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Ailing Marv Marinovich Should Have Realized He Had a Son, Not a Science Project

Bernard Fernandez




The father, now 79, has a memory being wiped slowly clean by the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, so perhaps he remains oblivious to the horrific damage done to his family by his selfish if perhaps well-intentioned plan for creating an athletically flawless son. Then again, human history should have alerted Marv Marinovich to the folly of conducting scientific experimentation in flesh and blood, an exercise in self-aggrandizement periodically repeated by tyrants and madmen who thought it was all right for them to attempt to play God. The difference is that slaveholders intent on breeding their fittest specimens like cattle, and Hitler’s blueprint for creating a master race through a form of mass murder known as ethnic cleansing, did not involve the ongoing infliction of abuse and paralyzing pressure upon someone the obsessed experimenter purported to love more than anyone or anything.

Maybe Marv Marinovich really has loved his son, Todd, now 49, whom the father was always intent, even before his wife’s pregnancy, on making not just into a quarterback, but one crafted over time to someday represent perfection at the position. But it was not simply for Todd Marinovich’s own sake that so much time, effort and money was poured into an ultimately failed project; the companion goal all along was for Marv to be recognized and hailed as the genius he imagined himself to be.

The sad, tragic saga of the Marinoviches has been examined at length at various stages, through alternating moments of giddy highs and plunging lows. But the full extent of what went wrong has been laid bare in the current issue of Sports Illustrated, in a lengthy article authored by Michael Rosenberg. Entitled Learning to be Human, it is a follow-up to a similar SI story, Bred to be a Superstar, that appeared in the magazine’s Feb. 22, 1998, issue. Twenty years ago some particulars of Todd’s slide from grace, a downward spiral that saw him go from a first-round draft choice of the then-Los Angeles Raiders in 1991 (he was selected ahead of some guy named Brett Favre) and even deeper into drug addiction, were mentioned, but so too were elements of the big lie that still persisted at that time. If Todd had not capitalized as much as he might have on the advantages afforded him by his tunnel-visioned and deep-pocketed father, then at least some of the blame had to be his own fault, right?

Genetically well-suited for the kind of success plotted by Marv (more on that later), and relentlessly poked and prodded by the 14 specialists employed by the father, including biochemists and psychologists, to help squeeze out every ounce of the kid’s performance potential, Todd eventually was done in by a more gentle side of his nature.  An introvert, he liked football well enough, but he found a more satisfying way of expressing himself through his fine art studies at USC.  Then again, Marv hadn’t set out to create an improved version of Picasso or Monet, and try as he might no amount of parental bullying was going to instill into the son the same competitive fire that was forever raging inside Daddy Dearest’s internal blast furnace. It therefore should not have come as a shock to the psychologists on Team Todd that the young man nicknamed “Robo QB” began self-medicating himself in high school with all manner of pharmaceutical substances, eventually graduating from marijuana to cocaine, LSD and heroin while at USC.

As recently as eight years ago, an emotionally wrecked Todd still was delusional enough to parrot the key element of the big lie, that he had been a willing and even eager participant in a joint venture with his control-freak father that hadn’t really been foisted upon him since birth. “Someday people will realize what a genius you are,” Esquire quoted him as telling Marv.

But now those segments of the big lie that haven’t already been exposed as false are being revealed for what they were. The oft-repeated mantra that Todd had never consumed any unhealthy fast foods, carbonated beverages or desserts with refined sugar? The kid greedily gorged on Big Macs and Oreos slipped to him on the sly by his maternal grandparents, who wanted the boy to enjoy some small semblance of a “normal” childhood denied him by the son-in-law they also had come to fear. The whopper of a mendacity that Marv, under the guise of raising his only son with a brand of tough love that never crossed the line into brutality? The reality was that Marv smacked Todd around as if he were a sparring partner who was never allowed to strike back or even brook dissent. All it took to initiate a beating was for Marv to determine that Todd had not performed perfectly in that particular day’s practice or game, and he never did, at least not to his demanding father’s satisfaction.

