By Thomas Gerbasi
The great thing about Don House, one of the fight game’s most underrated trainers, is that he’s not one to beat around the bush. Whether you want the truth or not, he’s going to give it to you.
Some fighters don’t want it, and it may be why some of his former charges, like Joan Guzman, Kid Diamond, and Zahir Raheem, faded from the top levels of the game after packing up and leaving the former United States Army veteran.
Even his current heavyweight contender, once-beaten Bermane Stiverne, had issues with the tough love issued by his trainer, and he went out on his own.
“When you’re ready to do this,” House told him, “you know where I am.”
Two fights later, Stiverne, who faces Ray Austin this Saturday in St. Louis, was back.
He was ready to do this.
“I stepped on my pride and my ego, and realized that it’s not just about me,” said Quebec’s Stiverne, who had trained with House since he turned pro in 2005. “I called him back, we sat down like two gentlemen and came to an agreement and decided to work together again. The way I box today, that’s from everything Don House showed me, so I couldn’t bring anybody else in. I had to go back to the source.”
It was a huge step forward for Stiverne, an ultra-talented heavyweight with fast hands, a nice jab, and crushing power. You would think that was a one-way ticket to the top of a division in dire need of excitement, but the knock on the former amateur standout was that he wasn’t willing to push things in the ring or outside of it. If he got you hurt early, odds are that you were going home early. If you managed to survive, he would let you.
That’s how he wound up with the one loss no one has let him forget, a fourth round TKO at the hands of the then 11-15 Demetrice King in July of 2007. House certainly didn’t soften his assessment of Stiverne’s lone defeat.
“You lost,” he told Stiverne. “You should have gotten rid of the guy because you had him hurt but he didn’t finish the guy off. And anytime a guy comes into the ring expecting to lose anyway, and he hurts you, then his confidence goes way up.”
Nearly four years later, House looks back.
“It knocked us back a little bit because he’s supposed to be undefeated, but I told him it was a good thing. It puts too much weight on a fighter’s shoulders when he’s gotta try to protect that zero. He already lost one, it’s not a big thing, so the pressure’s not on now. And then we don’t look like a threat. ‘Oh, he got beat by Demetrice King, he can’t be all that great.’”
But you can tell it still irks him that Stiverne is 20-1-1 and not 21-0-1.
“These fights you’re supposed to win. He’s supposed to knock Demetrice King out by the third or fourth round. He hurt him, he dropped him, but he didn’t finish him off. And once he got up, it’s the (Felix) Trinidad syndrome. Once those get off that canvas, they’ll finish you off.”
Stiverne, owner of 14 first round knockouts, has gone 8-0-1 since the defeat, with the blemish being another one of those inexplicable events, a six round draw with 17-17-1 Charles Davis in April of 2009. But since then, he’s been a changed man. He’s gotten his weight under control (he once tipped the scales at 258 ¼, but in his most recent bout against Kerston Manswell in January he was 238), and he’s even impressed House with his work ethic in the gym. And if you know Don House, you know that he prides work ethic over all things.
“He came back, said he was gonna train hard, and he’s been training hard,” said House. “He’s putting in 12-14 rounds of sparring and he’s hungry. I told him, you win the next five fights, and I know money’s a helluva motivator (Laughs), you make 60 million dollars. That’s just the way it is. You beat Ray Austin, you go to Germany and beat Vitali (Klitschko), give Vitali his rematch, beat his brother (Wladimir), give his brother a rematch, that’s five fights. You do that, you can’t spend all the money. That’s easier than robbing a bank.”
So what brought about the change for Stiverne? The realization that to make it in boxing, boxing needs to be your life.
“It’s all about dedication and loving what you’re doing,” he said. “If you don’t love it or care about it, and don’t put in the time that’s required or put in the extra work, you won’t make it. I’ve seen a lot of heavyweights that were on top, I was in camp with them and around them, and now they’re down and you don’t see them or hear about them. But I was always in the back taking notes and I learned from other people’s mistakes.”
Including his own.
“There were certain things I didn’t understand about boxing,” Stiverne continues. “Boxing doesn’t allow you to do other things outside of boxing. They say it’s a jealous sport, and it is. If you’re a boxer, that’s what you gotta do, and it’s the only thing you can do. It took me a long time to realize what that meant. Once you get to a certain level, you’ve got to give it your all, and boxing is the only thing you can do and it’s the only thing in your life. The last three fights, I understood that and I decided to change the way I eat and I had to do something about my weight because it was a big issue with me. So I took care of that and here I am today.”
But how does a knockout artist like Stiverne slip under the radar for so long? The loss to King and draw with Davis didn’t help, but even when he was mowing opponents down, there wasn’t the buzz attached to him like there was to those like Chris Arreola. House believes a couple factors were at play – first, that Stiverne didn’t always see in himself what others did.
“He’s always had speed and power,” he said. “With that, this kid could be champion. Sometimes unfortunately, as a coach, we see that more than they see it. It takes them years to figure out, ‘you know what, I can hurt guys.’ But a coach, if he’s been around long enough, you know what to look for, and I thought this kid was very strong.”
The second part, well, he’s not exactly Muhammad Ali when it comes to selling a fight. House is staying out of that end of things.
“He’s quiet, he’s humble,” said House of Stiverne. “I can’t do the talking for him. The last time I opened my mouth up for a fighter, we got knocked out in the second round. (Laughs) I don’t do that anymore.”
On Saturday, Stiverne will get a chance to let his fists do the talking on one of Don King’s epic undercards in St. Louis under the Devon Alexander vs. Lucas Matthysse bout. Austin, a perennial contender, is 40, but just when you think he’s done, he’s got a habit of putting together a string of wins. Stiverne knows what kind of spoiler the “Rainman” can be.
“I don’t look past him,” said the 32-year old. “The way I look at this fight is that I did everything I had to do, I did my homework, and I’m not saying ‘man, I should have ran extra,’ or this or that. What I’m saying is I had good sparring partners, and I don’t know what he’s gonna come up with, but I’m just going into the ring and expecting the unexpected. To me, Ray Austin is coming with everything he’s got, and that’s what I’m running with.”
House, as no nonsense as always, puts it even more succinctly when asked about Saturday’s bout for the WBC Silver heavyweight title (and which is more importantly doubling as a WBC title eliminator).
“Ray Austin’s always dangerous,” he said. “But I’m gonna re-quote, and I got this from the fighter (Stiverne) himself. I said ‘how do you feel?’ He said ‘if I can’t beat Ray Austin, I need to quit boxing.’ I said, I’m glad you said it, because those are my sentiments exactly. If you can’t beat Ray, don’t even think about going to Germany.”
Stiverne confirms that sentiment.
“That’s it,” he said. “If I can’t go past him, I certainly can’t go past Klitschko. And I’m confident that I will get past Ray Austin.”