From Boxer to Puncher: The Evolution of Jermell Charlo

Jermell Charlo doesn’t have to carry his gym bag anymore. He’s got someone on payroll for that now, though judging by how the fighter looks today, you’d never guess he skips lifting anything.

Charlo didn’t always amalgamate the musculature of a brawler with the tenacity of a Tasmanian devil.  Instead, the soft-spoken, athletic fighter was lean, not particularly mean and light as a feather on his toes. He used his naturally nimble frame to jab and stab his way to points wins over quality opposition, and he was very good at it.

His footwork was deft and fancy, and in a world where athletes clamor to participate in TV dance competitions like ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, Charlo was already more Fred Astaire than Rocky Balboa.

But something has changed.

A New Body of Work

Charlo has become a knockout machine.

The hulking Houstonian has rounded shoulders now and thickly rigid arms. He’s more tree trunks than chopsticks, and there’s a newfound doggedness that lies in wait behind his eyes that tells you not to ask any stupid questions.

Charlo has become a menace.

The 27-year-old WBC junior middleweight titleholder has evolved from careful counterpuncher to technically superb boxer-puncher who is just as capable of out-boxing his opponents over 12 full rounds as he is concussing them into a comatose state inside the distance.

Lately, it seems he prefers the latter. Where discretion used to be the better part of valor, Charlo now focuses his efforts on delivering violent and concussive ends to would-be title usurpers. Charlo is in the business of hurting people, and right now business is good.

It wasn’t always this way.

Seeing Double

If you’d asked me just a couple of years ago an easy way to distinguish him from his twin brother Jermall, a former IBF junior middleweight titleholder who now campaigns at middleweight, I’d have told you it was as easy as looking for the brother who appears slightly smaller and a little less angry.

That was Jermell.

Where Jermall had always been raging against the boxing machine of wannabe experts and social media pundits who say the Charlos aren’t good enough to be special fighters, Jermell was the tad bit smaller, more reserved brother who preferred quietly boxing from a distance whether it was inside the ring or out.

Jermall was the boisterous one. Jermell was shy.

Jermall was likely to yell at you if you dared insult his inflated view of himself. That’s no knock on him. A fighter’s inflated self worth is a necessity in this sport. If you happened to say the same or something similar to Jermell, on the other hand, the softer Charlo was likely to just smile and go about his day as if you never mentioned it.

But lately, Jermell has become angry. It’s not a mean-spirited anger. It’s just a plain and true raw emotion bubbling up from somewhere deep inside of him.

He’s angry he’s not getting the fights he wants. He’s angry he’s not listed on pound-for-pound lists. He’s angry he’s not headlining major boxing shows in Houston. He’s angry people can’t tell the difference between him and his brother.

He’s just plain angry.

Hell, he’s not even all that sure how a super talented and undefeated phenom like Erickson Lubin, his opponent on October 14 at Barclays in Brooklyn, earned a shot at his WBC title in the first place.

“I’m fighting a prospect,” lamented Charlo. “He’s not even a contender. Like I said, I don’t even know how he got this fight, but I have to [fight him] so I can fight the No. 1 guys. That’s what mandatories are all about.”

Leaving Home

Two years ago, Charlo decided to part ways with longtime trainer Ronnie Shields, a family friend of the Charlos since the twins were children. Charlo ditched Shields and strength coach Danny Arnold at Plex to move across the state to Dallas with up-and-coming trainer Derrick James, who had already been working with a long heralded and much ballyhooed prospect named Errol Spence Jr.

Since the transition, Charlo has evolved into a more robust fighting weapon. He’s aggressive, accurate and powerful.

Under Shields, Charlo was the consummate boxer. He moved his feet well. He never left his head in the same place after throwing punches. He circled around the ring like a ballet dancer and never stayed in one place for very long.  He was exactly the careful, considerate fighter one might train his son or daughter to be: one who exhibited the classic hit-and-don’t-get-hit mentality that has become the hallmark of Shields-trained fighters.

Think Erislandy Lara (who is trained by Shields and headlines the card Charlo-Lubin is supporting on Saturday night against Terrell Gausha) without the Cuban’s nationally patented, wide-legged stance. It’s an effective system but less visually appealing than most other fighting methods we see inside the ring today.

