Part of the appeal of boxing always has been its clique of rowdy, raucous, wrong-side-of-the-track guys. “Damon Runyon” characters, they were called, when every newspaper reader knew who the great sports writer Damon Runyon was, and what kind of mischievous miscreants the celebrated wordsmith loved to chronicle.
An increasingly exclusive club became even more so Wednesday in Cleveland when longtime trainer Richie Giachetti, best known for his work with heavyweight champions Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson, passed away after an extended illness.
Giachetti, born on April 21, 1940, the son of an Italian immigrant, certainly looked the part, which is to say, not like most people who don’t have their physical features rearranged, or quirky mannerisms forged, in the crucible of a sport that never has cottoned much to bland uniformity. He was rotund but not necessarily flabby, in no way handsome, a loud talker whose craggy visage suggested he knew how to rumble and was always ready to give as good or better than he got when the spit hit the fan.
Like fellow trainer Teddy Atlas, a younger, leaner version of himself, Giachetti’s face was forever marked by a jagged scar that was as identifiable as a fingerprint. Giachetti got his – 78 stitches worth – in a bar fight in Cleveland, a potentially lethal encounter (it was for the other fellow) that nearly cost him his left eye.
“I was having a quiet beer when a guy I’d never seen before asks the bartender, `Who’s the toughest guy in the joint?’” Giachetti recalled. “The bartender points to me and the next thing I know, the guy stuck a bottle in my face.
“I hit him. Then he pulls a knife and tries to stick me. Somehow, I got hold of the knife and stuck him three times.”
Giachetti spent seven hours in surgery; his assailant wasn’t so fortunate and died in the hospital. “The cops spoke to witnesses and decided it was justifiable,” Richie said.
Then there was the time, in another bar fight – for some reason, Giachetti must have found it difficult to have a quiet drink without getting hassled – when another confrontational customer stabbed him with an ice pick just beneath his heart. “The doctor told me that if it hadn’t been for my muscle tone, I would have died,” he said.
Obviously, Giachetti and another Cleveland guy, Don King, were destined to find each other. In fact, it was Giachetti who helped introduce His Hairness to boxing, where his fellow member in the unique-characters fraternity soon flourished in his own distinctive way.
Oddly enough, Giachetti, who was born in Uniontown, Pa., outside of Pittsburgh, and relocated to Cleveland in the late 1950s, came to boxing only after he discovered that he wasn’t emotionally suited to his occupation of choice, which was auto racing. A tavern owner and patron who couldn’t quite seem to steer clear of sharp objects, he also was a skilled auto mechanic who thought he could transfer his expertise in fast cars to the track as a driver. But, apparently, he was more fearful of crashing into a retaining wall than of mixing it up with knife-wielding drunks or even championship boxers in his charge who might have been resentful of Richie’s in-your-face way of getting his point across.
“One day I was flying down the track at 160 miles an hour when, all of a sudden, I see this wall in front of me,” Giachetti told Alan Goldstein of The Baltimore Sun. “Instinctively, I slowed down. But that’s when you’ve got to step on the gas. You can’t back down. Same thing in boxing when you find yourself in a tough spot. You’ve got to suck it up. Go for the kill.”
So it was back to boxing for Richie, who, like his twin brother Bob, had had some success at the local and state Golden Gloves levels. And when his beer and fast-food intake expanded his physique to a point that entering the ring himself no longer was feasible, he decided to become a trainer.
Giachetti’s first celebrity client was Holmes, except that nobody knew much about Holmes or his rumpled manager-trainer then. Holmes had been beaten at the 1972 U.S. Olympic Team Trials by Duane Bobick, who was supposed to be the Next Big Thing, and none of the major promoters were beating a path to either his or Giachetti’s door. But that door opened when Don King, seeking entry into an enterprise that suited his particular skill set, came knocking. Maybe that was because King had especially keen foresight, and maybe it was because he needed to get his operation up and running, even if it meant taking on an unwanted guy who had been beaten by Duane Bobick and wasn’t going to the Munich Olympics.
“I had used Larry as a sparring partner for Earnie Shavers,” Giachetti said of their early days together. “I liked the kid’s heart from the start. All the famous trainers back then – Angelo Dundee, Gil Clancy, Eddie Futch – turned him away. But I stuck with him.”
The Richie ’n’ Larry path to the pinnacle of boxing was a long and winding road, to put it mildly. Some of Holmes’ early bouts were for purses as skimpy as $150, and he and Giachetti often had to eat on the cheap and stay in fleabag hotels. But Holmes had something special, a state-of-the-art jab, and eventually it took him to a bout with Ken Norton for the WBC heavyweight championship on June 9, 1978, at the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas. And when Holmes outlasted Norton to win an electrifying, 15-round split decision, he and Giachetti suddenly found themselves in a fancy new neighborhood reserved only for elite fighters and those fortunate enough to work with them. Holmes was voted Fighter of the Year for 1978 by the Boxing Writers Association America while Giachetti walked away with the hardware as Manager of the Year. But for the remainder of his career, Giachetti was denied a prize he wanted more than anything: Trainer of the Year.
