Buddy McGirt can relate to Derek Chisora’s supposed last hurrah. In deep conversation with Donald McRae the trainer and former fighter talks about his own gruelling past, the hardest decisions he’s made in the corner and the woman he owes it all to
BUDDY McGIRT covers his face with his hands and begins to cry in his hotel room on a sunlit Saturday afternoon in London. The great American trainer, and former two-time world titlist, is 57 years old but the memories remain raw. McGirt shakes his head when I apologise for a question about his mother which has moved him to tears. He wipes his eyes and waves his hand as a sign that, once he has composed himself, he wants to keep talking. We are only 30 minutes into a two-hour conversation and there is so much that McGirt wants to share about his life in and out of the ring.
“She was my life,” McGirt says simply of his mother. “Everything I did in boxing was for her. I had a great career, I got to do things I’d dreamed of as a kid. But, more importantly, I got to take care of my mother. That was the greatest part for me. People ask: ‘What did you enjoy most about being world champion?’ The answer is easy. I enjoyed watching my mother enjoy my success. She had it so rough, being the mother of six and being violently abused by my stepfather.”
Before we get to the bleak heart of this story, and the suffering his mother endured which drove McGirt as a fighter and now as a trainer, he reaches for his phone to show me a photograph. It is of his mother, Dorothea Boynton, on the last day he saw her before her death four years ago. While McGirt flicks through his gallery I feel privileged to be in the company of a man so steeped in boxing and the bruising realities of ordinary life.
He has already told me about the days when great old masters of the ring, like Jersey Joe Walcott and Willie Pep, used to come watch him train. He will relive the nights when he became world champion or he was in the corner with Arturo Gatti amid his ferocious battles with Micky Ward. McGirt will tell me how it felt to fight Pernell Whitaker or confront the death of his fighter Maxim Dadashev in 2019 when the trainer was so compassionate on that tragic night. We will also talk in detail about this Saturday night’s fight in Manchester as McGirt works Derek Chisora’s corner against Joseph Parker who is guided by another fascinating trainer in Andy Lee.
But, first, we look at the photo of Dorothea, his cherished mother, as she gazes back at us. She was in the grip of dementia then but she always knew her boy, Buddy, and their last meeting was touching. It dredges up fresh emotion in McGirt as he tells me why he was so marked and motivated by the adversity and the courage of his mother’s life in Long Island.
“I had three older brothers my mom had from her first husband,” he remembers, “but he had beat her up until my uncles ran him out of town. Then she met my dad. I can honestly say the years she spent with him were the happiest times of her life because my dad never hit her. But my dad was a hustler. My mom had a mortgage and six kids and she got tired because my dad was a womaniser and a heavy gambler. They went their separate ways and then she met my stepfather. It was good for maybe a month but after that it was pure hell.
“I was about nine and only one of my older brothers would really defend my mom. The two others did nothing and then they joined the military and ran off. The beatings continued and to cut a long story short, when I got to about 13 I had to stand up to my stepfather. I was upstairs and heard this loud noise. Boom! I raced downstairs and saw him and my mother fighting on the floor. My mother was like: ‘Go out the room, now!’ My stepfather’s just looking at me real mean. He said: ‘You heard your mother.’ I said: ‘I’m not going anywhere. You’re not going to hit my mother anymore.’ Enough was enough.”
McGirt’s face clouds as he recalls the desperation that drove him, as a young teenager, to confront such a violent man. He also recounts an incident when his stepfather nearly killed his mother after hitting her over the head, repeatedly, with a bottle. “For four years, life was a bitch. It was rough. If he drank, it was even worse. But after I came into the room that one time he stopped hitting her. I’d hear them in a room arguing and I would just open the door and stand there. He would look at me and see I was getting bigger. I was like: ‘Those days are over, man. You’re not going to keep doing this to my mother’.”
Even before his stepfather had hurt her, life was often unbearably hard for his mother. “I remember we was in the grocery store and my brother was going on a field trip and my mom bought food and stuff and some brown panties for herself. We got to the cash register and she didn’t have enough money. She put the brown panties back so my brother could go on the field trip. She went home that night and washed her brown panties out in the sink and hung them up in the bathroom. I’ll never forget that.”
McGirt’s eyes fill with tears again but, soon, he is smiling. “So when I became champion, I went to the department store and spent $2,000 on underwear and panties. I went home and my mother was asleep because she was still working at the time. I threw the bag on the bed and she said: ‘What the hell is this?’ I said: ‘Open it.’ She was confused when she saw all the brown underwear. I told her the story and she started crying. She was like: ‘You remember that?’ I was about seven when it happened. ‘I was like: ‘Yeah, Ma, I remember seeing those brown panties you wore hanging up in the bathroom so that you could wear them the next day.’
