from the Mike Casey Archives...
The Old School Guys: Priceless Training Lessons Of Yore

By Mike Casey

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. How many times have we heard that age-old adage? Every boxing son of every boxing father has probably heaved a heavy sigh whenever dear old dad has uttered the famous words. 

Those fellas from days gone by had to fight a far greater number of battles, the old sages will tell you. They had to be tougher because the competition was so much greater and far more intense. They had to fight over longer distances with lighter gloves and often suffer terrible punishment. By God, laddie, they didn’t stop a fight if you got a nose bleed in those days! 

Let us pause right there, which is about the point when I would start nodding off as a teenager when my own father went on a roll with one of his ‘glory days’ lectures. Can you spot any untruths in the words above? Any unreasonable exaggeration? 

As I matured and took the trouble to delve into the training methods and boxing techniques of the old masters, so I realised that they did indeed represent a breed apart. They simply had to be in the peak of condition, it’s that simple. Half measures wouldn’t get the job done in the era of Jim Jeffries and Bob Fitzsimmons, any more than they would do in the times of Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. 

Throughout that long, golden age when boxing teemed with competition and the sounds of bags being punched echoed on every street in every major town, aspiring boxers needed to commit themselves to their discipline totally or be crushed in the stampede. There is nothing misty-eyed about this. It is a plain, cold truism, a law of much harder times. A boxer with a roll of suet hanging over his waistband would be quickly found out. A fighter taking a layoff would be quickly forgotten and kicked down the greasy pole by those looking to scramble ahead of him. 

Just recently, my good pal and fellow historian, Mike Hunnicut, sent me a teasing little message. Said Mike: “The story goes, although I can’t confirm it, that Battling Nelson would shadow box for 40 rounds with a pair of 10lb dumbbells.” 

Well, I’ve heard that story too and I can’t confirm it either. But I can believe it of Nelson. The Durable Dane was an astonishingly hard man, too much so for his own good. He and Ad Wolgast might have killed each other in their Homeric battle at Point Richmond, but for their incredible toughness and conditioning. 

Accompanying this article on our Newswire is a famous picture of Jack Dempsey, where Manassa Jack is flexing his muscles and showing off his formidable back. And what a back! It resembles solid steel coated in bronze paint. Some while ago, on one of those zoo-like boxing forums that thankfully hover in a different galaxy from the CBZ, an excitable youngster stopped talking about Shannon Briggs for a few minutes and exclaimed to his pals: “Hey, have you seen that picture of Dempsey that’s just gone up? Unbelievable! Look at his muscle definition! I’ve never seen anything like that!” 

Of course he hadn’t. Dempsey’s wonderful physique was hewn from hard times, hard old-fashioned training and Lord knows how many unofficial street brawls against toughs who would come to test his mettle. Why does that picture of Jack’s back continue to elicit gasps? Because it is wholly NATURAL. His muscles look as muscles should do, not like cartoon balloons. There is nothing overstuffed or bulked up about that great body. It is the body of a true athlete. Look at the muscles of many boxers and bodybuilders today and you feel that they would burst if you stuck a pin in them – as indeed they often do when the individual has been quaffing the wrong potions for too long. 

The Dempsey picture reminded me of some other great photographs I have in a real old gem of a book. In 1927, Ring editor Nat Fleischer published his ‘Training for Boxers’ manual and I am fortunate to own a 1960 edition, with a foreword by Jack Dempsey. The book is a priceless and educative trip back in time. 

Writes Dempsey: “Conditioning is the most important factor in the life of a boxer. He may be as clever as Jim Corbett and Young Griffo rolled into one. He may be able to hit as hard as a Jeffries. But if he lacks conditioning, all these attributes mean very little. The first blows of the opposition will wear him down and his own first efforts will leave him puffing and panting. 

“To attain condition the boxer must train. And here we come to a very important subject. There are all sorts of ways to train and attain condition. And too many of these ways are either absolutely wrong, or they are so old and antiquated as to become useless.” 

