The bond between a boxer and his coach is one forged in sweat and blood over countless training sessions.
I’ve been lucky in my career to have worked with some great trainers in gyms the world over, from Limerick to Las Vegas.
To be a successful boxer, you need a whole team of people to help you prepare for fights. As a professional boxer, you also need a good manager and promoter. But the most important person in a boxer’s career is his coach. He is the man who knows you best, knows your strengths and weaknesses. He takes time to assess your opponent and then, like two thieves plotting a great heist, you work together, day in, day out on a strategy.
When fight-time comes and you stand in the ring, just before you walk to the centre to hear the referee’s final instructions, your promoter, manager and the rest of your team touch you on the gloves, wish you luck and leave the ring. After that, the only man that can help you is your coach.
In 2003, Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia were appointed head coach and technical coach to the Irish national boxing team by Director Gary Keegan as part of the new High Performance Unit. It changed the way Irish amateur boxers lived and trained. It was my first year in the senior squad and my dream then was to reach the 2004 Olympic games. The influence of these three men and the philosophy of the High Performance Unit on the latter part of my amateur career was one of the main reasons I qualified for the 2004 Olympics. To this day, I still practise some of the lessons I learned there.
Gary Keegan had a vision to revolutionise Irish amateur boxing. In the past, Irish boxers were generalised for being strong, courageous, tough and having big hearts — but not for technical ability or skill.
We would prepare for international tournaments individually in our own clubs, coming together on weekends to train with the appointed coach and spar with the other lads. Sometimes before a tournament you would go together to a training camp for a week or two before heading off to box the best fighters in the world.
The High Performance Unit changed that. The country’s top amateur boxers trained full-time thanks to funding from the Irish Sports Council. One of the biggest things they changed was the attitude of the boxers. There was a zero tolerance to drinking. In the past, after you lost a fight and were out of the tournament, the trip turned into a holiday. We would go out at night to clubs and often drink. Not anymore. Everything became more professional. There were no excuses. We were training and preparing just as well, if not better, than the rest of the world’s boxers. We became aware of hydration, nutrition and psychology.
For years we were told boxers shouldn’t lift weights. With the High Performance Unit we were lifting weights, doing Olympic lifts and undergoing strength and conditioning training. It met with resistance from people used to doing things their own way. But most lads welcomed it and took on board as much as possible.
When Billy Walsh was appointed, he immediately had the boxers’ respect. He had seen it all and imposed a winning mentality.
Zaur Antia lives and breathes boxing. He doesn’t so much walk down the street as shadow box from A to B. He is constantly thinking of boxing and how he can improve his charges. When he first arrived, he had little or no English but built an understanding with us, based on his displays of perfect boxing technique. I worked very closely with him and found a mentor I was always seeking to impress.
Billy and Zaur work well together. Their success is borne from hard work. It’s been eight years since I was part of their team and since then there has been a conveyer belt of talent moulded into world-class boxers.
This week Donegal middleweight Jason Quigley won gold and Hughie Myers won silver at the European U23s. There was success for Joe Ward, David Oliver Joyce and Eric Donovan in the World Series of Boxing. The future is bright. And with four Olympic medals from both Beijing and London, the efforts of the High Performance Unit are coming to fruition.
Emanuel Steward was a legend of the boxing world. When I got a call in 2002 saying he was interested in training me, I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a wind-up. Even after meeting him several times and moving to Detroit, I still had moments where I would catch myself and say “Hey that’s Emanuel Steward!”
I spent seven years living and training with Emanuel and learned a lot from him. As a trainer, Emanuel took great interest in his fighter’s background. He took time to learn what made you tick, where you were from, who in your life was important. He liked to understand who you were as a person so that he could communicate better with you as a fighter. He was also a great believer in teaching the fundamentals. He would never overcomplicate things — teaching five and six punch combinations was not his style. He taught footwork, balance, proper hand position and how to tighten up on the end of your punches. He used cocoa butter instead of vaseline; made his fighters wear white boots and white socks when they fought because “you feel lighter in white”. Little things he would do that would often make the difference.
There were things he did that you could only know after years of experience. I remember in one of my early training camps when he was training Wladimir Klitschko to challenge Chris Byrd for the IBF heavyweight title in Germany. We had been training in a spa hotel in Mallorca. They transformed a function room into a gym and the night before we were due to leave for Germany, Emanuel called my room and asked to meet in the gym.
When I arrived he was standing on one side of the ring. In his hand he had a roll of tape we used for bandaging hands. He ask me to take one end of the tape and walk to the other side of the ring. I did what he asked and he cut the tape, folded it in half and put it in his gym bag. We repeated this four times, for each side of the ring. When we were done I asked what it was for. He didn’t give a straight answer, just said it was for his own interest.
The night before the fight in Germany there was a dispute over the size of the ring. Chris Byrd’s promoter, Don King, threatened to cancel the fight if the ring was changed. While all this was going on, Emanuel caught a taxi to the arena and measured the ring using the hand tape from Mallorca. The ring in Germany was the exact size we had used in Spain. Emanuel called Wladimir and the dispute was over. The next night Wladimir won the heavyweight title.
Emanuel will be sorely missed. He was a great man who lived life to its fullest. He achieved everything he wanted in life and is remembered well by all. At the end life’s journey, what more can any of us ask for?
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved