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Q and A with Virgil Hunter, the BWAA’ 2011 coach of the year selection

By: Nick Bellafatto

I visited Kings Gym in Oakland, California earlier this week, and was privileged to speak with boxing trainer Virgil Hunter, godfather, mentor, and head coach of undefeated Andre “S.O.G.” Ward (25-0, 13 KO’s). Under the tutelage of Hunter, Andre would reach the top of the mountain as an amateur, culminating in a gold medal win at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. More recently, Virgil would be recognized by the Boxing Writers Association of America as the 2011 “Trainer of the Year” in recognition of guiding Ward to the top yet again, as the Oakland based fighter would unify the super middleweight division en-route to claiming the coveted Ring Magazine Championship belt.

In light of these achievements, coach Hunter has become a most sought after trainer with fighters the likes of Mike Dallas Jr., Brandon Gonzales, and Karim Mayfield, amongst others, seeking his training expertise. Here are some lasting impressions from an old school mind as he relates his views on boxing in general, and his thoughts on this weekends ESPN2 Friday Night Fights appearance by two of his newest charges, both Mike Dallas Jr. and Brandon Gonzales. Of course this interview would be lacking if I omitted having Virgil touch upon Andre Ward’ big showdown with Chad Dawson in September, so that is also a topic of discussion.

NB: Thanks for taking time out for this interview Virgil. You’ve been with Andre Ward since he was 9 years old. He dominated the amateur ranks’s to win a gold medal in 2004, and now he’s thoroughly controlled an entire division en-route to becoming one of the pound-for-pound best fighters in the world. This seems to have opened up the gates for you in terms of taking on other fighters. Can you comment on that, as well as on who you currently have under your tutelage?

VH: I do have other fighters. Michael Dallas, Brandon Gonzales, Karim Mayfield, Stan Martyniouk. These are young men who came and approached me and asked me for help. It wasn’t a solicitation type thing, and I felt that any young man that asks for help that I can see is serious in the business I would give them some help. So that’s how we started, and you know hopefully something good will come out of it.

NB: I asked you before and you said you were retired, so does the boxing game pretty much get most of your attention nowadays?

VH: I’ve been retired since 06 so boxing is pretty much most of my day. You know this is my job. I’m self employed in the business so it does occupy a great deal of my time on a daily basis.

NB: Does it seem like you’re juggling fighters, or do you only take on who and what you can handle comfortably?

VH: Well right now everything is pretty smooth because with Mayfield and Martyniouk and Dallas and all them, they’re basically the same weight class so that helps that situation. Gonzales is basically in the same weight class as Andre so that helps that situation. You know you have built in sparring and right now it’s going smooth. There hasn’t been anything that’s going to disrupt what I need to do. And I’m going to keep it in order anyway so that’s never going to be a concern.

NB: I feel that trainers should be well versed in teaching the fundamentals of boxing to start off with, to then branch out from there where differences in style, approach, and philosophy are pervasive. What do you feel are your best assets as a trainer, and could you talk about your approach towards individual fighters as regards imparting any philosophy or training knowledge?

VH: Well in Brandon, Michael’s case, Stan’s case, you know it’s not easy to take on past work, other coaches work, because they’ve developed certain elements to their game and things like that. So to come in and have a slightly different philosophy maybe, or even a different work ethic or different fundamental principles, it’s not easy. To take a fighter who’s been fighting like in Michael’ case, over 150 amateur fights I believe, 17 pro fights before he came, Gonzales maybe with 70 amateur fights and 14 or 15 pro fights, that’s a very slow process. It just doesn’t come over night. And then they’re in that area where they are still kind of like prospects. It’s not like they’re champions walking through the door. So you have your work cut out for you. And if you have the patience, if you have the teaching ability, and they want it worse than you want it, then something positive will come out of it.

NB: No doubt some fighters are more willing to learn than others but the reality is that nothing is learned until it is taught. To delve deeper, John Madden once made a comment about coaching and it went something like this. The definition of a coach is not just being someone who can recite or show their pupil what needs to be done, but a coach is a person who can actually get their student to act out under competitive circumstances what they’ve been taught in practice. In light of that, what type of message do you send or what works for you in terms of motivating individuals to respond appropriately, especially at the pro level?

VH: First of all they’ve got to believe in you, you got to believe in them. Without the belief and without the confidence, I mean you’re just wasting your time. They have to believe in you first. And then the coaching philosophy that you’re implementing in that particular individual, it has to make sense to them. I have to be able to convey it to them where it makes sense, where they understand what I’m talking about. And then thirdly they have to actually see these different things play out, whether it be in sparring, or whether it be in drills or whatever. It has to make sense mentally, and it has to show itself physically. So once you establish that part of it, then whatever you need to teach, whatever you need to implement, I think it comes a little easier after that.