So, how instrumental was Giachetti in the development of Holmes’ career from virtual anonymity to the top of his profession?
“I talk to Larry twice a month,” Giachetti said in 2012, when infirmity had forced him to step away from the training chores which had become such an integral part of his identity and sense of self-worth. “Nobody had a jab like his. He hit with that jab so hard he knocked guys out. I taught that. Fighters with good, hard left jabs are my trademark.”
Holmes remained at least somewhat close to Giachetti, speaking to him a couple of times a month, but he said his jab owed more to his own talent and a work ethic formed when he was a kid than from anything he was taught by Giachetti or any other trainer with whom he worked.
“Richie rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, OK?” Holmes said when contacted for this story at his Easton, Pa., office. “He was a good trainer to a certain extent. But Richie was Richie. If you said something he didn’t like, or if he thought you were wrong, he’d let you know. Ninety percent of the time he probably was wrong. I’m not going to throw flowers now. I’m gonna tell it like it is.”
“Throwing the jab came natural to me. I practiced jabs when I was a kid coming up, watching Muhammad Ali. He had a good jab so I wanted to develop a good jab. I thought if I used my jab I wouldn’t get hit with too many right hands.”
“Richie always talked about the importance of the jab, but to teach a jab you have to know how to throw a jab. He didn’t really have, uh, the showmanship to demonstrate it.”
There are those, such as Cleveland Plain Dealer boxing writer Joe Maxse, who figured that Giachetti’s body of work, not only with Holmes and Tyson but with an array of other champions that included, among others, Aaron Pryor, Earnie Shavers, Greg Page, Esteban De Jesus, Julian Jackson and Buster Doulas, merit induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. It hasn’t happened yet, and there are those who would say that the reason Giachetti had so many good-to-great fighters was because he was the “house” trainer for King. In any case, Giachetti, always one of the most quotable boxing insiders, and therefore a favorite interview subject of media members, felt slighted that he was never given the credit for being a chief second on a par with, say, Eddie Futch, Angelo Dundee, Emanuel Steward, George Benton or Freddie Roach.
But, just as Dundee’s reputation was honed and polished because of his affiliation with Ali and then with Sugar Ray Leonard, Giachetti got a second opportunity to take center stage when he was brought in to work with Tyson after he was shockingly upset in 10 rounds by Buster Douglas on Feb. 11, 1990, in Tokyo, a fight in which Tyson’s co-trainers, Jay Bright and Aaron Snowell, appeared to be completely befuddled. Tyson won all four of his fights with Giachetti in their first tour of duty together, knockouts of Henry Tillman, Alex Stewart and Razor Ruddock and then a decision over Ruddock in their rematch. But then Tyson was convicted of rape, went to prison for three years and, during the interim, Giachetti filed legal action against King. Little wonder that when Tyson was released, Giachetti was not brought back.
But when Tyson showed signs of regression, culminating in the loss of his WBA heavyweight title via TKO against Evander Holyfield on Nov. 9, 1996, it was obvious that something needed to be done, and fast, to get Tyson back to where he needed to be. Enter Giachetti, for what he termed was another gig in the “center ring” of the “Mike Tyson circus.”
“Watching that (first) Holyfield made me sick,” Giachetti said. “I knew that wasn’t the Mike Tyson I left off with in the second Ruddock fight. Mike made a lot of mistakes that night. His balance was bad, his feet were wrong and he didn’t use his jab. With me, setting up opponents with the jab was always fundamental. I’m not mentioning names (such as that of the deposed Bright). Just say nothing happened in Mike’s corner to help him.”
Back again with Tyson – “I always had faith that sooner or later Mike would call me,” Giachetti said – the two went about fixing what was wrong with the erstwhile baddest man on the planet.
“The first day I showed up in training camp in Ohio, he chased everybody else out of the gym and said he wanted to spend a week alone with me,” Giachetti said. “We’ve got good chemistry. We work well together. It’s called respect. I’m not saying I’m the best trainer, but I believe I’m the best man for Mike.”
Perhaps no trainer could have handled a salvage job of such magnitude. Although Giachetti predicted a knockout victory for his prodigal pupil, “because he’s Mike Tyson,” the so-called “Bite Fight” victory for Holyfield chewed a large chunk out of the reputations of both Tyson and Giachetti, whose confidence in his ability to draw the best from the remnants of what Tyson had been was overly optimistic.
Whatever Giachetti’s legacy is, or how it will be viewed moving forward, is now a matter of conjecture.
“I don’t know what it is,” Richie’s twin brother, Bob, said in 2012 when asked why the IBHOF had yet to induct his sibling. “As far as training fighters, Tyson and everyone else said he always did a good job with them. He had all those champs.”
But there is no disputing that Giachetti was an original, a boxing lifer who didn’t look, sound or act quite like anyone else. Guys like that once were commonplace, but the effervescent Dundee is gone, as are so many others who never could be confused with anyone else. What few remain – Jake LaMotta, the “Bronx Bull,” is 94 and getting nearer to a seventh scrap with Sugar Ray Robinson in heaven (Jake can only hope), and crusty Lou Duva is 93 and confined to a wheelchair – are dying off without really being replaced.
More’s the pity.