Gritty guru

| IBF wel­ter­weight cham­pi­onship, Er­rol Spence Jr. (22-0-0, 19 KOs) vs. La­mont Pear­son (35-3-1, 17 KOs), 8 p.m. Satur­day (Show­time) Pro­fes­sion­als in and out of box­ing learn from cham­pion’s trainer

The Dallas Morning News - - Sports Day - BARRY HORN The Ring Twit­ter: @bhorn55

BARRY HORN bhorn@dal­las­news.com

Back in 2012, af­ter he helped guide his most pro­fi­cient pro­tégé to a place on the U.S. box­ing team at the Lon­don Olympics, another of the trainer’s charges asked a log­i­cal ques­tion.

“Have you thought about rais­ing your hourly rate?” the savvy busi­ness­man with the bil­lion-dol­lar cre­den­tials asked his $130-an-hour trainer.

“No,” Der­rick James, who learned his craft back in the old neigh­bor­hood at the Oak Cliff Boys & Girls Club, told Ross Perot Jr. “I’m happy mak­ing what I do.”

At bet­ter than $2 a minute, James reck­oned, he was do­ing just fine. No need to get greedy.

“Any­thing more would have been un­rea­son­able,” he says now.

More than five years af­ter help­ing that Olympic pro­tégé, Er­rol Spence Jr., to the IBF sliver of the wel­ter­weight ti­tle and recog­ni­tion as the top 147-pound boxer in the world, James’ rates still haven’t budged.

Even Spence’s last fight, which won the boxer a wel­ter­weight world ti­tle and the ad­di­tion to the ros­ter of Hous­ton’s Jer­mell Charlo, who won his su­per wel­ter­weight ti­tle un­der James’ guid­ance, hasn’t moved the trainer to in­crease the rates he charges the “white-col­lar” clients who bal­ance his work­load.

Most of his 40-plus “white col­lars,” male and fe­male, visit his cozy, glass-en­closed “stu­dio” at the Cooper Fit­ness Cen­ter. For se­lected oth­ers, such as Perot, James makes house calls.

Count Perot, who has worked with James for seven years, among the trainer’s big­gest fans.

“Ob­vi­ously, he is a great trainer,” Perot said last week. “But he is also a great hu­man be­ing. He is a very kind and gen­tle per­son in such a hard busi­ness.”

Just last month, while in the midst of work­ing with Spence for the boxer’s first de­fense of his In­ter­na­tional Box­ing Fed­er­a­tion ti­tle, James was named 2017’s trainer of the year by mag­a­zine, one of the sport’s most pres­ti­gious brands. James also has been no­ti­fied by those in other cor­ners of the most frac­tured of sports that other hon­ors may be on the way.

When awards comes up in con­ver­sa­tion, James shakes his head, looks em­bar­rassed, of­fers a sheep­ish grin and re­treats.

“Gotta get back to work,” he says. “That’s what pays the bills.”

Most days, James, who es­ti­mates he has 40 “white-col­lar clients,” works his Cooper Fit­ness job on a sprawl­ing North Dal­las campus. He re­ports there at 6:30 a.m. and likes to head home about 5 p.m. Sev­eral hours in be­tween, how­ever, are carved out for train­ing his pro­fes­sional box­ers at the gritty R&R Box­ing Club, across town and a world away where it is tucked into a strip mall just off Harry Hines Boule­vard.

His at-home ses­sions usu­ally start at 5:45 in the morn­ing, al­though he can start ear­lier when clients’ pri­vate jets are be­ing prepped for take­off.

Di­verse clien­tele

In re­cent years, James has added to his Cooper clien­tele to in­clude men and women bat­tling Parkin­son’s dis­ease. They find box­ing a proper elixir to help with de­te­ri­o­rat­ing mo­tor skills.

On a re­cent morn­ing at Cooper Fit­ness, a mid­dle-aged client, a re­tired ex­ec­u­tive bat­tling the dis­ease, walked slowly into James’ stu­dio.

Her doc­tor, she would later ex­plain, en­dorsed box­ing ther­apy as a means to work on her mo­tor skills and hand-eye co­or­di­na­tion.

But she be­gan their weekly con­ver­sa­tion not with her stan­dard greet­ing but with a “con­grat­u­la­tions.”

“I guess that’s what is in or­der for the trainer of the year,” the woman, who re­quested she not to be iden­ti­fied, told her trainer of three years. “My friend heard the news. Word is get­ting around.”

Dur­ing their 30-minute ses­sion, James called on her to throw var­i­ous pink-gloved com­bi­na­tions of punches into his mitts. They made pitty-pat sounds cer­tain to go un­heard in a clas­sic box­ing gym where the leather meet­ing leather makes thun­der­ous noise. But their im­pact at Cooper re­mained loud and clear.

