FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA: Where people go to retire, sportfish for marlin, buy beachfront property, trek the Everglades, knock back pina coladas as they play round after round of canasta until sundown. And if, after a while, the whole scene becomes a bit staid, there is always South Beach, and its glut of limitless nightlife possibilities, just under an hour away.
But to go there to train for a shot at the heavyweight championship of the world? Suffice it to say that trainer Harry Keitt had other places in mind for Jarrell Miller, the burly heavyweight protegé whom he had reared ever since Miller walked into Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn as an unfocused 15-year-old teenager.
On the occasion of what was supposed to be Miller’s – no, make that their – greatest moment in the hardest game, a title shot on June 1 at Madison Square Garden against divisional kingpin Anthony Joshua, Keitt figured they needed to hunker down someplace far more discreet, toned-down. But Fort Lauderdale? That was laughable. They were better off staying put in New York, amid the bright lights. At least things were familiar at home. Of course, this was all just wishful thinking on Keitt’s part. It had been ages since he got to call the shots for this squad.
“Don’t ask me why we went there,” Keitt groans as he wraps the hands of one of his white collar trainees on a recent Friday afternoon inside the basement floor of Mendez Boxing Gym in midtown Manhattan. “I tried to tell him ‘let’s go to Colorado Springs. Let’s go to the Olympic training centre where they go that high altitude. We gotta get oxygen into your body.’ All that’s natural. But he didn’t want to go.” So Fort Lauderdale it was, for three months of intense training until the big dance. Keitt would cook all the meals, praying that maybe, just maybe, Miller could get down to 300 pounds by fight night.
Yet outside of succulent King Crab meat and the briny Atlantic sea breeze, there was not much else about their time on the peninsula that one could say was “natural.”
On April 16, news broke that Miller had tested positive, in a VADA-conducted examination, for the banned substance GW1516, an agent believed to increase endurance. A few days later, it came out that Miller had flunked another test, with blood and urine samples showing traces of HGH (Human Growth Hormone) and EPO (erythropoietin), respectively, the latter of which is known to boost the red blood cell count and was used extensively by disgraced cyclist Lance Armstong. Unlike other PEDs that may be ingested accidentally, say, like clenbuterol from Mexican beef, EPO is taken either intravenously or subcutaneously, that is, it is administered with the use of a needle. The Joshua fight was summarily nixed, and so was Miller’s reported six-to-seven-million dollar purse.
Initially vowing to fight the charges, Miller relented, eventually posting a video on Instagram that was contrite, if not exactly a full-blown mea culpa. “I messed up. I messed up, I made a bad call,” Miller mumbled. “I missed a big opportunity and I’m hurting on the inside. My heart is bleeding right now. I’ve hurt my family, my friends, my team, my supporters.”
After all the huffing and puffing, macho shoving, and bald-faced PED accusations, sympathy, quite rightly, was in short supply for the undefeated Brooklynite. The boxing world called for Miller’s head, with some demanding for an eternal ban, others a two-year minimum. (The New York commission ended up giving him a paltry six-month suspension).
Keitt recalls the day Miller dropped the bombshell to him in the gym. “Jarrell was embarrassed,” Keitt recounts. “It looked like he was going to cry.”
As for himself, Keitt took the news like he does most things nowadays, stoically, with a Buddhist’s sense of resignation. “Whatever’s done is done. I can’t cry over spilled milk,” Keitt continues. “It’s too late, you know what I’m saying? It didn’t make any sense to argue [with Miller] because if I argued, you get angry and when you’re angry you lose control. Getting angry doesn’t make any sense. You gotta learn to take the bitter with the sweet. That’s the way it is.”
In Miller’s case, there are few words to describe the feeling of losing out on a life-transforming, multimillion-dollar payday, of which roughly five percent, or close to a quarter-million dollars, was to be set aside for Keitt. “Sure, I was disappointed, sure,” he says, when reminded of the financial reward he missed out on. “I felt cheated.”
After the fight was officially scuttled, Miller and some of his friends and associates decided to remain in Fort Lauderdale, residing in a rented house that was good for another month. Originally, the team was scheduled to fly out on May 25, of what was supposed to be the start of fight week. Keitt wasn’t about to stick around, though. He left the following weekend.
Keitt knows what is on everyone’s mind. Was he in on the doping? He swears by his innocence. “People can say whatever they want to about me,” Keitt says, “I don’t do s**t like that because I don’t know anything about that stuff. My drug is hard work. The only motherf**king drugs I got is if I go to the store and get some [cold medication] Aleve. They can ask anybody. I’ve been in boxing since 1976.”
Still, Keitt suspected trouble was brewing behind the scenes, even if the purported hangers-on never showed up at the actual gym. These were the “strength and conditioning guys who don’t know anything about boxing, the bodybuilding guys” that Keitt knew were working with Miller. But the days when he strove to keep his trainee in line were long gone.