As the father of two children that he fears he never will be able to raise as well as he knows he should, given that his own life is a perpetual morass of personal weaknesses and jagged scars upon his psyche, Todd at least has come to terms with the realization that continuing to repeat the big lie does no one any good. He now describes his father as a “raging beast” whose dictums he was powerless to reject or resist.

Only some of the facts of the Marinoviches’ tortured relationship were available to me when I interviewed Marv, who then was training MMA superstar BJ Penn, in advance of Penn’s main-event bout against Kenny Florian for UFC 101 on Aug. 8, 2009, the first such event to be held in the Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) Center in Philadelphia. Penn – who forced Florian to tap out on a rear-naked choke hold in the third round – was effusive in his praise of Marv’s somewhat unorthodox techniques.

“Everything happens the way it should. If I had won my last fight (a fourth-round stoppage loss to Georges St. Pierre in UFC 94 on Jan. 31, 2009), I probably wouldn’t have wound up with Marv,” Penn said. “But being that I did lose, I started thinking about going in another direction. I was frustrated; some people were beginning to question my desire.

“Then some buddies of mine introduced me to Marv, and it’s like losing my last fight was a blessing in disguise. I’ve always trained hard, but I trained like everyone else trained. Marv has opened my eyes to a different way, a better way.”

The Marv I interviewed then – by phone, as he had not traveled to Philadelphia with Penn – did not come across as a raging beast. Then again, Penn was merely his client, not the son whom he was doggedly determined to make over into his own image.

“BJ had some definite physical weaknesses,” Marv pointed out. “If you compete with weak links, you have to compensate and maybe even overcompensate for those problem areas. It can lead to injuries and stamina issues. Without question it can and does affect overall efficiency.

“They say athletic training in the past was prehistoric. I think it’s still prehistoric. Coaches in all sports – basketball, football, baseball, whatever – still believe the ability to lift heavy weights slowly is going to make you explosive and fast and increase limb speed. Nothing can be further from the truth. That’s why you don’t see boxers do traditional weightlifting. All that does is slow down the rate of muscular contraction. Bench-pressing, squatting and dead-lifting not only puts your body out of balance, it destroys limb speed. If you want to jump high and run fast, lifting heavy weights is not the answer. But people over here (in America) still think that it does. You’ve got strength-and-conditioning coaches all over the country who cling to the old methods.”

The training methods espoused by Marv Marinovich leaned heavily toward those devised by his counterparts in Soviet Bloc countries, which is hardly surprising. His over-the-top obsessive-compulsive personality might owe in large part to genetic makeup; his Croatian grandfather, J.G. Marinovich, is said to have been in the Russian Army and overseen the battlefield amputation of his own arm. Marv thus was raised to believe that he was from a line that was tougher than tough, so therefore his mission in life was to perpetuate the family tradition of absolute dedication to whichever task its members sought to undertake. And for Marv, the path to the higher purpose that defined his existence was on a football field. He was a starting guard on the USC Trojans’ undefeated national championship squad in 1962, a relentlessly driven and vocal leader so intense that his teammates voted him “most inspirational.”

It hardly mattered to Marv that his own NFL career with the Oakland Raiders lasted only three disappointing seasons and was marked by frequent injuries stemming from overtraining. He simply would funnel all the hopes and ambitions he once reserved for himself into the son he knew would be special, having specifically selected a USC swimmer, Trudi Fertig, as his bride not only because of her athletic  makeup but because she was the sister of his Trojans teammate, quarterback Craig Fertig. How could Marv’s yet-unborn son be anything but great with all that going for him, and especially with the expert technical assistance Marv planned to introduce into the child’s upbringing?

“It’s very sick,” Marv’s other child, a daughter, Traci, whom he shamefully neglected while solely focusing on Todd, said of a dysfunctional family dynamic that saw the father’s volcanic temper erupt with disconcerting regularity. It was one thing for Marv to lash out at strangers with balled fists, quite another when he took out his frustrations on Todd and Trudi, whom he once picked up and threw across a room onto a dining room table. The couple divorced in 1985.

