The corner man. So often in the shadows when the boxer succeeds and is more likely to be front and center when the boxer fails. Many would consider being a corner man a pretty thankless task. I'm sure that many of the greats have had real bad days at the office where they wondered to themselves why they bothered at all.
A top corner man must possess a range of complementary attributes that many people may never attain. The corner man must have detachment from their boxer, but at the same time an unwavering devotion to that boxer's well-being. The corner man has a desire to watch every characteristic of his boxer's performance, but out of necessity must examine every detail of what the other guy brings to the party.
He must be a psychologist, able to assist the fighter through the emotional minefield that is the preparation for combat. A strategist, a General, able to see what it's going to take to secure victory and offering the kind of tactical advice that can be put into practice in the crucible of battle.
He's a nutritionist, a medic and a role model. The list goes on and on. In short, a good corner man needs to possess a range of qualities that are very unlikely to be pre-requisites in many other occupations or pastimes.
George Benton, Eddie Futch, Ray Arcel, Angelo Dundee, Cus D'Amato and up to the modern greats like Manny Steward and Freddie Roach. All of these apex-predator corner men brought with them to the ring an array of qualities that took them above and beyond their peers and as they amassed experience they grew better and better. These guys are true ring greats every bit as important to the game as the fighters that they mentored.
Whether it is Eddie Futch recognising with dread the signs of impending doom when his fighter Joe Frazier met Muhammad Ali in the ultimate war of attrition in Manila, and going against the will of his fighter by pulling him out before that one punch too many landed. By that time in his life, Eddie Futch had witnessed 7 deaths in the ring, he knew the signs. It took a long time for Frazier to 'forgive' Futch for an act of such reckless compassion.
Or whether it be Angelo Dundee speaking with functional honesty to Sugar Ray Leonard during his historic 1981 fight with Tommy Hearns, a fight in which up until the 14th round Leonard had been comprehensively outpointed, turning the tide of the fight with a phrase as simple as "You're blowin' it kid, you're blowin' it!" Leonard subsequently put in one of the greatest rounds in boxing history to leave the Motor City Cobra a battered and exhausted wreck.
In this article, I want to explore what I believe are some key considerations in the world of the corner man on fight night. I speak from my own experiences, both sitting on the stool and holding the water bottle. There's much to be said and I can't possibly expect to include every detail, but I hope that I've managed to distil what are to my mind the main factors.
My focus is on the work of the coaches in the amateur code. There are obvious differences to what goes on in the paid ranks, but in broadest terms we deal with the same issues and seek the same success, albeit the pro guys do this in a much more dark and dangerous world than do the amateurs.
Before the Opening Bell
A corner man must prepare his fighter for combat way ahead of the actual ring appointment, but as I've said I'd like in this article to focus on the evening of the fight as opposed to the work in the gym. If you want to know more about gym time, then the Boxing Training Foundation is what you need to check out!
Prepare the Mind
The hours and minutes before a fight are a real trial for a fighter. A conundrum of emotions hits you, ranging from serenity to agitation, from fear to anger, from confidence to self-doubt. Depending upon the capability and experience of the fighter, the corner man will need to help to a greater or lesser extent in the management of the fighter during this phase of the preparation. There is no 'silver bullet' on how to do this, it varies from boxer to boxer. Some little rules that I tend to follow:
- Avoid confusion around the boxer. Keeping things calm and ensuring that the boxer is not troubled by unimportant matters will allow them to focus 100% on the fight.
- Reinforce the boxer with positive statements. The boxer wants to focus on victory, so I'll say things like "Imagine that feeling of waking up tomorrow and thinking back on the fight. That instant of realizing that you won is one of the great feelings that an athlete experiences, up there with the moment of your hand being raised." I won't say things like "Whatever you do don't lose" or "My God, just saw your opponent, he's a monster", or even one that I've actually heard used "Don't worry, I can throw in the towel if it's going wrong."
- Look for signs of over-confidence and temper this with one or two statements to make the boxer aware of the potential threat. After all, the opponent is more likely than not to be well trained and pretty capable, otherwise the match would not have been made in the first place.
