What better way to start the New Year than by writing again? In recent months I have been watching lots of fights on television. There were times I was paying more attention to what the corner men were doing and what they were saying to the fighters than to what the fighters were doing.
I heard: “You are not throwing the left; you are having a hard time catching him; you have to knock him out.” It seems I have been hearing this forever. Only occasionally do I hear trainers tell fighters to “slip to the right and step back, or work your double or triple jab.” Corner men often get too excited and they tell fighters what not to do, or what they are not doing instead of what they should be doing.
It made me think of what Angelo Dundee, Emmanuel Steward, Ray Arcel, Jack Blackburn, Eddie Futch, Gil Clancy and Cus D’Amato would say. Each of these Hall-of-Fame trainers had their workhorses: Dundee had Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard; Steward had Thomas Hearns; Arcel had Benny Leonard and Roberto Duran; Blackburn had Joe Louis; Futch had Joe Frazier and Ken Norton; Clancy had Emile Griffith; D’Amato had Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson. Beyond these great fighters each of those trainers each had other outstanding fighters up their sleeve. What did they do that today’s trainers don’t do?
In the gym a trainer becomes more than just a coach–he becomes a mentor, a friend, someone to trust. A good trainer knows his fighter better than the fighter knows himself. It is up to the trainer to make sure the fighter is doing what is necessary to create muscle memory. That way, on fight night, the fighter doesn’t have to think, he can just go through the motions. Muscle memory builds through repetition. If a fighter is in the gym five days a week shadow boxing and, 100 times in a row, throwing a double jab, left hook, right hand, shot to the body and back to the jab, then a trainer can expect his fighter to do the same thing on fight night.
If a boxer simply does not have the tools to win, or if the fighter runs out of gas runs due to lack of roadwork, there is nothing a trainer can do. What happens in the gym is crucial to success. The balance a trainer needs to find between being in the gym and being under the lights can make or break a fighter.
Trainers of the past knew the tricks of the trade.
During the Ali-Earnie Shavers heavyweight title fight in 1977 at Madison Square Garden, Dundee realized that, for the first time, the official scores were going to be televised to the public after each round. So he hired Baltimore matchmaker Eddie Hrica to be his gopher between rounds, sitting near the corner and running to the dressing room to check the TV monitors and reporting back to Dundee. That way, Dundee knew how much Ali was ahead by and knew how to guide him through the later rounds. It was a 15-rounder and Ali won by decision, though it was close. Scores were by rounds: 9-6 twice for Ali and 9-5-1 for Ali. More than a few people thought Shavers may have won it, but Dundee knew the score all along. No one from Shavers’ corner thought to check the TV monitors.
A trainer has to know what works for his fighter.
Clancy used to remind J Russell Peltz (who always reminds me) that the next-to-last round is sometimes the most important round in a close fight. He reasoned that the other guy was probably going to rest (in the 7th round of an 8-rounder, or in the 9th round of a 10-rounder) to save everything for a strong finish. So he would make sure his guy went all out in the next-to-last round to put that round in the bank and leave the other guy in such bad shape that he wouldn’t have anything left for the last round. Even if the other guy did have something left, Clancy would deal with that in the corner before the 10th round began.
Trainers are the captains of the fighter’s team; they give the fighter direction. There should be someone in the corner to monitor the referee if the trainer is busy instructing his fighter. I watched several fights where the “the other guy” is holding too much, throwing elbows, hitting low or on the break. Between rounds, however, no one from the offended corner complains. Someone needs to make the referee aware of what’s going on. The referee cannot see everything, so it is up to the corner to point things out.
fighter depends on his trainer, not only for guidance but also to look out for him during each fight and help him gain any edge possible. Trainers need to go into a fight with a game plan, and Futch (left) might have been the best planner of them all.
Futch was in Frazier’s corner in 1971 in New York when Joe defeated Ali, the loss of Ali’s career. Futch also was in Norton’s corner in 1973 in San Diego when Ken defeated Ali. Futch’s plan for Norton was to out-jab Ali, who had one of the best jabs in the sport. The mind games must have worked, Norton won by decision.
At the Thrilla in Manila in 1975, Frazier faced Ali for a third time and at the end 14th round of Futch stopped the fight despite Frazier’s protests. Frazier’s right eye was swollen shut and Futch worried that Frazier would lose vision in his right eye as well. Later, when Futch heard that Ali would not have continued either, he still stood by his decision not to let Frazier go on. Futch never expressed any regret over the decision. Futch knew not to be brave with another man’s life; he made the right decision for his fighter’s health.