The renowned trainer of Mario Barrios breaks down the Sweet Science as the undefeated Barrios prepares to defend his WBA World 140-pound title against unbeaten two-division champ Gervonta "Tank" Davis Saturday night on SHOWTIME.
WBA World Super Lightweight Champion Mario “El Azteca” Barrios (26-0, 17 KOs) defends his title against two-division champ Gervonta “Tank” Davis (24-0, 23 KOs) this Saturday, June 26 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. The PBC event will be broadcast live on SHOWTIME pay-per-view (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
Since 2016, Barrios has worked with head coach Virgil Hunter, who has led the 26-year-old to a string of 10 impressive wins—nine by knockout.
Hunter is a living legend in boxing, best known for training Olympic gold medalist and Hall-of-Famer Andre Ward throughout Ward’s amateur and professional career. Hunter has also coached Amir Khan, Andre Berto, Abner Mares and others.
Hunter took time away from Barrios’ training camp to give his considerable insights into the fundamentals of boxing.
It All Starts with the Jab
Since Barrios began working with Hunter, his number of knockouts has skyrocketed. That’s largely attributed to Barrios having a better understanding of how to achieve greater accuracy and better leverage on his shots.
“Mario’s jab is getting better and better,” said Hunter. “He’s starting to understand the range and distance. [His jab] has been a great asset to him and we try to make it even better.
“He’s got a rangy, wiry physique. He’s got fast-twitch muscles when he punches, so he does get good leverage. The other part of it is he was born with a natural punch. The better accuracy, the more effective the punch is. So we work on his accuracy, his leverage, and his timing. All those are mechanisms to increase the power of the punch.”
Footwork and Positioning
Barrios fought Batyr Akhmedov in a tough fight in September 2019. Despite the grueling nature of the contest, Barrios was able to set up his punches by utilizing superior foot positioning to hurt and twice drop Akhmedov.
“That fight proved to me that Mario carries his power late in the fight and that he’s able to endure a tough fight like that,” said Hunter.
“Shadowboxing is the main focus to [improve] footwork, to enhance the muscle memory and to do certain in-and-out drills, lateral drills, until it’s just locked in.
“Shadowboxing is very important. It helps a fighter maintain his form (offensive and defensive) even when he’s tired. His form will not suffer because of the rounds and rounds of shadowboxing. He’ll maintain his form even when he’s fatigued.”
Hunter has Barrios practice shadowboxing daily. Though the number of rounds varies day to day, Hunter ensures Barrios does a minimum of five rounds of it.
“Most of all he’s left to himself to just get into his own mental groove,” said Hunter. “But every now and then I make suggestions. As long as the fighter understands the importance of it, it only enhances him to not fall apart when he’s tired and fatigued.”
Protect Yourself At All Times
“You can always make a fighter defensively better,” said Hunter. “There are drills you can do—eye drills and giving him different looks in sparring. Different forms of attack from his sparring partners. All those enhance his defensive capabilities.”
In some of his recent fights, Barrios can be seen extending his lead hand after firing a combination. Hunter explained the “why” of this elite tactic.
“It’s a defensive mechanism. It lets you know the distance the opponent is at. It also gives the opponent a deterrent not to attack, to make him get the sense that he has to go through something. So it’s designed to hold up the attack just for a split second to allow Mario to readjust his position.”
“ If you keep focus on what’s going on inside the ring, you’re able to deal with the adversity that’s coming your way. ” Trainer - Virgil Hunter
Many fighters struggle with how to best use their height and reach and fight at a given range. Hunter explained that why and when an educated, tall fighter like Barrios may choose to employ an approach observers might not expect.
“Not fighting tall, but fighting long. Not standing straight up—he’s down in (bending) his legs,” said Hunter. “If he’s standing tall, a shorter fighter can go underneath his position and also go over the top easier because you present a bigger target. If he’s down in his legs, you have to go through him as opposed to under or over him.”
When teaching a tall fighter like Barrios to fight effectively on the inside, like improving any skill, Hunter stressed that it’s about getting enough practice.
“It’s a matter of knowing your distance and range in doing drills, shortening up the punches and also not fighting tall—even though he has the height advantage on most of his opponents. That’s the importance of the right position.
“As long as he’s in a position that’ll bring him closer to the body, with his body punching, he’s in the right position. It keeps him where he can reach the head and the body from one stance. Instead of standing tall and having to dip down and hit the body, he’s already down there where he can hit the body and also the head.
“Usually a fighter will have one punch he’s effective with to the body. Some of them have two hand punches that are effective to the body. So you give him drills that will enhance that, whether it’s one hand or two hands.”
Hunter believes that practice, focus, and a full set of tools are the keys to success.
“The philosophy behind that is: What he does well, you make it great. What he doesn’t do so well, you make it good. Combine those together and you have a well-rounded fighter.”
On fight night, Hunter can regularly be heard reminding his fighters to retain their focus. He shared why it’s of the utmost importance in the ring.
“If you keep focus on what’s going on inside the ring, you’re able to deal with the adversity that’s coming your way. If you lose focus, you lose sense of everything that’s going on around you. No matter what the situation is, you have to stay focused and in tune to what’s immediately happening.
“As long as you can keep that fighter in that role, so to speak, you always have a chance at being a winner in that particular competition.”
During the difficult bout with Akhmedov, Barrios dropped his opponent twice, including once in the final round.
“It was a growth fight. He’s gotten much better off of that, and learned different things that he needed to learn. But it showed me that he’s always in the fight because he carries his power late, and he has the mental fortitude to endure a fight such as that.”
Hunter also touched on how building trust yields greater rewards.
“Since we’ve come together, we’ve gotten closer and closer. It benefits Mario and it also benefits me. We trust in one another and off of that foundation, he has grown. Mario is a great student, and again it goes back to the trust thing. I don’t ask him to do something I haven’t seen him do before. As long as I convey that to him, he’s confident in doing it.
“As we continue to build our relationship, you’ll see better and better results.”
For a closer look at Davis vs Barrios, check out our fight night page.