The 2017 Trainer of the Year breaks down his philosophy, the gameplan for Mikey Garcia and looks ahead to the Jermell Charlo-Tony Harrison rematch.
It’s been almost a month since that memorable night in Arlington. And James, who trains Spence, isn’t the type to dwell on past accomplishments—especially since his life away from the ring is as busy as Spence is in it.
James’ oldest son will graduate from college this summer. At home, he and his wife are kept busy by their two nine-year-old daughters; Irish twins who are the same age three months out of each year.
Family aside, James, 47, spends the rest of his time at his newly-built World Class Boxing Gym in Dallas and working full-time as a personal trainer, holding boxing classes for white collar professionals.
The even-keel trainer maintains the same grind that got him here. But as much as he tries to downplay it, Spence-Garcia wasn’t your typical fight. Not only was it Spence’s first PPV headliner, there was the added pressure of fighting in front of hometown fans in Texas and being the favorite to beat an undefeated four-division champion who claimed to “see something,” like Max Schmeling once said of Joe Louis before dispatching him.
James knew not to take Garcia lightly. He learned that on July 29, 2017, watching from ringside as Garcia fought Adrien Broner in a super lightweight bout at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The pride of Oxnard, California, used his boxing skills, and underrated power, to cruise to a unanimous decision win.
The performance compelled James to search Garcia out afterward.
“I really don’t watch a lot of boxing,” James admitted. “When I do, I look for technique; great skill. I saw that in Mikey. I approached him and told him, ‘Man, I love the way you fight. I like the way you’re consistent with your jab.’
“I didn’t know we’d be facing him a year-and-a-half later.”
595 days, in fact.
On March 16, Spence and Garcia squared off for Spence’s IBF welterweight title in front of a crowd of 47,525 at AT&T Stadium. Nearly 400,000 more watched from home in the first ever PBC on FOX PPV.
What they witnessed was a breakout performance from a budding superstar. The undefeated Spence pitched a 12-round shutout. But it was how he won that impressed. Spence masterfully outboxed the boxer, using his southpaw jab, footwork, counterpunching and defense to keep Garcia off-balance.
Spence’s performance looked effortless—something the greats can do on the biggest of stages. Following his 2003 whitewashing of heavyweight title holder John Ruiz, Roy Jones Jr. was asked if he knew it would be so easy. The bemused Jones shook his head and replied, “It wasn’t easy at all. This took a lot of preparation.”
So too did Spence’s domination of Garcia.
“We used the same guys for sparring we normally use,” said James. “We have a heavyweight, a super middleweight, a 140-pounder—who was new to the group—and [super welterweight] Thomas Hill. Errol spars anywhere from 14 to 18 rounds a session, sometimes even 20. Conditioning is never an issue.
“It’s hard to find a fighter with Mikey’s technique and skillset, so I mimicked Mikey on the mitts. I threw the different types of punches he throws from the angles he uses. Mikey can throw his right hand in different ways. Errol was prepared to look for those shots.”
James says he begins studying videotapes of an opponent once the inaugural press conference is scheduled. However, finding flaw in the accomplished Mexican-American wasn’t easy.
“ There’s the relief of doing my job and fulfilling my role as a trainer to my guy. But now we move on. ” Trainer - Derrick James
“I watched a lot of interviews of people talking about his intelligence, how he’s always thinking,” said James. “I decided we’re going to keep a jab in his face, keep him occupied to where he can’t think and counterpunch.
“Mikey does everything well. There are few flaws. He does drop his hands a split-second after he throws his jab, so you might catch him in that split-second. Other than that, the holes are just not there. You must create them. I noticed Broner’s movement forced Mikey to re-set. Plus, Mikey got tired those last two, three rounds. Those little tidbits helped me to formulate the strategy.”
Camp for Garcia lasted 10 weeks. Contrary to social media chatter, making weight wasn’t—and typically isn’t—a problem for Spence.
“Errol isn’t a big welterweight, he’s the right size,” James said. “A lot of the other guys moved up to 147. Errol is a natural welterweight. Two to three weeks before the fight, he’s like 4-5 pounds overweight. He can make the weight easy.”
By the time fight night rolled around, Team Spence was primed to put on a show. Spence’s performance was an eye-opener for those who believed he could only win by asserting his superior size and strength.
“Errol still hasn’t shown everything he can do,” said James. “I’m happy about his performance, but it’s over. There’s the relief of doing my job and fulfilling my role as a trainer to my guy. But now we move on.”
Spence is currently vacationing in Hawaii. WBC World Welterweight Champion Shawn Porter has been mentioned as a possible late summer/autumn opponent.
“I watched a few rounds of Porter’s fight versus Yordenis Ugas,” said James. “Shawn is an intelligent fighter, very strong, physical and fast. You can see him thinking in the ring. If he’s next, I’ll have to sit down, study, and go from there.”
For now, James’ focus has shifted to his other fighter, former world super welterweight champion Jermell Charlo. Last December, Charlo lost his title via close unanimous decision to Tony Harrison. The rematch is tentatively scheduled for June.
“I still think Jermell won the first fight but that’s neither here nor there,” said James. “We have to accept that he lost the fight and move forward. I think, in the rematch, we’ll do a couple things different but not too much. I think the formula worked, but he needs to be a bit busier.”
“Both of Jermell’s last two opponents [Austin Trout and Harrison] were in the ring to survive,” James continued. “This time, we can’t worry about the knockout. You win the fight round by round, by being consistent. We have to concentrate on that.”
Concentration is James’ strong suit. Though he receives offers to train other fighters, he doesn’t want to spread himself too thin.
“Not to say I wouldn’t take anybody else on, but if I take on too many guys, I would be lying to the initial guys I trained,” said James. “I can’t be the same guy to Errol and Jermell if I do that.”
That sort of change is unthinkable to a James who credits his success to consistency.
“There is never a point in my life where I feel I can kick my feet up. You can always lose your job. So, I don’t switch the things that took me to a certain point. Those same things will take me to where I need to be next.”
For a closer look at Spence vs Garcia, check out our fight night page.