Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Rashomon with Dawson, Cotto and Steward

Rashomon, the 1950 Akira Kurosawa cinematic classic, featured a unique narrative construct as its central premise.  A crime was committed and yet depending on who was being interrogated, the exact nature of events, the truth, became impossible to decipher.  In the end, the viewer was left with an unreliable notion of what exactly transpired. 

The premise of the film has been widely imitated over the years and the Rashomon conception has found its way into the vernacular, applied often by those in law enforcement, criminal justice and psychology.   

In the last month, two notable fighters, Chad Dawson and Miguel Cotto, have fired Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward.  The versions of events and the perspectives of what exactly led to the dismissals vary wildly among the three participants in this drama.  The only thing we really know is that both fighters face enormous tests in the coming months and neither will be trained by Steward.

But who is to blame for these professional divorces?  And, are there any real victims here?  I would posit that these two fighters were not ideal candidates for Steward's preferred brand of training and that Steward, in particular, wasn't the right fit for either boxer.  In true Rashomon fashion, I will examine the events from the perspectives of all three participants and delineate why I think that these separations may be best for all parties.

I. Chad Dawson:   

Both Dawson and Cotto face big tests in the coming months – Bernard Hopkins and Antonio Margarito, respectively – and it seems like an unusual time to change coaches.  However, both fighters have had extensive histories of switching trainers.  Dawson has cycled through a litany of excellent trainers over his career, including Floyd Mayweather, Sr., Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Dan Birmingham, among others.  For Hopkins, he will reunite with his former coach, John Scully.  Cotto trained for much of his career with his uncle Evangelista Cotto, but, after a falling out, switched to Joe Santiago and then Steward.  Cotto has enlisted former Cuban national trainer Pedro Luis Diaz for his rematch against Margarito. 

In a vacuum, it's not uncommon for fighters to switch trainers.  Boxers may opt for one particular style or voice over another.  Conflicts with training schedules often emerge.  Sometimes, relationships just run their natural courses and need to end.  But the timing for these particular changes is odd. 

Throughout his career, Dawson's behavior in and out of the ring has been erratic.  Never settling on a ring identity, Dawson has alternated between runner, counterpuncher, stick-and-mover and aggressive pocket puncher.  He can captivate (Tomasz Adamek) or he can bore (Antonio Tarver), and sometimes he can do both within the same fight, or even within one particular round.  Reportedly, Dawson has been involved in various management squabbles and more than a few have suggested that there are a few bad apples in his inner circle in New Haven, Connecticut that have provided a negative influence in his life.

Although a quiet figure as a public person, the disharmony that surrounds Dawson inside and outside the ring has spoken clearly.  There are a number of fighters who seem quite comfortable dealing with a large amount of drama or chaos in their lives (for instance, Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather); it's not clear that Dawson is one of them.  Fight observers have been waiting for more than four years for Dawson to follow up his dominating performance over Adamek.  In the interim, he has coasted in lopsided points against mid-level opposition or failed to inspire in his biggest challenges (Glen Johnson or Jean Pascal).

For Mayweather or Pacquiao, one could point to a string of memorable performances: with Dawson, only one.  Nevertheless, Dawson's talent is immense and, seemingly, he could harness it at any moment.  When the Hopkins-Dawson betting lines were initially published, Dawson started out as almost a unanimous favorite by the professional odds makers.  It's certainly possible that he puts it all together against Hopkins and cruises to a dominant points victory.  Maybe he guts out a close decision.  Of course, there is also a strong possibility that Hopkins asserts his physical and psychological gamesmanship over Dawson and reduces the younger man to an ineffective shell.  With Dawson, all of these potential outcomes are in play.

Dawson was unwilling to travel to Detroit to train with Steward, opting to prepare for Hopkins in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains, where he could remain close to his family.  It's not ordained that Steward has to necessarily be the best fit for a given fighter and, quite frankly, the pairing between Steward – who stresses jabbing, fighting tall and spacing – and the athletic and fluid Dawson may not have been a perfect (or even good) match.  Perhaps John Scully can connect with Dawson in ways which make the fighter more consistent and confident.  Maybe this is just more of the same for Dawson.

Regardless of who trains Dawson, one would hope that the fighter is putting himself in the best position to win the fight.  Hopkins will be a difficult fight for Dawson and he will need to be physically and psychologically prepared for a taxing battle.  To this point, Dawson has not yet demonstrated exceptional mental toughness in the ring.  Has his trainer carousel stunted his growth and maturity as a fighter?  One must not mistake correlation for causation but who knows what Dawson's career could have looked like if he had that one person in his corner that he really believed in?  It's clear that for him, Steward isn't that guy.

II. Miguel Cotto

Cotto had stalled in his development as a fighter under his uncle's tutelage.  The two often had heated disagreements, with both having sizable egos.  It was thought that when Cotto finally set out in another direction that he would have a real shot at improving as a fighter.  Cotto's defense was never spectacular and there were additional questions about his conditioning.  Instead of selecting a notable name for his fight against Manny Pacquiao, he went with Joe Santiago, an assistant trainer with his uncle and someone who was not thought of as the panacea to Cotto's professional ills.  Santiago was more of a friend and confidant to Cotto than a teacher.

