Eureka moments. We all know of Newton’s apple or the implications of Ben Franklin’s kite getting struck by lightning. Boxing trainer Milton LaCroix’s great revelation came about 20 years ago, when a girlfriend he was arguing with slapped him so hard and swiftly across his face, he had no idea what had happened. Disoriented, he thought that maybe a cantankerous neighbor had dropped a potted plant on his head from a third-story fire escape.
When he collected himself, the 6’1’’ LaCroix walked slowly towards her and asked, “What did you do?” He wasn’t seeking retribution but a simple answer. So she demonstrated the slap—this time in slow-motion. “I started thinking, Damn, maybe there is something to this. And I began to watch boxing differently.”
Thus was born Milton LaCroix’s unconventional approach to boxing, which will be on display when Shannon Briggs fights tonight, and which ignores virtually every principle of “proper” technique:
· Hold your hands high. “Garbage!” Milton responds. “Drop your hands. If you’re orthodox, let your left hand hang all the way down and cross your right over your chest—not even touching your face—like you’re doing the Pledge of Allegiance.”
· Never pull your head back from a punch. “That’s retarded!” (Not one for politically correct language, Milton frequently employs the word “retard” in every conceivable manner.)
· Sit down on your punches. “I don’t care if you’re a midget, stand tall!”
· Don’t lead with your face. “I dare you to hit me. As soon as you throw the right, since you couldn’t reach me with your jab, I touch my toes.” (He’s speaking literally here.) “My body automatically turns to the right, and I’m gone. You see daylight and look stupid. Try it again and you look more stupid.”
· Make your punches short and tight. “I laugh at that too! Those short punches are never gonna hit a good boxer. Let them out long and loose. Listen, you have bulls and matadors. Boxers like Muhammad Ali are the matadors. Sometimes you get two bulls that meet in the ring and fight each other. What happens is the less bloody bull is gonna win. I’ll stick with being the matador.”
· An ideal left hook is “snappy” and describes a 90-degree angle. “Nah, make big circles. I tell my fighters,‘Stir the pot! Stir the pot!’”
Certain boxing fans may not want to read further. Others may continue, but with furrowed brows. Milton welcomes such skepticism. The deceptively youthful, 48-year-old Newyorican loves disproving critics and then reprogramming their pugilistic mindsets.
It’s hard to argue with LaCroix’s methods when you consider his remarkable accomplishments in the New York amateur scene. From the mid-1980s through 2000—at which point he moved to southern Florida—he churned out champions as fast they could make those necklaces with the golden gloves attached to them. In 1996, for example, LaCroix’s “Supreme Team” placed seven fighters in the Golden Gloves finals at the Garden; five of them came out victorious. (Another five fighters who made it to the Garden that year trained at Milton’s 14th Street gym, although they were not officially members of his team. He’ll tell you that he shaped them too, even if through osmosis. They morphed into a product that looked awfully Miltonesque.) Now training amateurs in Miami, LaCroix’s fighters are dominating the Golden Gloves there.
If Milton’s name rings a bell, you might know it from Robert Anasi’s well-received book “The Gloves.” Released in 2002, the book chronicled the writer’s experiences in the world of New York amateur boxing as a member of Supreme Team. Although Anasi has said in interviews subsequent to the book’s publication that he “liked” and “admired” Milton, one gets a different sense upon reading the book. He is portrayed as a largely abusive, bullying, self-mythologizing braggart—and also a gifted coach.
All of the above is true, to an extent. LaCroix is highly confident and apt to state his exploits as a trainer and put them up against yours (particularly if you’re a fellow amateur coach competing against him). He has some rough edges and a formidable temper. He doesn’t conceal this fact, sheepishly admitting, “You know the story on me [in New York]. I’m always punching the referee in the face, or somebody in the face, because I just don’t get along with too many people. But don’t hate somebody because they’re great or they do things differently than you do—which everybody winds up doing.”
“We [Milton and his Supreme Team] were kicked out of more gyms than anybody in the history of New York,” says Stella Nijhof, a 4-time national champion and former pupil of LaCroix’s. “We kind of enjoyed being hated everywhere we went.” But Nijhof speaks warmly of Milton and says she never exchanged a cross word with him. She recalls him fostering an esprit de corps among her teammates that she’s never experienced before or since. Another Supreme Team member, nicknamed “Busdriver” by LaCroix (yeah, he drives a bus for a living), explained how when he thinks of Milton, it’s of his constant encouragement: “‘Believe in yourself, believe in yourself.’ He’d just preach that,” says “Busdriver,” “and those words are always stuck in my mind.” Unlike Nijhoff, “Busdriver” was a thirty-something, C-level fighter with a wife and five kids, but says LaCroix turned him into a solid B. “He can take a doofy kid with glasses and turn him into a superstar.”
Most poignantly, Milton has taken countless underprivileged kids off the streets and given them direction and hope through boxing. One of his prized students was a 156-pound teenager named Efrain Ortiz. His father was in jail and his mother an alcoholic. “Efrain won the Golden Gloves in 1996 because I went to his house, with a suitcase. ‘Yo, where’s your room at?’ He took me to his room. I start throwing all his sh** in a bag and he goes, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Nigga, you winnin’ the New York City Golden Gloves this year if it kills me. You’re gonna win. And he goes like this, ‘But where am I going?’ I said, ‘You’re moving in with me.’ So I moved him out of his house, into my house. And the nigga won the Gloves. Five days after the fight, he was in jail. I took care of Efrain since he was seven years old. The same thing I’d do with anybody.”
