Thursday, June 6, 2019

20 Questions with Buddy McGirt

James "Buddy" McGirt has been a fixture on the boxing scene since the early '80s. A two-time world champion, winning title belts at junior welterweight and welterweight, McGirt (73-6-1, 48 KOs) beat undefeated Frankie Warren in a rematch in 1988 to win his first championship (Warren handed McGirt his first loss in 1986). After a title defense against former U.S. Olympic star Howard Davis, McGirt lost his belt to Hall of Famer Meldrick Taylor via 12th round stoppage. 

After the defeat, McGirt moved up to welterweight. Three years later in 1991, he won his second world title belt over Simon Brown, in a fight where McGirt was as much as a 10-1 underdog. 1993 brought a big-money fight against Pernell Whitaker, perhaps the best fighter in boxing at the time. McGirt narrowly lost his title in an excellent fight; he still maintains that he was far from 100% healthy in the bout. A damaged left shoulder had plagued him for a number of years. McGirt lost a rematch the next year and never again fought for a title. He retired in 1997. 

In addition to his notable career as a fighter, McGirt has trained numerous champions, including Arturo Gatti, Paulie Malignaggi and Antonio Tarver. McGirt was in the corner with Gatti during his memorable trilogy with Micky Ward. He also trained Tarver for his memorable knockout of Roy Jones in 2004. 

Photo Courtesy of Buddy McGirt

McGirt has experienced a banner year in 2019. In February he guided Sergey Kovalev to a light heavyweight championship; it was just their first fight together. McGirt helped engineer a stunning reversal. Kovalev was knocked out by Eleider Alvarez in 2018, but won the rematch handily. 

And as a career capper, earlier this year McGirt, 55, was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He will be inducted this weekend. 

I recently spoke with McGirt about his life in boxing, as well as his induction into the Hall of Fame. McGirt was in Russia helping Kovalev train for his next fight. And even though it was in the middle of the night for him, his joy and infectious spirit was ever-present. What consistently came across was his love of the sport, a keen wit, and his desire to pass down wisdom to the next generation of boxers. 

McGirt sees himself as one of the last linkages to old-school boxing. As a young fighter, former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott used to watch him train twice a week. His recollections comprise a who's who of boxing over the last few generations, from celebrated legends such as Archie Moore and Pernell Whitaker to noted trainers like George Benton and Eddie Futch. McGirt, a New York native who currently resides in Florida, isn't ready to call it a career yet, but he's been thinking about what comes after boxing. And with his career coming full circle, the joys, regrets and moments of poignancy paint a complete picture of a boxing lifer, one who wouldn't have it any other way. 

Interview conducted by Adam Abramowitz
The interview has been edited and condensed.

Buddy, what do you remember about the Frankie Warren fights?
I fought him in 1988 [for the second time], and I still have nightmares about him. One, he was a hell of a fighter. Two, he had one of the greatest trainers in the history of boxing, Georgie Benton. Warren was in my chest all night, like a baby that wanted to be breastfed by his mother.

What was your best punch?
My left hook. Whenever I landed the left hook to the head and the left hook to the body it was a wrap.

How fast was Meldrick Taylor?
I honestly don’t remember. I don’t remember anything about the fight. I was on three different medications for my tendonitis, in my shoulder. I came out early trying to knock him out. After that I don’t remember anything.
Did you ever want a rematch with him?
We almost had the rematch in 1992, but my manager, Al Certo, blew it [the fight never materialized because of a small difference in money].

What was your best moment in the ring as a fighter?
My title fight with Frankie Warren. My title fight with Simon Brown. You know, all the fights. My greatest moment was every moment. I loved being in the ring.

Was the first or the second title sweeter?
I’m going to go with the second title [against Brown] because I was a 10-1 underdog. What made the second title more important was that my mom was in love with the singer Lou Rawls. And Lou Rawls sang the national anthem. When I saw Lou Rawls in the ring, I knew that nobody was going to beat me in the ring that night. After the fight, I said, "Mom, I want you to meet Don King." She said, “Fuck Don King. I want to meet Lou Rawls.”

What’s the craziest story you’ve heard about a fighter blowing his money?
There are so many stories I can’t even begin to give you one. There are thousands of them. So many crazy stories why guys blew their money. The crazy part of it was I said I didn't want to be that guy, but, I wanted my mother to have the best of everything. So, whatever I got, I spent some on myself. I spent most of it on my mom, because I wanted her to live that life. She sacrificed so much for her kids. I wanted her to be that woman who could go anywhere that she wanted to go and drive any car that she wanted to drive. That made me feel so good as an individual that I didn’t give a shit about the money.

