BOXING’S EXPERT “CUT MAN” BY SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT LUIS CORTES III — Last Saturday night at London’s Wembley Stadium, Jacob “Stitch” Duran plied his trade before an electric crowd of 90,000 fans that were there for the most part to support the fighter in the opposite corner. But for Duran, one of the most respected and sought-after cut men in all of combat sports, it was just another day at the office.
Duran fell in love with combat sports while attending a Muay Thai show while stationed in Thailand as a member of the United States Air Force. Duran started training and upon returning to his native California he decided to open his own kickboxing school. “I loved it. We had kids and adults from all over the area come to the school and learn how to defend themselves,” recalls Duran of his days running ASK (American School of Kickboxing) in Fairfield, California.
During this time Duran would also join the Kings Gym in Oakland where he would meet an up and coming trainer by the name of Virgil Hunter. Hunter would introduce Duran to his favorite pupil and rave about how he was training a future world champion. That student, of course, was Andre Ward. “He was always a nice kid from day one. Always had the look,” remarks Duran, when thinking back on their first encounters. “I loved my time with them at Kings Gym.”
Duran moved to Las Vegas in 1996, a move that would change the whole trajectory of his life. “I started attending all of the mixed martial arts shows and would go to all of the gyms.” At a K-1 (kickboxing) show, he met Dana White. “We knew each other from the local gyms too. But at the show I gave him my card and offered him my services.”
White would wind up utilizing Duran’s services as a corner man for the fighters in his upstart company, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Before he had a falling out with White, he was the primary cut man for all things UFC. “Everything was less formal those days. I was happy to be part of something like that from the beginning. Let’s just say that was a long time ago,” quips Duran as he chuckles.
While Duran was the king of cut men for the UFC, he would also take part in many major boxing events. “I wasn’t exclusive to the UFC. I would tell boxers with whom I developed a relationship to let me know when they were going to fight and I would pencil them in.” One of those boxers, of course, was Andre Ward, the former Olympic gold medalist who was emerging as a true pound for pound force in the sport. However, it would be a chance encounter during a visit to the United States by former kickboxing champions from the recently dissolved Soviet Union that would have a profound impact on Duran.
Columbus Promotions, which was new at the time, invited the former champions to compete against their growing stable of fighters. “Yeah, I met Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko for the first time at that event.” However it wouldn’t be until about a decade later that their paths would cross again and a working relationship would begin.
“I was cast to play a corner man for the movie Oceans Eleven,” recalls Duran. His fighter for that movie was Wladimir Klitschko. During their time on set they established a friendship that led to Duran actually becoming Wladimir Klitschko’s cut man. It was not his first time on a movie set. He had previously been cast for the boxing movie Play It To The Bone. To date, Duran has appeared in boxing scenes in six movies.
Duran is no stranger to large events having plied his trade before an enormous crowd at the Tokyo Dome for an MMA event and at German soccer stadiums for Wladimir Klitschko fights. Reflecting back on this past Saturday, Duran said, “Oh yeah, brother, that was by far the largest crowd that I ever worked in front of. I got to London at 5pm on Thursday and when I looked out my hotel window I could see Wembley. I was staying in a different area from Wladimir so I didn’t see him until the weigh-in.”
When Duran did finally see Klitschko, he noticed the demeanor of his charge who was in the unfamiliar role of challenger. “I asked him how things went and he said training camp was great and that their hash tag for the camp was obsessed. I could see the intensity in his eyes.” With over 5,000 screaming fans at the weigh in-alone, Duran knew that the following night was going to be something special.
In the dressing room, Johnathan Banks, who has been the head trainer for Klitschko since the passing of Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, impressed on his fighter the need to stay loose and agile. It was clear to their team that despite Klitschko being a future first ballot Hall of Fame fighter and having the second longest heavyweight title reign in history, he was going to be facing a young lion. Duran customarily stays quiet and hardly mentions anything to the fighters he works with in the dressing room so as not to break their focus away from the game plan they are about to execute. However, on this night, Stitch Duran broke away from that norm.