So immersed in the notion of athletic dominance within his family circle was Marv that, when Traci got married in 1988, he refused to give her away and almost skipped the ceremony. His objection: Traci’s fiancé, Rick Grove, was not athletic enough. Marv even refused to shake his new son-in-law’s hand, or to be there for the births of the three children that Traci bore.

Imitation being the most common form of flattery, you have to wonder what might have been the result had an undamaged Todd blossomed into the superstar quarterback he was supposed to become instead of the drug-addled head case that now stands as a cautionary tale to all fathers who might otherwise be inclined to follow the Marv Marinovich playbook in the raising of their children. Even as Todd was refining his footwork and arm-angle release of his passes under the watchful eye of the experts brought in by Marv, the Robo QB was emotionally coming apart at the seams, an inevitable dissolution which must have been apparent to everyone but his father. Todd played only eight unspectacular games over two seasons with the Raiders prior to his release, and in 2004 the editors of placed him fourth on their list of all-time sports flops. One ESPN columnist absolved Todd of at least some of the blame, chastising Marv, with ample justification, as one of the worst sports dads ever.

While the road to ruin trod by the Marinoviches – forget football stardom, Todd may never become a fully functional human being and the Alzheimer’s-stricken Marv no longer can bathe himself without assistance or control his bodily functions – represents something of a worst-case scenario, theirs is a story that was, is and again will be played out by others, more than a few of whom have ties to boxing. It is a fine line that separates necessary commitment to the achieving of a goal and borderline insanity, and examples of those who tight-rope walk along that border are legion.

The pitched battles between International Boxing Hall of Famer Wilfred Benitez and his trainer-father, Gregorio, are the stuff of legend and caused Teddy Brenner, the late, great matchmaker at Madison Square Garden, to weigh in on a topic of eternal interest. Just who does or should run the show once a son, so used to acquiescing to his father’s unyielding discipline, decides he must live his own life?

“I’ve noticed it since (Wilfred) won the title and people began to pat him on the back and he realized he was an individual,” Brenner said. “Rebellion sets in. It happens all the time in the boxing business between father and son. Never fails.”

Former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney, now 62, had an ironworker father, Tony, whose  implementation of parental authority was nearly as stern as Marv Marinovich’s, minus the bloated crew of technical advisers. Author Charles Euchner, in an article entitled The Rise, Fall and Redemption of Gerry Cooney, examined the conflict faced daily by young Gerry, a gregarious sort who long sought the love of his dad, who either chose not to acknowledge his son’s needs or didn’t know how to.

“Sons with troubled relationships with fathers struggle to develop their own identity,” Euhner wrote. “They desperately want attention and approval, but they also want separation and independence. When they get too far away, they veer back toward their dads, no matter how much pain they get for the effort.”

Said Cooney, of his subsequent battles with depression, alcoholism and drugs, twisted relationships and squandered possibilities: “(Tony) would belt me with his hands, his belt. How do you do that to your kids? He drank and was very physical. He kept us under control. He kept us (Gerry is one of Tony’s eight kids, including three brothers) separated. We all had different hiding places. Mine was in the basement.”

It is a terrible thing when a bond that should have been based in love takes on the trappings of hatred, even if the end result is not always totally negative. Rosalio Pacquiao, father of Manny, took his son’s dog away from him, cooked it and ate it in front of him, inciting a traumatized Manny years later to run away on a ship headed to Manila where he turned to boxing; Fernando Vargas and James Toney so detested their absentee fathers that they imagined every opponent to be the man who had abandoned them, further fueling their desire to inflict beatdowns; and Shane Mosley, Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr. all fired their trainer-dads.

Nor is Marv Marinovich’s smothering obsession a detrimental trait exclusive to fathers who were absent the day patience, understanding and compassion were handed out. Masha Godkin, now a psychologist specializing in counseling performers, remembers what it was like to be constantly dragged to auditions by a stage mother who wanted to live out her dreams through a daughter who simply wanted a regular childhood.

