LAS VEGAS — If Sergey Kovalev knocks off Canelo Alvarez on Saturday night—a feat most sportsbooks would consider a fairly significant upset—he will thank Buddy McGirt.
McGirt, the Long Island brawler turned boxer, the Hall of Fame fighter turned top–shelf trainer, the man who squeezed a few more good years out of Arturo Gatti when it appeared his career was toast, the strategist who joined Kovalev’s team at a career crossroads last winter and helped propel him to wins over Eledier Alvarez and Anthony Yarde this year.
Sitting at a diner inside the MGM Grand earlier this week, McGirt wasn’t interested in taking a victory lap. “What made us click?” McGirt asked. “I’m a nice guy. I get along with people.” Growing up, McGirt’s father had a racket. On Friday’s, he hit the liquor store to stock up on wine, gin and vodka. On Sunday’s—when stores were closed—McGirt sold the booze in Dixie cups. Half a cup? 50 cents. Full up? A dollar. Dad poured the drinks. Mom cooked the chicken and potato salad. Buddy—“Little Bud” back then— took care of the people. The neighborhood would go to church, McGirt said, “and then come to our house to get f---ed up.”
Kovalev can be prickly. He had an ugly split with John David Jackson, the trainer who guided him to multiple world titles. Then a brief stint with Abror Tursunpulatov. After Kovalev was knocked out by Eledier Alvarez last year, Egis Klimas, Kovalev’s manager, reached out to McGirt about working with Kovalev.
McGirt knew Kovalev’s history. And if he didn’t, people in boxing were there to remind him. “When the word got out that I was going to work with him,” my phone was ringing, but it wasn't people saying congratulations,” McGirt said. “People were saying ‘good luck’ I'm like, ‘what do you mean?’ They're like, ‘Buddy, he's stubborn. He does what he wants.’ You hear all kinds of s---.”
Besides—prickly? McGirt scoops up a spoonful of oatmeal and talks about his brother, Michael. “He was a motherf---er, man,” says McGirt. At 19, Michael lost his right arm in a factory accident. He dabbled in heroin and battled alcohol issues. McGirt remembers as a 13-year-old getting calls to pull his brother out of bars for getting into it with other customers. “My brother could be the nicest guy in the world, who'd give you the shirt off of his back,” McGirt said. “But if he felt you were going to cross him, look out.”
Besides—McGirt hasn’t seen the dark side of Kovalev. He had his questions early. But when they first met, says McGirt, Kovalev “took the blame for everything.” His recent struggles, his discipline issues, everything. “He didn't blame the trainer, the weather, medicine, whatever,” McGirt said. "He said, ‘Buddy, I take full responsibility for my loss. I'm not going to blame anybody. I f---ed up.’ That stuck with me.”
McGirt believed Kovalev had something left, too. His body had some wear and tear. But his legs were still strong. McGirt decided to work with Gatti after seeing some spring left in Gatti’s legs. Watching Kovalev move around the ring in an early workout, he saw the same thing. “The foundation is still there,” McGirt said. “We just add a little repairs. We just remind him what the f--- he can do."
On Kovalev’s phone, there is video. It shows Kovalev as an amateur. A sharp Kovalev. A fighter that, says McGirt, uses his jab, moves his head and then “whomp, hit the guy with a right hand.” Kovalev sent McGirt that video. McGirt wondered where that fighter was. Kovalev said he became the Krusher, his nickname. McGirt said he needed to be a smart Krusher. “We just remind him what the f--- he can do,” McGirt said. “That's what it's all about. Training fighters, especially veterans, it's not hard. The problem is you get some trainers that want to add something that's, and you look at them like, "What the f--- you doing?"
When McGirt did want to tweak something with Kovalev, he knew he couldn’t just tell him. He had to explain to him why it would work. Offering changes to proven fighters, says McGirt, was like trying to teach something to kids. “If you tell a kid to do something, and your kid says, ‘Why Daddy’ and you can't explain to them why, or show them why, are they going to do it? They're going to look at you like man, you're telling me to do something that you can't do, or won't explain to me why you want me to do it.”
Kovalev will be the bigger, stronger fighter on Saturday, but he is facing long odds. At 36, Kovalev is considered faded. The back-to-back losses to Andre Ward—the fights highly debatable—took something out of him. The loss to Eledier Alvarez nearly finished him. In his last fight, against Yarde, Kovalev was battered so badly in the eighth round that McGirt strongly considered stopping it. Canelo, a savage and committed body puncher, will tee off on Kovalev’s vulnerable midsection.
McGirt acknowledges the questions. But he sees a clear path to victory for his fighter. The jab, for one. Kovalev’s strength has long been a stiff jab. He knocked Yarde out with one. At 6’0,” Kovalev will have a three-inch height advantage on Saturday. McGirt knows Canelo will be targeting Kovalev’s body, but it will be Kovalev’s ability to continue to stuff the jab in his face. “If he finds himself in that situation, just hit the guy with a jab,” McGirt said. “It forces [Canelo] to reset. Hit him with the jab, and get the fuck out of Dodge.”
There’s more. When McGirt trained Gatti for a matchup with Floyd Mayweather, in 2006, he knew they were in trouble. In the buildup to the fight, Mayweather played mind games with Gatti. At one event, Mayweather told McGirt that he would never lose to a fighter with as many losses as Gatti. Gatti, says McGirt, “lost the fire” before that fight. He changed times for training sessions. He canceled them. According to McGirt, two weeks before the 140-pound title fight, Gatti weighed 170 pounds.
“The same passion wasn’t there anymore,” said McGirt. “The spark was gone.”
Kovalev, insists McGirt, still has it. He jumped right into training for Alvarez after the Yarde fight, but McGirt insists it will only help his conditioning. He has been committed in training. He’s inquisitive about the things McGirt is trying to teach him. When McGirt first started working with Kovalev, he recalled calling Kovalev’s matchmaker, Jolene Mizzone, and marveling that “this motherf---er can fight.” McGirt sees the same things today.
“If Kovalev does what he’s supposed to do, he’s going to beat this motherf---er, man,” says McGirt. “I’ve seen that side of him. I know he still has the fire. I know he can win.”