James says boxers who want to be great trainers must “take themselves out of the equation”—stop relying on what worked for them.
With Two Unified Champions, Derrick James Makes Case for Boxing Trainer of the Year Honors
Following his 8th-round knockout of Jeison Rosario, Jermell Charlo became trainer Derrick James’ second unified world champion.
If Derrick James wasn’t already the best trainer in boxing today, he has firmly placed himself in the top ranks this year. Based in Dallas, James trains two unified world champions: welterweight Errol Spence Jr. (26-0 with 21 knockouts) and junior middleweight Jermell Charlo (34-1 with 18 knockouts). A former fighter himself, James’s knowledge of the sport is on full display every time one of his pupils steps in the ring. And on Saturday night Charlo joined his stablemate Spence as a unified world champion.
James is the only active trainer to have two reigning unified champions, making a strong case for him to nab the coveted Trainer of the Year award a second time. (Ring Magazine and Yahoo Sports awarded it to him in 2017.) Consistency is key in the Derrick James stable; Spence and Charlo’s combined record of 60-1 with 39 KOs is straight-up evidence.
James opened up about the most recent win, and much more, during our recent conversation.
Percy Crawford interviewed Derrick James for Zenger News.
Zenger: Congratulations on Jermell Charlo’s victory on Saturday. He didn’t just become the second unified champion under your tutelage, joining Errol Spence Jr., but he looked spectacular.
Derrick James: Another champ is beautiful, but I gotta let it go. I’m happy about it, but I gotta let it go. It happened. It’s over. I feel accomplished. I did it, but I can’t live in it forever. I think when it’s all said and done you have to accomplish it, appreciate it, be happy and then keep moving forward.
I gotta get ready for Errol’s camp, so I had a day to really celebrate it and I gotta get ready for my other guy. But you can never get away from that feeling. It’s there, how good it felt to be successful. To help somebody obtain their personal goals is beautiful. You’re in it. Even though you’re moving forward, you’re in it.
Zenger: Your two world champions are in arguably the toughest divisions in boxing, welterweight and junior middleweight, so I’m sure you’re keeping the celebrations at a minimum because the next tough challenge is already looking at your guys.
James: Right! What’s funny about this fight is that we actually fought the man that beat the man that beat the man. You fought the guy who really truly deserved that spot. He beat that guy that beat that guy, so it’s beautiful.
Zenger: What did you see in Jeison Rosario as an opponent heading into the fight?
James: One of the things I saw was that—I’m watching him, and he keeps his hands up high so it’s hard to get in there. That’s why you see Jermell throwing wider shots, to throw the punches around the guard. But then at the same time—you keep throwing punches around the guard, keep throwing punches around the guard—so then he gets smart enough to say, “This dude is going to keep doing the same thing over again.”
So then in the 6th round Jermell threw a short left hook, not a long wide one, but a shorter one, and that’s how he caught him the second time and put him down. He was a tough guy. When you watch him you really don’t see anything because it’s hard to get around those hands. He has good defense with his hands up and it’s hard to get around that. But that was the thing: We had to get around it so we had to punch around it or get him to open up in the middle. He wasn’t doing that. But he adjusted just enough to those wide shots to allow Jermell to catch him with a short left hook.
Zenger: You were a fighter before, so you know what it’s like to be in there. Many are saying that the body shot didn’t look hard enough to have Rosario convulsing on the canvas. To me, it appeared he was doing whatever it took to try and catch a breath after the shot to his midsection.
James: To be honest, I’ve been in boxing for, like, 42 years and I’ve never seen anything like that. He caught him by surprise. He threw the jab up top and then this strong power jab to the body. I have never seen anything like that. Like you said, it looks like he was convulsing or having a seizure. I heard someone say he tried to catch his fall. Yeah, because he wasn’t knocked out. He was coherent. He was awake. He kind of passed out when he was on the ropes. A lot of things were going on with him. I’m just happy he’s okay, man.
Zenger: I think people underestimate what the body would do to attempt to catch a breath. It’s almost like drowning or being asleep and someone puts a pillow over your face. He had that type of reaction just trying to breathe.
James: You know what, now that you say that you might be right about that. He got his right in the middle of the stomach, man. The thing about it: Body shots hurt, head shots don’t hurt. I didn’t think about it like a person drowning, but that’s right.
Zenger: Where does that put Jermell in the division, in your opinion?
James: Well, that was the two top dogs in there fighting on Saturday night, and he won. It’s almost like there was a tournament going on and nobody knew about it. He was able to get his title back and get his shot. It was a beautiful night.
Zenger: Did you see a change in Jermell after the loss to Tony Harrison?
James: I think I saw the change in Jermell when we were getting ready to fight the rematch with Harrison, but not the one he pulled out of. When he had the sit down—we had this deal where we went to Fox Studios, and you watch the fight and tell them what you’re doing and what you think is going on. I think him watching the fight and watching himself and having to explain it, I think that was the change.
Then after he beat Tony Harrison, he went back and looked at that fight. I already had things I wanted to work on from the Harrison fight when he came back to camp, but then he had the same ideas that he wanted to work on. So it was beautiful, because he was already in shape when I got there, and we just built from that.
Zenger: One thing is for sure, with the pandemic, quarantine and limited travel and access to gyms, we are seeing which fighters have been showing discipline during these times, and the ones who aren’t. Jermell was in phenomenal shape for this fight. As a coach, you had to be both happy and proud that he stayed on track during these wild times.
James: It was beautiful because he was able to be focused and work towards his personal goals. Something like this presented to him on this level, to say you can be the unified champ, it’s amazing. He really appreciates the opportunity, and you saw—he made the best of it.
Zenger: Jermell made an interesting comment and I wanted to get your opinion on it. He talked about fighters of the past not embracing fighters of today. And not only not embracing fighters of today, but he says they are overly critical, and overanalyze them. Why do you feel that is if true?
James: Because I think that fighters cannot take themselves out of the equation, so they are always comparing fighters to themselves. That’s why most champions and ex-fighters can’t be trainers, because they always say what they used to do. They can never take themselves out of the equation. When the ego is there, man—it’s hard to genuinely embrace them.
Think about Lennox Lewis, right? He retired on his own accord. He left when he wanted to. He can embrace a fighter because, you know why? He was done with it. Think about all the guys who they typically ask about these fights. It’s usually fighters who can’t let it go. They didn’t go out on their own terms. They were pushed out. So you really can’t get them to embrace any of these guys unless it’s their guy. If it’s not their guy, it’s hard for them. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the nature of the fighter.
It’s just like being a trainer. For me to be a trainer, I had to realize, first of all, I can never reference myself. But I can show them a particular way of how I did something without referencing myself. Then you look at it like, you gotta take a backseat. To say these guys are great, you gotta take a backseat.
That’s not saying they are better than you were, but we have to admit that these guys are good, and they are great as well. Kanye West had a verse, which I don’t really like to quote him, but he said, “Old folks talking ‘bout back in my day, but homie, this is my day.” That’s the reality of it.
Zenger: I watched a video of you taking all the safety precautions in your gym and having things sanitized. Did that change things for this last camp, or did you let the sanitation team handle the cleaning and you were able to just do your thing in there?
James: We let them do their job. I’m not a guy that likes a lot of people in the gym anyway, you know that. But this is something that really and truly—you really can’t come in now! Corona is my friend in that respect. You can’t come in! And I like it like that anyway. You want to make sure everything is taken care of. I like Corona for that, but just for that. Unless you’re taking a test twice a week, then you can’t come into the gym. It’s all good.
(Edited by André Johnson and David Martosko)