By ARNE K. LANG
Boxing trainers have been known to prowl the gyms in search of a diamond in the rough. It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes an unpolished gem falls right into their lap, manna from heaven. Abel Sanchez can relate. In March of 2010, a 27-year-old boxer about whom he knew nothing walked into his gym in Big Bear, California. “Hello,” said the stranger, “my name is Gennady Golovkin.” And so was born a great partnership, an unlikely alliance between a Kazakhstani and a Mexican-American.
The son of a Russian coal miner and his Korean wife, Golovkin had recently severed ties with Universum, his German promoter, for whom he was the third banana among their middleweights, languishing behind Felix Sturm and Sebastian Zbik. He arrived at Sanchez’s gym with his manager, Oleg Hermann, Oleg’s brother Max, and their legal advisor. They were checking out gyms in southern California and had called ahead, requesting permission to meet Sanchez and inspect his operation.
The older men left the boxer alone with Sanchez while they ran off to sightsee. Situated in the pine-scented forest of the San Bernardino Mountains, 80 miles from Los Angeles, Big Bear, California is a scenic wonder, a postcard perfect vacation retreat.
Golovkin had brought with him tapes containing footage of some of his fights. As they watched the tapes, Sanchez offered up a few helpful suggestions, communicating with gestures to overcome the language barrier. When he went home that night, he googled the boxer’s name to learn more about him and was wowed by what he discovered. The stranger with whom he had spent a good portion of the afternoon was undefeated in his short professional career and had been virtually invincible at the amateur level, winning 365 fights.
Not quite eight weeks later, Sanchez received a phone call. “Mr. Golovkin will be arriving at Los Angeles at 2 pm tomorrow,” said the caller, speaking with a thick German accent. “Please be there at the airport when he arrives.”
Sanchez didn’t see this coming; there must have been a miscommunication. His first reaction was that someone was playing a practical joke. But as he probed for more details, it became obvious to him that he was speaking to Oleg Hermann. He was there at the airport to meet the fighter – Golovkin arrived by himself – and the two drove off to Big Bear, Golovkin’s new home away from home for the next phase of his pugilistic journey. Since then, Golovkin, commonly referenced as GGG (“Triple G” in the vernacular), has reeled off 16 straight knockouts, extending his skein of wins inside the distance to 21. Famed British promoter Frank Warren calls him “the world’s most fearsome fighter.”
In 2010, Abel Sanchez was far from the most prominent trainer in California, but he had a few bright feathers in his cap. A former amateur boxer, he had enjoyed good success right out of the box, uplifting the careers of Lupe Aquino, Paul Vaden, and the Norris brothers, Terry and Orlin. All became title-holders, most notably Terry Norris, a 2005 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. But there were holes in his vita. Sanchez was out of circulation for six years beginning in 2002, working as a home builder, as had his father before him.
Married with a child before he left his teen years, Sanchez passed the requisite California state exam and was a licensed building contractor at the tender age of eighteen. One of the homes that his company helped build was the actual home the extra-terrestrial E.T. inhabits in the famous Steven Spielberg movie.
Between 1999 and 2001, Sanchez purchased 26 vacant lots in Big Bear. On most of them he built custom homes, but he kept a few lots for himself. The last of the undeveloped lots abuts his gym. Originally a storage facility for his construction company, the gym sprawls across the lower floor of a 5,200 square foot duplex sitting on a quiet residential street, the upper floors dedicated to serving as a dormitory. Sanchez would have never boated Golovkin if there hadn’t been good chemistry between them at their initial meeting, but Golovkin’s handlers were likely more impressed by the compound.
When this reporter and his party arrived at the gym in late February, the first person to greet us was Golovkin who happened to be outside doing calisthenics. “Hello,” he said, extending his hand in friendship, “my name is Gennady.”
For this grizzled reporter, so accustomed to awkward interactions with stand-offish athletes, that was a precious moment. When the incident was relayed to Sanchez, he chuckled. “He knew you wouldn’t be here unless you were allowed to be here,” he said, “but you can only credit those little courtesies to good parenting. He’s the same person that he was when he first walked in the door in 2010.”
The compound is a mini United Nations. During our brief stay at the gym, we sat watching fighters from Kazakhstan (GGG), Russia (Murat Gassiev), France (Nadjib Mohammadi), Costa Rica (Bryan Vasquez) and Cuba (Sullivan Barrera). A block of time in the afternoon was reserved for IBF heavyweight champion Charles Martin who wasn’t part of the little colony of dorm dwellers. Martin was preparing for his big fight in London with Anthony Joshua.
There were other boxing gyms in Big Bear before Abel Sanchez arrived. The Goossen brothers had a gym up here as did Oscar De La Hoya who built a gym in the oversized garage of his home, a property that he eventually sold. The supposed benefits of training at high altitude were hammered home more than 200 years ago when the celebrated trainer known as Captain Barclay rejuvenated England’s idol of fistiana Tom Cribb in the Highlands of Scotland.
At some gyms, professional boxers train side-by-side with civilians. Some boxing gyms have galleries to accommodate the friends and the family members of those that train and work there. There’s none of that at Sanchez’s place. “No Women No Children No Pets” reads the sign propped against the half-wall. (MMA star Ronda Rousey has used the facility, but during her sessions no other menfolk were allowed in the gym other than those in her entourage.)
There is no standard textbook for boxing trainers; no gospel to which everyone adheres, meaning that every trainer has his quirks. Sanchez places much less emphasis on sparring than do most of his colleagues. That philosophy has redounded to soften his GGG conundrum. “We pay top dollar for his sparring partners,” says Sanchez, “but finding them and keeping them is a big challenge.”
By his reckoning, the most beneficial exercise is shadow boxing. However, he adds, it is imperative that the boxer rehearse in the manner in which he is going to fight. The exercise thus becomes both physical and mental. The fighters that he trains shadow box in skin-tight gloves holding hand weights of his own design.
He also emphasizes aggression; there are no “cuties” in his camp. “You get paid the same whether the fight goes 12 rounds or you take your man out quick,” he reminds his fighters. The longer a fight goes, he notes, the greater the danger that something unexpected will happen like a bad cut.
Golovkin, who has appeared in photo shoots wearing a sombrero, has developed a big Hispanic following in California. These fans will have conflicting loyalties when GGG locks horns with Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, a match-up that seems inevitable. If the bout were to transpire this year -- assuming nothing bad happens in the interim – it would be a huge attraction, overshadowing even a title unification match in the heavyweight division.
Looking further down the road, it’s impossible to know what awaits Gennady Golovkin when he approaches the end of the trail. In this cruel sport, today’s luminaries tend to become fodder for tomorrow’s hotshots. And what about Abel Sanchez, who turned 60 this past November? “I plan to retire in five years,” he says. “As you get older, cold weather becomes less bearable. I have to get off this mountain.”
Pardon us, but we doubt that Sanchez will hold firm to his retirement plans. Boxing trainers, excepting those high in the pyramid, are in a precarious position. Their services can be terminated at any time. Sanchez remembers when he was summoned to a meeting with the chief backer of Terry Norris where he was congratulated for a job well done and then informed that he would be taking a 50 percent cut in pay if he cared to stick around. He’s beyond that stage now, able to insist on contractual clauses that shield him from those deprecations.
There’s one more reason why we suspect that Sanchez will still be training fighters well beyond his 65th birthday. It would pain him greatly, of that we are certain, if he was off the mountain when the next GGG walked in the door.
Who will win the Sergey Kovalev vs Andre Ward fight?