A Sojourn In Doing Work
by Al Alvir
Walking out of St. Bernard’s Hall after the opening round of the 85th Annual New York Daily News Golden Gloves, I was struck with a feeling of anger. Anger at amateur boxing scoring, and anger at ignorant spectators. Friends, fans, and fake-friends can say whatever they want about what could have been done, but they don’t know what the camp knows about what was done. No one else knows what went into that fight. No one knows the discussions and the preparation. To lose on the brink of victory was an agony that a fighter can be proud of while the misery weighs on his stomach alone. Well, my stomach too.
My head even felt like it was ringing from some good shots, and I was only working the corner.
6 months ago, I invited my friend DJ Morrissey’s younger brother, Eric, to come train at my house gym. He didn’t know anything about boxing. He punched like a baseball player, but he moved like clay and he followed commands like a robot. He convinced me that he wanted to absorb every nuance of boxing from the foundation up. After a couple days, I instructed him to get comfortable throwing touches because boxing is a fine skill, not a toe to toe brawl. He understood that he was not really a big guy, so I wanted him to box and move. He was an average looking heavyweight, weighing in at 194 lbs., and I thought, “If I could get him to sit on those shots right, he could rock someone. But can he be calm and take a punch?” After two weeks of showing up on time, not flinching during mitt-work, and doing what he said he’d do, I considered that this kid might be a fighter.
I was used to years of guys who couldn’t remember to bring their hands back to their faces. I knew Eric from some previous acquaintance, but he was another type of good, respectable, and respectful guy in my gym. Sort of like a soldier. He took boxing more serious than anyone else I’ve trained as a beginner. I know he did his homework. Other guys clearly lie. When you come back and you don’t bring anything new to the gym like a new pop in a punch, a quicker step, or an extra round, a trainer questions you. I tracked his punch output and the number of ab-work reps he did per round, and they increased every week.
Eric showed up every day. He was on time. He muscled through training and sweated faster and more than the regular guy. I promised him, if he would just stay mentally strong, I’d guide him. I welcomed him to test me, test my knowledge, in order for him to know that I was the real deal when it comes to the technical skills of boxing. I wasn’t going to let him in that ring throwing punches “like an asshole,” as we vulgarly describe how it looks when guys with bad technique dare shadowbox in public. He worked out with DJ and lapped his progress exponentially. There were only one or two times Eric showed frustration unbecoming of a fighter. I remember telling him that I was disappointed that he reacted like that. I told him what I tell all my fighters, to “deal with it and keep going. I’m right here.” From that day on, Eric didn’t stop until he heard my command or heard that bell – even in the gym. He had the look, dejected at himself, and he told me, “That’s my bad. It’ll never happen again coach.” I believed him. He made me believe him. He asked for a locker and retracted, “Actually, I know you want me to earn it.”
I have experience, so I figured this guy I outweighed by about 70 lbs. couldn’t hurt me. I also knew that meant I couldn’t box my own overweight shadow for any serious fighting, but I asked Eric to move around with me for one round. He didn’t hesitate to put on the gear. I remember catching him with two decent shots and he didn’t “get retarded,” as we call it in the gym. Eric didn’t turn his back or do some move we never practiced. He didn’t even leave the pocket. And he didn’t seem hesitant to punch me back. The biggest thing I noticed was that he didn’t lose any cool in there. I was so impressed; it’s hard to put something so subtle and intangible into words, but I just saw something in him; maybe it was just instinct. The next day, I asked Eric if he wanted to sign a contract and make the New York Daily News Golden Gloves our goal – a lofty one at that.
He enthusiastically signed his life to me.
My fighters go by a number system that I developed along with MotionFACT Fight Analysis – a software system I conceived many years ago and developed with Wilson Lee, engineer. In it, every punch has a number. Body-blows have numbers. Head movement has a number to indicate location. For communication purposes, we train cut-offs and pick-offs. Everything is broken down into a system. Even counter-punching and “punching while the other guy is punching” is tracked. All boxing trainers do the strategy to varying extents, but it’s just my way of simplifying what needs to be done with fighters. It sounds complicated, but it is ridiculously easier than drawn-out instructions.
Eric knew nothing about MotionFACT software, but he learned early what something like a “slip the 2-1-12-deep 3 spot-13-pivot” was. In a regular boxing gym, that’s a whole lot of confusing jargon. So, I think it helped Eric, as it does with other guys, shortening the learning curve. Eric was a tough Irish kid who began moving like a greener version of John Duddy, pun unintended. He didn’t turn his hips quite like I wanted. He didn’t know how to get cute even shadowboxing. And he wasn’t fluid like a dancer. But in time, he learned how to pop his shoulders at different spots. He understood the strategy and set-ups. He approached boxing with the respect the science deserves.