NB: You mentioned at one point that to keep Andre Ward grounded and moving forward in his career that you as a team avoid absorbing much of the praise that comes your way and rather embrace criticism. Is that true that you said that, and if so can you elaborate on that?

VH: Well you have a choice of which one you want to take, because in this business the praise could turn into criticism real quick, and the criticism could turn into praise. So you’ve got to put yourself somewhere in the middle you know, because the majority of the people who report this sport are pretty unstable in terms of what they think they see or what they expect. So I think if you’re going to embrace one you should embrace the criticism, because praise doesn’t motivate you. You can sit on praise, you’ll stand up on criticism.

NB: Very well said. Team Ward is now confronted with arguably the biggest challenge to date in facing a coming out of his shell Chad Dawson in September, a man who is looking to further his name at the expense of Andre. It’s obvious that adjustments will have to be made to deal with Chad’ hand speed, but what things will you say to Andre to prepare him mentally for this challenge?

VH: You know I don’t think there’s much to be said. He [Andre Ward] knows what he’s up against and we know what we have to do. We’ve been together long enough to know exactly what we have to do and we recognize what we’re up against. So as the days go by we’ll establish a plan. We’ll establish a strategy and we’ll start working towards that. And then off of that we’ll have a plan B and C. Nothing changes from what’s been working for us.

NB: Andre hasn’t been in the ring since December of last year and won’t be in the ring until September of this year. When will training camp start, and do you expect him to show ring rust early on once the bell rings for his next title defense?

VH: Well training camp is always continuous for us, we don’t ever stop. And he’s not the type of fighter that shows ring rust because he doesn’t rely on one particular thing to work for him. So it’s very difficult to really get ring rust. I actually considered this a rest. Coming out of the tournament he had a broken hand and things like that. He was recovering from a cut eye. Just the wear and tear of the tournament. So I actually considered it a rest for him, so I don’t expect any ring rust at all.

NB: Speaking of hand, is Andre fully recovered and 100% ready to go?

VH: The hand is fully recovered.

NB: Apparently Dawson is not risking his light heavyweight title by coming down to the 168 pound limit, and maybe this is a better question for his trainer John Scully, but I’ll ask your opinion anyway. First off were you surprised by the fact that Chad Dawson is willing to come down to super middleweight, and do you consider that a mistake?

VH: No I’m not surprised. He said on more than one occasion even before he challenged for this fight that he’d become a super middleweight. He’s been saying that. So I’m not surprised. His folks said that he’s very light anyway. He doesn’t have a weight problem. He doesn’t scale down. And actually he’s right at the weight, at one end of 170 right now. So I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for him at all.

NB: You were and admirer of Larry Holmes who lasted atop of the heavyweight division for about seven years by primarily utilizing a jab. Now Andre has a very effective jab that sets the table for him in just about every bout. Was there a conscious effort from the beginning to have Andre feature that punch as a weapon, a punch which has just about become a lost art in the game?

VH: It was the first punch taught. It was the first punch taught. So I’m an advocate of the jab. I think it’s very necessary. And I don’t think that you can do some of the things that need to be done in a fight unless you not only use the jab, but have an understanding of how to use it and when to use it. So I’m definitely and advocate of the jab. That’s the first, the most important punch to me in boxing.

NB: On another note, two major fights have been recently cancelled due to positive steroid tests which have led many to believe that boxing is on a level where Major League Baseball is or was. Do you believe performance enhancers are more widespread than what appears to be on the surface, and how is this thing going to get fixed?

VH: Well, I mean you got people saying it. And then you have situations, although in these particular cases [Andre Berto & Lamont Peterson] it doesn’t seem like they were purposely trying to get a performance enhancement edge. One I guess was above the allowed limit and the other one seems to be contamination. So in those two fighters cases I don’t think that I can say that they were looking for an edge. I think in all sports, performance enhancement is prevalent. How bad it is and how widespread it is in boxing only one knows. But it’s definitely a subject that should be addressed. It’s definitely a subject that should be taken seriously.

NB: I interviewed Robert Guerrero recently and he is of the opinion that boxing is on a par with other sports where steroid use is rampant. He also feels strongly about the issue, commenting that there should be severe consequences for those who try to gain an unfair advantage because this is boxing and people are trying to put the hurt on you. In other words it’s perhaps a safety issue. Do you agree with that assessment, and what in your opinion are appropriate penalties for those who are caught?

VH: Well I mean I think his assessment as a fighter is right. Because the last thing you want is somebody to end up seriously hurt and then you find out that the person you fought was juiced up. That would really be a bad thing. So again it’s something that boxing needs to take serious, it something that they really need to diligently look into and have a plan to eradicate anything like that which might be going on.

