Full Stop – Our pause to consider the news and the issues…
By Donald C Stewart
“Got to laugh at the complete fools on here trying to give professional coaches and boxers criticism, you really need to spend time in a gym and around the people you criticise. Your opinion will quickly change believe me.”
So said Billy Nelson when yet another Twitter troll decided to make comment on yet another boxer laying his life on the line and in his opinion, falling short because the guy in the corner – let the man in the ring down; in yet another esteemed opinion from someone who does not know.
Because Nelson is right.
The idea that someone like me has the right to call out the man who gets his boxer up out a stupor and into his shorts at 5am, hears his woes, his troubles and his strife whilst wrapping his hands, has to motivate when he has no oomph, settle him down when he has too much energy and plan the demise of another man whilst protecting his own is laughable.
The relationship that exists between a boxer and his trainer is one of the closest in the sporting world. It is also one of the most effective and often the quickest to fall apart in the bad days. In football we might get the “time for a change” cliché every year or so for managers but as cliché it tends to get trotted out when people are trying to miss the point or exclude you from the truth.
In boxing terms, it can be a lot longer between changes of trainers than the time it takes for a Premiership club to change its manager, but the reasoning is remarkably similar.
Often when the going gets tough, the trainer gets going.
Right now, one of the fascinating things in Sheffield is why both Kell Brook and Billy Joe Saunders are no longer with the Wincobank. Saunders is over with Ben Davidson who he introduced to the Gypsy King, Tyson Fury whilst Brook is in Fuerteventura awaiting news of his next fight but without a trainer. It mirrors the whole debate around Chris Eubank Jr who, according to his father didn’t need a trainer for a long time… until he did…
Frequently the reason for change would appear to have less to do with a falling out and more to do with the repetitive nature of successful training and how people after a while, just need a break from each other. Sometimes too, you just lose effectiveness when you have listened to the same voice for a number of years and really do, just need a change.
Our perceptions of trainers are quite skewed as noted in the Daily Telegraph, by the newly lauded trainer of world champions, Shane McGuigan who was interviewed and noted that, “Boxing coaches aren’t all like Mickey from the Rocky movies.” Given that McGuigan is a young pup, at a more tender age than the people he has in the gym, his opinion is nonetheless very valid as his record speaks for himself; Mickey was grizzled, old and a real veteran, unlike McGuigan.
Of course, McGuigan has pedigree, his father was a world champion, though the pull for the sport for the son was greater than the pull for the ring as the younger McGuigan noted, “I didn’t really want to emulate what my father had done or have the constant pressure of comparisons. I take my hat off to the likes of Chris Eubank Junior who is doing tremendously well because you always get compared to your dad and I didn’t want that.” Having said that he is not without experience in the ring as McGuigan did make some amateur fights and he was a boxer until he gave it up at the age of 21. He is now able to add to his ability to jump about a ring and spar with his fighters with the experience of having been in a ring, “…having that personal experience of boxing – knowing the pressure and remembering my mistakes – still shapes my training ideas today.”
McGuigan’s relationship with his boxers was formed around the relationship he had with another former world champion, Carl “The Jackal” Frampton. In the past he has spoken warmly of his relations hip with Carl, “I knew Carl already from the junior boxing scene and when I started working with him, we hit it off straight away… That relationship between the coach and athlete is an essential part of boxing training. You might as well be a counsellor or a life coach. You need to understand who you are working with. In the nicest possible way, athletes have to be self-absorbed and they are battling their fears day in, day out. Carl is naturally confident but sometimes needs a gee up and I need to remind him on a tough day that there is a positive light at the end of the tunnel and that he is training harder than his opponent.”
The irony of the warmth with which Shane talked at that time of Frampton will be played out in a courtroom soon as the McGuigans and Frampton fell out and Carl went for one of those changes and is looking for some form of payback to which he believes he is entitled…
For some though, conflict is not a negative put a massive positive. Ask the doyen of American women’s boxing, Clarissa Shields. Her spats with Irishman and trainer of the US amateur team, Billy Walsh certainly spurred her on. As Walsh reminisced in a recent interview, “Oh, we clashed heads quite a bit in the first few months, it came to the stage where she was going or I was going.”
The source of their conflict was everything from training to what was going on in the corner. The Irish trainer and the Michigan boxer, though used their conflict to forge a successful partnership that was quite literally a golden one; in Rio, Shields got her second gold medal with Walsh in her corner.
The sport though is a dangerous one and the fighters depend upon those around them to keep them safe. That relationship with a trainer is king amongst those princely safeguards.
Possibly the most obvious of fall outs came when George Groves blamed his trainer Paddy Fitzpatrick for not giving him the right advice in his fight for a world title – number 3 – against Badou Jack. Fitzpatrick allegedly said Groves was winning, when he wasn’t; it led to Groves coasting a bit more in the latter rounds and losing the fight. When the judges disagreed with Fitzpatrick’s assessment, the recriminations were swift, and Fitzpatrick was out.
Fitzpatrick could have had revenge as he went on to train Jamie Cox and was in his corner when the quarter final between Cox and Groves appeared in the World Boxing Super Series. I too thought Cox had a great chance, but revenge was not to be Fitzpatrick’s as Groves won convincingly – by 4th round knockout.
The relationship between trainer and boxer is a tricky one to negotiate and those boxers who are successful are often so because they have that bond. There are trailblazers, like Eubank Jr who try to buck the trend but even the “geniuses” realise that for those in the ring, the guy at their back has to have it and much more besides. “We followed the game plan and it worked” needs both a game plan and a genius in the corner pulling those strings or at least knowing where those strings happen to be.