By John J. Raspanti
“All fighters are different” says former “Trainer of the Year” Virgil Hunter. “You have to know what to say to them.”
Hunter knows. A few weeks ago, I ventured out to his gym in Hayward, CA, to watch him work. The gym resembles a warehouse with a boxing ring looming in its center. There’s a large mirror on one side of the ring. This makes sense. Seeing what you’re doing is paramount.
On this particular day, local heavyweight Marlo Moore is sparring with contender Gerald Washington. Hunter has been working with Moore for eleven years. Moore, 27, compiled an amateur record of 35 wins in 39 contests—and just missed making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
Moore will be making his professional debut on November 18 in Las Vegas. As Moore trades blows with Washington, Hunter makes suggestions. Moore responds with a nod or a “Yes sir.”
After each round Hunter compliments Moore—reminding the young fighter about his technique.
“Virgil understands fighters,” said cutman Don Ames, who’s been with Hunter for over 20 years. “He always has.”
Watching Hunter teach Moore reminds me of the first time I met the veteran trainer nine years ago. He introduced himself by yelling at me. I had concluded an interview with gold medalist, and future world champion, Andre Ward, who was preparing to meet Mikel Kessler a few weeks later.
Most experts had picked Kessler to stop Ward. I was going with Ward, based on style and instinct. Ward was edgy, hungry, bristling with ambition. He trained in an old Oakland gym where boxing history permeated its creaking walls. The ring was surrounded by old boxing posters, the air filled with the sound of a jazzy beat blasting from the speakers.
Ward told me I could watch him spar. Ward’s team had draped a tarp in front of the ring for privacy as Ward and Hunter sat in the ring talking.
Hunter spotted me and bellowed, “No pictures!” I flinched as his voice echoed off the walls of the old gym. The music stopped. All eyes were on me. I raised my hand, reassuring him, “No pictures, don’t worry.” Hunter said, “Who is that”?
Someone told him I was a writer. At that moment, I felt more like a burglar who had been caught in the act. Hunter glanced my way a few times as he sat in the furthest neutral corner, giving advice to Ward as he boxed. I didn’t dare move.
That’s Virgil Hunter in a nutshell. He’s the man in charge. His words carry weight. His greatest achievement has been guiding Ward, who he met when Ward was nine, to the top of his profession, but there’s a lot more to the Virgil Hunter story.
Hunter, who was born in Berkeley, CA, played basketball in his youth, traveling with a team called “The Athletes with Christ.” But “The Sweet Science” has was always been in his life. Hunter was born into a boxing family. His grandfather barnstormed through the south, fighting as much as he could. His uncles laced on the gloves. His father was an all-service champion. Hunter boxed in gyms, participating in a number of bouts called “smokers,” likely named for the cloud of tobacco smoke rising from the ring.
At the same time, Hunter started working with troubled youths in Oakland. One day his old trainer called him. He had some kids in need of help. Hunter found his calling as he started learning from trainers Bobby Warren, Charlie Smith. and Tiger Floyd. According to Hunter it was totally old school, but the best way to learn.
“Some of the young trainers of today read a book and think they know how to train a kid,” Hunter told me a number of years ago. “That to me has hurt the game. Nobody wants to serve an apprenticeship. You learn different ways and different styles.”
Ward and his father appeared on the scene 24 years ago. Hunter was working with another youngster when he noticed Ward hitting the heavy bag. Ward would hit the bag and look at Hunter-who nodded. Ward’s father introduced them. Hunter immediately recognized Ward’s intense inner drive. He wasn’t the most talented, but he worked harder than everyone else.
The two bonded. Hunter taught Ward his Grandfather’s slip and slide style.
A few years later, Hunter suggested Ward should prepare to compete in the 2004 Olympic Games. Ward agreed and went on to capture the gold. He turned professional soon after, and five years later, stopped Mikkel Kessler to capture the WBC super-middleweight title. He defended his title six times before moving up to the light heavyweight division last year to fight the undefeated “Krusher,” Sergey Kovalev.
Ward was in the fight of his life that night in Las Vegas. He was knocked down for the second time in his career. He looked unsure, and a bit overwhelmed. As the bell sounded, ending round two, Ward walked slowly to his corner and took to his stool, as Hunter waited.
“Look at me!” Hunter barked at Ward. He repeated the command, followed by, “You’re hesitating. Don’t let him walk to you! You KNOW what we’re here for. Let’s battle back!”
Ward improved in round three. Despite being mentally tough, and a tremendous fighter, his trainer’s tough words seemed to spur him on as
Hunter kept up his motivational barrage into the next round.
"Rip those short shots,” he said. "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 as 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 heard, popping Kovalev with hard jabs and hooks.
Before the final round, 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.
Hunter wasn’t only the teacher that night. He was consoler and motivator.
Ward defeated Kovalev more soundly in their rematch. Hunter had said the Ward would stop Kovalev—which he did it in eight rounds, even if a couple of blows had landed south of the border.
Hunter has also worked with former champions Amir Khan, Andre Berto and Abner Mares.
He is now training Nicola Adams, the first woman to win Olympic gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 games. Hunter believes that watching and learning is a skill that all trainers must have.
“And the ability to shut your mouth and observe who you’re training,” said Hunter. “You have to allow them to show what you’re training.”
Just about everyone is born with singular talents. Virgil Hunter seemed destined to be a trainer and teacher. Boxing runs through his veins like an endless stream. He drinks it up and then shares his knowledge with his fighters. They, in turn, take his advice and apply those lessons to perform in the most unforgiving place in sports--the boxing ring.