Trainer Talk: Don Turner Reflects on His Days With Evander and “Krusher”

“I want to ask you a question,” Don Turner said in his slight rasp, as he finished reminiscing about moving to New York in 1959 and watching an over-the-hill Sugar Ray Robinson still dazzle in the gyms. “How does a fighter know he overtrained? You tell me.”

Turner already knows the answer to his own question, but he wants you to make a go at it, anyway. Call it a coarse rendition of the Socratic method. So a few responses are bandied about, none of which satisfy the veteran trainer.

“It’s impossible to overtrain if you train yourself right,” he went on. “You get up every morning you run. You run five days a week. You spar three, four days a week. You okay.” He phrases the question a different way. “How do you get overprepared?”

These days, there is only so much Turner is willing to put up with. He is 78 now, 79 next spring. He likes to remind people that he has trained 24 world champions, that as a child he lived four blocks from Ezzard Charles in Cincinnati, and that boxing trainers nowadays are nothing more than con artists trading in flashy mitt work. “I’m an old man,” he remarked over the phone in early October from his home in North Carolina. Turner does not say this to draw attention to his leathery voice or the frayed white of his goatee, but only to point out that he has been around this game for a while, has seen a few things, and that as he approaches the eighth decade of his life, his fifth as a boxing trainer, he is no longer open to the idea of compromise. “Listen, man,” Turner said. “I don’t listen to these fighters. It’s a whole different ball game now.”

Holyfield, Holmes, McCallum, Pryor: There was a time when Turner did plenty of compromising for his clients, some he treated like a son. In 2003, Turner could not bear to see Holyfield take any more punishment from James Toney and made the tough decision to stop the fight in the 9th round. “I love him dearly,” he later told Michael Katz. “If he fights again I’ll probably be with him because somebody else might not be so passionate.” Holyfield fired him after the fight. Then there was the time he would try his mightiest to get Michael Grant to keep his guard up during camp. Whenever Grant dropped his right hand, Turner would start the round over. Then Grant got knocked out by Lennox Lewis and Turner got the boot. Trainers, like Jews and Huguenots, make for most convenient scapegoats.

“31 fights I was O.K., then he gets knocked out and it’s my fault,” Turner scoffed. “But that happens all the time. When a fighter loses he points the finger. When he’s winning, it’s all him. When he loses, it’s all the trainer. Now you figure that one out.”

So Turner, understandably, is less tolerant today. He may not have a world champion under his wing, but Turner does his small part to stay connected to the sport. More recently, he has been entrusted to guide the nascent careers of a few novices such as Durham native Marko Bailey, for whom Turner also provides room and board out of his gym, The Knock You Out Boxing Training Camp, located among the dirt paths and cornfields of Arapahoe, NC. Other than that, Turner’s commitment to the sport is modest, though his current arrangement means that he has full control over a fighter’s preparation, a notion he knows is unpopular with the “Me First” generation.

“Different times,” he noted solemnly, as he reflects on his old mentors Freddie Brown, Charley Goldman, Bobby McQuillar, and Bill Miller. “In the old days, the trainer was the boss. Today, the fighter is the boss. Two fights a year and he’s the boss. In the olden days, Ray Robinson fought 10, 15, 18, times a year and (George) Gainsford was the boss. Joe Louis had the same trainer for all his career.”

After a lifetime of being tethered to the whims of some of the sport’s more volatile members, Turner has come to appreciate the autonomy he has today. He does not have the patience, otherwise, to put up with or pander to fighters who do not know how to listen, who treat seniority with disdain, who think Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the nonpareil in any era. “I’m not going to sit up and listen to them. I’m not going to debate with these fighters. I’m not going to argue with them. Whatever they say, I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But I won’t be a part of it.” Many fighters have tried to eke out a boxing life under Turner’s tutelage in snake-ridden rural Pamlico County; many end up leaving, sometimes even after a few months.

Hard-hitting Russian light-heavyweight Sergey Kovalev was one exception. As was the case for a number of Eastern European pros brought over to the US by manager Egis Klimas, Kovalev’s first trainer was Turner. Turner frequently points out, proudly, that he was the first to recognize Kovalev’s potential. “Get this guy here,” Turner remembers telling Klimas on a scouting trip, after he saw Kovalev, then still an amateur, shadowboxing. “As soon as you get him, give him to me for 12 fights.” Turner and Kovalev lasted together for about a year-and-a-half, or 10 fights, considerably longer than most of the fighters who pass through Arapahoe. (Evgeny Gradovich is the other Klimas fighter who trained with Turner for an extended period). Then Kovalev was gone, just like the rest of his former pupils. “We didn’t get along,” Turner said of their parting, unsentimentally. “I’d be telling him what to do and then he’d be wanting to tell me what to do.” Turner’s next words carried a tinge of regret. “I cooked for him. I did everything for that kid.”

