Interview with Abel Sanchez by Paul Zanon. See more Hannibal Boxing interviews >>
Note: This interview took place before Sanchez and Gennady Golovkin split.
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Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin (“GGG”) is the fighter we tend to think about when esteemed coach Abel Sanchez is mentioned, but Sanchez has trained a slew of world champions over the last three decades. Hannibal Boxing was able to shine a torch on Sanchez’s journey, which started in Mexico. “I was born in Tijuana and moved to the US with my mother, two brothers, and sister when I was about five and a half, almost six years old. My mom decided it was a better situation for us.”
Sanchez entered boxing in his late teens. He wasn’t a pugilistic purist, however, and it certainly wasn’t where his ambition lay at that point of his life. The proud California resident explained. “I was a building contractor when I was eighteen years old. I was a licensed contractor here in the state of California building room additions and doing a lot of fire repairs. That was my trade.
“I started kickboxing when I was about nineteen. Amateur kickboxing back then was the rage among the young kids. I started going to a gym in Pasadena, California, for the kicking part of it and I went to a gym in South El Monte for the boxing part. It’s a sport that gets under your skin, and it’s difficult to get away from once you start.
“My boxing record was 3-3, but my kickboxing record was 15-0. I was better with my feet, but I think that was also to do with the competition, as it wasn’t as developed. It was mainly karate guys who didn’t know how to box. In those days you had to kick eight times per round and then once you got your eight kicks in, you didn’t need to kick no more and you could just box. The boxing part was very easy for me once I got the kicks in. That’s the reason why I think I was more successful, as opposed to the boxers who had been doing that for a long time, which was more difficult for me.
“The problem was I was busy running a construction business while trying to kickbox—running, training, spending hours in the gym—eventually something had to give. That’s what made me retire from the sport. For a while anyway.”
Sanchez explained how the opportunity to become a boxing trainer presented itself. “When I stopped competing, which was about 1979 or 1980, I decided to stick around the gym, which was Ben Lira’s gym in South El Monte, who’s now my assistant in the corner. I used to help Ben with the fighters, trying to get sponsorship and that’s where I started really.”
Did the man who trains arguably one of the best middleweights in history have any idols or mentors? “Manny Steward became a really good friend of mine once I was completely immersed in being a trainer, which was by the mid-eighties. We talked a lot, we worked together on a couple of fights, and I spent a lot of time at his home. To a young coach, when you have an established, famous coach like that willing to talk to you, I was in heaven. Very few people had the chance to do something like that. He was someone I’d call a mentor. Someone I’d listen to in the corner. I liked his approach to the game. He was a very astute boxing man, but he had a ‘keep it simple’ method. Manny believed that if you took on a guy and if he’d got to where he got to in a certain way, for example, eating at home, eating regular food, not having these meal methods of nutrition, vitamins, and supplements, or if you grew up eating burritos or whatever it was you came from, then you should continue to do that if it worked for you and you were successful in the boxing part. The dramatic change from how you grew up or started, especially if you were undefeated, would be foolish in his mind. He went with the old-fashioned way, which meant that hard work is what made you successful and I believe that, too.”
When Steward died on October 26, 2012, Sanchez made certain his name would endure. “The day after he passed away I put his initials on all my shirts next to my logo. I respected him a whole lot, and I felt he helped me a lot, in words and ideas of who I wanted to be as a coach.”
While Sanchez and Golovkin go hand in hand, his arrival on the world stage happened back in the 1980s. “The first fighter I ever trained was Lupe Aquino [former WBC world light-middleweight champion]. That was when I retired from boxing around ’81; then I stayed away from it until about 1986 [to focus on construction]. By that time, Lupe had some management issues with his team in San Diego, and I called him up one day and he decided he wanted to fight again and I got back in the business of training him. Four fights later, Bob Arum gives us a title shot against Duane Thomas, an Emmanuel Steward fighter! We were able to knock him down twice and beat him in a decision in France [Merignac, July 12, 1987]. That was not only my first fighter but my first world champion.”
The Summit Gym in Big Bear, California, has become a recognized go-to spot for elite fighters to train. Sanchez tells us how it all came about. “Originally when Manny Steward came up to train Oscar De La Hoya, back in late 1999, early 2000, they set up camp here and Manny had a camp by the lake. I had bought a whole bunch of vacant property and some of the pieces I’d bought I thought I could build a gym, for Manny, not necessarily for me.
“So, I built this big two-story building with the plan for the gym underneath in the garage area. Manny, because of his schedule, couldn’t stay too long in one place. He needed to be in different places and Big Bear is two and a half hours from an airport. It was a difficult situation for him and he ended up not staying, even though he set up a gym here in town called Kronk West. With his schedule, that eventually closed and he moved. My building was never really finished as a gym. It was 8,000 square feet of building, which had about 3,500 square feet of garage, and the rest livable space. With nobody to use it, the building was left for my children as a ski resort house.”