Flicking through the pages of Fleischer’s terrific little manual, one striking impression is immediate. Everyone is out in the open air. Jack Johnson strengthens his shoulder by carrying a heavy log. Freddie Welsh chops wood. Battling Nelson, typically, clambers up a steep mountain and follows up with a spot of hurdling. Johnny Kilbane plays leapfrog in Central Park. Luis Angel Firpo ‘chins the bar’ whilst hanging from a tree. Dempsey swims in a lake, rows a boat, slugs baseballs and strengthens his arms and abdominal muscles by working a water pump. Abe Attell climbs a tree. Ad Wolgast lifts a heavy trunk to develop his shoulders, arms and thighs. Jim Jeffries strengthens his mighty body still further by wrestling. 


Wrestling? Yes indeed. Here was a vital and essential component in the training manual of the great fighters of the past. Jeffries was a very able wrestler, as was Dempsey, who was greatly admired and respected by the great grapplers of his day. Historian Tracy Callis offers us some valuable opinions on this subject. Says Tracy: “Personally, I believe that whatever exercises one does is an aid to the physical well-being of the individual and improves the energy level. So I will not criticise techniques that are utilised to train boxers today. 

“Instead I will only say that stronger attention needs to be given to a few areas that appear to be deemed less important today. A number of old approaches have been abandoned in favour of the more direct needs, and I speak primarily of wrestling. This process places stress on the muscles of the body in all the right places – arms, legs, shoulders, back and also requires the body to manoeuvre and stay balanced as it deals with opposition. 

“A boxer wrestling is similar to a football player doing push-ups. Why does he do this when push-ups are not done during the game when it is played? This was done to build overall body strength, stamina, body control and balance as one manoeuvres. The various muscles learn to work together in an entirely different way from boxing techniques. They are engaged differently and learn to complement each other so as to maintain leverage and power, even when tired. This activity increases the internal body chemistry that enables prolonged performance. When this chemistry is not present, the stamina component is greatly reduced. 

“All too often in today’s ring, heads collide and one man comes away with a gashed forehead and fights the swelling and blood the rest of the contest. Sometimes the injury is worse than a gash. On occasion, a nose is bashed or the gore is simply too great to allow the fight to continue. Fighters are taught to step into their punches, but not enough time and technique is spent on how to attack and at the same time avoid that clash of heads that might occur. This art was a primary task in the days of old. First things first. Attack, yes, but not recklessly – not at the expense of cracking a noggin and possibly losing the fight. 

“To the Neanderthal, whose dome is made of iron, the head butt can be a winning technique. ‘Ring those chimes’ with that ‘bowling ball head’ and bring home the bacon. Many a talented fighter in the past used this weapon to his advantage. To watch out for, to avoid, to attack aggressively but not to the extent of getting beaned – was the method of the day. Today’s men would profit from more work in this area. 

“Almost always, in a heavyweight fight today, at least one man’s belly hangs over his shorts. It sadly reminds one of the daily visitors to the local beer pub. What a soft spot for a heavy hitting body attack! Several rounds after the bout begins, these same fellows are panting, mouths open and gasping for breath. Not only are their fighting skills diminished at this point but they are victims for the taking – plodding around, likely flat-footed and barely mobile. 

“To quote a famous football coach, ‘Poor conditioning makes cowards of us all’. It’s true to boxing too and this is a major reason for the lack of top quality heavyweights in today’s ring.” 


In Nat Fleischer’s little masterpiece, the chapter on conditioning makes for particularly interesting reading. Nat stresses the importance of speed and urges the boxer not to plod during his roadwork. The simple message is to attack the road with the verve and pep with which you would attack your opponent. Carrying a handball or a tennis ball in each hand is recommended, gripping each tightly and then relaxing the grip whilst running. Fleischer correctly observes that this practice very quickly develops the wrist muscles and forearms. 

Running and walking, of course, can be tedious pursuits, so varying the routine is advised. Leapfrog exercises and tree climbing are encouraged, as are vaulting routines over small fences and other obstacles. What a shame that we now think of such workouts as being somewhat lame and old-fashioned. Any good doctor will still tell you that these exercises are excellent for the legs, arms, chest and wind. 

The importance of vegetables, raw or cooked, is underlined by Fleischer when the boxer finally reaches the dinner table after an arduous day’s training. Here is Nat’s advice on the ideal evening meal: “Some fruit to start with should be followed by two lamb chops or mutton chops. If you prefer steak, a small steak broiled either medium or rare, gives splendid nourishment. 