Charlo departed Plex after a squabble over how much money he should pay Shields and Arnold heading into championship-caliber fights. The two expected their paychecks to rise as Charlo’s did in ways the fighter just couldn’t imagine. So while the sides remained generally amicable toward each other after the split, Charlo still seems to hold onto some of the things Shields told him as he departed.

“Ronnie actually told me he didn’t think I would get any stronger,” said Charlo in a huff. “But when I left Ronnie, I became 3-0 with three knockouts [without him].”

Perhaps adding some additional discomfort and relational strain to the move, Jermell’s brother, Jermall, remained at Plex to keep training under Shields.

Charlo had to chart new territories alone.

Finding His Own Way

To Charlo’s credit, it appears he has become a stronger fighter under James. His body has attained a noticeable difference in thickness over the last couple of years, and whether by design or just through the natural passage of time as a boxer, he does seem to sit down on punches better now than he did back then.

Charlo has become a real puncher. Where he always carried a certain amount of athletic prowess in his game, his training under James, particularly the time he spends sparring Spence, appears to have yielded some pretty powerful results.

“Errol Spence is the perfect sparring partner,” said Charlo. “He’s been one of the best sparring partners that I’ve had–even when I’m fighting right-handers–because of his dominance. He’s very strong, he’s fast and his punching [makes me a better fighter]”.

James said Charlo’s recent offensive output is due to his rising self-esteem. He said Spence and Charlo fight each other often and when they do they bring out the best in each other. In fact, he said both fighters have appeared better than ever over recent fights precisely because they spend so much time challenging each other in practice.

For Charlo, the increased aggression and harder punching means knocking out fighters he might have previously carried the full 12 rounds. Or maybe its just osmosis. Spence has been an aggressive, hard punching fighter from the start. Has it simply rubbed off on Charlo? Is Charlo more like Spence now because he spends so much time training with him?

“That comes with the level of confidence he’s achieved,” said James. “He works with Spence a lot and I think that it brings more aggressiveness out of him. It takes him to another level.”

James also indicated the changes he made to Charlo’s training regimen have put his fighter in better positions to punch his opponents. Where Charlo under Shields was a fighter seeking to minimize the total number of punches his opponents landed over the course of a fight, the fighter now is more interested in laying wood to whoever wants to stand in front of him. He doesn’t necessarily need to remain unhit. He just wants to get the better of the exchanges.

“The style I teach makes him more aggressive,” said James. “It’s aggressive and his punches have more power now.”

But James cautions those who believe the differences in Charlo’s preparations have resulted in defensive liabilities—openings opponents like Lubin or even those down the line might exploit. He said the newfound power surge was directly attributed to the fighter’s increased focus on more subtle nuances of defense and footwork.

“I think because of the fact we work on a lot of defense, he doesn’t have to move so much,” said James. “He can be aggressive. He can keep his hands up and walk guys down. He can be a more offensive boxer. It’s not just about counterpunching now.”

For James, it all boils down to Charlo making good on the promise of his natural physical gifts. While Jermell might always be the nicer Charlo brother outside the ring to a slight degree, on fight night, James prefers to see Jermell become an unapologetic sadist.

“That’s what [boxing] is about: being a rough, tough guy in the ring,” said James.

Serious Business

James said the change in Jermell has been for the better.

“He was always cracking jokes and stuff outside the ring,” said James.  “So people didn’t sometimes take him seriously. But him learning the style I teach—the things I work with him on—he’s aggressive and he punches with a lot more power and a lot more certainty now.”

Today, Charlo makes people take him seriously.  Whether he’s fielding questions from the media or simply plying his trade as a fighter on Saturday night, Charlo demands respect.

As a case in point, when asked what disadvantages he thinks he might have against the undefeated Lubin, Charlo scowled fiercely and questioned whether the reporter asking such should even be in the same room with him that day.

“I don’t even understand that question,” said Charlo, a little angry and absolutely ready for a fight. The reporter backed off the line and sunk back into the anonymity of the scrum.

Perhaps Lubin will be able to stand in there for a little bit longer.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott / SHOWTIME

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