Many have claimed that Cotto, in fact, trained himself for Pacquiao.  Sure, Santiago was around to help out and provide insight, but Cotto ran the camp and strictly controlled the training regimens and schedules.  Now it may be one thing for a technical expert and conditioning fiend like Bernard Hopkins to run his own training camp (he doesn't), but Cotto wasn't some elite fighter who had reached his personal best as an athlete.  Cotto was known for a big heart and a thunderous left hook, but he was also the same guy who struggled to make weight and was not necessarily the hardest worker in the gym.  Why would that man run his own camp for the biggest fight in his career? 

All of this past history points to some of the reasoning why Cotto and Steward split ways earlier this week.  Steward runs a tight camp, with strong emphasis on sparring, conditioning and strategy.  Steward eats, breathes and sleeps boxing and it doesn't seem to be the case that Cotto wanted another one of those grueling, Steward camps.  It's clear that scheduling was also an issue.  Steward had agreed to go Florida to train Cotto, but there were strict time parameters and other factors (money) that may have led to his dismissal.  Also, did Cotto really enjoy waiting around for Steward to finish up with Andy Lee, a young fighter well below the status of the three-time Puerto Rican champion?  

With Pedro Luis Diaz, Cotto has found a real trainer that has excelled in teaching movement, ring generalship and defensive technique.  The two have had a cordial relationship for a number of years.  Maybe this becomes an ideal match.  However, who knows what kind of latitude Diaz has within Cotto's training camp?  Will Diaz or Cotto be running the show and what kind of shape will Cotto be in to meet Margarito?  With Steward, Cotto was in very good condition, but with a new person in his corner, will he revert back to form?

III.  Emanuel Steward
Steward, 64, is probably the most famous active trainer in boxing, establishing his reputation with the great Detroit fighters of the '80s.  He's trained literally dozens of champions over the last 30 years (Lennox Lewis, Thomas Hearns and Oscar de la Hoya).  Presently, Steward's two most notable pupils are heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko and rising middleweight Andy Lee. 

Steward enjoys his place in boxing.  He is the lead commentator on HBO broadcasts and one of the most visible and notable figures in the sport.  He's a likable presence on the air and his resounding passion for the sport is unmistakable.  He has made a good living in boxing, which has afforded him the flexibility to choose whom he decides to train. 

But make no mistake, Steward has his own large ego.  Whether it is buying ads in boxing programs listing all of his champions or talking up his notable accomplishments, with Steward, there is an "I" in trainer.  With his pupils, Steward demands an almost cult-like level of devotion.  He doesn't necessarily mix well with fighters who have bullying management (Jermain Taylor) or outside distractions (Oscar de la Hoya).  He also doesn't work cheap.   

Steward prefers situations in which he can isolate fighters from their daily lives, training Wladimir Klitschko in the Austrian Alps or removing Andy Lee from his home in Ireland.  He wants to be trainer, matchmaker, manager, confidant and father figure. 

No one questions Steward's wealth of knowledge, record of success or training techniques.  However, many teachers have an inability to communicate with members of the younger generation.  In recent years, Steward's record has become spotty.  Taylor and Dawson didn't seem to progress under his guidance; Cotto only faced unthreatening opponents and didn't look particularly good in either of his two fights with Steward.  These are significant marks against Steward's record.

Additionally, Steward likes molding fighters into his "Kronk" (the name of his former gym in Detroit) style instead of taking their natural abilities and forming unique game plans for their talents.  He wants his fighters to stay in the pocket, fight tall, work off the jab, master distance and explode with power punches.  That all sounds like a wonderful game plan, but it's not the perfect blueprint for a lot of fighters.  (What would he do with a pressure fighter like Brandon Rios or an athletic freak like Manny Pacquiao?)

Think of Steward in basketball terms.  He is a great college coach, along the lines of Coach K (Duke) or Jim Boeheim (Syracuse).  He has his system.  Coach K wants intelligent student-athletes who play tough man-to-man defense.  Boeheim specializes in great offensive talents who can master his 2-3 defensive zone.  Steward wants tall fighters who stay in the pocket, jab and sit down on their power shots.  Now think of Freddie Roach as a great professional basketball coach.  Roach, like Pat Riley, adapts to the talent on hand to win.  He has not molded Amir Khan into Manny Pacquiao-light.  Roach does feature some core principles (two-handed power and angles) but he is not creating assembly-line fighters.  

Steward is one of the best trainers of all time, but he needs a specific type of fighter to succeed – notably one who is comfortable leaving his surroundings and is willing to fully submit to Steward's control and demands.  Stylistically, he is not a great fit for every fighter and for Dawson and Cotto, it's very possible, if not probably, that Steward may not be the right fit for them.

As in Rashomon, among Dawson, Cotto and Steward, no one is necessarily right or wrong, and there isn't one, overriding truth.  All three players have specific motives for their actions and reasons for their beliefs.  Dawson and Cotto wanted to exert more control into their training.  Steward demanded an adherence to his training schedule.  Looking at it realistically, it is a risky move to start a camp with a new trainer for a major fight.  Although these moves are untraditional, I'm not ready to dismiss them.  I think that if you watch the videotape, you will realize that Steward isn't the best trainer for Cotto and Dawson's styles or temperament.  Additionally, why does Steward need to train people like Cotto or Dawson, who haven't demonstrated the commitment to all phases of the sport, like so many of Steward's best charges?

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