Old School Values: Russ Anber and the importance of class

IF OLEKSANDR USYK is the world’s finest active fighter, in his cornerman Russ Anber there exists a thread that leads all the way back to Ray Arcel and Roberto Duran.

It was in Montreal where Arcel oversaw Duran’s finest ever victory, over “Sugar” Ray Leonard, and it was also in Montreal where Anber, widely recognised as one of the world’s most skilled cuts men and hand wrappers, most consistently learned his trade.

“I’ll never have the dulcet tones and the calmness that Ray Arcel had,” Anber, 61, tells Boxing News. “[But] he taught me to conduct myself with class. How to be ready in the corner. How to talk to a fighter in the corner. How to look the part in the corner. Respect for the sport.

“If I didn’t take from Ray Arcel I’d be even louder and crazier. He calmed me down a little bit. I understand what Ray and Freddie Brown both did, working a corner – especially working with a guy like Roberto Duran. I’ve asked Duran this personally. Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown [were the best he worked with] because they commanded respect.

“I was lucky enough to have breakfast with them in Montreal, for the Duran-Leonard fight [in June 1980]. I tried to pick their brains as best I could. The one thing I copied – the last fighter I did this with was Jean Pascal – was something Ray Arcel used to do. Keep them on the stool until the bell rings, and then cup them under the armpits or around the waist and lift them off the stool. I still do that whenever I get the chance.

“Angelo Dundee was a little more vocal, and loved to tell stories. He was outgoing and bombastic, and had a certain flare, a certain charm, about him. I’ve never said Angelo Dundee’s the greatest trainer in the world, but he’s the greatest cornerman ever. He knew how to read a fight; what to say; the time to use psychology. The things he’d say to the fighters; to the referees.

“The landscape of boxing has changed to when those guys were around. The connections to [that] past are me and Buddy [McGirt]. Another one might be Freddie Roach, who started coaching when those old-timers were still around because he studied under Eddie Futch. There aren’t a lot of us.”

When Anber on Saturday works the corner of Artur Beterbiev for the Russian’s fight at Wembley Arena with Anthony Yarde, his presence will be the latest demonstration of the respect in which he is held. As with Usyk he is also significant to the similarly great Vasyl Lomachenko, who was reliant on his expertise when cut and bleeding against Masayoshi Nakatani in June 2021.

Before Usyk and Lomachenko there were Beterbiev’s stablemates Jean Pascal, Eleider Alvarez, Oscar Rivas and others. Last Saturday he worked Liam Smith’s corner in Manchester when Smith stopped Chris Eubank Jnr; in a life before then, through his capacity as a trainer, there was, most memorably, Otis Grant and David Lemieux.

“I was 18, a baby, when I started coaching,” he says. “I worked my first professional corner October 2, 1979. It was an eight-round fight with [Boston’s] Vinnie Curto against Marciano Bernardi at the Montreal Forum.

“The one thing [above all else] I learned from these guys [Arcel, Brown, Dundee and others] was the way they handled themselves under pressure; in the heat of the moment. They were so cool. Other kids my age – their heroes were the fighters. My heroes had a towel over their shoulder and a Q-tip in their mouth.

“I knew what I was missing as an athlete [Anber had a total of three amateur fights], and I wanted to pass that on to people who did have those attributes, because I knew how to do things right, and so I’ve always wanted to be in coaching, and I treated it in the same way as an athlete treats his career. It was something I saw myself being able to excel at, more than the physicality of the sport.

“The guy who recognised that was Vinnie Curto. He saw something special in me as an 18 year old that he wasn’t seeing in the other trainers hanging around the gym, the Olympic Boxing Club [in Montreal]. We became friends; I asked him if I could do road work with him, and that moved on to doing road work and having breakfast, and then hanging out all day and going to the gym all day. We would talk boxing, incessantly, all day, every day.

“A guy like Vinnie, a world ranked middleweight, giving me the seal of approval – that made me believe what I imagined I could do was real. We’re friends to this day.