“You may now take a small baked potato. Butter it well and eat it skin and all. As at luncheon, eat vegetables. Take your choice, either raw or cooked. Cauliflower, spinach, green peas, celery, tomatoes – any or all will benefit you. If you have any of the above as salad, avoid mayonnaise. Use little or no pepper, vinegar, sugar or other dressing. Several pieces of whole wheat bread or graham bread and butter may be taken with the above. 

“For dessert, take some fruit or fruit salad. A little ice cream now and then won’t harm. You may take a cup of weak tea, but avoid coffee or milk.” 

We get the picture. Healthy exercise and healthy food. Two simple ingredients to make a healthy and fit boxer. But both require self-discipline and a certain degree of abstinence at the right times, and we will consider the topic of mental discipline a little later. 

Now let us examine how two of the greatest heavyweights in history, Jim Jeffries and Jack Dempsey, prepared for the most important fights of their careers. 

Big Jeff’s thoughts on training and technique were interesting and insightful and he could never learn enough. For Jeff, it was hunger, in its most literal sense, that was the great spur. When preparing for a fight, he attached great importance to eating and drinking only the required amounts. “A man can dissipate more and hurt himself more by eating than by drinking,” he insisted. 

Jeffries gave himself five months to train for his championship winning match against Bob Fitzsimmons and did so meticulously. Jeff’s physical and nutritional preparations for that historic battle were a telling reflection of his precise and organised mind. 

“I trained two months on the road in the ordinary way,” he explained. “Then I put in three months of the hardest kind of work, running, boxing and above all, dieting for the fight. I weighed 247 pounds stripped when I began the real work of conditioning, and that was my normal weight – not fat. 

“For three months, I ate hardly anything. You’d be amazed to know how little a big man really needs to eat and how much stronger a man becomes if he doesn’t eat too much. It’s no joke that people dig their graves with their teeth. 

“I would eat two small lamb chops for my dinner, with all the fat trimmed off. That made about two small bites to each chop. I had a little fruit and toast. I had dry toast for months – very little. All through that hard training, I ate as little as I could and drank nothing at all but a little cool water with lemon juice in it.” 

Twenty years after Jeffries dethroned Fitzsimmons, Dempsey ripped the championship from Jess Willard at Toledo. Here is how Jack described his training routine in the run-up to his Independence Day coronation: “I was training in Toledo long before Willard arrived. My trainer, Jimmy De Forest, an incredible dynamo, dedicated himself to me morning, noon and night. He and Doc Kearns, as always, disagreed on all but one thing. Neither of them wanted me to overtrain and go stale, so they had me alternate one week of training with one week of rest. 

“In addition to training, I would lay off food one day a month to give my body a rest. My sparring partners were Jamaica Kid and Bill Tate, a Senegambian whose wife was the camp’s cook. She wrapped cooked meat in towels to drain off the fat and grabbed my hand to make sure I didn’t touch any roughage. 

“Day after day I trained, up at six, then seven to ten miles of jogging followed by a hot and cold shower and a rubdown until breakfast, which consisted of meat and vegetables. After breakfast, a quick nap and then off again, sprinting a few miles. My typical afternoon consisted of exercise and sparring, which could be watched by anyone willing to shell out two bits. Afterwards, more sprinting until dinner. At night everyone settled down to chewing the fat or playing gin rummy. No drugs, no drinks and no women were allowed on camp grounds. Those were the rules.” 

By the approach of his return fight with Gene Tunney eight years later, Jack’s requirements were very different. His weight was up to 227lbs and he had lost his appetite for the game. But a stinging observation from crafty Tex Rickard galvanised Dempsey into trimming the pounds. “Maybe Tunney’s too tough for you. No one likes to get licked by the same guy twice.” 

Dempsey recalled: “I disappeared into the hills near Ojai, California, away from everybody and everything, including the telephone. I chopped trees for hours at a stretch, did callisthenics, raced against dogs, jumped rope, carried rocks and climbed trees. It wasn’t just a matter of getting into shape, but of training hard to get rid of the flab. By June, I had trimmed to 205lbs, increased my roadwork to seven miles and was punching light and heavy sandbags.” 

Jack was just over 192lbs by the time he stepped into the ring against Tunney at Soldier Field. 


