The Wit and Wisdom of Virgil Hunter By John J. Raspanti (Sept 2, 2010) Doghouse Boxing
Virgil Hunter sees it all. He sees what’s ahead for his fighter and he sees where he has come from. He sees the games being played and hears the criticism. He likes it in way because he then uses it to motivate his fighter WBA super middleweight champion of the world Andre Ward and himself. Within five minutes you know how wise Virgil is. You can’t call him a professor because he’s not, but what you could call him is a boxing Rhode Scholar. Virgil was born in Berkeley, California and spent some time in Los Angeles playing basketball with the Athletes for Christ. He worked, he boxed and stayed in the gym until one day mostly by accident his calling was answered. In a wide ranging interview Virgil and I discussed many fronts including his grandfather and father’s days as fighters, Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes, Joe Frazier, Floyd Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya and of course the Super Six Tournament and his fighter, Andre Ward.
JR: Did you immediately like boxing as a young person?
VH: Well, yes. My grandfather was a fighter and my father was a fighter, my grandfather was a barnstormer throughout the south and my father was the all services champion. He never turned professional. My uncles boxed, so I was exposed to it at a very early age. I can remember The Gillette Friday Night Fights just like I saw one last night, so that’s how it all started. My uncle Lem taught me how to box, it was just a given. It was something you talked about and followed and participated in everyday.
JR: So you think that’s what drew you in, that your whole family was involved?
VH: Yeah, but I played a lot of sports. Played college basketball, played baseball, boxed. I did not box professional, I boxed more or less along the gun slinging route.
JR: Gunslinger route?
VH: (slight smile) I can explain that to you. I was in the gym quite a bit, fought a lot of smokers, but I didn’t have that…well, you look at my time. Basketball was my love of participation, boxing was my love of meditation, so you know once I started slowing down in the participation the meditation came forth so instead of coaching basketball I went to boxing.
JR: Did you have any favorite fighters growing up?
VH: Yeah I did. Robinson, Holmes… Holmes was my favorite heavyweight because of what he had to follow and what he had to overcome. He had a modest approach to his wealth and I like that. I like that he still lives in the same home in eastern Pennsylvania [but] of course he’s made some changes. I just thought it was interesting about Holmes how he stayed in eastern Pennsylvania, he didn’t try to take his money and go mix it with something that’s over his head like so many athletes do, and I’ve always been an advocate of the jab and I thought he was the best with it. I thought Ali had a good jab but I think Holmes was better. But I don’t know if Holmes could have beat some of the people Ali beat.
JR: How about in their primes. Ali and Holmes, who would have won?
VH: Well I think because Holmes was Ali's sparring partner for so many years Ali was taxing him…so then Ali would have won.
JR: Oh yeah… it was mental too.
VH: Yeah, but what I ‘m saying is that Ali beat up Holmes a lot in sparring and Holmes beat up Ali once. Of course when Ali started getting old Holmes said that there was a period in sparring that he knew he was right there with him. Ali of course hadn’t fought Joe Frazier yet in Manila so that’s when he broke off. He knew he could hold his own with Ali, but it’s questionable whether Holmes could have beat George Foreman or Joe Frazier… well he didn’t want to fight Joe Frazier. Frazier broke his ribs matter of fact, that was story behind him doing Marvis (Frazier) like he did. He speaks about that. Joe broke his ribs in sparring so he said he liked Marvis but this was his chance for redemption and he wanted to make sure he got the message back…(chuckling) I couldn’t get you but I got your son.
JR: I think Joe got it. So was it the jab and the elusive style of Sugar Ray Robinson that you liked?
VH: (pause) Robinson to me was an entertainer, first and foremost. As great as a fighter as he was to me he was an entertainer and that’s what I liked about him. He did some things just to electrify the crowd, but there were fighters that he ducked and there were fighters that gave him a hard time. When I look at Robinson, I wonder why Basillo gave him such a hard time and Fuller, he wasn’t physically strong like they were, he was a strong boxer but he wasn’t a strong fighter so they caused him quite a bit of problems. If he had been a physically strong fighter with a style, he really would have put a dent in the game. He could be moved around and when you have style like that and can box like that you need to be physically strong. That’s the only way you can defeat the style is to bogart it, and you know he didn’t fight burly but still you have to give him his due.
JR: Oh yeah, great fighter.
VH: Yeah, without a doubt.
JR: So how did you get involved in boxing and become a trainer?
VH: John Tate, former heavyweight champion, came out here for a period of time. After he was champion trying to make a comeback and I sparred with him a lot. At the time I was 190 pounds and that was pretty much around the time I was losing interest in going to the gym everyday in that capacity so I got out of the gym for awhile, played some a league basketball, you know kinda doing my own thing.