“All through my career whenever I did something big I would always buy her something because she wouldn’t take it otherwise. One day I said: ‘Can I use your car?’ She was like: ‘Yeah.’ So I took her old car and came back with a new car. I left the keys on the dresser and went out. She called me wanting to know what the hell I had done with her car. I said: ‘That new one in the driveway is your car now.’ I always loved seeing that smile on her face. And I loved it when I’d come over and people were there because her son was champion. She’d be entertaining people and she was so happy. Just seeing that smile…man, you can’t beat it.”
Boxing transformed McGirt’s life and he stresses that, even now, his work is shaped by the memory of his mother. It explains why we talk about her so much before he turns his attention to Chisora’s fight against Parker. Chisora, having performed bravely again when losing to Oleksandr Usyk last October, now has a 32-10 record. The end of his long career is approaching and, in one last tilt at landing another big fight, he tracked down McGirt on Instagram. Chisora knows he needs to beat Parker to keep himself in the elite heavyweight frame and so he has been willing to spend the money to hire one of the world’s best trainers.
McGirt is honest in admitting that he knew little about the 37-year-old heavyweight. “I had heard about Derek but I’d never seen him fight. I came for a week at first just to see how it went and I said: ‘Okay. He’s got a style I’ve never seen before. Very awkward, very rugged.’ I then found out his age and all the tough fights he had. He’s had a lot of wars. So it’s not an easy task because you can’t beat Father Time.
“He’s also been doing it one way for so long that he can’t really change anything. You’ve got to make the best of what you’ve got and Derek is willing and works so hard. So, against Parker, we’ve got to make it a dogfight. Keep it legal, of course, but turn it into that dogfight. That’s just the truth of it. And, like my mom always told me to do, we’re gonna give it 100 per cent.”
McGirt knows how hard it is for a fighter in the dog days of his career. His own record, in a career lasting almost 15 years, from 1982 to 1997, was 73-6-1. Towards the end he no longer wanted to fight. “I remember punching James Hughes [in a bout which McGirt won in April 1994] and I didn’t hurt him. He told me I was in for a long night. He was right. Buck Smith told me that too [when McGirt won another decision in January 1995]. He said: ‘Come on, Buddy. Throw another combination. It’s going to be a long night for you.’”
Three months earlier, in October 1994, McGirt had lost to the peerless Pernell Whitaker for the second time in a WBC welterweight title fight. He says now that he didn’t even want to be in the ring. “After I beat Pat Colman [in August 1994] they told me that I had the rematch with Whitaker. I started crying. My wife said: ‘What’s wrong?’ I said: ‘Honey, I did it. They told me I will never fight for the world championship again. And here I am.’ So she goes: ‘Okay. So why are you crying?’ I said: ‘I don’t want to fight no more.’ She said: ‘Okay. If you don’t want to, don’t.’ I said: ‘I’ve got to. We’ve got bills to pay.’ She said: ‘We’ll figure it out. Bud, I don’t think you should fight.’ I insisted but, in training, I just went through the motions. My goal was to try and knock him out. I knocked him down and when he got up and I saw he wasn’t hurt, I said to myself: ‘We’re in for a long night, Buddy’.”
McGirt lost narrowly on points to Whitaker in their first title fight in March 1993 when he was hampered by a shoulder injury. He was also stopped by Meldrick Taylor in September 1988 when he should not have been in the ring as he fought with an ear infection. “I can’t recall that fight at all,” he says with a rueful smile. “It could have been because of the infection or all the punches I took. I thought I was fighting two people in there. But I have no complaints. I had so many great nights as well.”
He had won the IBF light-welterweight title when he beat Frankie Warren in February 1988 and then, on his most magical night in the ring, he shocked the experts and bookmakers by outclassing Simon Brown to become the WBC welterweight belt-holder in Las Vegas in November 1991. “I knew I was going to beat him,” McGirt says of Brown. “I knew that when he stepped on the gas in the middle rounds, you’ve got to step on the gas as well. If he goes two steps you go four steps. Two weeks before the fight everything started falling into place so I’m like: ‘I got him.’ Then my mom got there and she always looked at me before a fight. If she said to me ‘Be careful’ I was in trouble. But before Simon Brown she just gave me a hug and a smile. I knew I was good.”
Just over five years later it was all over. McGirt knew, after he lost to his former sparring partner, Darren Macuinski, in January 1997, that his career was finished. “I got rid of all my four cars. Got my wife a car so she could drive to work. I had a motorcycle until they told me how much the insurance was. It was too much so I gave up the bike. My wife worked and I found a way. I started going to gyms, training fighters.”
All the conversations McGirt had had over the years with legendary trainers such as Ray Arcel, Eddie Futch and George Benton had developed his innate instinct for teaching and deepened his boxing knowledge. Within five years he was working some of the biggest fights in the sport – and in 2002 and 2003 he was in Arturo Gatti’s corner for his ferocious trilogy of fights against Micky Ward. Ward won the first before losing two subsequent bouts to Gatti. “After the ninth round, when he got caught with that liver shot, Arturo was crying,” McGirt says when remembering the first savage contest. “He goes: ‘Help me stand up, coach. I’ve got this.’”
