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Are There Fewer Good Trainers Than Before ?
Angelo Dundee, photo (C) Holger Keifel
By Thomas Hauser
As sports and technology have evolved over the years, training and coaching have evolved with them. From video-tape to computer analysis to sports medicine, the sources of improvement are endless. By way of example, some of the men who won gold medals in swimming at the 1960 Rome Olympics (where Cassius Clay won his gold medal) wouldn’t have qualified for the women’s finals at the 2004 Athens games.
It’s now possible for a trainer to watch tapes of every major fighter and virtually every major fight of the past eighty years. A boxer’s movement can be broken down and freeze-framed at intervals of one-tenth of a second. Yet there’s a prevailing view in the sweet science today that training fighters is becoming a lost art.
“I’m managing fighters now,” says Emanuel Steward. “And one of the reasons I’m still training is that there’s not too many guys out there that I’d trust to train my fighters.”
“The main reason that so many old fighters are successful today,” adds Don Turner, “is that no one is teaching the young guys how to fight.”
“Even with the trainers at the top,” says Teddy Atlas; “a lot of them are in good situations rather than being good trainers.”
“The proof is in the fighting,” notes historian Mike Silver. “Look at the performance of today’s fighters. In virtually every other sport, performance has improved significantly over the years; but not in boxing. It’s obvious that the fighters aren’t being trained properly.”
At first glance, boxing appears simple. It isn’t.
The legendary Eddie Futch once observed, “Boxing is a science. You don’t just walk into a gym and start punching. Fighters are born with differences in physical ability, but you also see a big difference in their skills. That’s the trainer’s influence at work.”
Ray Arcel (Futch’s contemporary in greatness) concurred, saying, “If you take a piece of gold out of the ground, you know it’s gold. But you still have to clean it; you have to polish it; you have to give it a form. A real trainer can take an amateur from his first day in the gym and give him the tools to become a champion.”
Trainers, like fighters, bring their own personality and style to their task. Opinions vary as to who’s a good trainer and who isn’t. Most practitioners of the trade have boosters and detractors. Only a few receive universal praise. But there is general agreement regarding the qualities that are essential to being a good trainer.
First, it’s not enough for a trainer to tell a boxer what to do. He has to teach him. That requires an understanding of the intricacies of boxing and the ability to communicate that knowledge in a way that it’s understood. It’s more than coincidence that two of the best expert analysts on television today (Emanuel Steward and Teddy Atlas) are trainers; and another trainer (Gil Clancy) led the way. “You can’t just give orders,” says Atlas. “You have to be able to put the knowledge and understanding that you have inside someone else’s head.”
“A good trainer never stops learning,” says Angelo Dundee. “You have to understand that you don’t know everything and be willing to go to other people for help.”
“A good trainer is a good listener,” says Bouie Fisher. “He spends a lot of time with his fighter and gets to know him physically and mentally.”
“A trainer needs patience,” says Al Mitchell.
“You have to respect your fighter,” says Tommy Brooks. “Otherwise, there’s no way he’ll respect you.”
“A good trainer is dedicated,” says Joe Goossen. “It’s not just the fighters who have to sacrifice.”
“A good trainer leads by example,” says Jesse Reid. “That means you have to be disciplined.”
“A good trainer has a passion for the sport,” says Naazim Richardson. “And there are times when being a trainer is like being a parent.”
Teaching the fundamentals of boxing to a fighter is just one part of a trainer’s job, but it’s the foundation on which everything else is based. In that regard, a good trainer is a perfectionist, but one who understands the reality of boxing that his fighter will always be less than perfect.
A good trainer is also a psychologist of sorts.
“You can teach a fighter all the mechanics in the world and he still might not know how to employ them,” says Teddy Atlas. “The mental toughness, the psychological things you teach a fighter, are just as important as teaching him technique. The best trainers come from a place where they had some kind of practical experience in dealing with physical threats, pressure, and fear. That’s one of the things I got from Cus [D’Amato]. Cus was a genius, a mad scientist, and one hundred percent committed to the sport. He was a pioneer in teaching and he understood every aspect of the game, but his forte was the psychological.”
“That’s one of the things that made Eddie Futch great,” says Freddie Roach. “Eddie did more than just teach boxing. He knew what buttons to push to get the most out of his fighter. He got inside his fighter’s head.”
“You have to know when to be firm,” says Pat Burns. “You have to know when to be mean; and you have to know when to be gentle. When your fighter thinks he can’t do anymore, you have to get him to believe that he can. When he’s exhausted and thinks he can’t climb those last few steps to get to the top of the mountain, you put it in his head that, not only can he do that; if he has to, he can go down to the bottom of the mountain and climb back to the top again.”
