Fighting Tommy Riley: The trainers behind the fighters

15.08.05 - By Izyaslav “Slava” Koza: Yesterday I had the good fortune of renting the movie “Fighting Tommy Riley,” from my neighborhood Video Store. After watching it I must say it is probably the best boxing movie I have ever seen. I know I probably said that about a few other films after watching them for the first time, but in this instance its something that cannot be helped, the story, acting, directing, and action of this movie made me a huge fan.

In fact the movie inspired me so much so that I decided to do a write-up on the men behind the men so to speak. Whenever a world-class fighter, a champion, a legend gets his due, rarely do we take the time to appreciate what their trainer actually did for them. Yea there is the occasional pat on the back or nice word, but I just have this feeling that, there is not enough respect paid to the people who dedicate themselves completely to a fighter. While there are 5, 10 articles going up daily on the Hopkin’s and Mayweather’s, of today’s boxing, what about the men who dedicated themselves to these fighters, the same way that the fighters dedicated themselves to the sport? Is that also not admirable? Would you live your life behind the scenes in dedication to somebody else?

Now it is important to differentiate between the “good” and the “bad” trainers in boxing. You see bad trainers in boxing almost every single time there is a show on TV. The guys who try to provide empty motivation instead of actual advice. These are the guys who scream, “rip his head off” the loudest, or who smack their fighter for no good reason. These are the trainers who don’t care about their fighter, these are the guys who are really saying, “I have nothing better to say so I will say something that sounds inspiring to my own ears.” I don’t name any names because frankly there are probably too many names to name. Its no coincidence that the best and most elite fighters in the world all flock to the same 5,6 guys we see on TV most often.

There are people out there who think, a good trainer is not a necessity. Theoretically, they may be right. If anybody remembers Mr. T’s famous words of, “I train alone and I win the title alone,” from Rocky 3, then they know what I mean. It's possible for us to imagine a guy who studies the tapes by himself, who trains by himself, who thinks by himself in a corner between rounds as to what he should do to win. However, just like child prodigies who can do Rocket Science in diapers, those people are few and far between.

It is true that eventually there is simply no more that a trainer can teach a fighter in the gym. It is a simple fact of life that humanity reaches the limits of available knowledge, eventually, and then there is nothing more to learn. However, I am willing to bet a fighter cannot simply remember all of this in the time he has between rounds. As soon as that bell rings a good trainer must be ready to repeat anything that needs to be repeated just in case. A fighter may know that you shouldn’t break out of a clinch with your hands down, ala Zab Judah vs Cory Spinks 1, but subconsciously they can do it anyway. There is only so much that you can build into instinct in the gym. A good trainer will be there to tell his fighter what he is doing wrong in the ring, or will see what his opponent is doing wrong and be Johnny on the spot with the right advice. Furthermore, its not just an issue of can a fighter get all the knowledge himself. Yes, like we said that is possible but a trainer with a wealth of that knowledge, can teach that fighter faster then that fighter can learn it on his own.

Then you take into account the crooked aspect of boxing, and a trainer becomes an even bigger necessity. If a fighter complains to the referee that complaining usually falls on death ears, but if there is a good trainer in their with his fighter, he can influence the referee to some degree and allow for a more even or more beneficial fight for his protégé. What about instances when the referee is about to step in, or the doctor is about to stop it? A bad trainer can say “f*ck it,” because he gets paid either way. A good trainer will do what it takes to get you the round or two to see if you can pull it off.

What if your Arturo Gatti taking a pasting from Floyd Mayweather? A bad trainer will let it go on, because he doesn’t know what to do. A trainer like Buddy Mcgirt will not only do the right thing and stop it, but he will tell his fighter, what he needs to hear in order to save face. Everyone who heard Mcgirt say “I know you can fight on but your eye is too badly swollen,” must have understood it was a lie, in my opinion. We all saw 6 completely 1 sided rounds, and knew that the eye was actually the least of Arturo’s problems on that night. However, what would Gatti have left if Mcgirt said “you're about to get knocked out, my Man; its f*ckin over.” That is a prime example of what it means to be a good trainer.

