By John J. Raspanti
They can play a big part in what happens during a boxing match.
Words can be spoken softly or intensely.
But they must resonate in the ring to be effective.
On November 19 in Las Vegas, NV, gold medalist and world champion Andre Ward faced something that he hadn’t encountered in 30 professional fights--defeat.
Heavy-handed champion Sergey Kovalev sent Ward to the canvas in Round two of their epic light heavyweight showdown.
Ward got up smiling, but it was obvious he was stunned. Ward hadn’t been floored in a fight in over 10 years.
Darnell Boone had accomplished the feat when Ward was a mere boxing pup. Four years later, Ward captured the super middleweight title against heavily-favored Mikkel Kessler. He had defended the belt against the likes of Arthur Abraham, Carl Froch, and Chad Dawson.
He had rarely been threatened in any fight, cruising to victory. He made the difficult look easy.
But in November, he found himself up against a fighter who had steamrolled through the light heavyweight division scoring 26 knockouts in 30 wins.
As the bell sounded ending Round two, Ward walked slowly to his corner and sat down heavily on his stool.
Waiting for him was his long-time trainer, and godfather, Virgil Hunter. Hunter met Ward when the fighter was 9 years old. Ward’s father, an amateur boxer of some talent, had brought the youngster to a small gym in Hayward, CA, to learn how to box.
Hunter, who worked as a parole officer at the time, was a volunteer trainer at the gym. Hunter and Ward clicked immediately. As Ward grew-up with two parents battling drug problems, Hunter took the boy under his wing--offering to take Ward and his brother into his own home.
Hunter recognized Ward’s boxing talent immediately.
"When he (Ward) was ten--I knew he was formidable enough," Hunter said in an interview six years ago. "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 medal.”
In their 23 years together, Hunter and Ward had faced adversity, but nothing like last November.
Part of a trainer’s job is to know what to say, and when to say it. After getting knocked down and dominated for two rounds, Ward needed his trainer to get him back on track.
Hunter leaned into Ward and said, “Look at me!” Then he said it again, this time louder--followed by, “You’re hesitating. Don’t let him walk to you! You KNOW what we’re here for. Let’s battle back.”
Ward did a little better in Round three. He’s mentally tough, and a tremendous fighter, but he needed his trainer’s words that night.
Hunter, with an intensity that belies his easy-going nature, kept up his motivational onslaught in the next round.
"Rip those short shots,” he said as Ward listened. "Keep turning him in a small circle. This is what greatness is. This is what it’s all about. You’re going to come back. You believe what were here for?”
Ward nodded and rallied. Hunter kept on reminding Ward that he could do it. Ward targeted Kovalev’s body. He was coming back.
With three rounds left in the match, the fight tightened.
Hunter kept pushing his charge.
"Think about how you’re going to feel if you let this one go,” he said. “Think about it."
Ward nodded, Hunter continued, “You’ve got to be willing to do it. Be a dog and beat this man!” Ward apparently listened as he popped Kovalev with hard jabs and hooks.
Before the final round began, Hunter said to Ward, “Don’t go home without it.”
All three judges had him winning the fight by a point in a debatable decision.
I had Kovalev edging Ward, but what’s not debatable is the job Virgil Hunter did in Ward’s corner that night.
He proved why a trainer is much more than the guy who molds a boxer’s body. A great trainer challenges his boxer’s mind when the odds get slim.
With his fighter on the precipice of defeat, Hunter instinctively knew what he had to say.
Words can carry power, and for that, Virgil Hunter is the Maxboxing trainer of the year for 2016.