“I felt if I didn’t get roles, I wasn’t good enough,” Godkin said. “Everything revolved around pleasing my mother. She wanted to be an actress. She assumed I did, too.”

Few if any magazine articles about sports are as significant as the one about the Marinoviches. After all, what is the most important job any man can have? President of the United States? Well, maybe. But with the possible exception of confirmed bachelors with playboy tendencies, for most males it is the linked responsibilities of being a husband and father. As the former for 50 years, and the father of four children (two sons and two daughters), I know I have not fulfilled those duties as well as I might have, but I hope to God I have met at least an acceptable standard in each instance. Both my sons are around Todd Marinovich’s age. I count myself fortunate that they sought and found their own path, and not one I attempted to force upon them.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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3 Punch Combo: Scoping Out Teofimo vs Nakatani, Ajagba vs Demirezen and More

Matt Andrzejewski




THREE PUNCH COMBO — Boxing on ESPN+ returns this Friday with a card from the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, MD headlined by the fast-rising lightweight sensation Teofimo Lopez (13-0, 11 KO’s). Lopez will be facing the undefeated Masayoshi Nakatani (18-0, 12 KO’s) of Japan in a final IBF eliminator to become the mandatory challenger for champion Richard Commey (29-2, 26 KO’s). While Lopez is a known commodity to most boxing fans, the same cannot be said of Nakatani. So just who is this unheralded fighter from Japan and does he pose any threat to Lopez?

Nakatani, 30, turned pro in 2011 after an amateur career that by most accounts consisted of somewhere between 50 and 60 bouts. As a pro, he has never fought more than three times a year and never outside of Japan, but by managing to stay undefeated he has crept into the Top 15 rankings of three of the four major sanctioning bodies in the lightweight division.

Looking closer Nakatani’s resume, the overall level of his competition is highly questionable.  Probably his best win was in his eighth pro fight when he won a 12-round unanimous decision against Ricky Sismundo. Sismundo has sprung some surprises in the past and as a matter of fact gave undefeated rising contender Maxim Dadashev a scare earlier this year, but this is the same Ricky Sismundo who was defeated by Ruslan Madiyev last week in California, bringing his record to 35-14-3.

Other than Sismundo, the names on Nakatani’s resume are hardly recognizable.

Nakatani, an orthodox fighter, is tall for the lightweight division standing nearly six feet in height. As such, he likes to work behind the left jab. However, that jab is not very sharp or powerful, but used as more of a range finder and to set up his right hand. Sometimes he will follow the right with a left hook but his primary offense is the left jab followed by the right.

Nakatani is not that athletic or quick inside the ring. His hand speed is below average for the division. He is also not a powerful or heavy handed puncher. The knockouts are more from his level of competition than anything else.

Here are a few other notes on Nakatani based on my observations: He does not like to fight on the inside and will initiate clinches when his opponent closes the distance. And he has a habit of trying to avoid punches with his legs, often times pulling straight back with his hands down. He has gotten clipped quite a few times but fortunately for him those fighters that have done so have not possessed big punching power.

I actually do think Nakatani is the strongest opponent for Lopez to date. That being said, however, I do not think he will give Lopez much trouble. Teofimo may get frustrated some by Nakatani’s constant clinching on the inside, and he may get hit with a few range finding jabs, but expect another Lopez knockout here sometime in the first half of the fight.

Under The Radar Fight

The attention of the boxing world this week is going to be focused on the big welterweight pay-per-view title fight between Manny Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KO’s) and Keith Thurman (29-0, 22 KO’s). Also on the show is an intriguing heavyweight fight that is falling deep under the radar between a pair of 2016 Olympians in Efe Ajagba (10-0, 9 KO’s) and Ali Eren Demirezen (11-0, 10 KO’s).

Ajagba, 25, represented his native country of Nigeria in the Super Heavyweight division of the 2016 Olympics where he lost to Ivan Dychko in the quarterfinals. Since turning pro, he has really turned heads, building a reputation as a fearsome puncher.

