Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Naazim Richardson: Words of Wisdom

By Michael Nelson

Within the course of a little over three months, Naazim Richardson's training has culminated into two dominating, all-time performances. And while his pupils, Bernard Hopkins and Shane Mosley, are first ballot hall-of-famers with a deep depository of championship experience and knowledge, they were also both 4-1 underdogs against men who were supposed to effectively end their careers. My guess is you'll have to reach deep into the archives to find another trainer who achieved a similar feat in such a short period of time.

Although Naazim Richardson is a relatively new face to most boxing fans, those who have followed Bernard Hopkins' career closely should be familiar with him. He has been the booming voice heard throughout nearly every fight of Hopkins' career since the late 90s (working as a 2nd assist to lead trainer Bouie Fisher).

"Pop that chain, X! He don't know what to do with the jab!", he constantly screamed during Hopkins' fight with Felix Trinidad. Listen closely during that legendary performance and you can hear Naazim call for a right uppercut in the 10th round, prompting Hopkins to blast Trinidad with several of them, including the one that staggered him at the end of the round.

Similarly, you can hear him Naazim call for a body shot during the 9th round of Bernard's fight with Oscar De La Hoya, shortly before Oscar fell for the count from a left hook to the liver. There are countless other examples of wisdom being splayed from the sharp eye and tongue of Naazim during a Hopkins fight.

But it wasn't until he became the main trainer for Hopkins, and then Shane Mosley, did the splendor of this virtuoso strategist fall under spotlight. Let's take a look at some of his most poignant moments in the corner.

"You can't let him steal the play from you… everytime he swings, they score it for him, whether (the punches) hit or not."

"You're doing enough to beat the man, now you need to do enough to beat the politics."

"Stay up in the pocket like a quarterback, and fire. Step up in the pocket, I need you ten yards down… X, they're gonna give him this fight!" – Naazim during Hopkins vs. Taylor II

In a fight where his man lost, Naazim provided not only astute insight, but stole the words from Hopkins fans viewing the event around the world. Sure, I and perhaps the majority of observers, thought Bernard was doing enough to beat Taylor in their rematch fought in December of 2005. But we knew that the judges gave Jermaine every close round in the first fight, and that was likely going to be the case here. We knew that Jermaine threw the showier, more eye- catching punches, whether they connected solidly or not. And we understood that Jermaine was annoited the leader of the new school, and thus likely to be given close decisions against men who were
thought to be near retirement.

So when Richardson implored Bernard to step up in the pocket and fire off combinations from mid-range, we nodded our head in agreement. Jumping in with single right hands immediately preceding a clinch wasn't going to do it. The judges were giving more credence to the hitched right crosses bouncing loudly off of Hopkins' shoulders; largely ineffective shots, but shots that nevertheless left an impression on the only ones scoring the fight that mattered. When he demanded that Hopkins to 'stop being cute, and whoop that ass', he knew that more had to be done to beat the politics.

Hopkins was unable or unwilling to do what was necessary to take apart Jermaine Taylor in decisive fashion. But in his first real exposure as a lead trainer, Naazim Richardson showed perceptivity seldom seen between rounds.

"You see the upshot is there, he don't know about this!"

"Ain't nobody ever jab with this joker, and they made this joker a superstar. He ain't never faced nobody with a jab yet, and they already made him a star!" – Naazim during Hopkins vs. Pavlik

This isn't entirely accurate, as Jermaine Taylor, who Pavlik fought twice, has a strong jab. But Hopkins' most dominant weapon throughout his career has been his counter jab. He's a master at pulling back just enough to make an opponent's jab fall an inch or two short, then immediately sticking his own jab hard before his foe regains position. Along with his footwork and feints, it handcuffs his opponent's punch output, and goes a long way in explaining why everyone Bernard faces throws half the punches they are accustomed to throwing. Naazim was right, Pavlik was encountering something he's never seen before. Taylor's jab was there, but Pavlik still outjabbed him throughout their two bouts. Pavlik's jab against Hopkins was hitting nothing but air and glove, and he was getting repeatedly stung in the nose with sharp jabs in return for his trouble.

The 'upshot' was a wrinkle that took Kelly by surpise as well. Bernard consistently and accurately shot a half hook, half uppercut up through the middle of Pavlik's gloves. He buckled Pavlik's knees with it in the second round and damaged his right eye. Naazim and Bernard no doubt studied tape, took note of where Pavlik kept his gloves while defending himself, and saw that the upshot was an exemplary tool to
take apart Pavlik's defense.

"This guy ain't used to getting it back to the body. Take that jab, keeping popping them up, stab him in the heart, rip around them sides. We're gonna show him how a guy slows down. When he hits the pedal, ain't gonna be no gas in the car at the end of this… run your combinations, knock the grease off this dude. Then swim without getting wet. Slide to your stick, slide to your angle." – Naazim during Mosley vs. Margarito

Within the first 30 seconds of his fight with Antonio Margarito, Mosley stuck a hard counter right hand to Margarito's sternum that stopped Margarito dead in his racks. Margarito got Mosley's message loud and clear: you may have earned the designation as boxing's premier body puncher with what you've done against lesser men than me,
but tonight, I 'm taking my crown back.

Mosley's dazzling work downstairs Saturday night reminded longtime fans of how he knocked out more opponents with body punches than he did with head punches back in his lightweight days. Time and time again he jolted Antonio with a hard hook to the liver or right hand to the gut, which allowed him to slam a continuous string of right hands and hooks into Antonio's presumably indestructible chin. And as Naazim noted, with each withering body punch, more gas leaked out of Margarito's tank. Entering the second half of the fight, Marg pressed the pedal to little effect.

That wasn't the only genius part of Mosley and Naazim's gameplan. HBO commentators Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Emanuel Steward postulated on what exactly 'swim without getting wet' meant. Merchant was most likely right when he said it meant to engage without getting hit in return, but Naazim Richardson explained it best himself in an interview with Dougie Fisher weeks before the fight:

"Boxing Margarito is a difficult task… he carouls you, he fights you enough just to put you where he wants to put you, and then tries to exploit you from that position. What you have to do is never give up your position. You can slide, but not try to bounce around and move and run. You're just going to wear yourself out."

Miguel Cotto was getting very wet in his move-move-stop-exchange-move strategy against Margarito in last year's fight of the year candidate. Eventually, the current became too strong to avoid getting pulled underneath for good. Mosley evaded the waves by using his superior strength to grapple with Margarito on the inside, bully him to the ropes, and go to work on his midsection. He slid from side to side, gave angles, and avoided the brunt of Margarito's onslaught without expending unnecessary energy.

I look forward to seeing Naazim Richardson in the corner of more boxers in the future, and seeing what his son, 140 pound prospect Rock Allen, can do as well. Win or lose, you can expect him to bring the best out of his fighters. And if nothing else, you can expect to be both educated and entertained by his corner talk.

e-mail Michael Nelson


Lee Payton said...

Richardson is a great boxing mind. He realizes that every opponent is a little bit different. I don't know that every trainer watches film like he does, but they should be.

He's able to spot simple things that will work against world class fighters. Moving away from Pavlik's right hand, not letting Margarito rumble forward...

He's not a spotlight trainer that makes it all about him in the corner.

Miguel said...

...and you know his archive of knowledge was partly amassed from years at the knee of Bouie Fisher. Sort of like Bouie 2.0, love to see the "circle of life" that occurs on boxing. Damn excellent trainer, and he will add 2 years to Mosley's career.