It's not even an issue of how much you know that affects how well your fighter fights. There are more then those 5 guys I mentioned before, that know everything there is to know about boxing. However, not all of them know how to deal with the fighter. Take Teddy Atlas, for example. The man obviously has as much boxing knowledge as any other top trainer today, yet how many top fighters does he have? I was watching Legendary fights yesterday, and the title, “Atlas wills Moorer to victory,” or whatever that newspaper headline was they flashed, when Moorer defeated Holyfield, annoyed me to no end. I saw the clips of “Atlas willing Moorer to victory” and I got to tell you, Atlas was probably hindering Moorer more so than helping him, in my opinion. Moorer won because he was a better fighter. If Emanuel Steward, or Joe Goosen, were there with Moorer instead of Atlas, I have a feeling that victory might have been more convincing. However, you can argue that this was just one example and the fact that Moorer got knocked out by Foreman, doesn’t say anything of Atlas as a trainer, but rather of Moorer as a fighter, yet again I ask how many top fighters does this guy have?

Look at a trainer like Emanuel Steward. After the second round of the Lewis-Klitschko fight, did Steward panic, did he yell at Lewis for getting caught like that? No, he remained his usual calm self. What would the result have been if Atlas was in Lewis’s corner? Would he have made a bigger deal about that shot then Steward? Would he have conveyed that panic to his fighter, that Steward must have been feeling but didn’t show?

In fact, let's remember the Maussa-Harris fight, where the same Steward was Harris’s trainer. There were fans on our board who blamed Steward for Harris getting knocked out, and I didn’t agree because I thought Harris completely ignored his corner’s instruction and did his own thing and that is why he lost. However, that doesn’t mean Steward didn’t make his own mistake. The round prior to Harris getting dropped and stopped with one shot, Steward was completely riled up in the corner. So much so, that even though he was giving him the right advice, the panic in his voice and the fact that he wound up slapping Harris by accident, had a detrimental affect on Harris, who probably panicked himself.

I have a hard time imagining that somebody like Bouie Fisher would do something like that in Hopkin’s corner. I haven’t seen Taylor-Hopkins, but reading about Fisher’s character in an article awhile ago, that toothpick of his takes the brunt of any frustration he may feel during the fight or in his life. In fact, if Bernard ever wanted to know how worried Fisher is in between rounds, he could most likely take a gander at the tooth marks on his trainer’s constant companion.

Veering back on topic though, the point I wanted to make is, even though Steward is one of the best trainers in boxing, even those guys make mistakes. However the amount of good he has done for his fighters separates him from the trainers who do this on a consistent basis.

Another prime example of a great trainer is Joe Goosen. Forget the fact that Diego Corrales became a cosmically better fighter under him, and remember the moments of the tenth round of Corrales-Castillo. This is a classic example of a great trainer. First of all, a lot of people make an issue out of the fact that it took Goosen so long to replace Corrales’s mouthpiece in between rounds. Well, maybe from the standpoint of objectivity that seems unfair, or wrong, but from the standpoint of knowing to buy your fighter extra time, that was an excellent example of a great trainer. What would a bad trainer have done in that instance? Push the mouthpiece back in and go sit down? Its not just an issue of having the right advice, its knowing what your fighter needs at the right moment. It didn’t even matter what Goosen said about “getting f*cking inside of him” before he sent Corrales out to stop Castillo in the very same round, it was the way he said it. He wasn’t yelling, he wasn’t panicking, he was simply conveying the point to his fighter. The way I understood that line was, Goosen saying “if you still want this fight, it’s a matter of will, and not how much you know about boxing.” Verbally it was basically the same thing as what a trainer like Atlas would say, except that in Goosen’s words you also heard the echo of “even if you don’t do it, nobody can take away the man you are and what you have already accomplished.” If Corrales would have lost that fight, Goosen would have acted the same exact way towards his fighter, because he would know Corrales left it all in the ring. Perhaps another trainer would do the same thing, but when he says it during the fight, you get the feeling that if his fighter loses, he will drop him and stop being his trainer.

