Taking Over: Buddy McGirt Hopes to Revitalize Sergey Kovalev

Buddy McGirt and Sergey Kovalev
Image Credit: Sergey Kovalev via Twitter (@KrusherKovalev)

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Buddy McGirt was driving down a fairly busy six-lane freeway in Palm Bay, Florida, on his way to his daughter’s “Sweet 16” birthday party, when he spotted something awry ahead of him.

“Call me crazy . . . but they have a checkpoint here,” said McGirt, his low husky voice verging on a growl. “They got a checkpoint in the middle of the freeway! A freaking checkpoint! They gotta be the stupidest people in the world. I can’t believe it. I guess the police don’t have anything better to do. Unbelievable.”

If there is one thing that McGirt, fifty-four, can be counted on it is his blunt honesty—and that involves more than railing at egregious traffic conditions in a Southern Florida municipality. As it pertains to his vocation as a boxing trainer, McGirt likes to think that it is his explicitness that sets him at odds with the majority of sycophants who operate in the sport. All trainers have a professional obligation to tell the truth to their fighter, yes, but few of them, according to McGirt, actually call the shots. “The fighters give out the instructions today,” he noted blithely, adding that the trainer-fighter dynamic today is fundamentally corrupt.

“I’m the type of guy if I see you doing too much, I’mma let you know, that’s it,” McGirt said during a phone interview with Hannibal Boxing. McGirt was recently inducted into the 2019 class of the International Boxing Hall of Fame for his achievements as a prizefighter. “I won’t tell you to stop, I’ll tell you to go home. I’ll kick you out of the gym if I think you’re doing too much, and I’ll tell you to take a couple of days off.”

Such a guiding philosophy is particularly instructive, given that McGirt’s latest client is someone who has long pinned his ring woes on overtraining: Sergey Kovalev, the former light-heavyweight champion last seen in August in a shocking knockout loss to Eleider Alvarez. Their rematch is slated for February 2 in Frisco, Texas.

“I don’t need a coach to give me instructions, or tell me what I should do,” Kovalev told Hannibal Boxing during a media huddle in December. “I need a coach who stops me (and says) ‘Hey, relax, go home.’ You know, to save energy for a fight. All my life I got from the hard work in the gym but I forgot I’m already thirty-five. It’s a different recovery. You know I need longer time for recovery. If it was three or four years ago, after a hard workout, I awake the next morning and start work out (again). Right now I need to take a rest. Right now I need to (listen) to my body.”

The idea that a fighter needs to train less, not more, goes against conventional wisdom, but it is one that Kovalev, thirty-five, has long stood by since his first loss to Andre Ward in 2017. Amid accusations from the Ward camp that he liked to tipple, Kovalev fired his conditioning coach and vowed to rest more as he prepared for the rematch. But fatigue crept in all the same. By the middle rounds, Kovalev seemed visibly bothered by Ward’s body shots, an often telltale sign that points to a dearth of conditioning, not an excess. And though Kovalev was ahead on the scorecards in his fight against Alvarez, his handlers, like promoter Kathy Duva of Main Events, claimed that they saw signs of fatigue once more, that it was fatigue that made their charge susceptible to the right hand that put him down.

“Sergey needed to change everything,” said Duva. “He needed to fight like a guy who is thirty-five and there was no one there (in his old team) that could tell him that. He trains harder than anyone in the gym. That’s the problem. He shouldn’t be training harder than Lomachenko or guys that are in their twenties. But that’s what he was doing.”

Citing the recent book Play On by Jeff Bercovici, Duva explains that Kovalev has never adjusted to his body’s physical decline. “The theme that the book keeps coming back to is that old athletes need to train less, not more,” explained Duva. “What Sergey did is train more. What happens when you train too much when you’re old, is you literally leave it in the gym. That’s what he did. Some people look at him and go, ‘Oh, he must not have been in shape.’ No, no. When he felt weak and tired he trained harder. That’s the worst thing you can do.”

