Buddy McGirt, Sergey Kovalev's secret weapon, is more than just a trainer

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

LAS VEGAS — Buddy McGirt was elected to the International Hall of Fame as a boxer, but he probably has a better résumé as a trainer.

He’s made a specialty of rehabilitating fighters who had lost their way, most notably with the late Arturo Gatti. With McGirt in his corner, Gatti remained one of the sport’s most entertaining fighters, but he didn’t fight as if defense would get him committed to 40 years of hard labor in a penitentiary somewhere.

His latest project is Sergey Kovalev, the mercurial WBO light heavyweight champion who is notoriously difficult on trainers and who has largely called the shots himself throughout his career.

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Kovalev, 36, is on the backstretch of his career. He had a brutally difficult fight in August which, to his credit, he won despite nearly being stopped by Anthony Yarde, and a little more than two months later, he’s back in the ring.

And he’s not in the ring against just anybody. On Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden (9 p.m. ET, DAZN), he’ll defend his title against Canelo Alvarez, who is bidding to win a championship in a fourth different weight class.

A prime Kovalev would have made for a great match with this prime version of Alvarez. But the 36-year-old Kovalev with miles on him is about a 4-1 underdog at the MGM Grand sports book. Alvarez is -500 while Kovalev is +350.

Kovalev, though, has a secret weapon in McGirt, who has that Svengali-like ability to get fighters, experienced ones in particular, to raise their games yet again.

“I think Buddy should be in the Hall of Fame as a trainer, too,” said former middleweight and light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins, who lost to Kovalev in a 2014 title fight. “There are trainers and there are guys who get you in shape and ready to fight. Buddy is a teacher. Buddy is one of the few guys who can come in at this late stage and make a difference.”

Buddy McGirt went 73-6-1 during his boxing career. (Getty Images)
Buddy McGirt went 73-6-1 during his boxing career. (Getty Images)

Kovalev lost back-to-back fights to Andre Ward in 2016 and 2017 and seemed about done. He took a pair of tune-up fights in which he scored unimpressive TKO victories over Vyacheslav Shabranskyy and Igor Mihalkin. He then lost his belt when he got knocked out on Aug. 4, 2018, by Eleider Alvarez.

“After [the second Ward fight], he had a few fights and won back the title and was knocking everybody out again,” McGirt said to Yahoo Sports. “He got comfortable doing the same old thing again. What you have to understand is, when a lot of fighters get to a certain age, they can’t pull the trigger as quick as they used to. That’s when you have to use this more.”

He tapped his head with his index finger as he said that. And McGirt was one of the savviest fighters of his time, but his understanding of the fighter’s psyche is up there with the best who ever worked a corner. He knows what makes a fighter tick and how to get the best out of him.

He knows when to push a veteran in training and when it’s time to have a few easier days. It’s all about fight night and McGirt is a master at getting veterans there healthy, hungry and motivated.

It’s all about interpreting body language and those often subtle signs. It gets back to teaching, and it’s not always about explaining the best way to throw a jab. Sometimes, it’s teaching them to stay within themselves and that the 36-year-old version of you can’t do the same things physically that the 26-year-old version could.

“Anybody can train, but if you teach … ” McGirt said. “If you train your dog, you’ve got a good dog, but if you teach your dog as well, you’ve got a better dog.”

McGirt has a difficult challenge. Alvarez is at the top of his game and is arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He may get some argument from fighters like Terence Crawford, Vasiliy Lomachenko and Naoya Inoue, but Alvarez is a well-trained, intelligent fighter at the peak of his profession.

Alvarez also figures to be highly motivated to chase the fourth title, which is an area reserved for the sport’s legends.

Only 19 fighters have accomplished that feat, and of those eligible, only two are not yet in the Hall of Fame.

Kathy Duva, Kovalev’s promoter, believes McGirt gives Kovalev the best chance to pull this upset.

“I can amplify [Kovalev’s] comments only to say that I had a conversation with a Russian reporter the other day who has known Sergey and he mentioned that Sergey, since this past summer, has changed,” Duva said. “He’s different. What’s changed? What’s different? I don’t understand it. It’s clearly the introduction of this fantastic team, Buddy McGirt being, if not the best, one of the best trainers in the sport, and Teddy Cruz, his physical trainer. Both made a huge impact.”

If Kovalev pulls the upset, don’t be shocked because so many McGirt-led fighters have done this before. Just don’t expect to hear him tout his game plan or the strategy he devised.

Guys fight for him because he respects them and treats them as intelligent adults. He goes well above and beyond to try to help a fighter to win, and he engenders a great deal of loyalty.

And when it’s over, he’ll throw 100 percent of the credit on the guy who did it in the ring.

Just remember, while most of the credit rightfully belong to the fight, if there is an upset, McGirt’s role in this can’t be overlooked.

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