There are some very good trainers around today. Let us not dispute that. Sadly, there are also too many bad trainers as well as men who call themselves trainers and are really nothing of the sort. Just as we lack depth in hungry fighters, so we have suffered a similar dilution of quality in the great men who once stoked the engine room. In terms of overall boxing knowledge, is there really anyone who can compare to the exceptional likes of Ray Arcel, Jack Blackburn, Charley Goldman or Whitey Bimstein? 

Tracy Callis explains: “The rather lax mental attitude of today’s society has affected its trainers and boxers. Many boxers today fail to train adequately and abandon their fight plan in the course of a fight. Many times, the poor physical condition is obvious. Many trainers do not insist upon rigid adherence to their rules of training. Many of them give in to the whims of the lazy or rich or ranked pugilist. 

“Consequently, the boxers are not as well conditioned physically as they could and should be. Those who are in good shape usually win. If an athlete is bigger and heavier and not in condition, he will be a sitting duck when he becomes tired. Many boxers have fat bellies hanging over their trunks and consequently tire after three or four rounds.” 

Historian and film collector Mike Hunnicut has talked to many of boxing’s greatest legends. Over the years, Mike has had countless personal conversations with the likes of Ray Arcel, Teddy Hayes, Cus D’Amato and numerous others. Here is Mike’s take on how standards have slipped: “The main event fighters up to around 1960 tended to be in optimum condition due to the comparatively high rate of scheduled 10 to 20-rounds fights against other main event fighters, in addition to being conditioned by master trainers or excellent trainers at least. This made maximum condition possible. 

“Say Ad Wolgast was training for a 45-rounds fight – and this would obviously depend on how long ago his previous fight was – he would do 10 miles on the road every day and maybe eight to ten rounds of sparring. The trainers in those days knew how to achieve the right balance and bring a fighter to his peak. Lots of sweating it out, a fast build-up, but also slackening the pace at the right times to ward off staleness. Then they would go for the peak, with nothing overlooked. If a boxer had a couple of fights three weeks apart – very common in days gone by – he would be in the gym in between and stay there all day, almost to bedtime. 

“The old-time trainers knew all the psychological ploys too – no sex, ice packs to stop nocturnal emissions, no water on the day of the fight until the first round was over.” 

Mike Hunnicut had some wonderful conversations with Ray Arcel on this subject, and here is some of what Ray told him: “Fighters for a long time spent a lot of time in the gym after their roadwork, at least until dinner time. In more recent years, there has been much less time and effort and preparation on a daily basis. 

“You have to analyse and prepare a fighter physically and mentally for his opponents. True conditioning requires a fighter to always be busy, having fights all the time and having a trainer good enough to at least be attentive to him. There is no secret to hard work and plenty of it. You also need the best sparring partners and there are fewer of those around now.” 

Teddy Hayes, who did such a sterling job with Dempsey and a host of other outstanding fighters, was also glad to give Mike Hunnicut his views: “Conditioning obviously depended on when the fight was and for how long. For a 10-rounder every three weeks, 10 miles of roadwork a day is enough – five miles out and five miles in. Sparring would be eight to ten rounds, with half-minute rests. There were so many exercises to do, I can’t name them all. Some form of manual labour was used, such as chopping wood or hitting weighted bats against tyres, things of that nature. 

“You always wanted to bring the fighter to a peak by fight day. If 10 rounds of sparring isn’t enough, we add more. If it’s too much, we drop back and then re-condition the fighter. For the day of the fight, no water is to be drunk for motivation and even greater energy.” 

Summing up his own views on the subject, Mike Hunnicut says: “The serious pros of past eras – Ray Arcel’s era for example – would have plenty of fights and plenty of preparation. They would find out about the fighters they were going to face across the country by phoning around. It wasn’t hard to do, because there were so many people in the business they could contact.” 

As Mike points out, there was every incentive to reach the top and enjoy the perks that came with hard-earned success. “Champions, top contenders and sparring partners had the best of it, because their status gave them access to the outdoor training camps, where everything was at their disposal. They had hills in which to run, trees to chop and the best sparring partners geared to the style of their opponents. In the gyms only, you had all the rowing machines, lead-weighted bats against tyres, etc. 

