By Thomas Hauser
On June 7, 2003, Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward will face off for Part Three of their Club Fight Trilogy. Gatti-Ward I (pictured) captivated the boxing world and was universally recognized as boxing's "fight of the year." Ward-Gatti II sold out Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City and led to demands for Gatti-Ward III. Each fighter has made millions of dollars from their encounters. But their rivalry came perilously close to being nothing more than a single round of action. That's because, in round one of their first fight, Ward was badly cut. Under different circumstances, the bout might have been stopped. But Ward had Al Gavin in his corner.
Gavin was born in Brooklyn. "Quite a while ago," he says. His father came to the United States from Wicklow, Ireland, and found employment as a plumber. Al grew up in Brooklyn with his parents, two sisters, and a brother.
"My father always had an interest in boxing," Gavin remembers. "That's how I got interested in it. I boxed in the amateurs and was strong enough mentally, but I didn't have the physical strength to do the things I wanted to do. I could box pretty well. My jab was okay and Ihad a pretty good idea of how things should be done. I just didn't have the tools. I wasn't a puncher. I wish I could say I had a rock-solid chin, but I didn't. I had maybe twenty fights and won fourteen of them. Then I thought about turning pro and went to Al Braverman, who was managing at the time. Al was always nice to me. A lot of managers would have put me in the ring, and maybe I would have gotten hurt. But Al was honest. He told me, 'You don't have it.' And he was right. I took a look at the middleweight division. Sugar Ray Robinson was champion. In my wildest dreams, I couldn't beat him. Then I looked at some of the other guys like Gene Fullmer and Rocky Castellani. No way I could beat fighters like that. So to stay in the sport I cared about, I had to find another way."
Gavin was working in landscaping and gardening for the New York City Parks Department by then; a job he would hold for thirty-five years. Meanwhile, he started going to Stillman's Gym.
"Going to Stillman's was like going to college," he remembers. "In those days, it was a palace for fighters. Walk in and you saw elite trainers like Ray Arcel, Whitey Bimstein, Chickie Ferrara, and Freddie Brown. If you couldn't learn from watching those guys, you couldn't learn, period. I went to Stillman's almost every night and started coaching kids in the ring for the Police Athletic League. The first pro fighter I trained was a welterweight from Trinidad named Winston Nole in the 1970s. I managed Nole too, but decided that there were people who were better qualified to be a manager than I was, so I stopped managing."
Over the years, Gavin has trained dozens of fighters. On a personal note, he has been married for forty-eight years to a woman he calls "the strength of my life." Together, they have a son and two daughters. "My family, my religion, and my health are what's important to me," Gavin acknowledges. He's universally recognized as one of boxing's good guys, fair and even tempered. But Gavin's fame within the boxing community comes from his skill as a cutman.
A good cut man is invaluable to a fighter. Sometimes, he's the difference between winning and losing.
Gavin works roughly thirty fight cards annually for anonymous preliminary fighters on up the ladder to Lennox Lewis. Over the years, he has been in the corner with Oscar De La Hoya, Vito Antoufermo, Bruce Seldon, Kevin Kelley, Junior Jones, and Arturo Gatti.
"What I get paid is up to the people I work with," Gavin explains. "No one makes me do the job; so if I feel like I'm being treated unfairly, I don't do it. Obviously, Lennox pays more than a four-round fighter. I've been with Lennox since he fought Gary Mason in 1991, and he's always fair with me."
When Gavin works a fight, one of the first things he does is find out who the ring doctor assigned to his fighter's corner will be. "The majority of ring doctors understand cuts," he says. "They know that fighters bleed sometimes, and they give the cutman a chance. But if it's a ring doctor I haven't seen before, maybe I get a little worried."
While a fight is in progress, Gavin watches intently from the corner, looking for signs of trouble that might presage a cut. A good cutman knows his fighters. He knows when and where they've been cut in the past and if their face has been swollen in the gym. He doesn't wait for blood to begin treating an area of concern. In fact, if a cutman waits for blood, he might be starting too late.
"The two trainers I learned the most from about stopping cuts were Tony Canzi and Johnny Zullo," says Gavin. "As for what I do, I just have a feel for it. It's a combination of art, science, and luck. Time is important. If there's a problem, I go to work as soon as the fighter reaches the corner. I don't get excited. I know where to put the pressure. Pressure is the most important element. That begins the process of stopping the bleeding."
Gavin's work over the decades has earned him the respect of his peers.
"Al is a pro," says trainer-commentator Teddy Atlas. "Ninety percent of the people around now are frauds, but Al is for real. He doesn't panic. He always comes prepared. He takes pride in what he does. When you hire Al, you're not just getting a guy who puts a swab on a fighter's face. Sure, he can stop a cut. Once you've hired him, you don't have to worry about that part of the fight but you get a lot more. Al understands all the aspects and angles of boxing. You can ask him for strategy during a fight. He knows better than most people what both fighters are thinking as a fight goes on. He's not just a cutman; he's a co-pilot. And whether you need to rely on him or not during a particular fight, it's reassuring to know he's there. He's a great, great boxing guy."
Emanuel Steward concurs, adding, "When I started working with Lennox eight years ago, Al Gavin was already there. Lennox's people asked me if I wanted to keep him. And I said, 'Without doubt, yes.' Al is one of the best people in boxing. He's technically good as a cutman, but it goes way beyond that. He lays back; he never interferes. He's never out blowing his own horn. He's easy to work with. He blends in perfectly with the personality of Lennox's camp. And he's a much better trainer than most people give him credit for."
Dr. Flip Homansky (former medical director for the Nevada State Athletic Commission) compounds the praise. "The ring is the most unlikely operating room that I can imagine," says Homansky. "And a medical degree is no guarantee that its holder knows much about jagged lacerations that are acutely bleeding. I've seen I don't know how many fights that were stopped because no one in the corner knew how to prevent a simple cut from getting worse. Al Gavin is everything that a cutman should be."
And Dr. Margaret Goodman (Homansky's successor in Nevada) observes, "I've learned a lot from Al, and other people should learn from him too. Al is the quintessential cutman. He knows what he's doing and works at his craft constantly. If there's a cut, Al can handle it. He keeps his fighter calm and, no matter how bad the bleeding, never does anything to undermine his fighter's confidence. And yet, there have been times when Al looks at me with just the right look to tell me that, in his view, his fighter has had enough. And I respect that a lot."
"I try not to be too brave in the corner," Gavin says in response to Goodman's comment. "My motto is, 'Don't be braver with the fighter than I would be with myself.' I'm nothing special. I just go out and do my job. I'm not a big-shot. I'm just a guy who likes boxing."
Maybe so. But if a fighter is cut, in those sixty seconds between rounds, Al Gavin is the most important man in boxing. Micky Ward said as much when he looked back on the start of his trilogy against Arturo Gatti and declared, "In that first round when I got cut, I knew I had the best cutman in the business. I knew that, if anyone could stop the bleeding, Al could. And I was right; Al kept me in the fight. Al Gavin means everything to me."