NB: Let me ask you this. With all the supplements and things of that nature being marketed, what’s wrong with fighters just putting in a solid day of training, getting proper rest, and eating well? Have boxing and other sports in general gone to a place where they can’t find their way back to the basics?

VH: Well I mean you know it’s like in most sports, until you get to the big time, you know you don’t get to the big time money. So If guys want that money and they see an opportunity for the money, you know the temptation to get ahead is there. So some guys might fall on that edge. But of course I’m sure any fighter who is a world class fighter knows the importance of nutrition and rest, and you know doing things the right way. But I’m sure there are some who wouldn’t mind maybe looking for a little something extra.

NB: Back to matters at hand. You have both Mike Dallas Jr. and Brandon Gonzales appearing on Friday Night Fights this coming week. You obviously know their strengths and weaknesses, but what of their opponents, and what do you expect from Mike and Brandon who are both intent on breaking through to the upper echelons of the sport? Let’s start with Mike Dallas.

VH: Well plain and simple Michael Dallas is in a tough, tough fight. And there’s no sense in asking at this stage why he’s in a tough fight because if you look at his career and look at other prospects in comparison, I don’t think anybody has had a tougher road in terms of who they’ve fought than Michael Dallas. And who he’s been put in there with, that’s no surprise. And once again he has to face a tough, tough opponent. The thing is that he’s handled that, with the exception of the fight that he lost, that he got stopped in, which I don’t think he was really prepared for that fight. I mean at the time you’re talking about a young man with 15 fights going up against a guy with 30 fights. So why that fight was made I don’t know. But I don’t think he was prepared for the tactics that his opponent used in that fight, but I think he learned from it.

NB: Your talking about Josesito Lopez right?

VH: Josesito Lopez. I think he learned from it. I don’t think he prepared for it, but I think he learned from it. And I think that once he and I got together that he got an understanding of what he’s up against in this business and the path that he was most likely going to have to take. Because he doesn’t have a fan base like most African Americans fighters don’t. So when you don’t have that going for you your road is a little tougher. You know they’re not going to preserve or protect you as easy as they would somebody who has a fan base. You can see it’s gonna be tough to make some money down the line. So in that case he’s got a tough route. But so far with the exception of that fight I think that he’s proven he’s willing to take that route because really he has no other choice. So there’s no doubt he’s in a tough, tough fight against a kid who can punch. I don’t know if he’s expected to win the fight, but in my eyes he will win this fight, and it will be in dominant fashion.

NB: How about Brandon Gonzales?

VH: Well you know Brandon just came out of a long years layoff to fight a tough, tough guy like Ossie Duran on Showtime, a network that he’d never been on. I don’t think he’d even been on TV. So that was a new experience for him. He was nervous in that fight like any fighter would be. I think Brandon is still finding out who he is and learning who he is. When I think about Brandon and when I talk about Brandon I talk about unlimited potential physically, but still he’s a little behind mentally in the game in terms of finding himself. So it just depends on who shows up that night. And what I mean by that is that he might definitely stink the place out, but he’ll still win the fight. I just think he understands where he is in this business, particularly against the guy he’s getting ready to fight because he’s expected to look good against him. So he has to make sure that’s what happens.

NB: Now you said he has some drawbacks mentally, how does that play out in the ring, or what things is he lacking in as far as what transpires during a bout?

VH: Well no I didn’t say drawbacks. What I’m saying is that he hasn’t gotten to some of the areas mentally where he should be at right now. And that could’ve come from the layoff, that could’ve come from a variety of things. This is just my personal assessment. This is our second fight together. We’ve been together now I think about six or eight months. So he’s still learning the sport. He started boxing at twenty years old. So when you’re looking in terms of years put together, you know he had what, 54, 56 amateur fights, something like that, 15 pro fights. He hasn’t even had a total of 70 fights. So mentally he’s still learning the game and is still finding out who he is. It’s because of his physical attributes that he’s been able to so far hang in and do well. He’s an athlete. Mentally, if that part catches up with the physical, then we’ll have something. You know it’s going to take time. He has some pressure, he has to win and look good while he’s taking that time to see where he is in a sport that’s unforgiving. So I consider him in even a tougher position Friday than Michael because he’s expected to win and look good against a guy I believe is 6-4 with 3 knockouts, whereas Michael I don’t think is expected to win. So I think Brandon has more pressure on him then Michael.

NB: Virgil I want to thank you for your time, that was a great interview. I’ll be down there [San Jacinto] covering the fights and we’ll see what happens.

VH: Thank you


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