On November 25th, “Krusher” Kovalev enters the ring to face solid but limited Vyacheslav Shabranskyy for the WBO title at Madison Square Garden in New York City. After two straight controversial losses to Andre Ward and an ugly divorce from his longtime trainer, John David Jackson, Kovalev is looking to reclaim his reputation as a malevolent knock-out artist. This time, Kovalev will be heeding instructions from a new face in his corner in Abror Tursunpulatov, an accomplished Uzbek trainer in the amateur ranks (he trains Olympian Fazliddin Gaibnazarov) who is otherwise largely unknown in the pros. Naturally, the boxing peanut gallery will be scrutinizing Kovalev for any signs of physical or psychological diminishment, and if the new training squad will make a difference. If he takes care of Shabranskyy the way many expect him to, Kovalev will be in line to take on some of the best names of a loaded division.

“He should beat this guy,” Turner said of Kovalev. “He can beat anyone. The thing with Sergey is that he can win as long as he trains hard — but he don’t train that hard. In boxing, you got winners and losers. The one who trains the hardest is gonna come out the winner.”

So it is with Kovalev in mind that Turner brings up the topic of overtraining. Overtraining, after all, was the principle excuse trotted out by Kovalev after the first Ward fight. He insisted he ran too many miles, worked out for longer periods of time than he should have, and as a result, found himself gassing out in the second half of a fight. Turner does not buy it.

“Well, I’m a tell you one thing,” Turner began. “I don’t know what happened because I wasn’t there [for Kovalev’s training camp for the first fight]. The overtraining don’t sound right to me. But if he says he overtrained I guess that’s what it is. But it don’t sound right. What is overtraining? I’ve been in boxing 55 years, what is overtraining? You tell me. Do you know what overtraining is?”

Again, no good answers.

“Overtraining is a word that fighters picked up because they don’t want to do something and they blame it on the trainer. They don’t want to accept their responsibility.”

“Sergey is hardheaded,” Turner stated, “but he can fight.”

Abel Sanchez, Kovalev’s former trainer for eight fights before he dropped him as a client, said as much about Kovalev: talented, but stubborn. Asked recently why the pair could never make it work, Sanchez said simply that a trainer “needs to feel that he can teach something to a fighter. Even if it’s a guy with a lot of losses, I want a guy that I get to teach. I didn’t think that Sergey could be guided like that. So better somebody else do that than me and I could stay home. Besides, I want to have fun when I go into the gym.”

For the rematch against Ward, Kovalev fired his conditioning coach and brought in a new one. It was around that time rumors began circulating that Kovalev was feuding with his then trainer — and former Turner pupil — Jackson, rumors that turned out to be largely substantiated after the fight. (Since the fight, Jackson has conducted his own “Tell all” media tour, telling anyone with a camcorder that his former charge drank excessively during camp and withheld his paychecks). In any case, whatever tweaks Kovalev made did not seem to matter much. At the Mandalay Bay in June, Kovalev looked as fatigued as he had ever been by the fifth round. He ended up losing by technical knockout after a series of low blows from Ward left him sagging on the ropes, forcing referee Tony Weeks to step in. After the fight, promoter Kathy Duva, Klimas, and Kovalev took to the podium in front of a hostile, pro-Ward crowd to air out their frustrations with what they believed was botchy officiating. Turner, in town as the cutman for Kovalev’s corner, lingered by the hallway. Asked for his thoughts on the fight, Turner responded bluntly, “He lost. That’s it.” Then he pointed over to the press conference. “That over there, that’s all bullshit.”

Excuses grate on Turner. “Nobody likes to tell the truth in boxing,” Turner grumbled. And excuses are eventually taken out on the trainers, who are too often held to an impossibly difficult double standard. Should the fighter win, they receive none of the credit; should he lose, they receive the brunt of the blame. Turner remains skeptical of Kovalev’s trainer change-up as being anything other the fighter stoking his own ego, turning away from his own foibles. “After so many fights why is John David Jackson no good now? You tell me that. [Kovalev] should’ve gotten rid of him three years ago, then. If he would train and let the trainer do his job he’d be alright. But he wants to do both of them. He wants to tell the trainer how much he wants to do and all that other (stuff). That’s crazy.”

With a new team in his corner, Kovalev hopes to reshape the narrative of his career. He indicated at a press conference in September that he seemed to understand that he had certain deficiencies that he needed to shore up. “I should spend more time in the gym,” he said, “not flying from here back to home, to Russia. I lost my shape.” Luckily for Kovalev, there are plenty of talented fighters at 175 through whom he can re-burnish his name, whether they be an established champion like Adonis Stevenson or an upstart like Dmitry Bivol.

As for Turner, he will be rooting for Kovalev, as he always does, on November 25th, this time perhaps from the living room sofa. At press time, Turner had yet to receive notice about working Kovalev’s corner. And that is fine with him. He is busy working on a new project these days, a middleweight with zero fights who “punches harder than any middleweight in the world. Good speed, too, and he wants to fight. But, boy, can he punch.”

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