When Sanchez says he “built” a building, he’s not referring to sitting in an office barking orders at workers; he was hands-on with the construction. This passion unfortunately almost cost him his life. “My biggest problem, I think, and that was a problem my father had, is that I’m a workaholic. I love to be involved in a lot of things all at once, have many irons in the fire and probably work myself more than I should. Back in October 2001, I had a stress heart attack, which is what they called it. I had to slow down a little bit. My diet wasn’t good because of the business I was in and all the travel I was doing. I needed to slow down.”
After the heart attack, Sanchez pretty much turned his back on boxing, and that could have been the end of his involvement in the square ring. Then six years later he decided to finish the project he’d started out and one thing led to another. “In 2007 I started the construction of the gym as we know it today and didn’t finish it until about mid-2008. The building was already there. The garages were already set up so I could put up some bags and a ring and the rest of the cardio equipment in the other garages. I intended it to be a private facility; not only for me, but for people who rented my units.
“By late 2008, Oscar [De La Hoya] rented the gym for his fight with Manny Pacquiao. Once that happened, because of ‘24/7’ [the HBO fight documentary series] it became known that there was a gym in Big Bear, which was a private place. That’s when I started getting calls and it went from there.
“I didn’t really want to get into it as far as the coaching went, I wanted to lend it to my friends and rent it out. But it ended up that I started getting fighters and it just so happened around that time, the economy, not just in the US, but worldwide, took a dump and, as a result, the building industry suffered a lot. So I decided to retire completely from the building industry and started concentrating on my gym.”
As the facility started to generate the interest of fighters globally, a certain fighter from Kazakhstan reached out to Sanchez. “In 2010 I get a call sometime in April from a German guy, asking me if they could come up. They wanted to see the gym, meet me, see the town with their fighter. They happened to be advisors to a young man named Gennady Golovkin. They mentioned the name and I didn’t know who the heck he was talking about. I didn’t follow boxing that much at that point.
“They came up on a Saturday about 1 p.m. Gennady brings some videotapes of his fights and, in the meantime, the managers take off to see the town. There we are, me in my very limited Russian and him in his limited English watching his videos. I kind of explained what he could be doing here and there, referring to his boxing. That went on for about a couple of hours; then his advisors came back, we went and had dinner, talked a little more and then set up a meeting for the morning.
“That night I came home on the computer and started researching who I was talking to because he didn’t look like a fighter, he looked more like a choir boy. I saw that he had 350 amateur fights, only lost five and beat a lot of the great fighters in the amateurs at that moment in time. He’d had eighteen professional fights and was ranked in the top two or three in most of the organizations. I was like, ‘Wow!’ You can imagine when I met them all in the morning, I was thinking a little bit different.
“We all had breakfast and said our goodbyes as they had to catch a plane at 2 p.m. at LAX. They said, ‘We’ll see you in a couple of months.’ I thought to myself, ‘Yeah right. I’ll see you in a couple of months!’ never expecting to hear from them again.
“They took off, then, sure enough, two months later on a Sunday I get a call from one of the advisers and asks me if I could pick up Gennady from the airport at 2 p.m. because he was ready to train and had a fight scheduled for three months later [against Milton Nunez 14 August 2010, for the Interim WBA world middleweight title in Panama City]. I honestly thought it was a joke. I thought it was one of my friends pranking me because I’d been bragging about this guy who was in my gym who had 350 amateur fights. I pulled the phone away from my ear and looked at the phone thinking, ‘This has got to be one of my friends.’ Then the more this guy was talking, the more it sounded like the guy I’d been talking to two months before.
“So, I pick Gennady up at the airport, and as he’s walking out from arrivals, I say to him, ‘What about your bags?’ and he said in broken English, ‘No, coach. I come to train, not to vacation.’ He had this little bag about two foot long, and that’s all he had with him. He came to do a job and we started working.”
Before meeting Sanchez, Golovkin had never fought for a world title. Did Sanchez foresee the script unraveling the way it did? “Obviously not. It would be foolish for me to say that I did, but I tell you what, after a few weeks, after I got him into a little bit of Big Bear shape, I caught him on the mitts and I thought to myself, ‘Wow. We have something here.’
“I have a dry-erase board in my gym and several weeks after I started to work with him, I went over to it and put the names of the best fighters of all time, from one through to twelve. I put Muhammad Ali at the top, left number two vacant, then put the names of Tyson, Mayweather and all the rest of the names that were relevant at that time on down. I promised him, ‘If you give me three years, I promise you, you’re going to be right here. You’re going to be the most avoided, undefeated middleweight world champion. I see what I need to do with you.’
