LENNOX LEWIS and I grew up together in Kitchener, Ontario. I was an American football player – this is where my fascination with conditioning developed. In 1990, I started to work with Lennox in a professional capacity, writing programmes for him. Right up until the first fight with Oliver McCall , Lennox’s coach [John Davenport] set him a target weight, even though Lennox was a heavyweight. He walked around at 245lbs but they wanted him weighing in at 225lbs, even though Lennox would lose strength when dropping those 20lbs. The day after the loss to McCall, by six or seven in the morning, Lennox had worked out what he wanted to do. He drew up a list of trainers he wanted to meet. I remember him saying at the time, “I don’t care what it costs – get me the best trainer.” This led Lennox to working with Emanuel Steward, who wanted Lennox to fight at his natural weight.
A lot of coaches in boxing are traditional. They’re not educated in the modern ways. But Emanuel used to say that when he was around boxers he felt old, so he always took a ‘when in Rome’ approach and felt he had to adjust and get used to what they’re doing.
So when Emanuel started working with Lennox, he came in and said, “Tell me what you do and the benefits of it.” Emanuel saw what weight-training had done for Evander [Holyfield], who put on 20lbs of muscle and was knocking big guys out, so that made it easier for me to do what we had to do with Lennox’s programme. If you have the right coach, it makes it easier.
Emanuel’s big things were muscular endurance and explosiveness. He loved watching KOs and knew that was what made [Mike] Tyson so popular. But Emanuel was never set in his ways. He would change something about how we trained for every single fight by looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. We’d look at the physical basis of the fighter – is it strength, is it endurance, or is it a mix? We’d look at how they fought. For example, a lot of Lionel Butler’s weight is in his legs, so to control him we’d need to work on his upper body and core strength [Lewis stopped Butler in five rounds].
Now I draw on my experiences with Lennox. For instance, the fighters may do six rounds of boxing and then they give me six rounds. You might do kettlebell snatches, cleans, burpees, med-ball wall throws and slams, squats and presses – both with weights and with bodyweight only, for 30 seconds each. So everything is stressed, just like it is in a fight. This teaches your body to adapt. I don’t set numbers of repetitions – it sets limitations. If you’re trying to finish a fight you don’t say ‘I’m only going to throw 10 punches’. Every time you throw punches, you’re sprinting. So you have to train in this way to fight in this way. We’ll do 100-metre sprints, then some med-ball work, then more sprinting, then push-ups, and so on.
A lot of credit for the more modern methods of training has to go to MMA. It brought the whole training and conditioning approach to the fore. You don’t often see other world-class athletes train, only perform. You see mixed martial artists flip tyres in training. But even now, you can’t always introduce a method like this to a boxer’s training without scepticism. ‘You can’t do that because you’re gonna hurt yourself!’ Well, you don’t go and flip the biggest tyre first – you start small and build up.
Maybe your readers are thinking, ‘Why’s this boxing conditioner talking about MMA?’ Well, as a sport I think it’s rubbish. It’s not pure. But as a conditioning coach, you have to look into new things and keep learning. Whether it’s tyre flipping, using bikes or trampolines, ropes for endurance, kettlebells, TRX work – whatever is being used in different sports training, I have a look and see what I can take. Look at the footwork of tennis players on the backhand and forehand side – your feet always have to be in the right position to play a shot. It’s the same when you throw a punch, so why not throw a med-ball from backhand and forehand positions?
Traditional boxers can get locked in to what they’re doing, like they’re in a fish bowl. But why just punch a bag and do roadwork? You can’t afford to be closed-minded in this game. Just like in boxing: you keep on going or you’re dead.