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Kevin Burnett: Prospect or Project ?
By Thomas Hauser
Heavyweights are a different breed of fighter.
There’s something about a promising young heavyweight that makes cynical boxing aficionados swoon and normally cautious investors open their wallets. As legendary matchmaker Teddy Brenner once observed, “There’s boxing and there’s heavyweight boxing.”
Kevin Burnett, age 25, is one of seven children from a single-parent family in Georgia. He’s handsome and immensely likeable with a resonant baritone voice. He’s also a professional fighter, who stands 6-feet-6-inches tall and weighs 262 pounds. Earlier this month, Burnett took another step on his journey into the unknown when he faced off against Ryan Thompson in a six-round walk-out bout after Paulie Malignaggi’s successful title defense against Herman Ngoudjo in Atlantic City.
Burnett has been boxing professionally for three years and has a 10-1-1 record with six knockouts. His adviser is Craig Hamilton, who guided Michael Grant from a second-round stoppage of Stanley Wright in 1995 through a 2003 knockout loss at the hands of Dominick Guinn. During that time, Grant earned $8,000,000 in purses, highlighted by a $3,500,000 payday for fighting Lennox Lewis at Madison Square Garden. Burnett receives a monthly stipend and all of his training expenses are paid by investors who Hamilton has brought together.
Kevin’s first few years as a pro have been rocky (and that doesn’t mean “Marciano”). As an amateur, he’d dislocated his right shoulder and suffered ligament damage in a fight. After two pro bouts, he underwent surgery. “I went home to recover afterward,” he remembers. “I was worried about whether I’d be able to fight again and my mom fed me a lot. I was miserable, very unhappy.”
By Thanksgiving Day 2005, Burnett’s weight had ballooned to 338 pounds. Thereafter, he began the process of getting in shape. But in his first fight back, weighing 290 pounds, he was held to a draw by Anthony Ottah. Then, after a victory over a novice fighter named Clifton Adams, he was knocked out by Willie Walker.
“The fight that was a draw was the toughest one I’ve been in,” Burnett says. “I had real conditioning issues back then. I lost the first two rounds and didn’t have much left. But part of being a fighter is having nothing left and finding something more to give. As for the knockout, that loss made me a better fighter. It taught me the way nothing else could have that, if I’m not going to do everything right, I shouldn’t be in boxing. It made me mentally stronger. I’d love to fight both of those guys again.”
But the investors were beginning to question their investment. And in the hope of turning things around, Hamilton turned to Pat Burns (the man who trained Jermain Taylor from his first pro bout through two victories over Bernard Hopkins). Burns took over the job of training Burnett and supervising his conditioning last summer.
“I asked around before I took the job,” Pat recalls. “A lot of people were so-so on Kevin. Big guy, limited skills; I heard that a lot. When I first met him, he was weaker than he should have been. He had very little upper-body strength and he wasn’t throwing his jab properly. But right away, I was impressed with his speed and footwork. And he seemed like a young man who was willing to work hard and eager to learn.”
During the past six months, Burnett has undergone a physical transformation. His weight is down and his strength is growing; particularly in his right shoulder. “When Pat got me,” Kevin says, “I couldn’t do a right-handed push-up; not one. Now I can do twenty of them. And losing weight hasn’t just made me a better fighter. I’m happier; I’m healthier; and I feel better about myself.”
“In some ways, a coach is like a father,” Kevin continues. “Growing up, I never had a father. My father came around now and then, but he was never there for me when I needed him. I had to learn a lot of things from other people that I should have learned from him. My mom was my mother and father. But Pat treats me like a father. When I go on the road, it’s, ‘Do you have your Triple-A card with you? Call me when you get there.’ If I’m down about something, he sees it and asks what’s on my mind. He gets on me sometimes, especially in the gym, but I know he cares.”
“Pat doesn’t just tell you; he teaches you,” Kevin says, turning to boxing. “Of all the trainers I’ve had, he’s the best teacher for me. I’m learning skills and I’m more relaxed now than I was before. I’ve learned to be patient in the ring. I take my time now and pick a guy apart. In my mind, I’ve always wanted to get in there and fight. But Pat has taught me the value of defense. He doesn’t like for me to get hit at all.”
“No one learns to fight overnight,” Burns says of his charge. “No matter how much instinct and natural talent a fighter has, he has to be taught. But Kevin is a good student. He’s very consistent and reliable as a person. Each day when I come to the gym, Kevin has already done his thirty minutes of jumping rope so we can start right in. His best weapon is his jab. His jab hurts people. There’s real pop at the end of it. Kevin’s jab snaps heads back and it cuts. That’s a good foundation to build on.”
“And I have to say,” Burns adds, “Kevin is fortunate to have Craig Hamilton and some money people behind him. That means his bills are paid and he can concentrate on boxing. A lot of fighters work eight hours a day to pay their bills before they even get to the gym.”
Burnett’s first two fights under Burns’s tutelage were a first-round knockout of Steve Lewallen in August 2007 and unanimous six-round decision over Willie Perryman a month later. The match-up against Ryan Thompson on the undercard of Malignaggi-Ngoudjo was an opportunity for Kevin to be seen by the media and audition for future appearances on television.
Thompson is 37 years old. He started boxing professionally in March 2007 and had compiled a record of 4-and-2 with four knockouts. The day before the fight, he weighed in at 263 pounds with a lot of flesh sagging around his middle. Burns thought that the opponent would be dangerous early, but all would be well if Kevin did what he was supposed to do and broke Thompson down with his jab.
