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What makes a boxing trainer

Andy Lee boxing trainer
Not every great trainer has boxed and not every great boxer can train. Elliot Worsell reignites that old debate with four former world titlists who became trainers

THERE are few worlds as easy to infiltrate or as receptive to charlatans as the sport of boxing, and there is arguably no better description of its open-door policy than the one provided by W.C. Heinz in his 1958 novel The Professional.

“How do they all get in?” he wrote. “A kid is a street fighter, and he’s got a pal. The kid goes into the amateurs and his pal goes into the corner with him. The kid wins a dozen fights and wants to turn pro, so he brings his pal along. His pal’s gonna train him, maybe even manage him. They’re friends, and it’s a beautiful thing. The kid has a half-dozen fights and gets flattened. He quits, but does his pal quit? Oh, no. Of course not. He’s a trainer now. He’s up in the gym. He’s got a towel over his shoulder. He’s in for life. Some innocent kid comes walking in, wants to be a fighter. Now he’s got another fighter…

“Amateur fights don’t make fighters. They make trainers and managers. Trainers? They know nothing about training. They’re rubbers. Valets. They’ve got a towel and a lot of gall. Dreadful…

“All you need to be a trainer or a manager is fifteen dollars and a license. This entitles you to ruin a kid’s life, maybe end it.”

Sadly, though The Professional is fiction, it is true: despite the sport’s inherent danger, the doors to boxing are those of the swing variety and can be opened with a simple push and an insincere smile. There are no bouncers, no locks, and no passcodes. All that’s required is some confidence, genuine or otherwise, a connection, tenuous or otherwise, and a way with words. Possess those things and yes, you really can become anything you want: promoter, manager, or even trainer.

It is, of course, in the context of training fighters that this open-door policy is most alarming and potentially dangerous. More than just men in suits, the trainer will after all be the person responsible for the health and safety of a fighter and therefore needs to know what they are doing, needs to be in the sport for the right reasons, and needs to have some semblance of experience or, at the very least, some understanding of the emotions and stakes at play.

Yet, be that as it may, history will also tell us that some of the sport’s very best coaches never boxed professionally or, in the case of Angelo Dundee, never boxed at all. Instead, these men developed their skills while competing as amateurs, or doing different jobs altogether, and were later able to then implement these skills to help others rather than themselves.

So common in fact is this route to entry, it has become unusual to see former world champions move towards full-time coaching in retirement. Plenty still do, of course, but many more decide not to, perhaps because they feel burnt out by the sport in which they made their name. Or maybe they stay away because they don’t feel they possess the time, energy and patience to start all over again with another brain and body. Or maybe, in the end, some retired fighters are comfortable enough, financially speaking, to not have to take that route and return to places they would prefer to leave behind.

Whatever the reason, world champions becoming world-class trainers, these rare double winners, have always been few and far between, which means fights like Joseph Parker vs. Dereck Chisora, a recent fight in which both corners featured a retired world titlist, come as not only a surprise but a welcome one. (On that same bill, too, Roy Jones Jnr, a former four-weight belt-holder, guided Chris Eubank Jnr to victory over Marcus Morrison.)

“I never really put much thought into it and never thought I would become a coach,” said Andy Lee, the former WBO middleweight champion and current coach of Joseph Parker, Tyson Fury, Jason Quigley, and Paddy Donavon. “But I always took a keen interest in what Emanuel [Steward, Lee’s old coach] did and what other coaches did and I always had that curiosity. So, I just kind of fell into it.

“When you retire, your revenue streams just dry up. You’re used to getting these regular lumps of money come in but that all stops the day you retire.

“A lot of fighters who have been world champions are financially secure, so for them there’s probably no need to stick around in boxing and coach other fighters. Often, they will also have the satisfaction of having reached their goal, so they don’t need to chase that again.

“But if you’re training fighters on the world stage, you’re obviously earning good money as well, which, for some, could be a reason to do it and keep doing it.”

Across the ring from Lee the night he led Parker to victory over Chisora was American James “Buddy” McGirt, a former super-lightweight and welterweight champion. He, unlike Lee, has been training fighters for a long time now, having previously worked with Arturo Gatti, Antonio Tarver, Sergey Kovalev and Byron Mitchell, and saw himself as a boxer-trainer from the very beginning.

Buddy McGirt

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” McGirt, 57, said. “Even when I was fighting, I’d think about it when I was training, I’d teach myself how to do certain things, and I would work with a lot of amateurs in my spare time. It was always in me. I started boxing on my birthday, January 17, and on January 18 I wanted to be a trainer.