Ajagba is a big imposing heavyweight. He stands 6’5” tall and possesses a massive 85-inch reach. Best described as an aggressive boxer puncher, he will press the action, often times behind a very stiff and powerful left jab from the orthodox stance. Very athletic for a man his size, he possesses above average hand speed for the heavyweight division. His best trait is his power; he possesses legitimate one punch knockout power in both fists. The natural tools are all there for Ajagba to potentially one day be a dominant force in the division.

But there are things Ajagba needs to work on, namely his defense. Right now, he lacks any sort of head movement and often poses in front of his opponents after punching them to admire his work. He hasn’t paid yet for his lack of attention to defense but that may change as his competition rises.

Demirezen, 29, represented Turkey in the Super Heavyweight division of the 2016 Olympics where he lost to Filip Hrgovic in his opening fight. Since turning pro he hasn’t had much fanfare, but has amassed quite an impressive early pro record while fighting mostly in Germany.

Though he may not have the imposing physique of Ajagba, Demirezen possesses some solid skills as well as some surprising athleticism. As a matter of fact, I’d go so far as to call him a poor man’s version of Andy Ruiz Jr.

Demirezen will look to apply pressure behind the left jab and work combinations with his quick hands behind that jab. He does not really possess one-punch power but is heavy handed and his punches can take a cumulative effect on his opponents. His best punch is a quick left hook to the body that he often lands with precision.

If physiques won a boxing match, this would be no contest. But as we saw with Joshua-Ruiz, physiques don’t always win. Ajagba will be favored and rightfully so, but Demirezen can fight. This is an interesting fight between two undefeated heavyweight prospects who were recent Olympians and one that I am very much looking forward to on Saturday.

Prospect Watch – Luis Arcon

 There is a lot that gets me excited about the future of the sport. Not only is the sport being broadcast like it never has before but we have many good prospects who are beaming with talent. So many good prospects, as a matter of fact, that some very talented young fighters are falling a bit under the radar. One such fighter is junior welterweight Luis Arcon who moved to 8-0 with 8 knockouts this past Friday with a third-round knockout of Mario Lozano.

Like many of today’s top prospects, Arcon has a strong amateur pedigree. His amateur background includes representing his native country of Venezuela in the 2016 Olympics.

Arcon, 27, turned pro in March of 2018 in Mexico. So far he has breezed through his competition though it must be noted that he hasn’t faced the toughest of challenges. But he has looked very good so far in his early pro career and has been flashing some incredible talent.

Fighting from the orthodox stance, Arcon likes to work behind a well-timed and very powerful left jab. His footwork is excellent and he often positions himself at the right angles to land combinations behind that jab. He possesses very fast hands and can often fire off a volley of power shots before his opponent can react.

And then there is the power. Perhaps this is what stands out most when watching Arcon on video. Granted, as noted earlier, the competition has not been the stiffest, but he has displayed devastating knockout power in both fists. His best punch is the left hook to the body which often has a paralyzing effect on his opposition.

With his amateur background, Arcon is ready to take the next step in his career. His game is polished and he possesses massive power in both of his hands. He belongs on all top prospect lists and has a bright future in this sport.

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R.I.P. Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker, One of the All-Time Greats

Arne K. Lang




Tributes are pouring in for Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker who was killed last night (Sunday, July14) after being struck by a car while walking across a busy intersection in Virginia Beach, Virginia. An Olympic gold medalist who won six world titles in four weight classes,  Whitaker was a defensive wizard. At his peak he was considered the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. In 2002, The Ring magazine named him the 10th best boxer of the last 80 years.

Whitaker, who turned 55 in January, turned pro in 1984 at Madison Square Garden on a show that included five of his U.S. Olympic teammates – Evander Holyfield, Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Tyrell Biggs, and Virgil Hill.

As a pro, Whitaker was managed by Main Events, a Duva family company, and did most of his training in Philadelphia under the watchful eye of George Benton. In his 17th pro fight, Pernell ventured to Paris to challenge WBC lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez who was 100-6 going in. Whitaker came up short on the scorecards, losing a split decision.