In McGirt, Duva sees Kovalev’s best chances at forming a late-career reinvention. It was McGirt, after all, who guided blood-and-guts Arturo Gatti on a remarkable comeback that included the legendary trilogy with Mickey Ward, all after many had written him off after a brutal stoppage loss to Oscar De La Hoya. “Buddy was the guy who brought back Gatti and added ten, eleven fights to his career when everybody thought he was over (after the De La Hoya loss),” recalled Duva. “We hope he works his magic with Sergey.”

In one of their first training sessions together at a gym in Oxnard, McGirt, who lives in Brentwood, California, told Kovalev to pack up his bags and go home. “He looked at me like, ‘What?’ Yeah, I’m not going to let you. If I see you’re looking sharp in the middle of the workout I’ll make you stop right there and go home.” Conversely, says McGirt, “If I feel you’re not doing enough I’mma let you know.”

As rosy as he might make their relationship sound, McGirt understands that Kovalev brings plenty of questionable baggage. Kovalev has a history of bad blood with trainers, a short list that includes fallouts with Abel Sanchez, Don Turner, and most infamously John David Jackson, who called his former charge “a nasty person.” That Kovalev believes his own unsparing work ethic has been his main problem will no doubt elicit chortles from his former trainers, a point not lost on McGirt. “Yeah, yeah, you hear rumors about the man,” said McGirt. “But I don’t believe anything until I get with the person.” Asked if he believed that overtraining was the main culprit, McGirt responded, “Why does he have to lie to me? He doesn’t have to lie to me. He told me how he felt leading up to the fight. I can only go by what he tells me.”

That said, McGirt concedes that the termination of a long and seemingly successful partnership one can often lead to a period of confusion, not unlike a spousal situation. “I tell people that it’s like being married for thirty years or more,” said McGirt. “Then you get divorced and you’re gonna go date and it’s like OK, after thirty years who the fuck are you going to find that’s going to lay with your ass. Think about it. You’re set in your ways already. So after thirty years why would you even consider getting remarried. After thirty years it’s hard to find a goddamn fit. I don’t give a shit what anybody says. ‘Oh, I found the love of my life.’ Get the fuck out of here. After thirty years? Think about it.”

The trainer of notable fighters such as Gatti, Vernon Forrest, and Antonio Tarver has had his fallouts, too, most notably with Paulie Malignaggi, who accused the trainer of ruining his prime. Recently, a former charge, the welterweight contender Sergey Lipinets, went to work with Dan Goosen, without so much as giving McGirt a courtesy heads-up via text or phone call. It was McGirt who had trained Lipinets for his biggest fight in early 2018 against Mikey Garcia in what was a solid effort in a decision loss—not that that has helped McGirt’s case. Such is life as a boxing trainer.

“Fighters are different, man,” sighed McGirt. “You try to explain it to people. Fighters are grown men, yes, and they’re world champions. But sometimes you gotta be so nurturing with some of them, it’s crazy. The key is to get the result, which is win the fight and be champion again.”

Issues of overtraining notwithstanding, McGirt was sold on Kovalev’s confidence. “There are certain things you look for in a fighter to see if they’re gone. You look at their reflexes. And another key thing is that the fighter has got to want it. Sergey didn’t like that feeling (of being on the canvas), and he doesn’t want to ever have that feeling again. That’s enough said for me.”

So far McGirt likes what he sees from Kovalev, who is his most high-profile client in some time. In concrete terms, McGirt says he is “focused on the small things,” like making sure his charge tucks in his chin. “He’s got a tendency when he punches to lift his chin,” McGirt said, “which makes him a sucker for the right-hand counter. Just little things like that that we gotta correct for Alvarez.”

These may not be such small things, considering that it was the right hand—and the free-floating chin—that caused all the trouble in the first fight, and considering that Kovalev is as stubborn as they come.

“Buddy knows what needs to be known,” said Duva. “Whether or not Sergey can learn it, absorb it, I don’t know. We’re all going to come February 2nd and find out.”

 

About Sean Nam 15 Articles
Sean Nam has written for The Cruelest Sport, Undisputed Champion Network, and The Sweet Science. His non-boxing writing has appeared in New Rambler Review, Slant Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Rain Taxi, Mubi Notebook, The Brooklyn Rail, and Cineaste. In 2017, he curated the Boxing on Film series for the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. He is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.