A good trainer oversees his fighter’s conditioning, chooses opponents wisely, and strategizes prior to each fight. He watches his fighter’s back. On fight night, he works the corner. “During a fight,” Ray Arcel observed, “the trainer is the pillar of hope for every fighter. But he also has to know when his fighter has had enough and, if need be, step in to stop the fight.”
Emanuel Steward and Angelo Dundee are model cornermen at work during a fight. Steward is a master at counseling strategic adjustments. Dundee is the consummate motivator. “That’s what you’re there for,” Angelo says. “To help your guy when he needs it.”
Boxing fans know the tale of Dundee exhorting Cassius Clay through the perilous fifth round of his title challenge against Sonny Liston, when an astringent trickled into Clay’s eyes and impaired his vision. They’re also familiar with his lighting a fire under Sugar Ray Leonard in Leonard-Hearns I with the words, “You’re blowing it, son.” But Dundee thinks his greatest motivational work was performed with a club fighter named John Holman.
“John was fighting Ezzard Charles [in 1955],” Angelo recalls. “Even though Ezzard was on the downside of his career, he was beating my guy pretty good. But John had this thing. All his life, he’d wanted a house with a yard and a white picket fence around it. He talked about it all the time in the gym. So at the end of the eighth round, when John came back to the corner, I told him, ‘You see that guy over there. He’s taking away your house with the white picket fence. Now either you knock him out or you say good-bye to that house forever.’”
Holman knocked out Ezzard Charles in the ninth round.
“If I know anything, it’s how to talk to fighters,” Dundee says.
Some trainers are better with boxers; some are better with punchers. Eddie Futch could train any fighter with any kind of style and do it well. One of the things he preached was, “No matter how much effort a fighter puts in, there are some things he simply won’t be able to do. A good trainer doesn’t try to teach a fighter more than he can learn.”
“Every boxer is different,” Ray Arcel said. “No two are alike. You never see the same fighter twice. If you train one fighter one way, you can’t train another fighter the same way because he might not have the same ability. What’s food for one is poison for another.”
“A good trainer takes what his fighter has and works with it the way Charlie Goldman did with Rocky Marciano,” says Don Turner. “Charlie Goldman took a guy that nobody else wanted and taught him to do what he could do best.”
Dundee offers similar praise, saying, “It was sheer genius, the way Charlie Goldman built Rocky Marciano.” Mike Silver proclaims, “Charlie Goldman found a block of marble in a quarry and sculpted it into The Pieta.”
There also has to be “chemistry” between a trainer and his fighter for the relationship to work.
“Sometimes,” says Freddie Roach, “you can have a good trainer and a good fighter and it just doesn’t click. That’s the way it was with me and Jeff Lacy.”
“And you have to have fun,” adds Angelo Dundee. “That’s why things worked so well between me and Muhammad.”
Dundee caught lightning in a bottle with Muhammad Ali. That, of course, leads to the obvious. “There’s a limit on what a trainer can do to make a fighter better,” says Lou Duva. “It’s much easier to be a good trainer when you’re working with a fighter who wants to be great. But even then, it’s hopeless unless the guy you’re working with has God-given talent.”
George Gainsford once boasted, “I’m the greatest trainer who ever lived. I trained Sugar Ray Robinson.”
The response Gainsford heard was, “George, you’ve had hundreds of fighters. Why aren’t they all as good as Sugar Ray?” Or phrased differently; even a great trainer needs a fighter to deliver the goods. No matter how great a teacher is, not every student passes the test.
One problem boxing faces today is that, in the United States, fewer gifted young athletes than before are going into the sport. And that’s true of all weight divisions, not just the heavyweights. That means there are fewer fighters in the gym for young boxers to work with as they learn their trade.
There was a time when 375 boxers trained at Stillman’s in New York; and Stillman’s was just one of many gyms in the city. Now Stillman’s is closed and there are only 104 boxers licensed to fight in the entire state. That total includes fighters from outside New York (who must be licensed in order to fight in the state) and eleven women.
“In the 1930s. ‘40s, and ‘50s,” says Teddy Atlas, “there were more skilled hard-working role models for young fighters to follow. Young guys would see how the great ones worked in the gym and it rubbed off on them. Plus, if you spar with the same two or three guys all the time, you don’t learn as much as if you have twenty different guys with twenty different styles to learn from. All of that affects how you can train a fighter today.”
It’s also harder to build a great fighter when the fighter doesn’t have the experience of fighting tough opponents. Gil Clancy once said, “The best learning experience is a hard competitive fight.” But many of today’s top young prospects won’t go in tough unless it’s a big-money fight. That makes it harder to teach.
And it’s a common complaint that many of today’s fighters simply don’t listen to their trainer. Eddie Futch once famously tried to get welterweight champion Marlon Starling to pay attention to his teaching with the advisory, “Marlon; some good fighters listened.”
