The Old School Guys:
Priceless Training Lessons Of Yore
By Mike Casey
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.
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!
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
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.
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.”
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
us examine how two of the greatest heavyweights in history, Jim Jeffries and
Jack Dempsey, prepared for the most important fights of their careers.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
was just over 192lbs by the time he stepped into the ring against Tunney at
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?
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
“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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
mastering the technique of balance, stance and fist-making, you have the three
most important items in boxing under your control.”
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.
masters showed us the way and handed us the keys to the castle. We dropped them
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