VH: And my old trainer called me one time and said he had some kids in Berkeley…Berkeley pal…he said he needed some help. So I went over and started helping him and we got a couple of good kids and I started serving an apprenticeship with him… apprenticeship with Bobby Warren… apprenticeship with Charlie Smith… then Tiger Floyd. The young trainers they don’t do that today, they just read Kenny Weldon’s book From Ringside and they just get a poor kid and come right out of the blocks and start training somebody and that’s what to me has the hurt the game. Nobody wants to serve an apprenticeship, you know, and learn different ways and different styles. Like you get Jimmy Simmons he was an advocate of the jab, Bobby Warren the short punches, Tiger Floyd infighting, Charlie Smith combination punches all of them had their different strengths, so I took a little from each one. And put it together and then infused my grandfathers style which is a slip and slide style that originated out of Texas.
JR: What do you think makes a good trainer?
VH: Observance. The ability to shut your mouth and observe who your training and allow them to show you what you’re training. Not formulating in your head, this is the way it’s going, you’re going to be the next Tommy Hearns because your 6’2 and you only weight one hundred and fifty pounds with a good right hand. Or your short and squat with big back so you're going to be the next Mike Tyson. But you have to observe what you have and then allow that student to teach you how to train him, that’s my observation. That’s my philosophy.
JR: The mental part of boxing has to be challenging at times, what does a trainer to do to keep his fighter focused?
VH: (long pause) you know there’s a lot of avenues I’ve run across some kids that were better when they weren’t focused. But they had a refusal to lose. You know they had a happy go lucky…I can eat this hot dog and drink this Pepsi and go in the ring and beat you down. This is how it’s going to be and when it’s all over you raise his hand and hold his trophy , three weeks you see the person that held the trophy still got the trophy because they even forgot he won a trophy, he’s off on something else. So focus to me is measured by a long development and progress, you know, are you getting better, if you're getting better your focused. If you’re able to overcome things that are giving you problems you’re focused. But you know, there’s no such thing as perfect focus. You’re in a sport where things change all the time. I want a guy who can think for himself and I’m able to see what he means and get on board. Like during the Green fight, Andre made the decision before I did, I didn’t even suggest it to him. Once in the third round I saw the decision he made then we went from there but that’s from being together a lot of years, so I like adaptation. I like a fighter to be able to adapt and adjust and more so than just focus cause sometimes you can be very close minded.
JR: If you had a choice a between a young kid with some talent and another with a great attitude which one would you rather train?
VH: The young kid with talent…great attitude (shaking his head).
JR: (chuckle) doesn’t get you anywhere…so even if the kid comes in early and stays late…works really hard but has marginal talent…
VH: (nodding) He shouldn’t box. You know I’ve had kids like that and I tell them look let me tell what I can do for you. I can make you very exceptional at taking care of yourself on the street so you allow me too I’ll give you a style that’s conducive for your style but not the ring. As far as the ring is concerned yes you can compete but you're not going to be a world champion. You won’t be bad, but you know I can train and around your block you’ll be a legend, but in the ring... It’s always talent.
JR: You met Andre Ward when he was nine years old. Did you know pretty quickly that he had the stuff to go a long way in the sport?
VH: No…um…the thing about Andre was he had observation skills. He paid attention to little things that most people don’t pay attention to. You don’t know until maybe a year after they start and then you shouldn’t look too far. You should only take it to where he is at the time, so when he was ten I knew he was formable enough for anyone from ten to thirteen. In other words his talent put him years ahead of his age group; at ten he could fight thirteen year olds. When he was fifteen I was already taking him to beat up pros. So, when he was seventeen and won his first championship I knew he could win a gold metal even though that was four years away. What his skill enabled me to do was project, talent wise he was years ahead, and maturity wise he was always years ahead. So when you have that it allows you to formulate a lot of things in between, you have a three year mark/ That’s a lot of creating, a lot of flexibility, you’re not playing catch up you see. Your only worry is that this kid doesn’t peak too soon. So even when he turned pro, he was just a great amateur turning pro. We respected what the critics said, you know, just cause you great amateur don’t mean you're going to be a great pro. We respected what all the critics said. So you have to prove it all over again. It’s not a gimme. That goes for him as well as me.
JR: Do you think Andre is improving in every one of his fights?
