Boxing's imperfect marriage

Exploring dynamics behind most interesting "team" in sports: trainer and fighter

Updated: March 20, 2013, 2:36 PM ET
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

Don Turner wore a wry smile as he sat on the couch in his suburban Philadelphia townhouse, watching a videotape of Evander Holyfield's upset knockout of Mike Tyson from November 1996. Turner trained Holyfield for the fight and was entitled to gloat. Most pundits considered the bout virtually a suicide mission, and Nevada sports books set an early line favoring Tyson by a staggering 18-1 margin. Jay Larkin, then head of Showtime boxing, spent many a sleepless night leading up to the fight, worrying that he might have made a tragic mistake by agreeing to broadcast it.

The relationship between a fighter and trainer creates a unique dynamic. It's complex and multifaceted, and when it all meshes the right way, a helpless cause can turn into a triumph.

Turner frequently paused the tape so he could explain what he had told Holyfield to do and why. Then he would hit the play button and watch Evander execute the fight plan like a programmed cyborg. It wasn't complicated stuff: Striking back the instant Tyson landed a punch was key -- and it was the last thing Turner said to Holyfield before the opening bell. As it turned out, the plan worked, the sports books took a worse beating than Tyson, and Turner's faith in the underdog was vindicated.

"I can tell most fighters how to win a fight," Turner said. "The problem is that most of them don't have the balls to do what I tell 'em to do. Evander does."

The relationship between fighter and trainer creates a unique dynamic. It's complex and multifaceted, and when it all meshes the way it did for Turner and Holyfield, a helpless cause can turn into a triumph. But that's the best-case scenario. Every fight is different and presents its owns set of difficulties. Sometimes an overabundance of courage is the problem, not a lack of it.

That was the dilemma facing Joel Diaz and Freddie Roach last Saturday when Timothy Bradley Jr. and Ruslan Provodnikov waged a magnificent struggle of unadulterated ferocity. Both men endured dreadful punishment, and there were times when Roach, Provodnikov's trainer, and his counterpart Diaz each considered stopping the fight.

"There was a point when [Bradley] came to the corner and was dazed, and I had to make a decision," Diaz said. "At those moments, I can't break. I've got to be strong. I even had to slap him a few times to wake him up. He was hurt and I had to wake him up."

[+] EnlargeHolyfield
John Gurzinski/AFP/Getty ImagesIn a best-case scenario for trainer and fighter, Evander Holyfield followed Don Turner's blueprint to perfection in his upset of Mike Tyson in 1996.

It was much the same way for Roach, who practically begged Provodnikov to "show me you're OK" on several occasions in the later rounds.

Ultimately Roach and Diaz, along with referee Pat Russell, allowed the fight to continue -- a decision that delighted the fans in attendance and HBO's viewing audience. Together, Bradley and Provodnikov created something special. Whether or not letting the fight go the scheduled 12 rounds was the correct choice as far as their health is concerned is another matter altogether. The last thing a fighter needs is a trainer who is braver than he is.

Trainers often use the word "we" when referring to themselves and the fighters they work with, and although they are a team, it is far from an equal partnership. The fighter makes all the sacrifices, takes all the punches, tortures his body through a career's worth of training camps and often suffers the long-term effects of absorbing punches. True, the fighters takes the lion's share of the purse, but he or she has just one career -- and usually a brief one at that -- while a trainer can ply his trade for as long as he can attract clients.

Selecting a trainer is a lot like picking a spouse: Sometimes you get lucky right from the get-go, the way Marvin Hagler and the Petronelli brothers did, for example; but more often than not, there's quite a lot of trial and error. It is certainly not a one-size-fits-all situation. Just because a trainer has success with one fighter doesn't necessarily mean he will have success with another.

Understandably, fighters often gravitate toward a trainer with a hot hand. Roach, for example, won trainer of the year honors from the Boxing Writers Association of America five times from 2003 to 2010, most notably for his work with Manny Pacquiao. Fighters from around the world flocked to Roach's Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, and many of them did well -- not as well as Pacquiao, of course, but their fortunes definitely improved.

Roach, however, might be becoming a victim of his own success. He took on too many clients and overextended himself, which led to Amir Khan feeling neglected and leaving him to work with Virgil Hunter, the longtime trainer of Olympic gold medalist and reigning super middleweight champion Andre Ward. Along with Robert Garcia, Hunter is the current flavor of the moment. It's too soon to know if he can restore Khan to his former glory, but Hunter was powerless when Lucas Matthysee recently annihilated another of his fighters, Mike Dallas Jr., inside of one round. Nobody stays hot indefinitely.

Garcia won the BWAA's 2012 award, and with an enviable stable that currently includes Nonito Donaire, Brandon Rios, Evgeny Gradovich and younger brother Mikey Garcia, he is well-positioned to repeat. Still, if history is any indicator, even Garcia's impressive streak will eventually end. They always do.

Rather than chasing after a superstar trainer, a fighter will usually be better served finding a trainer with whom he has good chemistry and who is not too busy to give him the individual attention he needs. Just as important is working with a trainer who teaches a style that matches the fighter's temperament and plays to his strengths.

It would, for instance, be counterproductive for cerebral trainer Nacho Beristain -- who specializes in molding master craftsmen like Juan Manuel Marquez -- to train a pure slugger like Provodnikov. But that doesn't mean mistakes haven't been made. Joe Frazier expected every fighter he trained, including his son Marvis, to fight the way he did: an unrealistic goal and a recipe for disaster.

[+] EnlargeRuslan Provodnikov
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesThe punishment taken by Ruslan Provodnikov in his bout with Timothy Bradley Jr. placed trainer Freddie Roach in a tough predicament late in the fight.

"Training fighters is like trying to catch a fish. It's technique, not strength," Angelo Dundee said in the book "Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers" by Ronald K. Fried. "You got to play that fish nice and easy. And go with what's there."

There are countless facets to a trainer's job, ranging from conditioning and teaching boxing techniques to devising a battle plan and motivating fighters between rounds. Sometimes they have to play psychologist. Many are also mentors to their fighters, filling father-figure roles for kids without fathers at home. It's a labor of love for most of them and few ever make serious money.

Obviously trainers are a vital component of the sport at every level, but they are often given more credit or assigned more blame than they deserve. And even the very best of them will admit that they are at the mercy of one inescapable truth:

"I'll tell you something about trainers, and that includes me," celebrated trainer Ray Arcel told Fried. "You're only as good as the fighter you work with. I don't care how much you know, if your fighter can't fight, you're just another bum in the park."

Or, as Dundee put it, "If the guy on the stool can't fight, you're in all kinds of trouble."

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