The last trainer that I want to mention in this article is the one I feel exemplifies the very essence of what I am trying to convey. Although there are trainers who I am confident can give the same advice, and be there the same way for their fighter, with this man in a fighter’s corner, nothing but his opponent and his skill, can cost this trainer’s fighter the match. This man is Freddie Roach.

A former fighter, himself, Roach is the absolute best that any fighter can have in boxing today. Roach will always know what to say to his fighter, and if it so happens he loses, it won’t be because of Roach’s bad advice. Roach is also one of the few that doesn’t do this because he wants to make money. When he chose to work with Lucia Rijker (arguably, the best female fighter in the world today) it's because he saw potential, not a multi million dollar contract, something that over the years Rijker has not come close to earning.

James Toney’s accomplishments speak for themselves, and while its obviously a matter of his unorthodox skill as a fighter, if it was only based on that, Toney’s people would be paying Trinidad Sr. to do the honors instead of Roach. Fans can talk about Kassim Ouma not being himself that night, but for the majority of us who saw that fight, it was obvious Roman Karmazin took the fight out of Ouma, rather then Ouma taking it out of himself. Its no coincidence that Roach was there with Karmazin, and its no coincidence that Karmazin praised Roach in interviews following the bout.

Some fans think that because Manny Pacquio lost to Erik Morales, it somehow speaks worse of Roach or Pacquio. However, how does that take away from the fact that Pacquio dominated Marco Antonio Barrera and stopped him in the 11th, something Morales has not been able to do for 36 rounds in 3 total fights? Morales is one of the best p4p fighters in the world today, and losing to him doesn’t mean Pacquio was not on top of his game or that Roach was not on top of his. In fact, that actually made Morales’s victory all the more special seeing as there were no “actual” excuses (I don’t pay mind to the whole glove thing).

The tragedy that is Mike Tyson’s post prison career, did have spots in it, where fans were actually justified in believing in Mike again. I know that when I saw Tyson-Ettiene, I had renewed belief in the hype. Roach was the man behind that, even if Tyson didn’t train well, had injuries, and other problems, with Roach there he wouldn’t have lost because of bad advice. If Roach would have been there for the Mcbride fight, instead of Fenech, I really think things wouldn’t have ended up that way, in my opinion. Yes, Mike might have lost, but at least there wouldn’t be questions of the, choice of opponents, was Fenech a good trainer variety.

Although it’s a bit trivial but every time I see Roach as the trainer or second in somebody’s corner, I always either get excited if it’s a fighter I am rooting for, or upset if it is a fighter I am cheering against.

Bonus Thoughts on Fighting Tommy Riley: A lot of the reviews on this movie made it seem like while great, the film was not all about boxing. I personally think that is not exactly true. While I agree that perhaps the main idea (i.e. Love) was not boxing related and was more abstract then that, the instances that involve boxing are simply brilliant. Take the first scene where Riley flattens his sparring partner after the guy tries to show Riley up in sparring, hit him low, and knock him out (to add to which Riley’s opponent’s corner is verbally taunting him). The instance was eerily similar to Emanuel Augustus’s explanation of what it means to be a professional sparring partner, in reference to the insults thrown at him from Ebo Elder’s corner during their sparring session. A lot of these fighters and their trainers think that the sparring partner is there to be beaten up and abused, and they can do what they like. What they don’t understand is sparring partners are there to help their fighter, help him get better, and treating them like garbage means good fighters won’t want to work as sparring partners for them.

Everything else in this movie regarding the sport was captured extremely well, in that the typical aspects were very accurate, rather then aspects that are perceived as realistic, by people who don’t watch boxing. Take Max Baer’s character in Cinderella Man, the perception of a killer is what I imagine is typical from those people who don’t watch boxing. After all, it's not possible that Baer was actually very distraught over the death at of two of his opponents, right? It’s impossible that his character was similar to Ray Mancini’s and other fighters who have inadvertently killed or seriously hurt opponents in the ring, and were devasted about it? This movie, at least in my mind, didn’t use boxing for the sake of stereotypes and to “sell” their story. I suggest everybody see it. In my mind, it is overall a better film than "Million Dollar Baby," and that one won a bunch of Oscars, and a movie I really enjoyed as well.

Article posted on 15.08.2005

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