“You see, the pros of that era worked hard, but they did so wisely. The top trainers knew when to tell their charges to cool it and take the foot off the pedal – and when to up the pace again. There was plenty of work on the most important exercise boxing has ever devised – the heavy bag. 

“I have tried to sum up here the most important workouts and exercises that a boxer can do. And the boxers of old did them. It’s a unique game. You need muscle and strength, but the right kind of muscle and strength. Stay away from weights. I hear all this stuff about weight training and it’s a waste of time and energy. Weight training has produced how many great fighters? Maybe a couple.” 

Mental Strength 

Times change, for better or worse, and of course we should not forget that progress in society has re-shaped the fight game like everything else. Fewer people in the stable nations of the world are starving hungry. Illnesses that once killed people can now be offset with the jab of a doctor’s needle. The standard of living, in general, has vastly improved. 

As a somewhat perverse consequence, we have all become a little softer in mind and body. Gone is the ‘get over it’ attitude of yore when a cloud appears on the horizon. So many people yearn to be pampered and consoled, whether it takes the form of consulting an analyst or blubbing on the evening news because their pet cat died. 

In 2007, a man really doesn’t have to fight for his next meal when he steps into a boxing ring. His world won’t cave in if he fails to win a tacky ‘world’ championship belt, because there are always plenty of others to aim at. By the simple law of averages, Shannon Briggs eventually had to win some kind of title, surplus lard and all. 

As a result, the mental discipline of fighters has, in general, weakened. Tracy Callis picks up on this point when he says: “The society of earlier years in America, and most other nations, insisted upon strict adherence to its rules. This attitude prevailed in athletics as well. An athlete who was trained in a certain manner to fight a certain way generally followed the rules while in training and fought his fight as planned. 

“Absolute insistence to follow the rules by those in charge developed an absolute resolution to do so on the part of the fighter. This, in turn, cultivated an absolute will in many cases. So, it seems that an earlier time in our history produced men of greater will and has the advantage here. 

“Furthermore, many of today’s boxers fight dumb. They follow their opponents around almost in a straight line. They do not cut off the ring, they fight in a straight-up stance, they hardly ever crouch and they position themselves at a range that is perfect for the opponent to strike. No wonder Muhammad Ali was able to jab his foes so easily, which is not meant as a put-down to Muhammad.” 

Mike Hunnicut agrees. “The great lessons of the past are being lost. Now, take the two-hands-high defence. Didn’t anybody tell these guys today that once a kid is able to slip, roll and counter with impunity, his defence will be far more effective? The best way is to master those skills, which then allows you to hold the left hand down – where it should be, where it is most versatile and effective. The hands can then be brought up and around at any time. 

“Marcel Cerdan was a poster child for the hands-up defence and was a natural slipper of punches. But when he got nailed, he was not an excellent roller and counter puncher in the way that Mickey Walker was. Nobody ever said Gene Tunney was easy to hit in close or otherwise with his looser and more relaxed style. 

“Didn’t today’s guys ever figure out that Jack Dempsey whips Joe Louis nearly every time? I can prove it to anyone by the evidence of their respective styles and opponents. Jack was simply harder to hit, especially cleanly, because he was an absolute master of the tactics I have described.” 

The simple and sagely advice of Nat Fleischer continues to ring out from his little treasure of a boxing manual. “There’s plenty of room for good boxers in this world of ours, and if you start right in with the idea that you’re going to get somewhere, you’ll succeed. 

“Get into the game with a bang. Pitch in with the spirit that makes a fighter. Show your ambition and don’t let it lag. That’s what will lead to a successful career. Persistence, courage, willpower, gameness, conscientious study – in short – stick-to-itness – will get you to the top. 

“By mastering the technique of balance, stance and fist-making, you have the three most important items in boxing under your control.” 

Once upon a time, boxing was a big and sumptuous cake in the sporting world. The size of that cake has sadly diminished in recent decades, sliced up by the greedy and the self-serving within. For all that, we still have some wonderful fighters and excellent trainers who continue to heed Fleischer’s great clarion call. The simple argument here is that we should have many more and that we should not be too proud to look to our rich and glorious past for inspiration. 

The old masters showed us the way and handed us the keys to the castle. We dropped them and regressed.


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