How often do you watch the first Pernell Whitaker fight?
Honestly I don’t. It was a funky situation for me. I know for certain if I was told the truth about my shoulder, I would have beat him. I would say that Pernell was on point that night. Plus, he had Georgie Benton in his corner. 

At times it killed me, but now it doesn’t bother me. It helped make me a better person. It helped make me realize that shit happens.
Do you ever run into Pernell?
No, but he’s supposed to be at the Hall of Fame this year.

Photo Courtesy of Buddy McGirt

What do you remember about your first title fight as a trainer?
My first title fight as a trainer was James Page vs. Freddie Pendleton and Page stopped him, but my first real test was Byron Mitchell vs. Manny Siaca. I found out six days before the fight that we were fighting Siaca for the title. We trained five days in the health club of Mandalay Bay. All we did was lift. No sparring. No boxing gym. No heavy bag. No nothing. Mitchell knocked him out in the 12th round with 15 seconds left. And that night Don King said to me, “Buddy McGirt, you are the resurrector.”

You’ve had a lot of success with veteran fighters who are looking for another voice or a re-start to their career. What’s the first thing you look for when you are deciding if you want to take on one of those fighters?
I look at their legs. I want to see how their leg movement is. I want to see how they react to punches. If their legs are unsteady and they react to punches unsteady, I hand them a cigar and say, “Look here, smoke this, and find something else to do with your life.” That comes from being around the old-school trainers. No reason to waste anyone’s time.

How tough is it to stop an Arturo Gatti fight?
That’s one of the toughest things to deal with. In the first fight with Micky Ward, I was ready to stop it. The doctor was talking to Gatti in Italian. I said, Doc, I don’t understand what the heck you’re saying. But Arturo said, Coach, I’m OK. I said, are you sure? He said, sure. 

OK then. I want you to get up and bounce on your legs and show me you’re OK. And he did that. And he went out and won the 10th round. So it’s just a matter of really knowing your fighter. I learned that from my trainer, Dom Amoroso. He taught me so much.

Famously, you told Antonio Tarver that you saw a flaw in Roy Jones, that Tarver could beat him. Are you ready to disclose what that was?
I knew when he told me, Buddy, I once beat Roy in a basketball game. I said, you did what? He said, I beat him in a basketball game. I said, huh? So that told me right then and there that I had the better athlete.

But then Georgie Benton and Eddie Futch…let’s be realistic now. One fighter really exposed Roy Jones, and that was Montell Griffin in their first fight. And in that first fight, Eddie Futch was training Griffin. So I talked to Georgie Benton one day and Eddie Futch another day, and God bless them both. They told me what to do. Benton said to me, “Remember one thing: A man cannot punch and block punches at the same time.“ I said to myself, this shit makes sense. We needed to offset Jones’s rhythm. It's like a light went on. So that’s what we did.

Futch and Benton were two geniuses in the fight game, and they don’t get their just due. When I fought Pernell, in my mind I wasn’t fighting Pernell, I was fighting Georgie Benton. I didn’t give a shit about Pernell. But Georgie Benton, he was a fucking genius. I have to give it to him. He was a genius when it came to teaching a guy how to beat another man.

I first met Benton in 1982 when I was sparring Johnny Bumphus in Totowa, New Jersey. He said to me, “Kid, if I train you, you will be undefeated. Nobody will beat you.” And that’s one thing I wish I would have done – go with him. I remember that day so vividly. He was drinking a bottle of Miller High Life talking to me.

And I said to my manager, Al Certo, this man, Georgie Benton, is great. My manager, who had an ego, said he’s not all that, whatever. No, that’s a great motherfucker right there. I lost six times as a fighter. Four of my losses have come to fighters trained by Georgie Benton.

A lot of fighters have tried to make the transition into trainers. Some have been successful, but many others haven’t been. What’s been your secret?
I love the game. You have to love it. But it’s more than that. I always wanted to be a teacher of the game. I love the idea of figuring out how to outsmart another man.  

As a trainer, what fights are you particular proud of?
Tarver-Jones II. Tarver-Jones III. And I also want to say Tarver-Johnson II. For that fight I said, Tarver, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to beat him at his own game. We’re going to back him up and work the body early. And by doing that, it threw Glen Johnson totally off his game plan. Because in boxing even if a guy is known for going to the body, that doesn’t mean he likes getting hit to the body. Tarver wanted to go in there and knock him out. I said, no, stay in his chest, and see what he had to eat.

What did you see when Kovalev walked into your gym for the first time?
Kovalev came to my gym. We sat down. I said, what’s up? He told me everything he did wrong. I said, what do you want to do? He said, I want to correct it. I told him I’ll see you in two days.

