Wilder Thing, You Make My Heart Sing
“The measure of a champion is someone who knows how to win when all hell is breaking loose and everything is coming apart at the seams around them…”
Things happen fast in boxing. One day you’re on top of the world. The next day you’re at the bottom of the heap. Memories are short. Judgments are unforgiving. We want our winners to win all the time, and when they don’t, we nonchalantly skyhook them into the dustbin of history.
Seth Mitchell is a case in point. He was riding high before he was brought down low by Johnathan Banks a few weeks ago. Mitchell will be back. There’s no telling if he’ll regain his lost luster. But in the wake of his crushing defeat, one name that keeps surfacing is that of Deontay Wilder (25-0). Not long ago, when Wilder was spoken of, if he was spoken of at all, it was usually disparagingly. Not anymore. He’s suddenly the top American prospect we’ve all been waiting for, even though he’s been here all along.
As Wilder prepares for Friday’s fight in Los Angeles against 13-0 Kelvin Price, I spoke with Russ Anber, Wilder’s cutman and co-trainer (along with Jay Deas and Mark Breland) to get his take on the big man from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Anber is the voice of boxing in Canada. There’s no singular voice of boxing here in the U.S., but he’s comparable in background, visibility and knowledge to Teddy Atlas or the late Emanuel Steward. Anber first started coaching fighters in 1979. He opened his own gym in 1981. He has trained four Olympians. In the pro ranks he developed, “from the ground up” as he put it, Otis Grant and David Lemieux, among others, He has manufactured and sold equipment. Since 1988, he has been the boxing analyst, in both English and French, for TSN and the CBC. He also covered his sixth Olympic Games this year in London.
That’s some history. I ask Anber how he got his start.
“By the time I was 10 years old I had already been well versed by my father and his stories of listening to the fights of Joe Louis on the radio,” he says. “And that probably coincided with the first meeting between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. That was my first contact with boxing. From that, my second contact with the sport came in 1976. Two events happened at that time, one being the Olympics that were held in Montreal that year. Boxing was definitely high on the television rankings and we were brought virtually every fight, especially with the American team, which was inarguably the greatest Olympic boxing team ever, with Sugar Ray Leonard and Howard Davis and the Spinks brothers and Leo Randolph, et cetera. That’s when my love affair with boxing started. And later that year—I know this might sound a little silly—the advent of the movie Rocky put me over the edge.”
I used to be surprised at how many hardcore guys were lured into boxing by Rocky. When Rocky hit the silver screen, I was already a wizened and wary 26-year-old. I first watched boxing with my grandfather more than two decades earlier. I was fascinated, but I was just a little boy. I knew of boxing’s triumph, but had also witnessed boxing’s tragedy. If my attraction to the sport depended on Rocky, there might have been no attraction at all. I understand the need for myth, no less than the limitations of that need.
“I built a makeshift gym in my garage,” continues Anber, “and built a heavy bag stand and a speedball platform. I tried to get all the friends I could to come over and spar with me. I had this boxing fantasy going on. It wasn’t until later that year in high school when a teacher of mine named Augie Santini, when I expressed an interest in boxing, offered to stay after school with me and teach me how to box. As a result of that I boxed for three years—not to any kind of success or anything. But just the fact that I was able to do it, that for me was a great accomplishment, especially that late in my life. I owe a lot to him. That was the first shot of the needle into the vein that made me a lifelong boxing addict.”
From one boxing addict to another, I knew exactly what Anber was talking about.
“After graduating from high school I moved to Montreal and I went to a boxing gym for the first time in my life, a real, authentic boxing gym. It was Roger Larrivee’s Olympic Boxing Club and it was like a place out of a movie. That’s where all the fighters at the time trained, including somebody who was a boyhood hero of mine, Donato Paduano. I said, ‘Wow! Donato’s in this gym!’ And while I was there I met a fighter named Vinnie Curto, a fighter from Boston who was up in Montreal training. I had seen his pictures in magazines and stuff so I knew who he was. And when I saw him I said, ‘You’re Vinne Curto,’ and he said yeah. I asked, ‘Do you do roadwork in the morning?’ and he said yeah. I said, ‘Would you really mind if I came running with you or something?’ And I did and after awhile running led to running and breakfast, and after that it went to running and breakfast and then hanging out all day together before we went to the gym. It was at that time that he convinced me—gave me the belief—that I could be a trainer, that I could coach boxing. He liked the observations I made with him. He saw that I had a really analytical mind. Out of all the people who were around the Montreal fight scene at the time, he chose me to go to his training camp, to be in his corner. That was 1979 and I just turned 18 years old. He gave me a boost of confidence. I think if it hadn’t been for Vinnie Curto, someone as credible as a fighter, as a pro, as a top 10 ranked guy as Vinnie Curto giving me that seal of approval by saying, ‘You can do this,’ I don’t think I would be in boxing today.”