I only wondered: does this kid have the heart I believe he will have?
Eric wasn’t a typical Floral Park kid. He was “never a herb” as one of his close friends noted. Unassuming is a clichéd way to describe fighters who don’t look the part, but Eric actually does look like a fighter to anyone who knows fighters. In a crowd of annoying loudmouths and chest-puffing pussy-cats, one would be smart to assume that the guy who doesn’t have his hat cocked sideways eyeballing every guy who walks in the room is the fighter; that’s Eric. Eric doesn’t do drugs but he was humble enough to be associated with self-described quasi-junkies. Eric, not a street-kid by any estimation, seemed quietly confident in any situation even before becoming a fighter. He’d fight anyone.
By many accounts, Eric was always just a good kid who didn’t get into problems unless DJ got him into one. I see him as a Queens kid who didn’t suffer from the insecurities of a lot of adolescents who live on a border of two towns where two identities oppose each other, where idiotic youth have to prove they’re from the realer side. As an adult with a Master’s degree in psychology, he proved to be someone who not only didn’t care how big the next guy was or where the next guy was from. Eric never gave two shits about his own size or where he himself is from. It’s just whatever. That’s real. So, I had a guy whose approach was so right that only two things changed outside of that phone booth ring (what we call my ring): his weight and abstinence from the occasional beer. I was invested in the kid and he probably didn’t know it. I began to care for Eric almost like a son; I thought, “Imagine when my real son fights. I’m gonna be a mess, then.” I wanted to do everything I could to make sure he realizes the achievement of being able to compete with someone who trains to take him out. I thought, “I now have a 165 pound monster-to-be… with determination and discipline… we just gotta get some sparring and find that hunger?”
When I was a kid who jumped from boxing gym to boxing gym, I used to say, “I’d drop out of high school if someone believed in me.” It goes to show my lack of character that I needed someone else to validate me and see my potential, but it’s a great anecdote that precedes my work as a trainer. I still don’t understand how those trainers didn’t see how devoted I could have been with the right guidance, and that’s what I want to offer any child or adult who I train. I aim to offer guidance and to find something to believe in my fighters, even if it’s the most minor goal to someone else. All I wanted in return was them doing work. I give, they give. I just don’t want my kids dropping out of school. When I see a fighter who gives his time and commitment and his own motivation to the art, it makes me work harder. It’s a bond maybe only the trainer feels.
I called about 30 boxing gyms in the five boroughs for sparring. I got zero call-backs. Zero. Some guys I managed to speak with said they’d call me back. It never happened. I even followed-up to no avail. Steve Gentile of Core Boxing in Howard Beach was my first success. Steve was a great help for me, as he had one of his guys, Carl, spar Eric. Eric felt the nerves of going to another gym. Two new guys with little ring experience, but good training, managed to do good work. Eric worked some planned moves that made me realize, just that night, that Eric is making some fast progress. Another trainer would say it is premature, but I felt Eric could get better to at least win the first round of the Golden Gloves tournament. Plus, the guys at Core Boxing were nice enough not to let Eric get beaten-up too bad. He walked out with his chin down but his head high. I owe thanks to Steve, Carl, and the other guys who offered the good work.
After that, training took off. Eric was moving better every week. He got his locker, and his confidence soared. Yet I didn’t have to check his ego because he was humble. Against a 201 pounder, Pierre, from Kingsway BC, Eric got bloody, as he was every other week, but he held his own. DJ makes fun of Eric’s nose, bound to break but bloody with every breath. “His nose bleeds when he sleeps,” DJ mocked him, along with other borderline anti-Semitic pokes. Pierre surely had to hold back some, but the boxing was good on both sides. Eric faced guys of various sizes. The best day of sparring was also our low point of camp. It was at the Westchester Boxing Club. Nicky “Knuckles” Delury, a very knowledgeable boxing trainer, asked me to train some fighters at his gym. I told Nick about Eric needing some more work, as he had hopes of going into the gloves, so we set-up a 5 round round-robin. Eric had some medical issues that week, but I had a rule: no copping pleas and no missing sparring with other gyms. I note that because I learned something from that experience – Eric could deal with adversity, even if it’s not just the tall, heavier, and more experienced guys on the other end. Eric got his head-whipped. He didn’t jab and he didn’t move his head. He threw too few punches. He kept looking for his shot, but didn’t control the pace and make his own openings. The sparring seemed like a set-back, but it happens to everyone who boxes. I knew Eric would never quit in the ring. The scary thing was that I thought Eric was going to quit by the next week, with or without his medical condition which I will not disclose. Thankfully, it actually made Eric work harder once he got better. I discussed pulling Eric’s golden gloves plans, but we collaboratively decided that he’s going to have to spar a couple more guys and step up his work to get my approval. He did that. I had my concerns about winning, but I believed he would hold his own. Eric knew I was behind him and he took the entry saying, “Let’s fuckin’ do it. Whatever happens I’m going to fuckin’ win.”
