Think of the fighter as an army. Think of the ring as the terrain upon which that army gets deployed. And any successful army must be trained and prepared, fortified with the provisions of excellent physical conditioning and heavily-drilled technique.
Beyond that, no army can go to war without a strategy and still hope to win. A fighter in a world championship-caliber fight needs to enter the ring with a Plan A, and be ready to follow up with Plans B through E as the changing situation requires.
A boxing trainer is very much like a military general, preparing and deploying his one-man army. To excel at this requires a highly analytical mind.
I have left active boxers off this list. I can see obvious arguments for fighters such as Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Guillermo Rigondeaux, but I have chosen to focus exclusively upon trainers.
Fritz Sdunek was an East German amateur boxing star and one of their most important coaches during the late Cold War years when international sports were viewed as important propaganda opportunities to the Soviet Bloc leadership. Being regarded as a great boxing mind in East Germany in those years was serious business indeed.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sdunek has become one the most high-profile trainers in Europe. He has worked with both Klitschko brothers and still trains Vitali. He has been the trainer for world champions like Felix Sturm and Zsolt Erdei and top contenders like Sebastian Zbik.
He has also been a trainer for heavyweight prospects Alexander Dmitrenko and Denis Boytsov
Buddy McGirt was an outstanding professional fighter and, at his best, lost only to Pernell Whitaker and Meldrick Taylor. He was an intelligent boxer and his ring IQ has translated into a very successful career as a trainer.
McGirt's fighters have lost their share of major fights, but he's piloted his men to the top, as well. He continues to be much sought after as both a mentor to prospects and a hired gun for established stars and mixed martial arts fighters.
McGirt is a great person to watch in interviews posted on YouTube. He almost always seems to have an interesting perspective on the sport in general, and he can be highly entertaining, as in this clip of him with James Toney from ESNEWS.
Ronnie Shields was a decorated amateur and a respectable professional fighter. He is a classic case of something found across all sports: the good and well-traveled professional who translates into a terrific coach.
As a trainer Shields has worked with superstars such as Mike Tyson, Pernell Whitaker and Evander Holyfield. He trains fighters from across the spectrum, from prospect to journeyman and from contender to star.
One particularly noteworthy prospect he has worked with in recent years is Mike Lee; the 11-0 light heavyweight already signed to a promotional contract with Top Rank and an endorsement deal with Subway.
Virgil Hunter began training fighters as part of a job working with youth on probation. He apprenticed himself to more experienced Oakland-area trainers in order to learn the game. In a lot of ways, he is a trainer who has grown up with his fighters.
Hunter began working with current super middleweight world champion and pound-for-pound entrant Andre Ward when Ward was nine. As Ward has developed through the professional ranks into one of the sport's best fighters, he has consistently displayed perfectly conceived game plans for each new opponent.
Like many successful trainers, Hunter has developed into a hired gun for flagging stars, such as Amir Khan who abandoned Freddy Roach for him.
While everybody knows about Andre Ward, Hunter's next breakout fighter is very likely the man he is talking about in this linked video, Karim Mayfield.
In his native Cuba, Pedro Diaz was a professor with extensive academic honors. He has published research that was valuable for athletes training in a wide array of sports. But make no mistake, Dr. Diaz's true area expertise is in preparing boxers to fight.
Serving as the director of the national boxing program is no minor distinction in a nation like Cuba, where the communist dictator is a notorious boxing nut. The amount of brainpower devoted to boxing in Cuba is substantial, and Diaz's demeanor often seems more lead research scientist than typical boxing trainer.
Since leaving Cuba for the pro game, Diaz has established himself as a guy big stars seek out, not only from boxing, but also from mixed martial arts. Most recently, he guided fellow Cuban Guillermo Rigondeaux during Rigo's one-sided undressing of Nonito Donaire.
Floyd Mayweather Sr. is controversial like his son, and his flamboyant personality is a magnet for criticism. But just as some of history's greatest military generals have been controversial and flamboyant, so, too, is this the case with Mayweather Sr.