During his long career, Anber has been to Timbuktu and back more times than anyone can count. But hooking up with the man who has a very real chance of someday becoming heavyweight champion of the world has raised things to a whole new level.
“I was with Deontay in Austria at the Wladimir Klitschko training camp where we worked together every day. He’s a great student. He has great athletic abilities. And the thing that was the greatest discovery over the past year, he has now really opened up in wanting to learn. Not just relying on power, but wanting to get better, wanting to develop world-class skills, that you’re not just going to everybody on the hit and that’s going to be the end of that. It’s going to take world-class skills not only to become world champion, but to stay world champion for a long time and cash in the way you want to cash in. When we show him something, he tries it right away, is willing to do the work in the gym, and is willing to learn. And if he’s not sure he asks questions—why, why, why—and he understands it and does it. When you get fighters who are willing to learn and want to absorb that information, the sky’s the limit.”
No article on Deontay Wilder would be complete without addressing the fact that he has as many detractors as he has fans.
“It’s so easy for people to think, ‘Oh yeah, step it up, move it on,’ Anber says. “But let’s look at some of the facts, one being that Deontay Wilder had at best 30 amateur fights—and he won an Olympic bronze medal in doing so. Very limited experience. He didn’t have the privilege of, say, Lennox Lewis, who learned to box even before he became a heavyweight. It’s a huge difference, a massive difference between learning to box before you become a heavyweight and then fighting as a heavyweight. He’s been blessed with great power, and he’s taken a lot of fighters out of there quickly. But it hasn’t necessarily given him the opportunity to hone his skills the way he probably should. When he fought Owen Beck in Tuscaloosa, Owen had an extensive amateur career, a good pro career, and Deontay stopped him. At the press conference afterward, people brought up pretty much the same question. ‘When are you going to make a move? When are you going to make a move?’ And I interjected, ‘Look folks, I understand that you’re desperate and you want Deontay to succeed, you want him to win a world title. But he’s just four years out of the amateur ranks. I know what it takes to develop a world-class pro, a champion-caliber professional. It doesn’t happen overnight—especially as a heavyweight.’ I said, ‘Please be patient with this guy because I promise you, you’re going to much prefer a world championship parade down Tuscaloosa, Alabama than have an article written about somebody who tried and gave it his best shot and came up short.’”
The hopes Seth Mitchell raised were dashed when he met Johnathan Banks. That fight at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City was exciting, but it was sad to see Seth go down in flames. Russ Anber, like the rest of us, watched that fight. Unlike the rest of us, he saw it coming.
“He’s a heck of a good guy,” says Russ about Mitchell, “a nice guy, being given a shot in a very, very tough sport at a late age. Boxing might be the only sport that you actually make a legitimate goal at trying to reach the highest possible level at such a late age. I mean can you imagine trying to have aspirations of becoming a major league baseball player or football player or basketball player at the age of 25? Inconceivable! I thought this was going to be very difficult for him, that he was going to have to be exceptionally gifted to get by. And I say this in light of the fact that I know Johnathan Banks. I got to spend time with Johnathan in Austria during the Klitschko camp. Johnathan Banks has been boxing since he’s been 15 years old. Johnathan Banks knows everything there is to know about boxing. And one of the things I tweeted while the fight was going on—and I’m not trying in any way to denigrate Seth Mitchell—but he came out in the first round and he’s feeling like a boxer, he’s imposing his size, he lands two good shots and he hurts Banks. In the second round after he got hurt, he went from being a boxer to a football player, and a boxer vs. a football player, at a world-class level, makes a helluva difference. I was reading Twitter feeds as they were coming in, and nobody’s speaking about the subtleties and the finesse and the knowledge and the experience that Johnathan Banks used to nullify the Seth Mitchell attack in the first round. And he was able to do that because in his soul he’s a boxer.
“When everything is going good, you’re wonderful, you’re making no mistakes, everything is great. But the measure of a champion is someone who knows how to win when all hell is breaking loose and everything is coming apart at the seams around them. When everything was falling apart for Johnathan Banks he was able to hold it together and turn the table with a single shot…and Seth couldn’t do that.
“I don’t want Deontay to make the same mistake.”