A lot of blood, boogers, sweat and tears went into this camp. Fight date was scheduled for February 1, 2012, at Mary Queen of Heaven – St. Bernard’s Hall in Brooklyn.
I don’t claim to know more than any decent trainer, but I’ve had my hands taped before. I’ve taped guys in the gym. I’ve even pulled a mouthpiece out of a pro-fighter’s mouth in the corner at a sparring session. Wow, that was a big deal, right? And I’ve worked with fighters at all amateur levels and a couple of low-level pros. But this was my first actual fight working the corner. No, not standing in a corner shouting instructions. My body-of-work, a boxer I developed from a blank canvas only 6 months ago, was on center-stage. I was coolly nervous. I had my tape ready to go, precisely counted pad and all. Then Brian Adams, 3-time champ and golden gloves director, brings out three 10 yard rolls and tells me to use half a roll of tape. “Eric’s the first fight,” he ran over and told me. It threw off my taping science, but I acted cooler than I was. I lined up little desks around me and started racing the other trainer to tape. Eric probably heard me say, “There’s no rush,” thinking I was talking to him. I was really talking to myself so I’d slow down. I put my strips of tape all around the chairs. I dried Eric’s damp palms and began working. “It ain’t brain surgery, but it’s an extension of the brain to me.”
When Eric put on those gloves, he seemed tentative and uneasy. I told him no lies – I always say it how it is. “Man, you did the work. You have a better education than these guys.” I said in my usual confidence. “But this could be the hardest day of your life. I believe in you.”
As Eric continued to hop around, I noticed a room full of fighters and veteran trainers just watching us in the middle of this warm-up room that was actually an elementary classroom. I whispered to Eric, “Let them shits go.” If he can shadowbox confidently in front of these guys, he can let it go in the ring. I stood in front of him and let him punch me in the shoulder and chest. He looked like he was in the zone, but he didn’t let his punches go right away. It reminded me of Westchester. So, I looked him in the eye and broke the ice. I started shadowboxing with him and he snapped a few punches at my chest and almost punched my shoulder out of its socket. It was a most relieving pain; Eric is mean today.
Eric and I have become friends. I’m the senior-most of our group, and boxing is the focal point of all of our new friendships. I hope my son becomes a fighter. Even he comes downstairs and knows that “daddy is not the fighter.” I’m like no one in my own gym, a guy with a quarter century of information on fighting, but too absorbed in boxing to absorb in myself. Yes, I’m the boss. But when guys like Eric come around, or “become,” I find myself admiring them. I once wrote this poem that puts it well:
“Men adore fighters, the purest of whom must get up. We fall in love, the closest thing to a love for a comrade, when we witness even a stranger traversing through the blood and sweat straining his mind to find an angle, omitting emotion, deferring affliction, and battling back from the very position where he birthed his wounds… On ground that bares no advantage at any moment, but of will and skill. And as he appears to be beaten, men of all applaud him, their eyes embrace their tears, in victory or loss.”
It’s we to me when Eric bodies this kid. It’s we to me if anything bad happens to Eric, but I don’t foresee that at all. The hard work is his. The glory will, too, be his.
In the moment, I only hear some jerk cheering on the other kid’s jab. He was one of the trainers who sat in the back room while Eric warmed up. “That kid doesn’t hear you,” I wanted to say. “But I can’t hear myself because you’re sitting here rooting for the blue corner. My kid is gonna whip on yours.” Eric did appear stiff, but he used his good footwork to move in and out. The other kid was strong, but Eric was tough and smart with better technique. We were doing well, but the other kid hit him with some thudding, clean blows. “Not the right pop to stun E’s chin. He can’t turn his punches over too well,” I said to DJ (the other second in our corner). “E’s gonna get this kid.”
