In preparing for his December contest against Joshua Clottey, WBO welterweight champion Antonio Margarito and his management found it nearly impossible to find suitable sparring late last fall. Inevitably, it seemed that boxers who could replicate the style of the rugged Clottey were either tied up with other commitments or had priced themselves out of the picture.
Some just never bothered to show up after making commitments to Margarito's manager, Sergio Diaz, who shelled out thousands of dollars in unused airfare.
As the summer heats up, Margarito is preparing to face his mandatory challenger Paul Williams, a lean, lithe, 6-foot-2 southpaw with the wingspan of a condor. But ironically enough, they haven't had too many problems bringing in able-bodied left-handers.
"It's a big difference. We had a lot of trouble with our last camp," admitted Margarito to Maxboxing through his manager. "I got hurt. I hurt my hand; I hurt my ankle. Sparring was just difficult to get. People didn't want to come in, those that wanted to come in were asking for ridiculous money. We thought it was going to be difficult working with southpaws with the money situation, but it all came together. These guys have helped us. Southpaw is a difficult stance, but I've been adjusting to them and they've been great throughout the whole camp."
As of last week, the quartet of lefties was comprised of Rodney Jones, Craig McEwen, Keenan Collins and Austin Trout. No, they aren't Xeroxes of 'the Punisher', but they give Margarito a consistent look at what he'll be facing on July 14th at the Home Depot Center.
"I think it's always difficult for any orthodox fighter to fight southpaws," said Margarito from the South El Monte Boxing Club, where his training camp is situated. "I feel very, very comfortable."
There seems to be a misconception about sparring. It's not an all-out brawl that just happens to have 16-ounce gloves and headgear involved. Sparring, when done properly, is actually very controlled with specific, subtle things being worked on at various speeds. 'Gym wars' are very rare, and usually quelled by experienced trainers before they get out of hand.
It's hard to say who ever really gets the better of a session since most of the time the fighter who brings in sparring partners will box at a much more relaxed pace than the boxers who are brought in and regularly rotated in-and-out between rounds. A day of sparring to an experienced veteran is just another day at the office. To a fledgling young prospect, it could be the biggest fight of their lives.
Margarito usually spars three to four days a week, going between six and twelve rounds. He boxes at a very economical and smooth cadence. While his sparring mates are usually huffing and puffing after a few rounds as they get out of the ring, the champ barely breathes hard. That's experience. And these are the types of experiences that are the rite of passage for every young, hopeful fighter.
It's hard enough to get these guys once you win a major world title. It was much easier for Diaz to bring guys in a few years ago than it is now.
"Antonio's a world champion now. So they expect more money, less time working, more sparring partners," Diaz says of the change in attitude he now faces. "But we pay, so that's what we have to do and that's why it's getting easier to get sparring partners."
And there is a premium to treat camp members with respect. When you're asking guys to take punches, it comes at a cost. And the fact is you may need them again in the near future.
OK, so how do you get the appropriate sparring partners? After all, it's not like you can just go on Craigslist to find individuals between 147-160 pounds who just happen to be left-handed boxers.
"I don't depend on myself," says Diaz, who says he compiles a mental list as fights are being negotiated. But mostly, he leans on those in the business of boxing who have a greater knowledge of such things. "I don't shut the doors and depend on what list I bring about. I listen to everyone and I get help from other people as well."
And former adversaries can become bedfellows. Marshall Kauffman, who trained and managed Kermit Cintron against Margarito in 2005, reached out and recommended Collins. Other managers, like Bob Spagnola, would contact Diaz and push for Trout. McEwen was a natural choice given his size and style, but also because he trains at the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood and was endorsed by several associates of Diaz.
On June 12th, Margarito would go 12 strong rounds with the foursome of Jones, McEwen, Collins and Trout, each going three frames before stepping out. While they all try and resemble Williams, their backgrounds and futures are as divergent as can be.
Jones would go the first three rounds, and as usual, he gives Margarito trouble with his movement. Despite having two bad knees, he still gets around well in the ring. Seemingly in a perpetual bounce as he circles the ring, Margarito has to work hard to cut off his movement. The 38-year-old native of Stockton, Calif. is by far the senior citizen of the crew and by far it's most accomplished, having fought for two world titles and compiling a career mark of 37-4-1 with 22 KOs.
But what's most notable about Jones is that back in June of 1996 in his 14th pro outing, he would decision Margarito over 10 rounds in Culver City, dropping his mark to a rather pedestrian 9-3.
If there is one fighter so far in camp that has matched the work ethic of Margarito, it's been Jones. It's clear he still has the passion and zeal for the sport.
Going the next few innings was McEwen, who currently is getting quite an education for a 4-0 fighter as he has not only sparred with Margarito, but with Bernard Hopkins, who is training with Roach at the Wild Card in preparation for his July 21st assignment against Winky Wright.
McEwen, a native of Scotland, has had his eyes opened a bit on what the world-class level looks like. With Margarito, it's a lot easier to exploit his weaknesses from the outside watching, than actually executing it.
He says that Margarito is the most physically taxing fighter he's ever been in the ring with.
McEwen's style, more than any, imitates Williams the best. The only problem has been his stamina. Roach has constantly been on him about his roadwork. But he's getting better.
His work has earned the plaudits of Margarito.
"Everybody has a different style, they're all helping me," Margarito said. "But I have to say Craig McEwen, he's the one who's been giving me some very good work. And he's more of a Paul Williams-style. He moves, he runs, he throws. He surprises me with his punches."
Next in line was Collins, a lean, welterweight from Reading, Pa., whose current record stands at 12-1-1. Armed with quick hands and an abundance of courage, more than anybody, he is willing to engage Margarito in heated exchanges. Even when he's not getting the better of it, he has no problems exhorting the champ to bring more heat.
Collins, at age 30, can not be considered a prospect. But what he is unfortunately, a skilled, gutty combatant who has problems getting fights -- a common curse of not being a right-handed boxer.
Collins says he was given one specific instruction by Margarito's trainer, Javier Capetillo: "Pump the jab."
Finishing off the day's work was Austin Trout, a well-built junior middleweight with a record of 10-0 with 8 KOs, from Las Cruces, N.M., another prospect cutting his teeth in the pro ranks.
Trout facially resembles Jeff Lacy a bit and boxes like WBA 154-pound titlist Travis Simms. The 5-foot-10 lefty is a good technician who throws sharp punches.
"It's truly a blessing," says Trout of this work. "I mean, I get to spar with a world champion. It shows where I'm at as a professional in this game. I'm flattered that they picked me to come up here."
And it's a common theme; taking advantage of Margarito's deficiencies is a lot harder than it looks on the surface.
"It's a lot harder!" said the friendly Trout, who's just 21. "I watched Margarito and I followed him a lot. I'm a fan, actually, so I'm a little star-struck getting in there and sparring. But as far as watching on TV and actually sparring him, at first, I thought, 'All right, I can take him,' but I have a lot to do."
Trout does well when he gets his right jab off and creates space for himself on the outside. As of now, these rounds are tougher than anything he's had in a real contest.
"This experience, you can't imitate it," he says. "I just thank God that I got the opportunity to come and better myself as a professional at this camp. So I most definitely am going to come out better than I did before.
He believes that every young boxer must go through this type of gauntlet.
"Yes, because it's not like the amateurs where you fight to get your experience. So coming to these camps is where you get your actual experience and it shows off in the fights."