“Know­ing that he is the best in his field makes me want to train more,” she said. “I’m lucky to have him.”

In case you are won­der­ing, James has no plans to give up the “white col­lars” with whom he has been work­ing for 16 years in fa­vor of adding more hard­scrab­ble, “black and blue” pro­fes­sion­als.

Mar­ried and the fa­ther of three with a home in the south­ern Dal­las County city of Glenn Heights, he val­ues the steady in­come.

“You never know what to­mor­row will bring,” said James, whose pro­fes­sional agree­ments are based on hand­shakes.

“Also, I have gained a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of what it’s like to work with all kinds of peo­ple from all kinds of back­grounds. The Parkin­son’s peo­ple, for ex­am­ple, have taught me a new level of com­pas­sion and un­der­stand­ing I can use in any gym.”

Solid ref­er­ences

Der­rick James, who turns 46 this month, fol­lowed an older brother into what was then the Oak Cliff Boys Club, where he fell hard for the box­ing pro­gram. That was four decades ago.

Even­tu­ally, James met Tay­lor Au­gust, whom he refers to as the “most in­flu­en­tial man in my life.” When Au­gust wasn’t on the job at the U.S. De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion’s divi­sion of civil rights, he was train­ing young men in the Boys Club’s ex­pand­ing am­a­teur box­ing pro­gram.

Au­gust helped de­velop James into a world-class am­a­teur who would set­tle in as a 168-pound su­per mid­dleweight when he turned pro at age 20 in 1992.

James’ pro­fes­sional ca­reer lasted 16 years. He ran up a 21-7-1 record in fights staged mostly around Texas. When he ven­tured out West to train in Roger May­weather’s famed Las Ve­gas gym, one of the other fighters there was Roger’s up-and-com­ing nephew, Floyd Jr.

James once boxed his way into the top 10 in the world in his weight class. He fought for sev­eral lower-level al­pha­bet ti­tles but never won any of them.

As the end of his box­ing ca­reer be­came in­evitable, James de­cided he wasn’t ready to give up the game. A friend told him about a help-wanted list­ing she had no­ticed. A lo­cal gym was look­ing for a box­ing coach. James en­dured a bat­tery of seem­ingly never-end­ing in­ter­views and, he sus­pects, a co­pi­ous back­ground check from Cooper Fit­ness be­fore he landed a job.

Word of mouth has been his strong­est ad­ver­tis­ing. For ex­am­ple, it was Ross Perot Jr.’s son who first worked with James. Also, it was Diane John­ston, who trained with James be­fore she in­tro­duced him to her hus­band, the former Cow­boy.

Moose John­ston said he dis­cov­ered a “great work­out” with “a solid coach” that al­lowed him to “re­lease my angst since I was no longer hit­ting guys on the field.”

Tay­lor Au­gust, who trained the trainer as a boxer, said he isn’t sur­prised by his pro­tégé’s suc­cess.

“Der­rick was al­ways a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than the oth­ers in my gym,” said Au­gust, who will be 84 in Fe­bru­ary and still shows up when called upon to ad­vise James with his pro­fes­sional fighters. “He al­ways wanted to know why we did things. He was driven to suc­ceed. He was never flam­boy­ant. He was re­spect­ful of ev­ery­one. He wanted to learn to deal with all kinds of peo­ple. It was like he was al­ways prepar­ing for life af­ter he fin­ished fight­ing. It sim­ply worked out that his life af­ter he was fin­ished box­ing is still cen­tered around the sport.”

A cham­pion’s muse

Der­rick James was still in the fi­nal stages of his own box­ing days but al­ready work­ing at Cooper Fit­ness when he spot­ted the teenaged Spence fight­ing on a lo­cal am­a­teur card.

James no­ticed that Spence was do­ing the same thing “over and over” in the ring. He was sim­ply far too pre­dictable.

The left-handed Spence ha­bit­u­ally dou­bled up with right jabs be­fore un­leash­ing his more pow­er­ful left hand.

When James voiced his ob­ser­va­tion, it res­onated with Er­rol Spence Sr., a driver for Fed-Ex who knew just enough about box­ing to know his son needed some­one to guide him to the next level.

“Can you help him?” the fa­ther asked.

And so a young fighter and his watch­ful fa­ther found a trainer. Nei­ther could know the re­la­tion­ship would last this long.

James had no way of know­ing that Spence Jr. would be at­tack box­ing with sin­gle­minded de­ter­mi­na­tion and ded­i­ca­tion.

Plenty of young fighters have tal­ent. Plenty have de­ter­mi­na­tion and dis­ci­pline. Few have a lethal com­bi­na­tion of both that Spence soon showed James.