VH: Yes, without a doubt. He’s about seventy percent now of what I believe he’s eventually going to be. He’s still got a lot of canvas to work with. I think people that are really into the kid should remember he’s doing this at such a young age. Oh I hear people say Mayweather won a title at a young age and Oscar won a title. You can do that in the lower divisions in three years you can be a world champion if you weigh 130 pounds. It calls for a different set of skills reflexes but can name me one middleweight that did it in two years… they don’t exist. Case in point do you remember who Bute fought to win the title… no… someone said Bute should be number one because he fought Miranda and he knocked Miranda out. My answer to that is Bute is thirty years old he’s been champ for five years, this is his ninth title defense and he’s just now getting around to fighting Miranda? He’s defended against Miranda, we fought Miranda in our twentieth fight, who did he fight in his twentieth fight? Ok, nobody knows, but everybody knows we fought Miranda in our twentieth fight because we fought somebody. We don’t know who Mikkel Kessler fought in his twentieth fifth fight let alone his twentieth fight. We fought Mikkel Kessler in our twenty-first fight.
JR: Kessler didn’t even really get noticed until he fought Joe Calzaghe.
VH: Yeah, Bute is thirty years old just now fighting Miranda so let's fast forward Andre to thirty years old… title defense, if we had fought Edison Miranda we’d have been criticized (laughing) to the end. Middleweights, it takes time. You’re talking about an athlete who’s as fast as a featherweight and if he hits a heavyweight right he can knock him out. You have to be a man to win the middleweight title.
JR: You said he’s seventy percent into his prime right now?
VH: I think he’s seventy percent into his prime, because he’s only had twenty two fights.
JR: So to you it’s not so much an age thing it’s an experience thing
VH: (nodding) it’s an experience thing. He’s only had twenty two fights. Let’s double that to Kessler’s number lets put him at forty fights…you see my point?
JR: (nodding) I see your point.
VH: Let’s put him at fifty fights like Bute, or thirty fights like Froch and Abraham. He’s the youngest guy in the tournament. Dirrell is older than Dre and he’s already the world champion.
JR: His next fight is with his good friend Andre Dirrell; give me your opinion of Andre Dirrell the fighter.
VH: Andre Dirrell is hell on a short fighters. We go way back to when he was ten years old, his grandfather and I are best of friends him and Dre are friends. I remember when he was one hundred and nineteen pounds and he is hell on a short fighter. That’s why I knew he was going to win against Abraham.
JR: Because of Dirrell’s athletic ability and speed could this fight be the most challenging fight of Andre Wards career to date?
VH: Andre Dirrell is a great fighter, he’s the most dangerous fighter we have ever fought… hands down. No one else is even close.
JR: With all the praise that has followed Ward’s last two victories, how do you keep it in perspective and keep him grounded?
VH: By not reading the praise and just reading the criticism. We look for the criticism. There’s a passage in the Bible that says “Woe on to you if all men speak well of you”. Something is not right, so we embrace the criticism. We’ll embrace the praise when it’s all over. I think that will be great to sit down ten years from now and look at what you’ve accomplished and then you can read the praise side of it. Now I encourage him to read the awful things, negativity, all the putdowns, all the things that say you’re a dirty fighter, read those… that’s the best thing for you to read.
JR: When he fought Kessler all these experts were picking Kessler I went the other way and wrote an article saying that Andre would win. Man, did I get some scathing comments. When Andre dominated Kessler and won he shot up really high so it has to even out somewhere. Now there comparing him to Sugar Ray Leonard in the Ring Magazine.
VH: Yeah you know what, I saw that. We didn’t get into this business to be like Sugar Ray Leonard or Roy Jones. We got into the business to be Andre Ward, not the second coming of Leonard, the first coming of Andre Ward. We will take that article and use it too.
JR: More motivation. Do you have any other fighters that you’re very high on?
VH: You know believe it or not I developed a girl and I’m so proud of her and she’s been elected into the army’s elite program. She got so good that she couldn’t get fights around here. She’s a former pro soccer fighter who loves to win. I’ve worked with several fighters, Karim Mayfield, Antonio Johnson…I was working with an amateur but right now I’ve made the decision to stick with Andre for the next couple of years at least through the super six duration. A bird in the hand is better than five or six in the bush. I love fighters more than I love boxing so to speak it’s the individual participants that I love. I don’t love it like Freddie Roach or some of the other guys, that’s not me. Karim is 14 and 0 Antonio when I let him go was 9 and 1. Heather is 11 and 0. I have a young heavyweight who I just gave to another coach, he’s 19-1, he’s nineteen years old. But right now because of the nature of the tournament and the intensity and the concentration, I don’t even want to see another gym when it’s over. I want to take a cruise or go to a museum. I have other interests outside of boxing. I don’t want to come back the next day to a gym and now I have to get this guy ready for a fight or this guy. I don’t want that. When Andre retires and I have an opportunity to work with another fighter I will, but right now I owe him all my undivided attention… all of it.
JR: Thank you very much Virgil. It was a pleasure to speak with you.