“We went to training camp for five weeks before the Eddie Melo fight [in November 1979]. That laid the groundwork for what I am today. At 18 I didn’t want to make any mistakes, so I made sure I did everything I was told to do and as best as I could.

“That made me persona-non-grata with a lot of other boxing people in the city. After Vinnie left [to return to the US], it was tough. Now I had to fucking swim on my own. I didn’t have his protection anymore. I got the shitty jobs; they wouldn’t take me into boxers’ corners.

“[But] by March 1981, at 20 years old, I had my own gym full of fighters, and my first Canadian [amateur] champion by June – Howard Grant. The Saint Laurent Boxing Club. Claude Hebert, who was running it, needed help, and asked me, and of course I said ‘Yes’. Within days he said, ‘Russ, I’m out; the gym’s yours’.

“I inherited this gym with all of these fighters. It became my gym. I didn’t have to worry about paying any rent. I just had to run the club, and make sure that the fighters went to competitions.”

Anber watched Deontay Wilder (David A. Smith/Getty Images)

For everything he by then may have learned in his hometown from Arcel and Brown and then from Angelo and Chris Dundee during time spent at Miami’s Fifth Street Gym, it was by running his own gym that the ambitious Anber truly began to evolve. Roger Larivee had perhaps previously shaped him more than any other but John Davenport was about to become his greatest influence. In the same way Vinnie Curto once invested in Anber’s maturity, further Canadian fight veterans in Tom McCluskey and Bernie Ewenson also detected a potential that meant McCluskey also sought to nurture his abilities and Ewenson consistently put them to use.

“I’ve very fond memories of Roger and the way he used to work a corner,” Anber recalls. “There was a framing on the wall. The headline was, ‘One of the best jobs in the corner I’ve ever seen – Freddie Brown’. It was the story of how Roger kept Donato Paduano in a fight after he suffered a huge gash early against Marcel Cerdan Jnr.

“When we worked the corner with Vinnie Curto against Eddie Melo, Roger prepared a concoction of lemon juice, honey and brandy in a little bottle, and he’d give the fighter a shot at some point in the fight. Vinnie said to Roger, ‘Give me a shot’. Roger didn’t miss a beat. He reached into his pocket and then said, ‘No, you had a bad round – you want a shot, you go out and give me a good round’. The next round starts, and Roger says to me, ‘Shoeshine,’ – that’s what they used to call me – ‘go back to the dressing room and get the bottle, I forgot it on the table’. When he came back to the corner, ‘Vinny, that was a good round…’.

“McCluskey was an east coast Canadian legend. One of the old-school guys everybody gravitated to. He had stories going back to the bareknuckle days. I learned so much from him and how he would teach and handle a corner. What bucket you have; how you prepare your bucket; how many towels you bring with you.

“Bernie ran his group of fighters out of The Olympic Club. He used to do all the matchmaking for the amateur shows; he had a few fighters of his own. He’d become known as ‘The Glove Man’ in Montreal. He didn’t have a car, so I used to drive him around; he took me everywhere, and when the pro shows would come to town and a fighter would only have one trainer with him, or sometimes none, Bernie would say, ‘Russ is here – he’ll work the corner’. It was all the B-side guys that were coming to lose, but to be in the corner and learn on the job was great. Bernie gave me that opportunity.

“Out of all those guys, John Davenport taught me the most about boxing. He’d go on to train Lennox Lewis and Harold Knight. Everything about boxing. Dealing with the fighters. Dealing with the managers. Dealing with promoters. Dealing with the athletic commission.

“More importantly, how to run an amateur boxing programme. How to develop fighters. How to teach them. How to show them you’re the boss in the gym. Davenport was a former marine; devastating fighters feared Davenport. He didn’t take no shit from anybody. He was the boss and it was his thing. He ruled with an iron fist. He taught me the most about being a trainer and running a gym, and [was] the guy who got me into the equipment business. To this day I think, ‘What would Dav do?’ Davenport was the man.