This ranked among the worst decisions in boxing history. Whitaker’s chief second Lou Duva accused WBC president Jose Sulaiman of fixing the fight so as not to spoil an all-Mexico showdown between Ramirez and Julio Cesar Chavez.

Two fights later, Whitaker won his first title, taking the IBF lightweight belt from Greg Haugen. Pernell won all 12 rounds on two of the cards. He added the WBC belt in a rematch with Jose Luis Ramirez, winning a wide decision, and added the WBA belt with a first-round stoppage of Puerto Rico’s Juan Nazario in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Between his first fight with Ramirez and his April 4, 1997 encounter with Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas, Whitaker was undefeated, a span of almost 10 years consisting of 26 fights. During this run he won world titles at 140 and 154 pounds before dropping back to welterweight for four successful title defenses.

There was one “blemish” late in this 26-fight run, a draw at the San Antonio Alamodome with Julio Cesar Chavez. This was also controversial. The post-fight report by William Nack was the cover story in Sports Illustrated. The headline was “Robbed!”

Sweet Pea lost a unanimous decision to De La Hoya that most ringsiders thought was a lot closer than what was reflected by the scorecards (DLH won by margins of 4, 6, and 6 points). A poll of 26 ringside reporters by the Las Vegas Review Journal revealed that 14 scored it for Whitaker with one having it a draw.

Six months after his bout with De La Hoya, Whitaker opposed Andrey Pestryaev at Foxwood’s Resort in Connecticut. He won a unanimous decision but wasn’t himself. A post-fight urine test revealed the presence of cocaine. That dictated a six-month suspension during which he failed a random drug test. He wouldn’t step back into the ring until Feb. 20, 1999, when he opposed IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden.

This would the first fight in Whitaker’s remarkable career that he lost without controversy. Trinidad broke Pernell’s jaw during the bout and retained his title with a clear-cut unanimous decision.

Whitaker retired, but launched a comeback 26 months later with a fight in Lake Tahoe against Mexican journeyman Carlos Bojorquez. In this fight, Whitaker suffered a fractured clavicle in the second round. He soldiered on, but 27 seconds into the fourth, seeing that Whitaker was a one-armed fighter in considerable pain, referee Joe Cortez pulled the plug. This would be the final fight of his career. He left with a record of 40-4-1 and 1 “NC” (the Pestryaev contest).

Less than 48 hours later, back home in Norfolk, Virginia, Whitaker was rushed to the hospital with an apparent overdose. His girlfriend called 911 after finding him having a seizure on the floor of the bathroom, his body covered in sweat.

Sweet Pea, who worked as a boxing and personal trainer in retirement, appeared to have it all together back in June of 2007 when he was formally inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. His emotional speech was the highlight of the induction ceremony. But in 2014 he was back in the news again when he was forced to evict his 73-year-old mother from the home she had occupied for 30 years. He said that he could no longer afford to maintain the home which he had always kept in his name. The United Press wire story said that Whitaker had squandered millions on drugs and legal expenses.

The man that struck Whitaker with his vehicle remained on the scene. Preliminary reports indicate that the driver was not impaired in any way. We here at The Sweet Science extend our condolences to Whitaker’s family and loved ones.

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The Battle of Wits Between Roach and Birmingham May Decide PacMan vs. Thurman

Bernard Fernandez




The Battle of Wits Between Roach and Birmingham May Decide PacMan vs. Thurman

It is the boxers who are the center of attention, of course, and that is how it always has been and always should be. But there are a select few high-visibility bouts in which the lead trainers play a more significant role than usual, so much so that their prefight and in-fight strategizing could make the difference between victory and defeat for their guy.

Although it isn’t an undercard attraction in its own right, a mental scrap worth monitoring pits Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao’s longtime strategist and a seven-time winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America Eddie Futch Award as Trainer of the Year, against Dan Birmingham, a two-time BWAA Futch winner whose status as one of the elite trainers has dimmed somewhat over the past decade and a half. But the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Birmingham’s reputation could be buffed and polished to its former sheen should Keith “One Time” Thurman win as spectacularly as he has vowed to do on July 20.