Prepare the Body
A good warm up is of paramount importance. A good corner man will ensure that the boxer is not hit with the curse of a slow start. If a boxer is a self-confessed 'slow starter' then a thorough warm-up is non-negotiable. Why is the warm-up so important? Well, in an amateur boxing match there are 3 or 4 rounds. Losing the first round because of a sub-standard warm-up is a terrible waste and leaves ground to be made up and not a lot of time to do it in. A fast start, supported by a good warm up, allows authority to be stamped on the fight right from the outset.
Let's Pick a Fight
In many cases, little or nothing is known about the style of the opponent ahead of the fight. The name, age, weight and record are all that the fight is generally made on. So, when the two boxers climb into the ring, a good corner man will look for some basics that will allow an initial strategy to be built. This will be done in maybe 30 to 60 seconds whilst the introductions are being made.
What would the corner man look for to build that initial strategy? Height differential, stature/build, stance used and style employed (if the opponent shadow boxes in the corner). These aspects of the opponent are enough to give a corner man enough to go on to advise on the first round approach.
Let's Get it On
The bell goes and the fistic festivities commence. Firstly, a good corner man does not show blind support to a boxer. This should be left to the supporters in the crowd. A good corner man remains objective and does not become emotionally involved in the fight. The natural urge of the corner man is to focus 100% on their fighter. However, this urge should be ignored and it is the opponent who should be the real focus of his concentration.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent? What happens before, during and after they throw shots? Do they like to keep the fight up close or are they more comfortable at long range? How was their intensity and endurance during the round? Is there a big difference in the physical strength between the combatants? There really is a lot for a corner man to look out for, the trick is to filter all of the observations to two or three of the most important.
The Golden Minute
When the bell sounds to end a round the subsequent minute is where a good corner man can truly influence the direction of the fight, ideally in favour of his own fighter. In basic terms, there are 3 things to achieve within the one minute.
Maximize the intake of oxygen by the boxer. Correct, controlled breathing is a must and a good corner man will ensure that this is done. He will also ensure that the oxygenated blood will be given the best chance to circulate to the places that it needs to. So, the arms of the boxer are rested on the lap, they are not draped over the ropes.
Manage the fluid intake of the boxer. The objective is to get the right amount of water on-board without this getting in the way of effective breathing.
Deal with any bleeding. Usually in the amateur ring this amounts to nothing more than a bleeding nose or cut to the mouth. Any cuts to the eyebrows usually result in a swift stoppage. Again, this should be done without hampering, you guessed it, effective breathing.
Give the Right Tactical Advice
Following the work done by the corner man during the round, that two or three pieces of key information are relayed to the boxer. Why only two or three bits of information? Well, a corner man can bark a dozen instructions at a boxer. However, in the frenetic cauldron of a boxing match it's not entirely surprising that the ability to retain information is diminished.
I've seen many great feats of memory performed by people on TV, including one recently where a guy memorised the Periodic Table of Elements in a couple of hours. But, I've never seen a person perform a great feat of memory whilst somebody is trying to beat the crap out of them. Remembering a couple of pieces of advice is manageable, remembering more than this is wishful thinking.
Motivate, Motivate, Motivate
A good corner man finds the right words for the boxer and the situation. All boxers are different and some respond differently to advice and how that advice is given. Some respond to a stern rebuke, others respond to positive reinforcement and many will respond to a mix of both. The corner man finds the right words for the boxer and situation. The trick is to send the boxer back out there with the will and belief to win.
The fight is over and the decision has been delivered. Whatever the result, a good corner man will have spotted some things to work on in the gym. This can be issues with the stance, punching or defensive work. Missed opportunities, tactical oversights and unnecessary risks, all can be identified and used back at the gym, the key words being "back at the gym".
In the immediate aftermath, I like to allow a boxer to bask in the glory of a win or savour the unpalatable truth of a defeat without interfering too much in either. Experiencing these feelings is a natural part of the process of fighting, and sport in general for that matter. The last thing that a boxer needs in the minutes following a fight is a tongue-lashing from a corner man...it'll keep!
The boxing ring can be as lonely a place as you'll find in the sporting world and beyond. There is however one thing that a boxer always knows, the corner man will be there to provide the brief snatches of support that can make a 'tough day at the office' that little bit more bearable.
Hats off to the corner man.