But some don’t. “You very quickly get to a point where the fighter thinks he knows everything,” says John David Jackson. “In this day and age, what old person gets respect from young people?”
“You get tired of telling men to behave like men,” says Atlas. “I hate to talk like that; it sounds harsh. But you get tired of reminding guys what their commitments are. One thing that drives me crazy is, if you’re working on an assembly-line at Ford, you don’t bring your friends to the plant. But a lot of these guys think it’s fine to bring their friends to the gym with them every day.”
“Too many people have the fighter’s ear now,” says Lou Duva. “His friends are telling him one thing. His girlfriend is telling him another. The TV people are telling him he has to look good, whatever that means, to get on TV.”
“I have a problem with personal conditioners taking over and getting too involved,” adds Emanuel Steward. “I don’t believe in it. All of a sudden, the fighter is telling the trainer he can’t do something that the trainer wants him to do because he has a second workout with the conditioner later in the day. And all most of these personal conditioners are doing is reading books and experimenting on fighters. Mackie Shilstone seems to be pretty good, but most of them don’t have a clue when it comes to boxing.”
And there’s a larger problem. Many of boxing’s great trainers came out of a world that doesn’t exist anymore and never will again.
There was a time when boxing developed great trainers as a matter of course. They came naturally out of the fabric of the sport and the gyms. Ray Arcel started going to the gym when he was thirteen years old. He watched, asked questions, and learned. Ultimately, he worked with twenty world champions. And that was when the words “world champion” had special meaning.
“To become a trainer in the true sense, you have to go under somebody’s wing and serve an apprenticeship,” says Teddy Atlas. “Years ago, guys would put in an apprenticeship with a great trainer. They helped out in the gym. Then they were a bucket-carrier in the corner for fights. They worked their way up the ladder. You don’t have that anymore.”
“I didn’t watch the fighters in the gym,” says Lou Duva. “I watched the trainers; guys like Whitey Bimstein and Chickie Ferrera. Then George Benton taught me more. Tommy Brooks and Ronnie Shields learned most of what they know from George too.”
George Benton learned his craft from the great trainers of Philadelphia. Emanuel Steward learned his trade from Bill Miller, Luther Burgess, and other seasoned veterans in Detroit. Teddy Atlas apprenticed with Cus D’Amato and gained further insight from Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown. Buddy McGirt was taught by Al Certo. Freddie Roach learned from Eddie Futch.
“I was a bucket carrier who hung around the gym and listened and watched,” says Angelo Dundee. “I kept my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut. That’s how I learned from some of the greatest trainers who ever lived. Ray Arcel, Charlie Goldman, Whitey Bimstein; those guys gave of themselves. Chickie Ferrera taught me how to tie a fighter’s shoes.”
But many feel that the last generation of great trainers that boxing will ever see is gone. “You have a few relationships that have kept good training from becoming entirely extinct,” says Mike Silver. “But overall, it’s a dying art. You don’t have the concentration of activity in cities that you once had, so the knowledge that exists isn’t being passed on.”
“It’s part of the overall picture,” says Atlas. “There’s less interest in the sport than there once was so the universe is smaller. There’s fewer gyms where guys can learn how to become trainers. And don’t forget; fifty years ago in places like New York, you had fights five nights a week. Guys got practical experience in using what they’d learned. That’s not the case anymore.”
“The gyms no longer function as schools for trainers,” says Emanuel Steward. “We don’t even have a good program to teach amateur trainers.”
Another problem that plagues the training profession is an absence of standards. “A lot of guys today are just cheerleaders,” says Freddie Roach. “They hang around a gym for a while, put a towel over their shoulder, and call themselves a trainer.”
Teddy Atlas is in accord, saying, “There’s no structure in place that demands standards. If you’re a carpenter building a house, you have to be okayed by the union and build the house to building-code specifications. But in boxing, anyone can call himself a trainer, so you have a lot of guys out there who are just throwing a lot of mud against the wall and hoping some of it sticks. There are so few guys who know what they’re doing that it’s scary. I walk into a gym and see what some of these so-called trainers are doing and I feel like screaming.”
“But let’s be practical,” Atlas continues. “Even if you had standards - and you do have some good people who are willing to teach young trainers - it’s hard to find someone who’s willing to apprentice because you can’t pay the bills while you’re learning.”
The economics of boxing hinder the development of trainers today. Except for a few guys on top, fulltime trainers are a thing of the past. There’s simply not enough money to go around. The sport has a handful of fighters who are well-paid and a lot of fighters who make next to nothing. Ten percent of a $400 purse is forty dollars. A trainer can’t take his family out for hamburgers and to the movies for that.