Burns and Hamilton had been told that Kevin’s bout would be the first of the evening and that he should be ready to fight at 6:30 sharp. They arrived at the ballroom in Bally’s (where the fight would be held) at 5:00 pm and settled into one of a dozen small cubicles separated by black curtains that had been erected in a conference room adjacent to the ring area. Glen Johnson (who defeated both Roy Jones and Antonio Tarver in 2004) and Yoriokis Gamboa (an Olympic gold-medalist from Cuba) had been assigned cubicles on either side. Thompson was in a cubicle directly across the aisle.
Minutes after Burnett arrived, Joe Quiambao (the matchmaker for promoter Lou DiBella) came in and told Burns that the opening bout had been changed to Lovemore N’dou versus Rafael Ortiz. Burnett-Thompson was now a swing bout, which meant that it would be used to plug a gap during a yet-to-be-determined part of the card.
Burns is a stickler for detail and, on fight night, meticulously calibrates his fighter’s routine. “Things like this used to be stressful for me,” he acknowledged once Quiambao was gone. “But you can only control what you can control, so I’ve learned to take things like this in stride. This is part of boxing unless you’re in the main event.”
Kevin’s hands were taped by 6:15. He and Burns chatted in relaxed fashion. Then, with the night open-ended, they went into the ballroom, took seats in the back row, and watched as N’Dou-Ortiz unfolded. “This could be a long night,” the trainer said. “I can’t make Kevin sit in a ten-foot-square cubicle for six hours.”
N’dou-Ortiz went into the seventh round, when Lovemore ended matters with a body shot. Next, Glen Johnson stopped a blown-up Hugo Pineda in eight. That was followed by Chazz Witherspoon (a possible ShoBox opponent for Kevin) against Kendrick Releford. As the fight progressed, Burns and Burnett discussed what each boxer was doing right and wrong and how Kevin might exploit it should they meet. Witherspoon won a unanimous decision but didn’t put fear in Burns’s heart with his performance.
Now there was only time for a four-rounder before Malignaggi-Ngoudjo. Burnett-Thompson was slated for six. That meant Nicky DeMarco against Alberto Amaro got the call. After that, the ring was cleared for the main event.
As Malignaggi and Ngoudjo fought, Burns and Burnett retreated to the dressing cubicle, gloved up, and readied for battle. The championship bout went the distance followed by the usual post-fight interviews. After that, Gamboa and Gilberto Luque made their way to the ring. Burnett-Thompson would be the last fight of the night.
While Gamboa-Luque was being contested, DiBella told Hamilton and Burns that he wanted to cut Kevin’s bout to four rounds. Both men objected. They figured that Thompson would be in the fight for two rounds; and after that, Kevin would dominate.
“We have a contract for six,” Hamilton told DiBella.
End of discussion.
The bell for round one of Burnett-Thompson rang at 11:00 pm. Kevin had been in the arena for six hours, five of them with his hands taped. Only a few diehard fans remained.
The first stanza was a feeling-out round for both men, with Burnett seeming a bit tentative. Thompson attacked in round two, and Kevin responded with his most effective jabs of the night followed by a series of thudding righthands to the body.
Thereafter, Burnett controlled the fight when he jabbed and was less impressive when he didn’t. There were times when he looked hittable, but Thompson didn’t do it much. Rather, he allowed Kevin to wind up on his right hand (which didn’t do as much damage as one might have thought) and rest when he wanted to. Burnett won all six rounds, although one of the judges (who was probably tired) gave him only four.
So . . . Where does Kevin Burnett stand in his quest to become a force in the heavyweight division? He has a “Class A” trainer and “Class A” management. The jury is still out on whether he’ll be a “Class A” fighter.
“I don’t have a real handle on where Kevin is right now,” Hamilton says. “He’s coming along a little more slowly than I envisioned because he started in such poor physical condition and it took a long time to turn that around. The loss and the draw are cause for concern, but I can look past them on the theory that Kevin was working his way into shape and just beginning to learn how to fight when they happened. He has good instincts. He likes boxing and works hard. Now he needs a better understanding of what his gifts are, and he has to develop those gifts and use them when he fights. Larry Holmes never got bored with hitting an opponent in the face 35 times a round with his jab. If Kevin keeps winning, we’ll see to it that everything else falls into place.”
“This is a great time to be a young heavyweight,” Burns adds. “It’s not a good time for the public as far as the heavyweights are concerned. But for a young heavyweight with potential, it couldn’t be better. There’s not much out there now, and there are very few good young guys coming up in the system. Given where Kevin was with his shoulder and being as out-of-shape as he was, it’s hard to get a fix on how he’ll develop as a fighter. But he works hard; he wants to be successful. Obviously, he has to keep learning and he has to get stronger. But if things work out right, in two years he’ll have an impact on the heavyweight division.”
That leaves the fighter himself to be heard from.
“Boxing isn’t what you think it will be before you start,” Burnett notes. “On TV, you see the fights and hear how much money some of the heavyweights are making. But it’s a long road to the top. A lot of things are harder than I thought they’d be, and nothing has been easier. But I love boxing. You have to love it to be dedicated and to do things right. And the more I learn, the more that love grows.”
“My jab is my best offensive and defensive weapon. A year ago, I thought I had a good jab; but I’ve learned so much since then. How to throw it different ways; how to defend myself better when I throw it. My jab is faster, stronger, and better now than it was before, and the rest of me is improving.”
Then Burnett turns to the future. “There’s so much I want out of boxing,” he says. “I’d love to be champion and build a legacy. I want to be able to give things to my mom that she never had before.” Kevin smiles. “My mom has never seen me fight and she won’t see me fight. She doesn’t want to see me get hit, and she doesn’t want to see me hit anyone else.”
Kevin smiles again. “I can imagine people from my past seeing where I am now and saying to themselves, ‘I never knew that quiet guy had dynamite like that in him.’ I just have to stay healthy and keep learning, and everything that’s supposed to happen will happen. Time is on my side.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org