“I get satisfaction when I’ve been teaching a fighter something and they do it and it works. That is a feeling you can’t really explain. That gets me going. Even as a kid I used to love outthinking the next person, no matter what I did. It could be at basketball – which I suck at – or something else. I was always thinking, How can I outsmart this other person? It might not work the first time, second time, or third time, but eventually I’d get it right. That was always my thing.”

What sometimes makes the transition from world champion to coach so problematic for fighters is the patience required when seeing someone else attempt to do something that once came so effortlessly to the coach during their own fighting life. One can only imagine, for example, the patience required by someone like Roy Jones Jnr – as naturally gifted a fighter as boxing has ever seen – when showing Eubank Jnr, or indeed any of the other fighters he has coached, moves he could perform so easily himself in his heyday.

As well as patience, it is equally important for former champions navigating retirement to humble themselves ahead of relinquishing the pride and ego that previously helped them find success in their own career. Then and only then can they call themselves coaches.

“It’s a mentality thing and it all depends on the type of fighters you are dealing with,” said Shane Mosley, a former three-weight king who, like Roy Jones, was talented enough to break many of boxing’s rules. “When I was coming up, I would learn different techniques to better my ability, but some fighters are just happy getting by with punch power or hand speed and they’re not too bothered about adding anything to that. Me, as a fighter, I wanted to do it all. If you can get a fighter like that, it’s a joy to work with them.”

Mosley, 49, was recently seen working the corner of Ivan Redkach, a Ukrainian super-lightweight described by Mosley as a great listener; reason enough to give him his time. “But every fighter is different and every fighter’s mentality is different,” he added. “A lot of things you do in boxing, as a fighter and as a coach, don’t really make sense, but if you do it correctly, in the right way, you have a great experience with the things you are trying to do.

“Some fighters can’t get past that. They’ll be like, ‘No, it doesn’t look right,’ or, ‘No it doesn’t feel right. I don’t know if I want to do that.’ It might not feel right in the beginning but then you keep doing it and all of a sudden it clicks and then it works.

“They’ve got to be willing to suffer in the gym. If you don’t want to do that, you’re in the wrong sport.”

“It’s hugely frustrating when they don’t do the things you have worked on for weeks in the gym,” Lee, 37, conceded. “Joseph [Parker] is no problem at all to train, and I’m sorry to dig him out, but we worked for eight weeks solid on a game plan (for the Chisora fight) and a way of moving and punching and he just wasn’t able to execute it on the night. I understand why but it’s still frustrating. When he did do it, in small glimpses, it was very effective. But that is hugely frustrating, and the same applies in sparring when they’re not doing what we’ve worked on.

“But, looking back, I can remember Emanuel saying no two days in the gym are ever alike. Everybody has a bad day. You could get one over on someone one day and then he’ll be coming back the next. You have to always be stepping up as well. One of my guys could be having a bad day in the gym and I’ll just say to them, ‘Don’t let it get you down,’ because I know the next day it could all turn around.”

In essence, Lee, to understand a new process, had to extricate himself from the ways of the old one.

“One of the things you have to realise is that these boxers aren’t you,” he said. “They have different ways of doing things and different thought processes, so you have to ask them lots of questions and find out more about them. Just because you have done things a certain way, or been taught a certain way, doesn’t mean that will work with somebody else.

“Also, when you’re the fighter, you’re in control. You know how you train, you know how you live, and you know that you can determine whether you win or lose on the night. As a coach, you have no control. You just have to try to do everything right and then let go and watch. You have to trust the fighter because you really have no control of the fight once it happens.”

On the subject of ego and control, when former WBC bantamweight champion Wayne McCullough decided to become a coach in retirement he had no problem shrinking his own ego to be at a boxer’s beck and call. However, as a disciple of the venerable Eddie Futch, the “Pocket Rocket” soon ran into problems when discovering respect was a currency in which only he dealt.

“In 2006 I started training Alex Arthur and he became [WBO super-featherweight] world champion,” McCullough said. “He loved the training I did with him and if I had got hold of him earlier in his career maybe he would have kept his belt a bit longer.

“I then had Librado Andrade, who fought Mikkel Kessler in Denmark for the [WBA and WBC super-middleweight] belts [in March 2007]. Talk about stubbornness. One thing I did with Eddie [Futch] was listen to him and I did exactly what he told me to do in the corner. I remember I wrote on the wall Mikkel Kessler’s strengths and weaknesses and Andrade didn’t look at them once. I also remember kicking Andrade out of the gym and him then coming back and apologising.

“When we got to Denmark, he had a bit of fame; all the cameras were on him. I got there the day after him and it was like I didn’t exist. I remember during the fighter meetings with HBO they were already in there talking to Librado when I walked in. I didn’t even know they were doing it but Librado was in there with his brother, who was working the corner, and also his friend. I was the main guy, by the way.

