THE MINUTE between rounds is never a minute and the very best need less to make sense of the chaos and drama.
Don Charles is good in the corner; Angelo Dundee was great in the corner and Ray Arcel was possibly the best to ever do the job. They win and lose fights without taking a punch. The exception is Lou Duva, who liked to win and lose fights and then take a punch in a post-fight scuffle.
In Wroclaw last week, Don Charles was very good. The decision to hire him nearly worked perfectly.
Arcel was far more than just a great cornerman; he had taken Roberto Duran from a wild, one-handed slugger and crafted a fighting genius. It had taken time in the sweat-pit confines of the old Gleason’s gym for Arcel to make Duran. Arcel had no Spanish, Duran no English and still they worked and talked and grew.
It has been recorded by the writing giants, the men with their pens at ringside on the night that the bagpipes went silent at Madison Square Garden, what Arcel said in Roberto Duran’s ear at the start of what would be the last round of the fight with Ken Buchanan. It was one of the sport’s seminal nights and fights and King Ken was part of it. Arcel leaned in; you know the picture.
This is what he said to Duran, just seconds before the bell sounded to start round 13: “Go… go now… go… punch … punch… punch… you come back champion.” And then he lifted Duran up and shoved him into the ring; job done, mission nearly over. Duran, the kid, did go, he did punch, and he did come back the champion. Low? No doubts in that fight, by the way.
I wonder, do young and old, experienced and novice trainers watch between rounds to see the way the great teachers act in the corner? Eddie Futch, the boxing sage of the ages, tells a story about his early days as a trainer in Arcel’s presence: “When I came to New York in 1942, I watched him. I listened to him. He brought class, dignity, and a high degree of professionalism to boxing.”
It makes sense to understand the lords of your chosen profession; it makes sense to have transcripts of Dundee saving Sugar Ray Leonard against Tommy Hearns and Futch whispering in Joe Frazier’s ear in Manila. Even Manny Steward talking to Lennox Lewis in the Mike Tyson fight. Mickey Duff was a bit warm in the corner and Dean Powell, who will be forever underestimated, was a young master at motivation and abuse. Hey, it takes all sorts of things to lift a fighter. Charles was working overtime last week in Poland.
There is one Arcel story that his life-long friend and writer, Jerry Izenberg, tells. It is a study in devotion and belief, and it touches something very raw at the very heart of this boxing business. Izenberg called Arcel a “giant of a man who bled for every fighter he ever trained.” This is the story – Jerry, thanks.
After the “No Mas” fight, Arcel, who was 80, was back at the hotel. He was pale and upset. Izenberg wrote “depressed.” It was 2am and then the phone in the room rang. Arcel answered, listened. He was told that the Louisiana Commission was going to hold a meeting back at the Dome to suspend Duran. It was 2.10am. Arcel was shaken and asked if Duran or his manager was going to attend. He was told “No”. He looked at Izenberg and he told the person on the line: “I’m coming over.” There had been an earlier call, and somebody had accused Arcel of being involved in a fixed fight. It must have been a dark night.
Izenberg and Arcel walked over in the chilly rain, that broken night, their feet nearly slipping on the concrete path connecting their hotel to the Dome. Arcel never said a word, he was on a mission to save his fighter.
He entered and he was given the floor. It’s emotional, you might want to get a tissue ready and take a deep breath. This is what a real trainer does. And what a real trainer sounds like.
Arcel stood and faced the men, the accusers. The men who wanted to write a dirty requiem for Duran that night. The men who believed that the fight was crooked, and that Duran and Arcel were in on the fix.
“I don’t know what happened tonight,” Arcel told the room. “But I know how Roberto Duran began his life and I know what he willed himself to become. I know the honour he has brought this business, which sometimes doesn’t deserve it. I know his pride. And I know you cannot do this thing like this. He deserves better, and if you don’t understand that and do this to him, you will wake up tomorrow and you will be ashamed.”
He finished talking, turned and walked back through the rain in silence once again.
At the hotel, he said to Izenberg. “I don’t know what happened tonight. I have never felt so hurt.” Arcel looked broken and his old friend asked him why he had to go. Arcel fixed Izenberg with a look of bewilderment.
“Go? I had to go. He is my fighter, and I am his trainer and, whatever happens down the road, it will stay that way until he gets on that airplane tomorrow. When a man says, ‘Train me, I trust you,’ then you owe him.”
That is what a trainer can do; that is what a trainer should do, and it is not the money. Arcel never worked with Duran again and he never asked the fighter for an explanation. Arcel moved on.
Don Charles would have left his room at 2am, I know that much. And he would have found the words.