Ezekiel Elliott running roughshod over opposing defenses? Dak Prescott scrambling for big gains or launching downfield bombs to Dez Bryant? Forget it. The Dallas Cowboys won’t be in the NFL playoffs this postseason and have been rendered, at least for the time being, irrelevant. “America’s Team” is so, well, yesterday.
Boxing is the new sport of the stars in Big D, again a pugilistic city of champions after nearly five decades of mostly disinterested slumber. At least that’s the way Derrick James, thesweetscience.com’s Trainer of the Year for 2017, sees it. He’s the guy who has done for Errol Spence Jr. and Jermell Charlo what Jimmy Johnson once did for Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, which is basically to serve as the mind behind his most-acclaimed athletes’ muscle.
“Growing up in Dallas, and I’ve been here forever, you didn’t hear that much about boxing,” James, who turns 46 on Jan. 23, said about a town that heretofore had mostly been known in the fight game for having produced former welterweight champion and 2003 International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Curtis Cokes, whose title reign spanned from August 1966 to April 1969. “Oh, somebody might say something every now and then about Curtis Cokes, who I know, but all the attention went to the Cowboys and how they did in the 1990s, or the Mavericks when they won an NBA championship (in 2011).
“But now it’s our time, boxing’s time, in the city. You would never have thought that a kid (Spence) from DeSoto, Texas (a suburb of Dallas), would go on to the Olympics and a kid from the inner city who learned to box at the Boys Club (James) would become that kid’s trainer. It’s like a dream come true.
Well, I never actually had that dream, but the reality we’re living is like a dream. We are Dallas’ team right now. We’re the world champions and we’re giving inspiration to a lot of young kids in Dallas. I always said one good fighter can change a gym. Two good fighters can change a city. We have those fighters here, and now. People come by just to watch and talk to Errol and Jermell (Charlo) and Robert (Brant). I love it.”
As is the case with any trainer – James prefers to call himself a “teacher” – who has one or more celebrity clients, James has learned what it is like to bathe in the heady glare of a reflected spotlight. Despite having had a decent professional career as a pro, posting a 21-7-1 record with 12 knockout victories from 1992 to 2008, mostly at super middleweight, James toiled in relative anonymity at the R&R Boxing Club in Dallas until he was presented with just the right prospect to mold and shape into a potential superstar. That would be Spence Jr., known to his friends and confidantes as “E.J.,” who was just 15 when his dad, Errol Spence Sr., asked James to train his son just prior to the 2008 national Police Athletic League tournament.
By the time Spence, now the IBF welterweight titlist, made the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team that competed in London, James was justly being given credit for improving the now-27-year-old southpaw’s footwork, defense and means of implementing various attack strategies. His handiwork was duly noted by Jermell Charlo, then a world-ranked super welterweight, who, although undefeated, was widely considered to be a lesser talent than his identical twin brother, Jermall, mostly because of Jermall’s higher KO percentage and thus perceived edge in punching power.
Since switching from his previous trainer, Ronnie Shields, to James, now-WBC 154-pound champion Jermell Charlo (OK, so he’s from Houston; he lives and trains in Dallas now) has won four straight bouts inside the distance. Three of those wins came in world title bouts, including his first-round flattening of No.1 contender Erickson Lubin on Oct. 14, a fight which ended with the landing of a single overhand right and earlier this week was named TSS’ Knockout of the Year.
“Jermell said he liked what Errol was doing,” James said. “I’m not someone who was going to take from or radically change the attributes he already possessed, but I thought I could add to those to make him more technically sound. I believed he could become the kind of fighter he really wanted to be. Everybody wants to be able to knock guys out. Once I started to teach him, he began to understand how to increase his power. He already had most everything else he needed to be successful.”
Spence and Charlo have become walking, talking billboards for the positive influence James has had on them, and not just in ways restricted to the ring. “He’s my coach, but he’s a mentor, too,” Spence said. “The sky’s the limit for me because of the mentoring he’s done. He tells me lots of things that have helped me as a boxer and as a person.”
In addition to Spence and Charlo, James also has high hopes for super middleweight Robert Brant, who is 22-1 with 15 KOs. If two elite fighters from the same gym can change a city, what if Brant can make it a threesome?
“It’s nice to be acknowledged. It’s very flattering,” James said of his selection as TSS’ Trainer of the Year. “Hopefully, my guys can continue to win and get better.”
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