The matchup of Pacquiao vs. Thurman might turn out to be just such a fight in which a spotlight, for better or worse, is shone upon the handiwork of the trainers. Those in attendance in Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena won’t able to hear their spoken instructions between rounds, but subscribers to the PBC on Fox Sports Pay Per View telecast should pay close attention to what takes place in those vital one-minute interludes when all the preparation that went before is either working as planned, or is undergoing a hurried rewrite on the fly. Seemingly unlikely victories have been procured, more often than casual observers of the sweet science might realize, because the chief second offers just the right bit of tactical advice or just the right inspirational message at precisely the right moment.

The prevailing story lines before the first punch that counts is thrown have been fairly standard stuff: Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs), the living legend and only world champion in eight separate weight classes, attempting to extend the outer limits of his prime at the improbable age of 40, and Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs), the WBA welterweight champion and 10 years Pacquiao’s junior, out to demonstrate that injuries and two-plus years of near-total inactivity haven’t done to him what the natural laws of diminishing returns might or might not have done to the Fab Filipino.

If there were sports books odds dealing with the corner battle involving Roach and Birmingham, Roach, a disciple of the late, great Eddie Futch who has had Pacquiao’s ear for their 16 years together, with the exception of a one-bout absence, almost certainly would be as much a favorite as Mike Tyson was over Buster Douglas or Anthony Joshua over Andy Ruiz Jr. Roach, 59, doesn’t need to make a case for his future induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as he already has been enshrined, in 2012. Should Pacquiao demonstrate that he is still an elite fighter of the here and now instead of a cherished but faded icon of the past, Roach could take a step toward an almost-unimaginable eighth Futch Award.

And Birmingham?

Like Roach, a former lightweight who posted a 40-13 record with 15 knockouts in a professional career that spanned from 1978 to ’86, Birmingham is a life-long devotee to a sport that got under his skin at an early age and took permanent root. Unlike Roach, who at one point was 25-2 and world-rated under the tutelage of the sainted Futch, Birmingham, 68, never even sipped the proverbial cup of coffee as a pro. He began boxing at 15, weighing all of 112 pounds, in his gritty hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, until he decided that sun and surf were preferable to soot and rust, necessitating a relocation to more pleasant environs along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

There are other differences between Roach and Birmingham, both subtle and stark. As a devotee to Futch, Roach was always in relatively close proximity to the old master’s retinue of stars and hot prospects, laying the groundwork for Roach to begin his own career as a trainer, if not exactly at the top, then at least a ways removed from the bottom. Birmingham, whose other passion besides boxing is rock ’n’ roll – he describes himself as a “guitar-playing 1960s hippie who was at Woodstock” – also had a mentor in Ben Getty, Thurman’s original coach, who took the Ohio transplant on as an assistant trainer to Thurman, then a youthful prodigy.

And while Roach has long since established his bona fides apart from Futch, who was 90 when he passed away on Oct. 10, 2001, to some it might appear that Birmingham is still playing the role of understudy to Getty, who was 63 when he died unexpectedly in 2009.

Thurman was a seven-year-old kid with no discernible purpose in life when he came into contact with Getty, a former serviceman whose post-military life had been unceremoniously reduced to that of a janitor at a Clearwater elementary school. It was Getty who brought Thurman to his after-school YMCA boxing program, where he learned – and loved – to shadowbox, jump rope and spar. It was like the boxing version of Luke Skywalker mastering nuances of The Force under Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda.

“Ben Getty was a very special man,” Thurman said in 2015.  “He was the one who taught me to go for the KO. He used to say this line that pissed me off a lot. I don’t know if he said it to piss me off, or if he just said it because he never wanted me to forget. But he used to say, `You are nothing without your power.’ It took me a long time to understand what that really meant.

“To me at first it was real basic. I took it as telling me I can’t box. Maybe to a degree he did mean that, but throughout the years as I reflect, I think he just never wanted me to forget how important my power is, and how my power has the ability to change the outcome of a fight.”