“Trainers used to take amateurs and build them through the pros,” says Angelo Dundee. “The greatest satisfaction you can have as a trainer is when you start with a young guy at the beginning and he gets to the top. But the name of the game now for a lot of guys is to start with an already-made fighter.”
“Nobody is taking the time to teach basics anymore,” says Emanuel Steward. “You should start with a young fighter by teaching him about balance, distance, and movement. You tell him, ‘This is how you stand; this is the way to hold your hands; this is how you move forward; this is how you move backward.’ But that’s boring to some people and everyone is in a hurry, so they jump right in with jab, throw the right hand, left hook.”
“Developing talent isn’t about making money right away,” says John David Jackson. “You can ruin a young fighter fast; it takes years to build one. But fewer and fewer trainers are willing to spend years putting a foundation under a fighter because they’re afraid someone will come along and steal him.”
That’s another part of the problem.
“A lot of trainers spend years building a kid,” says Naazim Richardson. “And then a celebrity trainer steals him. It’s like raising a child. Imagine if you raise a child; change his diapers; teach him to walk and talk. And then, after years of parenting, if he turns out to be the kind of person you hoped he’d be, someone comes along and tells you that he’s not your kid anymore.”
“Continuity is one of the keys to training a fighter,” Richardson continues. “Sometimes you see a kid who has gone from foster home to foster home, and he doesn’t know what it’s like to have a parent. It’s the same thing with a fighter who moves from trainer to trainer. But it’s so bad now that a lot of trainers are afraid to push their fighter once the fighter reaches a certain level. They train to their fighter’s comfort level because they don’t want to lose him. The trainer is intimidated by the fighter.”
Eddie Futch walked away from Riddick Bowe because Bowe wasn’t willing to dedicate himself to boxing to the degree that Futch demanded of him. Things like that don’t happen often anymore.
“And there’s another issue,” says Don Turner. “You’re in a situation now with a lot of fighters where, if the fighter loses a fight, he changes his trainer. When Joe Louis was knocked out by Max Schmeling, he didn’t get rid of Jack Blackburn.”
Be that as it may; many of today’s fighters play musical chairs when it comes to trainers. And trainers who get a lot of exposure on television tend to get a lot of fighters. That leads to another problem.
“A lot of big-name trainers today are over-extended,” says Dan Birmingham. “If you have a good assistant, maybe you can train a half-dozen fighters; definitely not more. But the way it is now, a lot of name trainers are really front-men. They show up in camp a few weeks before the fight; they’re in the corner on fight night. But other people do the heavy lifting, which doesn’t always work for the fighter.”
“Emanuel Steward and I have had our differences,” says Don Turner. “But Emanuel knows as much about boxing as any guy ever. Emanuel is a very very good trainer. He just doesn’t always have the time to do it right. Buddy McGirt is another guy who has a way with fighters,” Turner continues. “They like him and they like the lifestyle he offers them in training camp. Buddy understands the essence of teaching but he’s over-extended. Freddie Roach does good work, but look at all the fighters he’s got. Ray Arcel might have worked with twenty fighters at a time, but Ray Arcel had guys like Freddie Brown and Angelo Dundee helping him.”
So; bottom line. Are there fewer good trainers now than in the past?
Probably. But two more factors should be considered.
First, as Angelo Dundee notes, “There are a lot of good trainers out there that you never hear about because they’re not on television.”
Naazim Richardson elaborates on that theme. “Go in the gyms and you’ll see some very good trainers working with kids,” he says. “They’re teaching them the basics, putting a foundation under them. But the talent in that particular local area might not be good. These guys aren’t celebrity trainers and they aren’t working with celebrity fighters, so they don’t get the attention they deserve unless one of their guys turns pro, stays with him, and makes it to the top.”
Dan Birmingham was twice named “Trainer of the Year,” by the Boxing Writers Association of America, in large part because of his work with Winky Wright. If Wright had never walked into Birmingham’s gym, would Birmingham be any less of a trainer?
Andre Berto has been trained by Tony Morgan since the age of twelve. Jack Loew began working with Kelly Pavlik when Kelly was nine. If Berto and Pavlik make it to the top, Morgan and Loew will be hailed. But based on performance so far, shouldn’t we assume that they’re capable trainers?
Also, this article has been keyed to American trainers. One presumes that there are quite a few good trainers today in Latin America. Some of the European and Asian trainers are pretty good too. That’s one of the reasons why so many of today’s champions come from outside the United States. Some foreign fighters gravitate toward American trainers when they reach a certain point in their career. But it’s local trainers who put a foundation under them.
Most people who go to school have a handful of great teachers who inspire and teach them to learn, some lousy boring teachers, and many in between. Boxing’s gyms are its universities. Its teachers reflect a similar range.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org