James trained Spence to myr­iad am­a­teur cham­pi­onships.

In 1992, James’ Olympic hopes ended at the U.S. tri­als. Two decades later, James was in Spence’s corner when Spence earned a trip to Lon­don as a mem­ber of the U.S. Olympic team.

James may have been al­lowed to guide Spence to ev­ery am­a­teur’s promised land, but the rules pro­hib­ited him from work­ing the fighter’s corner at the Games. Spence was the fi­nal U.S. boxer to be elim­i­nated in Lon­don. Without James whis­per­ing in his ear, Spence proved too easy a tar­get for his more sea­soned Rus­sian op­po­nent, who would cap­ture a bronze medal.

With James back in his corner from the mo­ment he turned pro, Spence hasn’t lost since.

While Er­rol Sr. re­mains a sooth­ing pres­ence in his son’s corner dur­ing train­ing and on fight nights, James is the only voice al­lowed to talk to Spence while he is work­ing.

Their march to 22 con­sec­u­tive pro­fes­sional vic­to­ries has come with thun­der­ous punches to the body fol­lowed by light­ning knock­outs. Nine­teen of the 22 vic­to­ries have ended ei­ther by knock­out or with an op­po­nent un­will­ing to con­tinue.

James and Spence’s recipe for in­flict­ing the most dam­age has been the pa­tient de­liv­ery of body shots that cause the most pain. They even­tu­ally force op­po­nents’ hands to come down and feet to slow down, leav­ing their heads an invit­ing, un­pro­tected tar­get.

In Spence’s knock­out that earned him his IBF ti­tle in May, Kell Brook, who en­tered the ring the cham­pion, went down in what would be the penul­ti­mate 10th round as a re­sult of a bar­rage of punches. He took a knee in sur­ren­der in the 11th be­cause he could no longer see out of his left eye.

James’ trainer was pleased by the fighter’s per­for­mance. But it wasn’t per­fect. That’s the elu­sive tar­get.

“My goal for Er­rol is for him to go out and con­tin­u­ally per­form at the high­est level he can,” James said. “I try to see what he is not able to see in the ring. I know he goes into the ring pre­pared.

“Dur­ing his fights, I fo­cus not so much on what Er­rol is do­ing, but what his op­po­nent is do­ing. Then in the corner, we talk about what to do next.”

More ac­cu­rately, James talks and leaves it to Spence to ex­e­cute.

“He has a de­ter­mi­na­tion that is amaz­ing,” James said. “He was al­ready a great nat­u­ral ath­lete. I show him where he needs to go, and he adopts that and gets there his own way.”

That’s as close to re­veal­ing what the game plan for the 28-year-old Spence will be when he steps into the ring at Brook­lyn’s Bar­clays Cen­ter on Satur­day against chal­lenger La­mont Peter­son, a former cham­pion who is six years older, has eight years more ex­pe­ri­ence and is 35-3-1 as a pro. The fight will be tele­vised by Show­time, the pay-cable net­work.

Perot, who tries never to miss Spence and James in per­son or on TV, planned to be there. But busi­ness in Europe won’t al­low it.

“I have ev­ery con­fi­dence in the out­come,” he said.

Late last week, James and Spence were sur­rounded by tele­vi­sion cam­eras, cell­phone cam­eras, re­porters and a throng of fans on “me­dia day” in the sud­denly cramped R&R Box­ing Club.

When the topic turned to the “trainer of the year,” Spence did the bulk of the talk­ing.

“This is what we have worked for col­lec­tively,” Spence said. “I have seen the grind, I have seen the process from [Der­rick] putting in the work and him be­ing ded­i­cated ... He has been grind­ing just like me. And for him to get it, I con­grat­u­late him. It’s a great feel­ing to have my coach, coach of the year.”

Soon af­ter the quasi-train­ing ses­sion for the ben­e­fit of the vis­it­ing cam­eras was over, James had to leave as well. He had busi­ness across town to at­tend to.

“I need it,” James said. “It keeps me nor­mal.”

Nathan Hun­singer/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Trainer Der­rick James is noted for his work with IBF wel­ter­weight box­ing cham­pion Er­rol Spence Jr. but also serves as per­sonal trainer for many area men and women out­side the sport. He was named the 2017 trainer of the year by “The Ring” mag­a­zine.

Pho­tos by Nathan Hun­singer/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Der­rick James works with Cass Wright, one of his clients at the Cooper Fit­ness Cen­ter in North Dal­las. When he’s not lead­ing his “white-col­lar” charges, James trains a col­lec­tion of pros at R&R Box­ing Club just off Harry Hines Boule­vard.

James, who turns 46 this month, had a 16-year pro box­ing ca­reer be­fore mov­ing into train­ing.

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