After round 1, I looked at Eric’s face. I will never forget that look. It was a winner’s look. “Oh, man, this motherfucker’s mine,” Eric told me. I usually advise my fighters in sparring to do at least one specific thing. I find it helps all fighters. But Eric is a thinker, and I didn’t want him thinking any more than he naturally does. So, I smiled and said, “I know this kid can’t hurt you. And he’s acting hurt all over. He don’t want a fight. Let’s step up the activity, let the 1’s go.”
Round 2, the crowd was all Eric. People tend to not like the guy who runs. Eric did exactly what we trained. Not enough head movement, but he “stalked and moved.” He threw big shots and it appeared to everyone that the other guy was hurt on several occasions. I could hear the crowd as it grew in favor of Eric. The other kid was good, but I like my fighter. Just a bit more output and we could win this. At the bell, DJ said, “It’s close.” I went into the ring and I let Eric hear me give a little laugh. I wanted him to know I was confident in him.
“Eric, you’re the better man. It’s close, but the kid is punching more. You’re walking through it and the kid keeps looking hurt. You gotta let it go. You hear these people?”
Eric looked me in the eyes.
I bent up and spoke through the side of the headgear. “They fuckin fell in love with you. Your family loves you. Everyone is loving you right now, kid. Let’s give them what they want and make them love you more. Let’s go for ours. This is it, son.”
“2 minutes?” Eric asked while he was still very focused.
“Knock this muhfucka out.”
“2 minutes. Let’s go!”
I put the mouthpiece back into his mouth properly. “I luh you, kid.”
Round 3, I felt like I was gonna drop the guy in blue. I felt like I needed one more punch to the body and he would go. Punches were whipping from all angles. The kid was reeling back. Every punch Eric threw, I felt was mine. I heard the guy behind me and he changed his favorite. Eric was stalking and stalking. He was bleeding, of course. Eric then gets hit with a straight shot and continued stalking the other kid, and the referee jumped in and called a standing 8. The crowd went crazy, booing. The guy behind me started yelling at the referee. But I know USA Boxing, and those bad referee calls are so common. I believe the referee was looking for a way to have the doctor look at Eric’s nose, but the pace was so hectic. The nose was fine and we knew it. Eric just bleeds. Eric continued pressing the fight and making the pace. At the bell, Eric walked over to the other corner and congratulated them for a good fight. I thought there was a chance Eric got the nod, but that is probably just bias. The other kid was good and deserving of the win. All my respect goes out to him.
On the way back to the makeshift locker room, the classroom, that guy who sat behind me stopped me and asked me, “Do you guys train out of Gleason’s?” Still focused on the fight, looking down at my bloody towel, I replied, “No, unattached, but I have a gym, Eastern Queens BC, not yet registered.” He shook his head, “Man, you guys did great. Tough call.” I bumped fists with him and thanked him. A few other people said that they thought Eric won it. “At least if it were a professional fight,” one guy added.
As a trainer, I found that you learn who your friends are and you learn who the people are who don’t know boxing. You also learn who is not on your side. When you take on such a challenge in life, some of your closest people may wish you the worst, haters wishing failure on people doing things they only wish they had the courage to do. No one knows what we expected and if we met our goal for being in this tournament, so when anyone in our association said Eric did “okay,” I am really bothered. He did amazingly. He was a warrior. You have no respect for the sport if you don’t realize that I in no way taught him to be tough. And this is why I only respect fighters and people directly involved with fighters. Still, no one knows what Eric went through to make it those 8 minutes. No one knows what he was feeling.
I came home from the fight and took my son, Mason, to the gym to play. I spent an hour staring at him jumping around the ring, making sure he didn’t do anything crazy while I was rerunning in my head what I could have done differently to help Eric to have taken a victory. Maybe if I had waited till next year?
I watched Mason put on headgear that covered his whole face because his toddler head didn’t fit into it yet. He couldn’t see, and he made a cry. In a somber tone, I led him with my common mantra, “Whateva, don’t be a bitch. Deal wit it. I’m right here.”
My fighters know I’m with them every step and slide, too. If I don’t like you, I don’t train you. My fighters should be certain that I would never let them get into something that they couldn’t walk out of proud, that they couldn’t do what they set out to do. The only uncertainty we all have is if next year ever comes.
Considering Eric Morrissey’s camp and the heart he bore in the ring in that finale, we all should be proud. Now.
* Thank you to Nick Delury and the whole Westchester BC, Steve Gentile and the whole Core BC, and Kimera MMA. DJ, Eric’s brother, also deserves credit for his support.