Now, Keitt just held his tongue and held the mitts. “When you got new people there doing s**t and they’re doing s**t behind your back, I am not going to follow my guy around the world,” Keitt explains. “I’m only responsible for the effort, and you’re responsible for the outcome. I told him not to do certain things, and he did it anyway, and all that s**t ate his ass up. You wanna be stupid and do dumb s**t more power to you. I‘m not f**king with that. Hard head makes a soft ass. If I told you to do something and you listened to someone else, I’m not going to have a heart attack over that.”
The truth is there have been rifts in their relationship going back several years, much of it stemming from monetary disputes. According to several well-informed sources, Miller rarely paid his colleagues on time. Two years ago, Keitt recalls receiving a text message from Miller out of the blue saying that his commission would be reduced to five per cent from the nominal 10 per cent. He signed it off with the terse words, “Take it or leave it.”
Perhaps Keitt, who had started out training Jarrell Miller pro bono, would have taken the ultimatum more charitably if Miller wasn’t zipping around town in sports cars. “Now he’s out there renting, driving around somebody’s Lamborghini – not his,” Keitt vented one day. “Now why in the f**k would you need a Lamborghini when you ain’t got no goddamn money. Get you some property. Buy you some houses. Why drive around a f**king Lamborghini. What is that gonna do for you. They need to give him an ‘asshole’ badge. Who would do s**t like that?” Keitt swore that he would never work with Miller unless they signed a contract, but by the next year, he had softened his hardline stance; in boxing, trainers never have the leverage.
“I can’t build you when your kicking me to the curb,” Keitt said then. “My thing is, don’t talk to me like we met on Instagram. We met in Gleason’s Gym.”
Most recently, Miller has been spotted making the media rounds, going on the offensive, claiming that the PEDs were a result of bad medical advice for a slew of injuries he has been dealing with and, last week, rushing to the defence of Dillian Whyte when news of that failed test broke.
A bit rich, no doubt. But throughout the course of this interview, not once does Keitt attempt to cover up for Jarrell Miller or question the validity of the test results. When asked at one point why he thinks Miller doped, Keitt responds bluntly, “I mean, he don’t like running. The only way I know how to get stamina is by running. I don’t know no other way to get stamina. If he had taken some air tank and put it inside his body but that don’t work either.”
On some days, the squandered opportunity strikes him harder than usual. “It goes to my head, in and out” he says. When Andy Ruiz Jnr, Miller’s replacement, toppled Joshua in the Garden, few, outside of Eddie Hearn and company, could have been more crestfallen than Keitt, who watched the fight from the upper bowl of the arena.
“I was so upset, man,” Keitt admits. “I wasn’t upset that Ruiz won. I was upset because it wasn’t us. Jarrell Miller is supposed to have been world champion. He would’ve beat Joshua. He would’ve beat the s**t out of Joshua.”
It seems that all Keitt has known is bitterness and sorrow. When he reached the 1978 New York Golden Gloves finals, it appeared perhaps he could carve out a career as a credible heavyweight. Back then, Keitt would regularly travel alongside Eddie Mustafa to Deer Lake to spar Muhammad Ali. But before things could take off, the Bedford-Stuyvesant native plunged well-deep into an inexorable vortex of drugs and petty crime. He would wind up killing his cousin with seven cold-blooded bullets tagged to the chest. He took a plea deal and spent almost two years in an upstate penitentiary.
When he was released, Keitt vowed reform, repurposing himself as a trainer-in-penitence with self-flagellating regard. More disappointment, even heartbreak, followed suit. In the mid ‘90s, Keitt had himself one of the best prospect in the tri-state area in George Walton, a hard-hitting middleweight who had uncanny resemblance to Mike Tyson. But heeding the advice of his unscrupulous manager, Walton, upon turning professional, would ditch Keitt.
The breakup is captured in the unflinching Oscar-winning documentary On the Ropes. In the mid 2000s, popular Irish draw John Duddy, under instructions from his corrupt handlers, would also split with Keitt. Both Walton and Duddy would eventually return to Keitt, but by then, their original hopes had dissipated. “This was like a dream for me, you know what I’m saying?” Keitt reflects. “Ever since I started training fighters I always wanted to train a world champion.”
With Miller, nothing made Keitt more proud than the fact that he had moulded the fighter organically, from the ground up.
“That was something that I always wanted to do,” Keitt says. “Training a readymade fighter and training a fighter from scratch are two different things. I started someone from zero to hero. That’s what I wanna be. I don’t wanna be ‘oh I trained Mike Tyson.’ No! You didn’t train Mike Tyson. Mother fu**er, you a corner man. You’re an Angelo Dundee. Dundee was in Ali’s corner. He didn’t train Ali. Angelo Dundee was in Sugar Ray’s corner, he didn’t train Sugar Ray Leonard. Well, who gets the credit?”
Keitt says he has not spoken to Miller since he left Florida. He tried calling a few times but Miller never answered the phone. He is not certain if they will work together or if he wants to. “I hope he learns a lesson,” Keitt says. “If you think everything’s going to be easy it’s not going to last.”