Recent months have given us a number of high profile boxers splitting with their long term trainers; from Khan’s ill-tempered break up with Roach to the recent story that Andre Berto is firing Tony Morgan.
There was a lot of discussion about Berto’s recent move, discussion that prompted me to write this article. In brief, several commentators seemed to think that Berto making a change is fairly pointless. That Berto is 29 years old and has been trained in a single style since he was about 9 years old. That he’s had 30 bouts, nine of them for world titles. That he only really ever boxes twice a year at best. In short, that he’s too old, too set in his ways and doesn’t box enough to be able to change his style and therefore it’s a pointless move to change trainers.
I disagree. That’s not to say that Berto changing trainers will reignite his career or even be a success… but I do think people misunderstand quite what a trainer has to do.
The first point is that I’m not entirely convinced that it is impossible for Berto to change his style. All of the points made above have merit but a new trainer doesn’t have to completely rework Berto from the ground up. It may be the case that a few tweaks here and there… getting him to move more laterally for example, or making sure he doesn’t sit on the ropes while taking punches… are enough to improve him. Many boxers have made changes to their style relatively late in their careers and found success… the much missed Manny Steward in particular was famous for this after his work with Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko.
Moreover, Berto has shown signs of being willing to change his style. In his most recent bout against Guerrero Berto came out and attempted to blocks almost all of Guerrero’s attacks with an Floyd Mayweather Jr style shoulder-roll. In truth it was an unmitigated disaster, throwing away every round in which he tried it and possibly costing Berto the bout but it at the very least showed someone who was attempting something new.
However, the key point I want to make is that looking at a trainer in the way outlined above misses many of the vital things that a boxing trainer actually does.
Of course a major part of any trainers job is self-evidently to train a boxer and as part of that they wish to give a boxer a style and to improve their technique. But their role is not limited to merely that.
As well as train their own boxer a good trainer also has to observe potential opponents, to watch tape, to note weaknesses, flaws and strengths, to determine a game plan that exploits the opponents weaknesses while avoiding the opponents strengths. Having developed a gameplan, from the basic to the complex they then have to drill their boxer in that gameplan, understanding that this is a single plan for a single fight. They have to keep their boxer motivated, make sure they are doing their conditioning work, making sure they are not distracted, making sure their diet is appropriate. Immediately before a bout they need to know the rules and regulations, be it to prevent disgraceful cheating or just to niggle opponents as Virgil Hunter does.
Their role doesn’t diminish once the bell rings. The trainer is the principle corner man. They have to observe the bout, be able to tell their boxer what is working and what isn’t. They need to be able to change tactics in an instant if they see that the plan isn’t working and need to be able to quickly tell their boxer this in the minute between rounds. They need to be able to calm a boxer down when he is too excited and, as much as people sometimes mock Teddy Atlas style inspirational speeches, motivate their boxer when things are tough. They need to be an all-seeing, all-knowing presence in the corner, a man the boxer can rely on to say the right things at the right time.
All of those are things a trainer can do without changing a boxer’s style. All of those are important… vital even… and in some bouts possibly more important than improving a boxer’s style beforehand. In today’s world the likes of conditioning and nutrition are often outsourced to specific experts but nothing changes the need for someone in a boxer’s corner who can do the other things.
With all due respect to Tony Morgan he didn’t appear to be a great trainer once the bell rang. While he eventually pointed out to Berto that the shoulder-roll wasn’t working far too often he seemed to be more panicked than Berto was when he returned to the corner and more than once it seemed he was on the edge of tears in bouts. That’s not what a boxer needs. A boxer needs someone who can motivate him if needed but not by being on the edge himself. He needs a trainer who will tell him he’s losing a bout by retreating onto the ropes (as Berto did against Ortiz) and can make him listen.
Again, this doesn’t mean that Berto has made the right choice in changing trainers. But I think it is perhaps a bit presumptuous to suggest it will make no difference and it misstates what a trainer does to limit it to merely working on a boxers overall style.