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The Great Trainer: Mastering the Intangibles

By Jeff Stoyanoff

The Timothy Bradley-Devon Alexander fight appears to be back on and that is certainly good news. In the last couple of weeks there were those that speculated that it was Bradley who was avoiding a showdown with the talented Alexander. Personally, I found that to be absolutely absurd. Bradley wanted no part of Alexander? Based on what exactly? Alexander’s shaky performance against Andriy Kotelnik? I am quite certain that Bradley must have been very concerned about the way in which Kotelnik was able to land consistently with both hands for the entire 12 rounds, while Alexander seemed unable to adjust throughout.

Don’t be misled, Alexander is exceptionally talented, and indeed, that talent is what propelled him passed an exceptional technician and former champion in Andriy Kotelnik. In addition, Alexander showed a toughness and resolve that night that is often the domain of only the most special of fighters. To be sure, Alexander has all the tools both physically and mentally to make it to the top in a very tough division and he is most certainly capable of beating Timothy Bradley. Nonetheless, the lasting impression of Alexander’s fight with Kotelnik had to be the way that Alexander had to gut it out against a tougher than expected opponent. There were no spectacular highlights, no sensational knockdowns, and no strategic triumphs. Alexander simply did what he does and it was just enough….this time. It is hard to imagine that that night didn’t leave Bradley brimming with confidence. Factor in that Bradley is reported to be receiving one million dollars for a fight with Alexander and it is lunacy to think he would avoid the fight, in my opinion.

Beyond that speculation however, the fight raised another question for me as a boxing fan. Just what makes a truly great trainer? Kevin Cunningham was in Alexander’s corner that night in St. Louis as he always has been. And, predictably, he recognized the danger of the situation. A loss to Kotelnik wouldn’t have ended Alexander’s career, but even with his burgeoning star power, it would have set things back quite a bit. Alexander is being groomed for big money showdowns; showdowns that won’t happen if he can’t beat the likes of Kotelnik. Predictably, Cunningham was animated in the corner and he continually implored Alexander to box more and not stand in front of Kotelnik and open himself up for the counters that were coming fast and furious from a challenger rapidly gaining in confidence. Yet, round after round, Alexander seemed intent on simply standing in front of Kotlenik and out fighting him in front of a raucous home crowd eager to see their latest champion put on a show. In the end, the news was good, but the red flags were there.

Back to Cunnigham, what of his performance? His advice seemed solid and certainly well beyond a relative neophyte like myself. But, his fighter struggled and never did appear to adjust. Is there only so far a trainer like Kevin Cunningham can take any fighter? Or, is it more on the fighter himself? Is Devon Alexander only able to process so much before he simply is what he is in the ring? Not every fighter has the ability to think on the fly and seamlessly incorporate solid strategic advice in the midst of performing in the most instinctive and reaction based sport in the world. Perhaps we, as fans, are simply mesmerized by the special, once in a generation type fighters, who are able to do it and quite often make it look so easy. Thus, we come to expect too much from other fighters, like Devon Alexander. Still, it appeared that Cunningham and Alexander weren’t ready for Kotelnik and that has to raise questions about just how both might fare when the waters get deeper.

Perhaps the real genius of the trainer is to be found before the night of the fight. Perhaps the great ones are able to teach so well in the gym that the fighter can then just react on fight night having become so versed in the strategies of that particular bout that their split second maneuverings have become quite literally second nature. It is one thing to understand the X’s and O’s of the game, but perhaps imparting that wisdom is the crux of training genius.

Again, Cunningham appeared to know what to tell his fighter just as one would expect. Cunningham has taken Alexander this far, of course he understands the game. But, Alexander didn’t appear to be fully ready for what Kotelnik would bring that night. He wasn’t able to transition to a different style mid fight. Maybe he just disregarded the advice, but it is also quite possible that he wasn’t comfortable enough to adjust; he just wasn’t ready. Such reluctance could be the result of not being fully prepared which would have to fall under the responsibilities of Kevin Cunningham. Alexander survived thanks to his remarkable talent and the hard work he and Cunningham had put in, but it was not a fully triumphant evening. Yet, that which separates the top few trainers from the scores of other deeply knowledgeable trainers out there is perhaps even harder to figure.

What separates the likes of Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach from countless other coaches who know the game every bit as well? Freddie Roach is as close to Jackson and Auerbach as there is in boxing right now. He definitely has the talent to work with particularly in the case of Manny Pacquiao. But, it is interesting that Roach routinely suggests that he receives too much credit at times for the ascent of Pacquiao because Pacquiao is a truly special fighter who is not just physically gifted, but has an enormous boxing IQ that allows him to so readily understand and assimilate what Roach is trying to teach him. Even in cases where success is obvious, questions remain as to just how that success comes to pass. Thus, the refrain from the world of basketball, Jackson had Jordan and has Kobe, who couldn’t win with players like that? But, when you win so much there just has to be more at play then just talent.

Many coaches have scads of talented players and never win anything. Many trainers work with a plethora of talented fighters and can’t seem to take them to another level. There is a genius to coaching that is almost ethereal in nature. The ability to impart a wisdom held by many, but to do so in such a way as to make someone better than they ever were or even believe they could be is something that often can’t be quantified, but we know it when we see it.

Devon Alexander has a major test coming up and he might need to be better than even he imagines he can be to pass. Kevin Cunningham is an excellent trainer who will forget more about boxing than I will ever know. But, the ability to teach someone the sport is one thing, admirable and certainly possible especially with someone as gifted as Alexander. The ability to take a fighter and lead him into the circle that contains the best of his era is even more impressive and takes someone who really knows the game, even with someone as talented as Devon Alexander. But, this is the last step, the fights that will ultimately define the career of a truly special fighter in Devon Alexander.

There are no more overmatched fighters. From this point on, Devon Alexander will walk to the center of the ring and look across and see…Devon Alexander, in terms of talent and will. His success at this point will be harder to predict and even harder to understand; a subject of endless speculation. Phil Jackson has eleven titles and Don Nelson for instance has none, but I defy anyone to talk to them and determine any difference in understanding of the nuances and complexities of the game of basketball. What separates them? The players they coached? The ability to adjust to changing circumstances and situations? Or, something harder to determine?

Kevin Cunningham will prepare his fighter well. He will know the opponent and he will know what to tell his man in any and every eventuality. But, is understanding of the strategies and nuances enough at this level? Most likely it will not be the difference. Each fighter has talent and each trainer knows the game. Often times it becomes utterly unscientific. The player or team that wins is the one who was simply most prepared and ready to win. The training, the fight plan, the adjustments, and the myriad other factors will all devolve into a haze that produces the genius behind winning while clouding the factors that lead to the seemingly inevitable result.

Devon Alexander is stepping up and so to then is Kevin Cunningham. Adversity will come and find them again. They will know the answers, but knowing won’t be enough just as simply being blessed with talent will no longer be enough. The adjustments have to happen at this the highest level. Finding a way to overcome adversity and win has to become second nature now. The highly skilled and determined Timothy Bradley is the challenge that awaits Devon Alexander. But Kevin Cunningham might have it even tougher than his charge that night as he has his own daunting and intangible challenge to overcome; teaching a fighter to be great.

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