“Librado said to the guys at HBO, ‘I do everything myself,’ and Max Kellerman just looked at me. I then had to explain to them that I had put all the strengths and weaknesses of Kessler on the wall and had done my best with this guy in training but to no avail. I wasn’t going to let him belittle me like that. I walked out after that and said to my wife, ‘That’s it. I’m leaving. I’m going back to America.’

“I couldn’t work with him. He got there and thought he was famous. He then goes into the fight and gets the s**t beaten out of him. After one of the rounds, I grabbed him by the head and said, ‘You know what, Librado, at least just try to do the things we did in the gym.’ But he never tried once. He made 535,000 dollars and 10 per cent of that was supposed to go to me. But he just gave me 15 grand instead. He gave me two per cent.”

As a result of that experience, McCullough, 50, stayed away from boxing for a number of years, vowing never to train another fighter. He then eventually sought solace in personal training and decided he preferred training civilians who knew nothing about boxing to managing the egos of professionals and, from 2014, coached at Tony Jeffries’ gym in Los Angeles. Unbeknown to most of the clients for whom he held pads, McCullough, having learned from the great Eddie Futch, was overqualified for the job in every conceivable way.

“Eddie wrote me a letter before he passed away,” said McCullough, “and in it praised me for how I listened and how I respected him and he told me I would make a great coach. He signed it. I’ve got it on my wall.

“I’m the only fighter out of all the fighters he trained who received a letter from him and, for me, that was like getting a college diploma. When you see all these different people becoming coaches who don’t have a clue, and have either never boxed or never worked with other great coaches, it really hits home. I learned under the great Eddie Futch and he even wrote me a letter. You don’t get a better endorsement than that. Anyone can put a towel over their shoulder and call themselves a coach.”

In lieu of experience, or qualifications, or even recommendations, some coaches today use their social media presence and willingness to be interviewed by people holding video cameras to get their voice heard and somehow prove their expertise. They talk a good fight, and say all the right things in the right order, but don’t have the achievements – be it as fighter or coach – to either substantiate their boasts and forecasts or, better yet, convince those who know an informed coach when they see or hear one.

“When you see these new people coming along and getting that cosy position, it’s heart-breaking,” said McCullough. “Some people have done nothing to earn it.

“I’ve never taken a shortcut in my life. I always took the scenic route. But the scenic route is much nicer. It takes longer but you get there in the end. The a**eholes fall flat on their face in the end because they become complacent and they stay ignorant.”

“Sometimes a fighter just falls in a trainer’s lap,” said McGirt, laughing, perhaps at how ridiculous that sounds. “What they do with that gift is up to them. But eventually there will come a time when they face a certain situation and you will see how they adapt. That’s when you need experience, either as a trainer or a fighter. That’s when you need to know your fighter.”

Though he himself has sampled all boxing has to offer, McGirt refuses to subscribe to the notion that someone has to have boxed professionally to be the coach their fighter needs. He believes, speaking from personal experience, that a career as a pro can in certain scenarios help, but accepts it is not essential.

“Yes and no,” he said in answer to whether proper fighting experience is important. “I say ‘yes’ because I have learned through my experiences as a fighter that when it gets really rough in there you have to stay calm. That goes for being both a fighter and a trainer. You have to stay calm. You have to then figure it out on your own.

“Some trainers get guys who can already fight, so all they do is get them in shape. But then when the fighter faces some kind of adversity the person in the corner can’t help them make that adjustment.”

It seems bizarre to hear a former world champion say they are “fortunate” to be training world-class athletes in retirement but Andy Lee, discernibly humble, is quick to apply that term to his own so-far-brief coaching career. Forget the pro titles, the knockouts, and the gruelling fights in his past, Lee, as qualified as anyone, still feels as though he has benefited from the luck of the Irish in recent times.

“I’ve only been doing it for a short period of time and I’m working with very good fighters and that makes it much easier,” he said. “You get some guys who coach for years and never get to work with a world champion. But I was very fortunate to train Paddy Donovan, Tyson Fury, Joseph Parker and Jason Quigley within the first two years.

“Half the battle in terms of being a good coach is having good fighters to train. I’m sure there are different levels of coach but what I know for certain is that there are different levels of fighter. The level of fighter you work with will determine the level of coach you can be.”

It’s one thing hearing this opinion from a fan, or a reporter, or a fighter, or a coach. But when the answer to this long-running debate – does the coach make the fighter or does the fighter make the coach? – arrives from the mouth of a former world champion now thriving as a coach it surely has to mean a whole lot more. It may also be something like the truth.

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