Ranking the Most Productive Trainer-Fighter Relationships in Boxing History

Briggs SeekinsFeatured ColumnistJune 20, 2014

Ranking the Most Productive Trainer-Fighter Relationships in Boxing History

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    Nobody who encountered the young Joe Louis would have doubted his natural aptitude for a career as a prize fighter. But without a shrewd, veteran trainer like Jack Blackburn, the legendary Brown Bomber might just as easily have trod the road to Palookaville.

    Without the molding of Cus D'Amato, Mike Tyson might have easily drifted into a life in and out of prison and/or a very early grave. Instead, he became the iconic fighter of the past 30 years.

    In a sense, prizefighting is a kind of ultimate individual sport. Two opponents climb into a ring together and put everything on the line.

    But people who know the sport understand that behind any successful fighter is an effective team. The one-on-one relationship of trainer and fighter is often far more intense and intimate than the coach-athlete relationship in team sports.

    There's a reason fighters almost always speak in the plural when they discuss their fights: "We had a good plan coming into this fight" or "We knew we could use the jab to back him up and set up the body."

    The relationship between trainer and fighter is so essential that even a long list of honorable mentions would omit worthy teams. But it's hard to argue against the success of these 10.

10. Nacho Beristain and Juan Manuel Marquez

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    Ignacio "Nacho" Beristain is the greatest trainer in Mexican boxing history and a member of the Hall of Fame. He's trained multiple Mexican Olympic teams and a long list of professional world champions.

    Among his top proteges are Daniel Zaragoza, Ricardo Lopez, Humberto "Chiquita" Gonzalez and Rafael Marquez. But it has been Rafael's older brother Juan Manuel who has developed into Beristain's greatest pupil.

    An aggressive and methodical counterpuncher, Marquez has consistently executed Beristain's blueprints in order to beat better athletes and bigger men. This is the team that has proved to be the greatest rival to superstar Manny Pacquiao and super trainer Freddie Roach.

    Marquez and Beristain have won world titles in four divisions. At 40 and 74 they still have a realistic shot at adding a fifth, which would make them unique in Mexican boxing history.

9. Roger/Floyd Mayweather Sr. and Floyd Jr.

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    I have made this a double entry for both Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s father and uncle. Even though Roger has been far more influential training the current pound-for-pound king as a pro, the entire chaotic yet boxing-rich Mayweather milieu has played a crucial role developing Floyd Jr. into the talent he has become.

    In any field, virtuoso artists are very likely to be former child prodigies, and this is very much the case in the Mayweather clan. Floyd Jr. grew up around the sport, trained by his father from the time he was a small child. Only a terrible judging decision prevented him from winning a gold medal as a teenager at the 1996 Olympics, where he had to settle for bronze.

    Uncle Roger first took over his nephew's training while Floyd Sr. was serving a prison term, but eventually he developed into Floyd Jr.'s preferred coach. On programs like 24/7, the Mayweathers often appear like a true-life soap opera. Nevertheless, their success as a boxing team cannot be denied.

8. Freddie Roach and Manny Pacquiao

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    Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, Freddie Roach is among the top trainers in the sport today. And eight-division world champion Manny Pacquiao has been his greatest achievement.

    Pacman had great natural tools to work with, in the form of explosive athleticism and a dangerous left hand. But when he came to Roach's Wild Card Gym, the big left was pretty much his entire bag of tricks.

    Roach developed Pacquiao into an all-around boxing star. Speed and athletic ability remain at the heart of Pacquiao's style, but under Roach's guidance he has developed a sophisticated use of angles and a fearsome right hook to complement his menacing straight left.

7. Ray Arcel and Roberto Duran

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    Ray Arcel's legendary training career began in the 1920s, and his long list of champions included names such as Barney Ross, Ezzard Charles, Tony Zale and Benny Leonard. But after a dispute with some of the sport's more shadowy elements, he walked away and retired in the 1950s.

    Nearly 20 years later he was lured back into action over the prospect of working with a ferocious brawler from Panama named Roberto Duran.

    With a nickname like Hands of Stone, clearly Duran was designed by the gods for a career as a prizefighter. But Arcel helped him develop the defensive abilities that made him one of the most dangerous pressure fighters to ever climb between the ropes.

    Duran was notorious for loving food and drink and not loving morning roadwork. But Arcel and his partner Freddie Brown kept Duran motivated and winning during a long stretch in which Duran established himself as arguably the best lightweight ever and then went up to welterweight to beat all-time great Sugar Ray Leonard.

6. Charley Goldman and Rocky Marciano

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    Charlie Goldman was a respected bantamweight fighter around New York City during the early 20th century, when the sport was still not officially legal. But his legendary status in the sport stems from his status as Rocky Marciano's trainer.

    No trainer in the history of the heavyweight division has managed to do so much with what appeared to be so little. Marciano took up the sport late and had clumsy footwork. At 5'11", he was on the short side for a heavyweight, and his 69" reach was the shortest of any heavyweight champion ever.