“I also showed him the fight of Julio Cesar Chavez and Edwin Rosario, and I said, ‘This is what I want to make you, right here. The difference is, you can punch. We’re going to make you fight like Julio Cesar Chavez and you’re going to be knocking people out with body shots.’ He looked at me like I was nuts and I said again, ‘I promise you, three years and that’s where you will be.’
“To this day, I always try to put a few extra things into the training camp to develop him. My belief is that, every training camp, you can’t just throw it in all at once. You’ve got to give him a couple of little tidbits to work on and then by the time you have ten fights, you’ve worked on twenty different things.
“We’ve been able to develop, for example, the cutting off of the ring. We worked on that by ourselves for many, many hours at the beginning, just to make sure he was doing what Julio was doing. The dismantling. I think we did that well and after three years he was the most avoided fighter and was undefeated and he was world champion.”
Included within Sanchez’s very impressive boxing training résumé is Sergey Kovalev. It’s common knowledge that both Kovalev and Golovkin sparred behind closed doors, with no video footage in existence to prove how that session unfolded. “I trained Kovalev for eight fights and he had eight knockouts. In terms of the spar between Gennady and Kovalev? That’s something that’s already been documented, but I’ll just say this. Gennady has never had any issues or problems in sparring within my gym. They’re friends so that’s something I’d rather not elaborate upon, but once again, Gennady has never had any issues with anybody in sparring.”
With a long list of acclaimed fighters he’s trained over the years, Sanchez indulged Hannibal Boxing by sharing his thoughts on a few of the special ones. “I like to think of this sport as a very cerebral game. Think of the current-day greats like Floyd Mayweather Jr., Andre Ward, and Gennady. They’re all thinkers of the sport.
“The two that I’ve trained who are the best, in terms of thinkers, have to be Gennady and Orlin Norris. Orlin was a man who didn’t punch that hard, was able to go twelve rounds and beat a lot of the name heavyweights at the time who could punch. He was a very smart fighter. The best jab, that has to be Gennady, and with a different kind of jab, Terry Norris. Paul Vaden was also very good. For the hardest hitting one punch, I’d have to say Gennady. The thing with Gennady is that he has a way of setting you up for the shots he wants to hit you with. It’s not just the power, it’s the brain and the setup.
“For the biggest underachiever? I would say Miguel Angel Gonzalez, because of his issues with the weight, which kept him from being a great, great fighter. He was such a smart fighter and so experienced beyond his fights. He only had about forty fights with me [of a fifty-seven-fight career], but he’d kill himself to make the weight and that took away from his ability inside the ring. I say only forty fights, because back then fighters weren’t fighting for a title until they had about thirty fights. Today they fight for a world title after ten fights. Miguel made ten defenses of his lightweight title.”
Sanchez’s output in the construction industry is as respected as it is in boxing. However, did all those years managing staff on building sites crossover with training fighters? “Absolutely. Being able to manage characters and personalities in construction, you need to talk to each person differently and be sensitive to their needs to help them achieve their goals. That helped me in the boxing part of it. You have to know how to speak to them and guide them. It’s not like it used to be when the trainer was more like a tyrant. Today’s athletes, not just boxers, are so different from twenty-five years ago. You have to be more of a father, a priest, a doctor, you have to be everything to them, so you can help to manipulate their psyche.”
To any budding coaches setting out on their journeys, Sanchez has this to say. “I think that a lot of coaches today, unfortunately, are not protected contractually. We are probably the most significant part of a fighter’s team; yet at any time, on a whim, they [the fighters] can decide that they don’t need us no more. I think loyalty to their coaches is a thing that we’re seeing less and less and that’s sad to see.
“You have to remember that we are giving you probably more time than we are giving our families and our kids. I’ve been a building contractor most of my life. I didn’t enter this business (boxing) because I needed the money. I did it because of the love of the game and because I love the success I see in my fighters. They’re like my kids, but unfortunately a lot of the coaches, I’d say 99 percent of the coaches need another job to be able to survive in this game. Very few coaches earn enough to support themselves. As a coach, you need to stick to your principles, to your system, to your values. Be true to yourself and you’ll succeed.”
But what has been the pinnacle of Sanchez’s long career? “I would say tying Bernard Hopkins’s record. The twenty defenses [of ‘GGG’], has to be the high point. But you know what, I don’t look at it that way. All eighteen world champions, something like 150 to 200 defenses from them, was also special; but for me, every single guy I train, champion or not, the best part is watching them getting their hand raised. That’s why, when we’re in the ring and they’re announcing the result, I’m always up to the side of my fighters, never standing behind them. I’m by their side because this is their moment and to see them smile, to see them succeed, that’s really my highlight.”