The man wanted to learn. As time went on, I saw what he had done wrong. And what Kovalev admitted to me when we first met was absolutely right. I told him we couldn’t keep doing what he had been doing before. 

He didn’t box 12 rounds once during training camp. I said, check this out, homeboy, you’ve been doing this over 10 years. If you can do eight rounds, you can do 12. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, I’ll give you nine. And he looked at me like I was crazy. But I told him we’re not going to do 10. We’re not going to do 11. We’re not going to do 12. We’re going to do nine. And we did it. And he looked at me like I had two heads. I told him he's going to be all right for the fight. And boom! You saw what happened.

I’ve learned from experience that just because you’re fighting 10 rounds, you don’t need to get 10 rounds in [during a sparring session]. No. You’ve been fighting too long. If you can fight eight rounds, the last six minutes ain’t shit. If you can get to nine, what the fuck is 12? It’s nine minutes. It’s nothing. But, you put those nine rounds in and you stop and you feel good. You feel strong. You feel that you can go 10 more. And that’s the feeling. Save that for the fight. 

Now if you’re 24 or 25 and never been there, it’s a different ball game. But we’re talking about a guy who’s been a multiple-time champion and has had a lot of fights, so why put him 12 rounds three or four times a week? For what? If he can’t do it within eight or nine rounds, he’s wasting his time and I’m wasting my time. Have to conserve that for the fight.

What’s the biggest difference between young fighters of today and young fighters of your generation?
They don’t know the basics. And they don’t respect their trainers the same way. When I was starting out you never asked your trainer who you were boxing and you never asked how many rounds you were boxing. You just got in there and did what you had to do. It’s not like that today.

What does a trainer do during a dry spell and the phone’s not ringing?
You wait for that phone to ring. 

But my ultimate goal...and this may sound crazy, and I don’t care if I ever get another champion, but my ultimate goal is to work with people with Parkinson’s. If I can help one person with Parkinson’s, I would feel complete.

There was an old man who came into my gym a couple of years ago. He was a boxing fanatic. An absolute fanatic. He said, Buddy, you have to come to the home where I’m staying and train the people with Parkinson’s. I said, I will as soon as I get situated. But he passed away before I was able to get to it. So I have to keep my promise. He was a great man. I have to do that.

Photo Courtesy of Buddy McGirt

What does being in the International Boxing Hall of Fame mean to you?
We all have dreams in our life. I didn’t think about the Hall of Fame until I visited it. I went there for the first time in 1993. I saw all the greats that were there. I said to myself, I hope and pray that I could wind up here.

You’re hanging out with guys like Kenny Norton, Earnie Shavers, Archie Moore, Marvin Hagler. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

What was the feeling when you got the call?
Two years before, a year before, people would call me and say, “Buddy, you’re on the ballot.” It didn’t happen. This year people said, “Buddy, you’re on the ballot.” And I said I don’t have time for this shit.

They usually call me to come up to the Hall of Fame for induction weekend, you know, as a guest. But this year they didn’t call me. And I started thinking about that. So I finally get the call, and I think they’re calling me to invite me for the weekend. I said to myself, I ain’t fucking going this year. And then I hear it: “We want to be the first to congratulate you for being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.”

I started crying. I told my wife and I was just crying. 

Who are one or two people in boxing who are most responsible in helping you accomplish what you did in the ring?
One was my trainer Dom Amoroso. Number-two was Jersey Joe Walcott, the former heavyweight champion of the world. Walcott used to drive from Camden, New Jersey to Hoboken, New Jersey [about 80 miles] twice a week to watch me train. How many fighters can say that they had a former heavyweight champion from the early '50s come watch them train and give them advice?

How would you like your boxing career, both as a fighter and a trainer, to be remembered?
I want to be known as a guy who gave it his all, and at the same time had fun. I had a lot of fun. Boxing enabled me to do things that I dreamed of as a kid. And when you’re a kid with dreams, and you’re able to fulfill those dreams, there’s nothing like that in the world.

It wasn’t always about me. I always wanted to do something for my mother. My mom was everything in the world to me. I had seen how much Mom sacrificed. As a kid, you hear your mom’s friends say, we’re going on vacation. Come with us. And your mom says to them, I can’t go. My son’s got a field trip. But it’s not the field trip. You know what it is. She couldn’t afford it. Her friends would go away, maybe the Bahamas, and bring back souvenirs, telling her, sorry you couldn’t go. We brought you back a little something. I’m like, no, fuck that. She’s going to go wherever she wants and bring you guys back souvenirs. And she did. And I'm proud of that.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.

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