Derrick James didn’t mince words describing what it felt like to have a hernia.
“Imagine being kicked in the balls all day long. I tore a muscle. It created a hernia. You could see it. Like bubbling up under the skin,” said James of an injury he suffered in summer 2020.
“The hernia is your intestines pushing through the skin. Over time, more and more of your intestines will push through. It was like getting kicked in the testicles all day long with no way to stop it.”
At the time, James was training Jermell Charlo (34-1-1, 18 KOs) to retain his WBC junior middleweight title and dethrone hard-punching IBF/WBA titleholder Jeison Rosario via a three-knockdown, sixth-round stoppage that September.
James endured to guide his pair of unified champions through one-sided victories, as Errol Spence (27-0, 21 KOs) defended his IBF and WBC titles by unanimous decision victory over Danny Garcia in December 2020.
Spence vanquished Garcia after being hospitalized in critical condition in October 2019, after he had been ejected from his Ferrari, which flipped several times in a crash.
“Back in 2020, Errol was coming off a car accident, and I was going through that pulled hernia tear even through the Jermell Charlo camp. Jermell had an amazing performance to become a unified champion, but I had one day off between camps before I had to focus on Errol’s fight with Danny Garcia,” James said. “I used that day to fly back to Dallas, going right from Jermell’s camp into Errol’s camp,”
“When it comes to Errol, being knocked out by a punch takes six to eight months to a year to recover from that blow. But Errol’s punch was concrete cement. Errol never went to formal therapy — boxing was therapy, and I was his therapist. The first part of the camp was painful from a physical and mental perspective. For Errol to be able to block out what had happened and remember the man and the fighter he used to be before the accident, that was extremely difficult.”
Spence wound up dominating Garcia, winning 116-112 and 117-111 twice against a counter-puncher who entered their bout at 36-2 (21 KOs).
“Errol performed a miracle, but there was never a point where I doubted him,” James said. “The Garcia fight was on Saturday, Dec. 5, and I got the surgery the following on Tuesday. That’s the cost of striving for greatness.”
‘A Big Brother’
James says he has been “in phenomenal condition” since his corrective procedure.
He is again prepping Spence, this time for a unification bout on April 16 at AT&T Stadium with WBA counterpart Yordenis Ugas (27-4, 12 KOs), a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist who defeated eight-division title winner Manny Pacquiao (62-8-2, 39 KOs) in August by unanimous decision.
“Derrick has meant a lot,” Spence says “He’s been there for me. I see Derrick as a big brother. He’s a guy I can ask questions about as a boxer because he was a former boxer. He knows what it’s like to be making weight or training for a fight or being buzzed or getting hit with a good shot. Regardless of what it is, he has that experience,” Spence said.
“He’s helping me through the process of coming back, especially after the car accident, making sure that I didn’t try to push myself too hard and that I eased my way back into it. He’s basically talking to me about different things like being focused. He’s definitely been a huge inspiration during my comeback because he’s my coach, and I feel like he’s more than a coach. He’s a teacher more than anything.”
James, Black Trainers ‘Not Getting Their Respect’
James’ achievements, including guiding Charlo and Spence in 2020, earned him a nomination for the Eddie Futch Trainer of the Year Award in the Boxing Writers’ Association of America’s voting.
But James was denied in January 2021 when the BWAA named Teofimo Lopez Sr., whose son, Teofimo Jr., dethroned three-belt lightweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko, the award winner. Teofimo Jr. won the Sugar Ray Robinson Award for Fighter Of The Year.
“I was told by [a BWAA official] that ‘what Teofimo Lopez Sr. did was more significant than what you did.’ So, what the Lopezes did one time for one title was better than what I did two times with two unified champions?” James said.
,“Teofimo didn’t do it after having a car accident and almost dying or overcoming severe injuries like Errol and I had to do to get our win. It can’t be a popularity contest because I have two, very popular fighters.”
While Charlo and Spence continued to excel, Lopez (16-1, 12 KOs) lost in his first title defense in November to George Kambosos (20–0, 10 KOs), who floored the fighter known as “The Takeover” in the first round of his split-decision victory in New York.
“In the end, I just tell myself, ‘You’re not going to win this award, and it’s okay,’” James said. “But how good do I have to be to get it?”
Since 2001, three black men have been selected for the Futch award, the last in 2011 being former Andre Ward corner man Virgil Hunter. Bernard Hopkins’ mentor, Bouie Fisher, was named in 2001, followed by Buddy McGirt in 2002.
“The fact that Derrick James is consistently considered among the best trainers in the business, but he’s never won [BWAA] Trainer Of the Year is pretty disappointing,” said Calvin Watkins of the Dallas Morning News, who will be ringside for the Spence-Ugas fight.
“I don’t know if someone not voting for Derrick is racist or not, but I will say that it is interesting that he never has won it. I have to question why he has never won it. That’s a legitimate question,” Watkins said.
James was among the nominees for trainer of the year in 2020 along with SugarHill Steward, the trainer of WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. But there were no black trainers on the list of candidates from 2021 during the annual selection meeting of the BWAA in February.
“There are a lot of fantastic trainers out there who are African American,” Watkins said. “But for some reason, they’re not getting their respect.”
After Spence, James will guide Charlo into a May 14 rematch with unbeaten WBO champion Brian Castano in Los Angeles, a bout that was postponed from March 19 after Castano suffered a torn right biceps muscle during training camp.
“Iron Man” battled Castano (17-0-2, 12 KOs) to a draw in July 2021 at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with all four 154-pound titles on the line for the second time in the history of the division and the sport of boxing
“Castano and Ugas are hungry fighters who want to accomplish the American dream, so these could be the most difficult fights in the careers of Jermell Charlo and Errol Spence,” said James. “But we’ll see what happens to their hunger when Jermell and Errol get into their rhythm, figure them out and begin to capitalize on their opportunities.”
“I turned 50 years old in January. My health is great. I’m running five days a week every morning. I’m in tip-top shape, the best shape of my life since I was a fighter myself,” James said. “I’m performing at the highest level, lifting weights, doing pushups and everything I need to prepare these two champions. In the end, I see both Jermell and Errol winning impressively because I’m ready to help Errol Spence and Jermell Charlo to get ready for the performance of their lives.”
Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Richard Pretorius