“[My career] stabilised considerably when I got my own gym. Then I started doing my own thing, and I had my own fighters. By 1988 I had guys on the Olympic team, and was travelling to [Seoul, South] Korea with the Olympic team. After the Olympics were over, Howard and Otis made their professional debuts. Now I was handling pro fighters; I was learning from these guys, and making my way.”

Russ Anber alongside Oleksandr Usyk

It was – perhaps fittingly for an individual first drawn to boxing by the ’76 Games in Montreal – after another Olympic cycle, concluding in Athens in 2004, that a proposal from the respected Marc Ramsay, the trainer of Beterbiev and more, that led to Anber instead becoming a dedicated cut man and wrapper of hands.

“During those times [in the eighties], when you were a trainer, you learned to become a cut man,” he says. “Trainers did cuts. It wasn’t a specialty position – you were expected to know that. It was part of the job of being a trainer.

“I had been coaching since I was 18 years old. I’d been in the gym, at 5.30am, every day for 35 years. I’d travelled the world with amateurs and pros. Eventually it became too much. It was too much time away from my business [Rival Boxing Gear]; too much time away from my family. The politics involved in amateur boxing was sickening me as the days went by. I hated it more and more.

“Marc was training his guys at my gym at the time, and he asked me if I would be their cut man. I had been trying to be a cut man for a while, with limited opportunities – John Scully gave me a chance to work with Chad Dawson, early in his career – but nothing with a lot of regularity. Marc gave me that opportunity. Since then we’ve been working together. We know each other well. We see each other. We listen to each other.

“Ralph Citro was the guy who made me realise how important being a cut man is. Ralph Citro came in to work Gaetan Hart’s corner in a fight in Montreal. He was a notorious bleeder. Special guests in attendance that night were Emanuel Steward and Hilmer Kenty, because Hilmer Kenty-Gaetan Hart was going to be made. By round three, Citro’s dealing with two cuts – one over each eye. Both his hands are working; he’s got cotton swabs in his mouth, and he’s dealing with all these cuts. Gaetan Hart goes on to win.

They passed on fighting Gaetan Hart, but they hired Ralph Citro and he became the Kronk cut man for years after that.

“Roger Larivee had a [hand-wrapping] technique that he used, and I took that technique. How to layer the bandage on the hand; he taught me and I developed my own style and technique. It’s the same one I’ve been using for the last 25 years.”

Anber describes himself as “hurt” to no longer be working with Michael Conlan, and a similar sense of frustration surrounds the fact he is also no longer responsible for wrapping Deontay Wilder’s explosive hands. Being recruited by Egis Klimas to work with Usyk and Lomachenko, however, and the Smith brothers after first impressing Joe Gallagher and Anthony Crolla following a recommendation made by Buddy McGirt, has presented him with a richness of memory first imparted to him, anecdotally, by none other than Arcel, Dundee and Brown.

“You can see the background [Usyk and Lomachenko] come from,” the one-time broadcaster says. “Educated; honest. Dedicated. They have their values; understand what they have to do. They work; they trust the science and work behind it. Their training programmes are lightyears removed from what we in the western world do. The things they do – I’ve been in the game 43 years and thought I’d seen it all. There’s things they do that make our training programmes look like child’s play.

“[But] it doesn’t matter who I ever worked with, or will work with in the future. Nothing will ever replace the moment of Otis Grant becoming middleweight champion of the world [by beating Ryan Rhodes in Sheffield in 1997].

“With a significant ‘Below that’ – because nothing will ever replace that high – sometimes you get a great man and a great character to go with a great fighter. That means more to me than the results in the ring. But of all the fighters I worked with, if you want to talk about greatness, even though I never got to work with him in his prime, working with Roy Jones Jnr [Anber was ringside when Jones Jnr fought in the ’88 Olympics final, in the opposite corner with Grant in 1998, in the same corner supporting Jessie Vargas in 2014, and in the opposite corner again with Smith against Jones Jnr and Eubank Jnr last weekend] was certainly a special thing for me. In his prime, he arguably could be one of the greatest fighters who ever lived.”

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