“I told him that I was going to make sure that he stayed pretty and to act like he was dancing in there so he could keep the rhythm,” states Duran. “I also told him that I loved him like a son.” Later in the ring, Duran would learn just how special he was to Klitschko. As he stood in front of Klitschko prior to the introductions and applied the customary Vaseline, “Wladimir looked at me and said, ‘call me son’.”
The advice in the dressing room seemed to be paying off. Against the younger champion, Klitschko was holding his own. In round four it started to seem as though Klitschko was going to find a home for his deadly right hand missiles. They were falling just short of their intended target. On the other hand, Joshua was also missing by inches as a big right uppercut flew right by the chin of Klitschko.
Between rounds, recalled Duran, “Johnathon told him to be careful, that the kid was throwing big uppercuts and was starting to get confident.” It would be as if the instructions came right on cue during the filming of a movie scene. Round five started and Joshua was able to land a left hook that hurt Klitschko. A few short moments later, Wladimir was on the canvas and facing serious adversity.
After rising to his feet, Klitschko not only regained his composure but started to find that aforementioned home for his right hand missiles. To add to the drama, he suffered a serious cut over his left eye. However, by the end of the round, even with being dropped early on and now having a gash over his left eye, Klitschko had seized the momentum. As for his team, between rounds five and six they just simply got right back to work.
“It was nothing new for any of us. I looked at the cut and right away knew that it was a bad one,” recalls Duran. It was so bad that he would need to use an entire swab just to fill the size and depth of the cut.
In the next round, this movie-like script continued to play out as Klitschko landed a huge right hand that floored the defending champion. Over the succeeding four rounds, as the back and forth action settled in, Duran gave a master class in between rounds on how to handle a bad cut and not let the injury dictate the outcome of the fight. “A long time ago when I was learning my craft”, says Duran, “I was working a corner and rushing to get the work done in between rounds. A veteran trainer laughed and told me, one minute is a long time.” It was Duran’s composure, born from experience, that allowed him him to treat a seriously deep gash and make it irrelevant.
This was not lost on the American and British broadcasting crews, both of which mentioned his artistry. “It was for sure a UFC style cut; based off of my experience I was able to handle it. Nothing I hadn’t seen before.” As for the ringside doctor that was monitoring the cut, Duran says “I knew him from my work with the UFC, so he knew my credentials. I always like to talk to the doctor or ref before the fight so they know that I am capable to handle any cut.”
Heading into the eleventh round, Klitschko was trailing on the cards of most ringside observers, but the fight was still up for grabs. Team Klitschko sensed the mood. “We told Wladimir that he needed to go after him,” recalls Duran.
On this night it would be a booming right uppercut from Joshua that would find its mark on Klitschko’s chin. Although the challenger didn’t fall, a follow up left hook put him down, marking the beginning of the end. A defiant Klitschko rose to his feet, but was dropped by a second right uppercut. Again he beat the count, but a follow-up barrage of punches prompted the referee to step in and call the fight off.
What occurred in the stadium next told the story of this night. “Even the British fans that were there for Joshua cheered for Wladimir. It was like straight out of the end of the (sixth) Rocky movie when he loses to Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon. They started to chant his name,” said Duran. “The passion from the fans and the noise, with the fire during the introductions, was just like the movie ‘Creed’.” Duran should know. He appeared in that movie too, playing Creed’s cut man.
With the battle concluded, the questions began to swirl about the future of Wladimir Klitschko. Was that the last time we would see him in the ring? If so, it would be a fitting way to end it considering all of the criticism he faced throughout his career for being dominant, but not producing “entertaining” bouts.
Fight fans got what they have been yearning for, the best heavyweight championship fight in recent memory. But for Stitch Duran, fighting that cut between rounds was just another day at the office.
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