    But Marciano could punch. His right hand, nicknamed Suzie Q, had the power of a mule kick. Goldman's task was to train his charge to get into position to land that big punch.

    Marciano fought during one of the division's weaker eras, but he did record wins over Hall of Famers Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Joe Walcott and Archie Moore. At 49-0, Marciano is the only man ever to retire as the undefeated heavyweight champion.

5. Eddie Futch and Joe Frazier

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    Eddie Futch would get my vote as the greatest boxing mind of the 20th century. He developed numerous world champions during a career that lasted a half-century, specializing in teaching to his fighters' strengths. Like all great trainers, he was a master of psychology and motivation, as well as a technical guru.

    Futch was not Joe Frazier's first trainer, but he's the one who developed Frazier's bob-and-weave, pressure style, which allowed Smoking Joe to make his diminutive stature an asset and helped him maximize the effectiveness of his punishing body attack and crushing left hook upstairs.

    Futch was the architect of Frazier's brilliant unanimous-decision victory in his first meeting with Muhammad Ali, noting how Ali's sloppy technique with uppercuts left him vulnerable to Frazier's monster hook.

    He also strategized for his other elite heavyweight, Ken Norton, to jab with Ali as a way to move inside and impose his physical power, leading to one win for Norton over Ali and two extremely close and hotly debated losses in rematches.

    In addition to his many world champions, Futch also trained lightweight contender Freddie Roach, and mentored the now Hall of Fame trainer as he broke into the business while his fighting career was coming to an end.

4. Emanuel Steward and Thomas Hearns

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    In Emanuel Steward's later career, he became a hired-gun trainer, sought out by high-profile fighters to come in and help them tighten up their game. Among his most notable charges in this vein were heavyweight champions Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko. 

    But Steward built his legendary status at the grassroots level while developing Detroit's Kronk gym into one of the most hallowed institutions in the history of the sport. Steward became an elite trainer at the amateur level and then professional level, working alongside his developing fighters. 

    And without a doubt, Thomas Hearns was Steward's master student. Under Steward's guidance, Hearns went from a skinny amateur prospect to one of the most dangerous punchers in the history of the welterweight division. 

    Like many successful trainer-fighter teams, Steward and Hearns helped each other evolve.

3. Cus D'Amato and Mike Tyson

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    Cus D'Amato had trained world champions long before he ever laid eyes on a teenage Mike Tyson. He developed Floyd Patterson into the youngest heavyweight champion of all time, a record later broken by Tyson. D'Amato had another world champion in light heavyweight Jose Torres. 

    But in Tyson he found the ideal piece of clay from which to mold his vision of the perfect heavyweight fighter. D'Amato was a proponent of the "peek-a-boo" style of boxing, in which a fighter holds the fists tight against his face and his arms pulled in against the torso. 

    It's a defensively brilliant technique but to attack successfully from the peek-a-boo requires a certain kind of fighter. The compact and explosively powerful Tyson was the physical ideal for the style.

    Tyson was in reform school when he met D'Amato, the man who would become his legal guardian. He was a street kid from Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood, with no obvious future before him. In a few short years, he had become the most feared boxer in the sport and a major international celebrity.

    Tyson and D'Amato are unusual on this list in that D'Amato did not live long enough to see his charge capture the world title. But without the work they put in together, day after day for years, that greatness would never have been achieved.

2. Angelo Dundee and Muhammad Ali

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    Angelo Dundee learned the trade of a boxing trainer as a "bucket man," at the renowned Stillman's gym, where he was mentored by such legends as Goldman and Arcel. He would go on to become one of the most successful cornermen in the history of the sport. 

    Dundee trained Ray Leonard and George Foreman, two of the biggest boxing stars of the past 40 years, as well as numerous other world champions, such as Carmen Basilio and Willie Pastrano. But his name will forever be linked with Ali. 

    Dundee took over training Ali early in the legendary champion's career and stayed with him during one of the sport's most storied and tumultuous careers. His quick-thinking bought Ali extra seconds when the young star was nearly out on his feet against Henry Cooper. Dundee's motivational talk kept the champ going through some of the most grueling wars the sport has ever seen.

    Outside of the ring, Dundee remained a calming presence and source of continual stability throughout Ali's most chaotic years.

1. Jack Blackburn and Joe Louis

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    If Jack Blackburn's reputation were based merely on his boxing career, he'd be familiar to only the most dedicated historians of the sport. But make no mistake, he was a first-rate professional during the rough-and-tumble days of the early 20th century. He fought multiple engagements against legends such as Joe Gans and Sam Langford. 

    His deep experience in the sport made him the ideal candidate in the mid-1930s when the African-American businessmen who had signed up to promote rising phenom Joe Louis went looking for a trainer. Developing a black world heavyweight champion in this era was a formidable challenge, as there had not been one since the controversial Jack Johnson. 

    Louis was a specimen with rare natural speed and power. What Blackburn gave him was skill. He taught his charge to move and control the ring and counter with his sledgehammer right hand. 

    The result was perhaps the greatest career in the history of the division, an unprecedented 12 years as heavyweight champion of the world.