Getty’s sudden death left a still-developing Thurman at a career crossroads. Shelly Finkel, manager of or adviser to some of boxing’s greatest champions and biggest draws, recommended that Thurman turn himself over to Roach, whose Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles had become a preferred destination for fighters such as himself, brimming with potential yet to be maximized. Thurman politely declined, choosing instead to remain on home turf and with Getty’s right-hand man, Birmingham, who might have been better known at that time than Getty thanks to those two Futch Awards. Thurman continues to publicly revere Getty, wearing trunks with “Ben” stitched across the waistband. You might think that Birmingham takes at least some umbrage to that, but he insists it isn’t so.

“It hasn’t been uncomfortable at all,” Birmingham said of his station as a sort of ersatz Getty, as far as Thurman is concerned. “Ben Getty and I were very close friends. I gave him the keys to my gym so he and Keith could come and go as they pleased. When Ben passed away, just a couple of days later Keith came to me and asked, `Would you take over?’ I said, `Absolutely.’

“Keith’s history with Ben makes my job a lot easier. I don’t have to teach him any basics, that’s for sure. We just analyze the opponent, see what we need to do on fight night to win, and I train him that way. Pacquiao is a diverse fighter. He’s got quick hands, quick feet and he’s a good boxer. He’s fairly unpredictable.”

Not so Thurman, who apparently is holding firm to Getty’s sacred mandate that punching power must remain his No. 1 priority. He has predicted that Pacquiao will go down inside of six rounds, which might be easier said than done even against a Manny who no longer is at peak form.

Make no mistake, though, Birmingham should not be considered a Getty clone that has slavishly adhered to every verse from the Gospel of Ben. In 2004 and 2005, the years he won his Futch Awards, Birmingham was boxing’s tastiest flavor of the moment. His charge Ronald “Winky” Wright, who was inducted into the IBHOF in 2018, outpointed Shane Mosley in a super welterweight unification showdown on March 13, 2004, and followed that up with another points nod over Mosley the same year. In 2005, Wright turned in a career-best performance, utterly dominating Felix Trinidad en route to a one-sided decision, to which he added another UD12 over veteran Sam Soliman.

While Birmingham primarily was recognized for his work with Wright, he augmented his rising profile by taking a lesser talent, 2000 U.S. Olympian, Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy, to the IBF super middleweight title in 2004. Lacy won four times in those two years, three coming inside the distance.

It should be noted that Wright, a clever southpaw who was never known for his ability to get opponents out of there with one shot or even a semi-fusillade of them, was far different stylistically than is Thurman. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that this updated version of Dan Birmingham is no more an exact duplicate of Ben Getty than Freddie Roach is of Eddie Futch.

There are different methods by which a trainer gets his fighter to rise to the occasion when the stage is most brightly lit. Angelo Dundee, Lou Duva and Richie Giachetti, all regrettably gone, embodied the motivational techniques favored by excitable men of Italian heritage. Who can forget Dundee, in maybe the signature moment of his remarkable career, forcefully telling Sugar Ray Leonard, “You’re blowing it, son!”  after the 12th round of his epic welterweight unification matchup with Thomas Hearns on Sept. 16, 1981. An energized Leonard, his eyes swollen and behind on the scorecards, responded by flooring the Hit Man in the 13th round and stopping him in the 14th.

Futch and George Benton, also regrettably gone, were more professorial in their demeanor, rarely raising their voices and disinclined to resort to rah-rah stuff. If Thurman, who has a Nepalese wife and has walked the Himalayas in a quest to find some measure of inner serenity, were to seek out some ancient and wise soothsayer he could do worse than to come across some Tibetan version of a Futch or Benton.

So pay keen attention to the 60-second breaks between rounds when Roach – who, it should be noted, is listed as Pacquiao’s co-trainer, in addition to Manny’s friend and associate Buboy Fernandez – and Birmingham dispense their abbreviated instructions. Whoever wins those small battles of the brain might determine who wins the larger conflict inside the ropes.

Photo credit: Andy Samuelson / Premier Boxing Champions

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