Maybe by now you’ve heard of Dan Birmingham. After all, he’s been out there a long time, trying to make world champions out of tough neighborhood kids who wander into his St. Petersburg, Florida gym, asking him if he’ll teach them to fight.
That’s how it worked with junior-middleweight champ Ronald "Winky" Wright. A polite, gifted, 16 year old kid who wanted to learn to box, he showed up at the gym one day and never stopped coming. Now, 17 years later, he’s still with Birmingham, which says a lot about both men.
"I knew within four or five weeks after he started coming to the gym that Wink was special," said Birmingham from his hotel room in Las Vegas, where Wright (47 3, 25 KOs) is preparing for Saturday’s junior-middleweight title fight with Shane Mosley (39 3, 35 KOs) at Mandalay Bay. "He had hand speed, heart, everything. It wasn’t long before he was holding his own against guys who had 30 or 40 amateur fights. Polite and respectful, he’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet."
Birmingham sounds the same way. And also like Wright, he endured the lean years when no one wanted to give his fighter a shot at the title because he was a southpaw, he was awkward to fight and he was beating everyone who had the mettle to step into the ring with him.
But the big names and big money kept ducking him. He was one of the best fighters in the world, but most casual boxing fans confused him with a game show host.
"It was very frustrating," Birmingham said. "Wink was 16 0 and no one wanted to fight him. We ended up going overseas to get fights. He fought 21 times overseas. But now, they’re beating down his door."
Now, Winky Wright is a big name and he means a big money fight for anyone good enough to earn a fight with him.
Asked what made him such a great fighter, Birmingham said Wright’s greatest asset is his ability to quickly read the guy he’s in the ring with: "It‘s like he has a built in radar. He reads and knows what the other fighter is going to do before the other fighter does it. And he acts on it."
Asked what he liked best about Wright outside the ring, Birmingham didn’t miss a step.
"In 17 years, I‘ve never seen him lose his temper," he said. "And I‘ve never heard him talk bad about anyone."
In Saturday’s rematch with Mosley, who Wright defeated by decision in March, Birmingham said he expects the same happy ending.
"I think he’s going to frustrate the hell out of Mosley," he said. "We expect Mosley to try to put more pressure on, but Wink will have an answer for everything."
For Birmingham, 2004 has been a good year. In addition to helping Wright beat Mosley in March for the undisputed junior-middleweight title, he also helped the former 2000 Olympic fighter Jeff "Left Hook" Lacy beat Syd Vanderpool in October for the vacant IBF super middleweight title.
That should put Birmingham on the short list of "trainer of the year" candidates along with Mosley’s trainer, Joe Goossen.
Lacy, like Wright, is another one of those young kids who got lucky and strayed into the right gym at the right time and talked to the right guy. He was only 9 when he first stepped into Birmingham’s gym looking for a fight. Now, 18 years later, they’re still tight.
"Jeff is another guy who has always had the keys to my gym," Birmingham said. "We’ve stayed close."
That's no surprise.