, I fed these mother***kers’ families for years. I put food on their table. Now they look at me like the guy who has turned up to clean the gym’s windows.

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