There are plenty of notorious clips of Mayweather carrying on and embarrassing himself, but there are many more where he is giving insightful, well-reasoned assessments about boxing. He was a crafty, tricky professional, and as a coach, he has a well-deserved reputation as among the sport's finest defensive tacticians.
Mayweather's spot here is deserved, but ultimately I'm not sure if he's truly even the finest boxing mind in his own family. Floyd Jr. has switched in his career between working with his father and working with his uncle, Roger, and now at 36 may very well have a more analytical boxing mind than his old man.
Naazim Richardson is a product of the old school Philadelphia fighting community, one of the richest boxing cultures on the planet. He's the boxing equivalent of an MIT grad.
Bernard Hopkins is a guy who could have his own spot on this list if I had opened it to active fighters. When I interviewed him before his last fight, against Tavoris Cloud, he was overflowing with topics he wanted to discuss, but before he talked about anything, he stopped to give credit to Naazim Richardson for preparing him.
As Hopkins later explained to me in the interview, he regards himself as a Godfather of Boxing. In that kind of framework, Richardson is very much his consiliere.
He's the kind of wise adviser it pays to have around for a variety of reasons. It was Richardson, while working Shane Mosley's corner, who had the keen eyes and street smarts to catch Antonio Margarito's crooked wraps.
Richardson's skill as a trainer was evident when former cruiserweight champion Steve Cunningham challenged super heavyweight Tyson Fury earlier this spring. Although the size mismatch proved too significant to overcome, Richardson had the fight game planned perfectly. His fighter dropped Fury early in the fight and was up on the cards when he finally got overwhelmed.
Freddy Roach is another example of a good, but limited, professional fighter who has excelled as a trainer. He was mentored in the craft by the late Eddie Futch, quite possibly the greatest trainer of all time.
Roach's story will forever be linked with that of his most famous fighter, Manny Pacquiao. Under Roach's guidance, Pacman went from a dangerous, but one-dimensional, puncher into a true pound-for-pound star. But his influence can be seen as well on a less-heralded fighter like Raymundo Beltran, a smart veteran who has overcome some close, tough decision losses to fight back into contention at lightweight.
Some of Roach's top fighters have stumbled in the last year or two, but he remains one of the sport's top brains. He is frequently hired by high level mixed martial arts fighters, as well.
Trained by his father, Eduardo, Robert Garcia was an IBF super featherweight champion during his professional career. But with a nickname like “Grand Pa,” it's safe to assume he was probably demonstrating some of the thoughtful and deliberate qualities that make for a great boxing trainer early on.
For the past two years, Garcia has been the top trainer in the sport, and it hasn't even been close. World championship fighters out of his Boxing Academy have included Nonito Donaire, Brandon Rios and Robert Garcia's younger brother, Mikey.
One of Garcia's most recent champions is “The Mexican Russian,” Evgeny Gradovich, the IBF featherweight belt holder. He earned the title last March, when Garcia coached him to victory against the more experienced Billy Dib.
The great champions trained by the legendary Ignacio “Nacho” Beristain include Daniel Zaragoza, undefeated minimum weight legend Ricardo Lopez and the Marquez brothers, Rafael and Juan Manuel. Beristain's fighters are known for technical precision and discipline.
Beristain himself has the quiet, courtly demeanor of an old school gentleman. If I saw him getting coffee in the college town where I live, I might mistake him for a retired mathematics professor.
Beristain's credentials as an all-time great are beyond reproach, but his judgment in the third Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez fight has received criticism.
In the later rounds, he assured his fighter that he was way ahead, almost urging him to slow down the pace of the fight. And a slower pace by Marquez, in the last third of the fight, allowed Pacquiao to win critical, close rounds, that ultimately gave him the majority decision.
In the fourth fight, of course, Beristain had his fighter perfectly prepared to deliver the aggressive counter right that took every thing out of the judges' hands.