THE role of a boxing trainer is a difficult one. It’s one where your reputation is at the mercy of others. The hours you put in behind the scenes, which can add up to days and weeks and months and years, are often forgotten the moment a contest doesn’t go to plan. If your fighter has an off night, so do you. Your job is suddenly at risk.
In the last week Robert McCracken and Ben Davison, the coaches of Britain’s two leading heavyweights, Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury respectively, found themselves in the firing line.
McCracken, who was unfairly criticised for Joshua’s loss to Andy Ruiz Jnr in June (specifically, for not unearthing a masterplan mid-fight to turn the tide), recently told Steve Bunce during BBC 5 Live’s excellent weekly podcast that his heavyweight was ‘concussed’ after taking a hefty whack in round three of that bout. Of course, he couldn’t possibly have known if Joshua was concussed or not, but he knew he was hurt. Therefore, McCracken explained, he decided that basic and clear messaging during the one-minute breaks was more beneficial than trying to get his dazed charge to understand complicated tactical advice.
The comments, which seemed perfectly reasonable to anyone with some knowledge of the sport, were just a small part of a conversation between two experienced boxing people. Yet those comments were drained of all context when The Sun got hold of them, threw in McCracken describing heavyweight boxing as ‘deadly’ and flung them on their back page. Cue hysteria about the dangers of concussion in boxing and a reporter – who did not speak to McCracken, he merely listened to someone else’s interview – acting like he’d nailed the scoop of the century.
“In professional boxing, fighters inevitably take punches and have difficult rounds and when they come back to the corner it is your job as a coach to make a quick assessment of the situation,” McCracken explained in a statement following the furore from his initial comments. “There is no formal concussion protocol where the doctor steps in to assess the boxer so you have to use your experience as a coach and your knowledge of the person to make a decision on whether you think they can recover.
“It may be that concussed is not the right term to have used but the health of all the boxers I work with is of paramount importance to me and I have always used my judgement and experience to do what is right for them.”
Concussed may or may not have been the right word but McCracken recognised two things in his role as trainer (not the doctor): One, that his charge had not yet fully recovered and two, there was every chance he would. He knew this from extensive experience of a sport that has countless examples of boxers turning fights around and he knew this from extensive experience with Joshua. It wasn’t an alien situation for either of them. Joshua had come through a similar crisis against Wladimir Klitschko in 2017 when McCracken’s calm head played a huge part in Joshua’s eventual victory. He would later be named BN’s Trainer of the Year, largely for his work in the corner that night.
Last weekend it was Ben Davison’s turn to field criticism after Otto Wallin cracked his fighter with a left hand and turned an anticipated mismatch into a gruelling, bloody war in Las Vegas. Davison was criticised on social media for failing to impart the right tactical advice even though his fighter came through some (literally) sticky moments to win. The problem was, Tyson didn’t win convincingly enough. The armchair critics couldn’t understand why Fury – while he grimaced in pain as cut man Jorge Capitello forcibly ironed, drained and plugged his wound – wasn’t being given deeper instructions by Davison.
Trainers have a job to do before the fight. They also have a job to do during the fight. It’s different to that of the doctors. It’s different to that of the referee. It’s to guide their fighters as best they can and McCracken and Davison should be commended for doing exactly that.