In speaking to numerous former fighters of Milton’s, not one saw him as anything less than a true friend, a “real person.” (Regarding certain fellow trainers, gym owners and amateur boxing bureaucrats, that’s a different matter.) They described Supreme Team as family. They said Efrain was just one of many poor kids from a broken home whom Milton essentially raised. Nearly everyone stays in touch.
The boxing savant LaCroix fell into boxing unexpectedly. He had had a promising career in the music business, having discovered numerous rap and soul artists and produced a few successful albums. One of those albums was “Masters of Ceremony” by the Brand Nubians. “They had a bunch of songs out—“Sexy,” “Crime,” and “Cracked Out,” Milton says. He also produced other artists such as Busy B, Don Baron and Evelyn Champagne King, and staged entertainment legends such as Red Foxx. “I worked with everybody.”
But LaCroix explains that a top executive at CBS Records commissioned him to produce an album, which he dumped most of his own money into, and never got signed. “I got so mad I wanted to smash him (the exec) in his f-ing head. So I was walking on 42nd Street and I saw a boxing gym and I went upstairs. And I started talking to this guy, Donald Hayes. He told me I was too old to do this, da da da—”
He wanted to be a fighter right then and there?
“Oh, yeah, I wanted to smash him in his f-ing head.” Milton, who was in his mid-twenties and had never laced on gloves, was confident that if he projected the record exec’s face onto future opponents, he’d do OK.
But what made him think he could do this? Just the act of walking into a boxing gym for the first time is an intimidating experience.
“I mean, I was born and raised in Queens!” he replies incredulously. “I was hittin’ niggas on the head and taking their sneakers.”
He became a gym rat, and headed up to the Bronx to spar with the likes of Pinklon Thomas. It was moving around with bigger men that he developed the slickness he attempts to instill in his fighters.
“You had to be slick,” he says, “because once you pissed them off, they wanna kill you. People don’t realize, you don’t have to run from a big motherf***er. It’s when you do that that the punches really start landing. If you stay there and maintain your ground, and you get the guy to try to hit you . . . you can just have fun with him and watch him get mentally frustrated. It’s all about fun. It’s a fun sport that people don’t take as fun because they’re not comfortable and relaxed.”
* * *
Comfortable and relaxed is what I found Milton’s latest project, Shannon Briggs, to be, as I watched him spar last week on a raised outdoor ring in Hollywood, Florida. He was putting in the finishing touches on his preparation for (the once “Merciless”) Ray Mercer. Beneath the ring lights it was 110 degrees and Briggs had clearly melted off the needless extra weight he’s been lugging around the last few years. His trademark orange-gold dreadlocks looked like a roached mane proudly shooting through his headgear. To compare him to the Roy Jones of old would be farfetched, but when he tripled up his left hook on sparring partners Otis Tisdale and Sherman Williams, Milton reflexively touched the side of his face—a flashback to that bitchslap the trainer received 20 years ago. Briggs’ jab was a ham-fisted flyswatter, and when he moved on his toes, it was as close to balletic as a 33-year-old, 250-pound man ought to be.
After his sparring, seemingly happy with his work, Briggs spoke glowingly of his trainer. “Milton doesn’t have the notoriety that the other guys have,” he said, looking thoroughly displaced among chubby, white, red-cheeked southerners. “But I’m confident with his style and that makes me feel good. I believe in what he says. We work on certain things you won’t work with a ‘pro trainer’ because they may say, ‘Oh, nah, that’s amateurish.’ But the bottom line is punches getting to the home plate. And that’s what they’re doing.”
The trainer says that after five years of working together off and on, he sees his style finally clicking in with Briggs. The boxer, who used to peter out after three rounds, looked like he had reached a greater sense of his body-mind potential. Milton simply explained that his charge was finally “having fun with it.” But the hands held so low will undoubtedly receive raised eyebrows, to which Milton, almost reading my thoughts, launched into a lecture that is not foreign to me.
“When did having your hands glued to your face come in? If you look at John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, James Corbett, all them fighters from way back when, they had their hands way out front. All of the sudden, everybody is ‘Keep your hands up! Keep your hands up! Keep your hands up! And they’re still getting knocked out. It’s a style that I didn’t invent,” Milton confesses in a surprising moment of humility.
Opponents to his way of thinking will say the Naseem Hameds and Floyd Mayweathers are unique athletic talents, blessed with so much quickness and natural ability, one would be insane to attempt their daring moves. Milton believes otherwise; if you learn to fight this way from the beginning—or in Briggs’ case practice it endlessly for a few years–you will develop the necessary instincts to master the style.
I told Milton that I was buying, to get him to stop selling. Briggs does look physically ready to make one final assault on the anemic heavyweight division; of all the super-sized retreads, he seems to me the most promising. But in lieu of a crystal ball or the ability to read his mind, all we can do is wonder at the state of Briggs’ whimsical psyche. If Mercer has anything at all left, we will hopefully get some answers.
If you’re helplessly hardcore and plan on getting this dubious PPV tonight, know that while Shannon Briggs is the main attraction, the man in his corner may be a future star of equal weight and brilliance. Milton LaCroix will tell you as much.