Was McGirt close to stopping the fight? “Yeah. But in the corner the doctor was talking in Italian to Arturo and to the referee Frank Cappuccino. Then Frank started talking to me in Italian because everyone thought I had stopped it. I said: ‘Ref…Doc….what the hell are you saying?’ It was so funny, man.”
McGirt describes how Gatti won the next round and then avenged his loss with two memorable victories over Ward in the rematches. But he and Gatti also fell out. “He was a great guy but Arturo had lots of demons. If he drank, he was cool. If he was messing with drugs he got paranoid and became totally different. He started accusing me of stealing his girlfriend. I said: ‘Man, are you out of your mind?’ Even when he knew he was wrong he would not back down. I remember taking a cab to Atlantic City Airport at 5.30am and I went to say goodbye to Kathy Duva [the promoter]. He was in the bar and he goes: ‘I’m Arturo Gatti and I never apologise to anybody.’ I said: ‘I’m Buddy McGirt. Go f**k yourself.’ That’s how we parted ways.’
Were the Gatti-Ward fights the most intense he ever worked? “Yeah – but the second and third [Antonio] Tarver-[Roy] Jones fight were up there.”
McGirt helped Tarver shock Jones on both occasions and the trainer’s eyes open wide as he revisits the third fight. “It was held in Florida and everybody and their mother was there. The whole of Florida came out because you had a guy from Tampa [Tarver] and a guy from Pensacola [Jones]. All the great NBA players were there. Michael Jordan was there. Tracy McGrady [a seven-time NBA All Star] was there. The venue in Tampa was electrifying. It was also real interesting because Roy’s father came back to train him for the fight and they had that history between them. That week was something I’ll never forget.
“Roy was a great fighter but there’s always that one guy that has your number. I knew Tarver was that guy for Roy. It’s just a shame that Tarver never showcased his real talent. He never had to. It’s like another great fighter I had. God bless the late, great Vernon Forrest. I used to watch him do stuff in the gym and so I just know he would have been the one guy to beat Floyd Mayweather. He was tall, rangy and had a hell of a boxing IQ.”
Forrest was murdered after he had been robbed at a gas station in Atlanta in June 2009. “It took a big chunk out of me,” McGirt says.
“I was ready to stop training fighters because I’d just come from Arturo Gatti’s funeral, and then Vernon called me the next day. Two days later,
I was lying in bed at 5:30 in the morning, my cellphone rings, I look at it and it says Georgia. I know this is not a good call. I answered it and Vernon’s assistant said: ‘Buddy –’ I said: ‘Please don’t tell me.’ It hurt me so bad that for years I just went through the motions. Then one day my mom said: ‘Listen, if you’re going to do something, son, do it 100 per cent or not at all.’ So I got back on my horse with a new energy. The fighters saw it and loved it.”
Ten years later, McGirt lost another fighter he cared for when Max Dadashev slipped into a coma and then death after he fought Subriel Matias in an IBF light-welterweight title eliminator in July 2019. But the death of Dadashev did not make McGirt consider walking away from boxing. “It didn’t because I got a call the next day from a guy in Russia who said: ‘Buddy, it’s not your fault. Max failed a brain scan over here and that’s why he’s never fought in Russia. That’s why he went to the United States. I had no idea.”
Footage of McGirt pleading with Dadashev in the corner went viral – as they showed the trainer trying to convince the fighter to surrender voluntarily. When Dadashev shook his dazed head McGirt told the referee to stop the fight before the last round. “My mind was already made up but I did it out of respect for him. I was going to stop it the round before but he said: ‘I’m okay, I’m okay.’ But he had told me earlier in the fight that the punches were hurting him which is always a bad sign and the other guy just got stronger. I had to stop it.”
The fight had not appeared to be exceptionally brutal but the damage had already been done to Dadashev’s fragile brain. McGirt began to worry when, a few minutes after the stoppage, Dadashev threw up in the ring. The doctor said, ‘Buddy, it’s not a good sign.’ I was like: ‘Oh my God.’ I lost a friend in 1983, Isidro [Gino] Perez who fought on the same card as me. He was the main event and he suffered the same thing as Max. He was in hospital for a week and he passed away.”
McGirt looks up as if facing the tragedy all over again with his own fighter. “The thing you gotta know,” he says softly, “is that Max was a great human being.”
That epitaph sounds appropriate for McGirt himself when he looks ahead to the future while he keeps training fighters. “I really want to work with people in domestic violence. One of my goals right now is to be part of something dealing with domestic violence because, as a kid, I saw the consequences of it for my mother. We put a stop to it for her and I would like to put a stop to it for others. Like everything good I’ve done in my life, I want to do it for my mother.”