By Thomas Gerbasi
James “Buddy” McGirt is in the gym, like he has been for much of his life. He’s talking boxing, another something he’s been doing for much of his 55 years. Today’s topic is the modern boxer and said boxer’s reliance on the shoulder roll.
“Today, everybody wants to fight like (Floyd) Mayweather,” said McGirt. “Everybody. Everybody wants to do the shoulder roll, and the shoulder roll’s been around a hundred years. A lot of great fighters did it who later became champions. But back then, everyone fought their own style. They were able to add the shoulder roll and did it so good that you wouldn’t even realize they were doing the shoulder roll. But today, everyone comes out and you can look at it, and be like, oh my God, we know what he’s gonna do. Wait for the right hand and try to counter with a right hand.”
You can almost hear him shaking his head in disgust through the phone line from California to New York.
“I just think that someone will wake up and realize that the shoulder roll ain’t for everybody,” he continues. “Some guys could do it, but some guys can’t. They try, but they can’t. You’ve got to be a real perfectionist to get it down. I give Mayweather credit for that. But a lot of guys don’t realize that he’s been doing it since he was six, seven years old. People forget that.”
Talk to McGirt for any length of time, and you will realize that he doesn’t forget much, if anything, when it comes to the craft he has made his life’s work, first in the ring as a fighter and then outside it as a trainer. It’s remarkable the details he remembers, not just from his major fights with the likes of Simon Brown, Pernell Whitaker, Howard Davis Jr., Saoul Mamby and Meldrick Taylor, but from the more obscure ones as well.
Case in point, a 1990 bout with Tommy Ayers. Seems random, but it’s not, as I bring up Cincinnati’s Ayers, who was a genuine bad ass back in the 80s, and he had the 38-2, 32 KOs record to prove it. McGirt had won and lost the 140-pound title, and he was on his way to winning the welterweight crown from Simon Brown in 1991. But first there was Ayers.
“In the first round, he hit me in the liver,” recalled McGirt. “I went back to the corner and said to myself, ‘I gotta get him out of here.’ (Laughs) That guy could punch. I was like, ‘Oh my God, ten rounds of this?’”
McGirt stopped Ayers at 2:11 of round two. It was classic McGirt, a throwback fighter in a modern era, one who knew all the tricks and all the technique and had the stones to use them in fights against anyone and everyone from 1982 to his retirement in 1997. It’s why in December he got a call from Ed Brophy of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Getting his annual invite to that year’s induction festivities in Canastota from the IBHOF’s executive director wasn’t a surprise, but…
“I was wondering why he was calling me so early to invite me out,” said McGirt.
This wasn’t the usual call. It was the big one. Buddy McGirt was going to be inducted into the IBHOF. It was a satisfying honor for someone who a younger generation of fans may not even know as a fighter, but as a trainer.
“I think it’s my physique right now,” he laughs. “People don’t think that I was a fighter with the big belly and all this; they say no way he was a fighter. I’ve been mistaken for a former football player. But it’s funny, I was in a sushi restaurant last week and a guy goes aren’t you a trainer? And I say yeah. And he says, ‘I love Paulie Malignaggi.’”
McGirt laughs, but as easy as he is with a funny story or a laugh, boxing has always been serious business for the Brentwood native, whether with the gloves on or off. And though his boxing career is what got him into Canastota, his work with the likes of Malignaggi, Arturo Gatti, Byron Mitchell, Antonio Tarver and Sergey Kovalev, among others, could have garnered him a similar call to the hall as a trainer.
That’s quite a resume, and it begs a question. What if boxing were like baseball, where players who played for multiple teams have to choose what cap they will wear on their hall of fame plaque? What “hat” would boxer / trainer McGirt wear on his plaque in the IBHOF?
“That’s a very, very interesting question,” he said. “I don’t know. I’ve never been asked that and it’s an interesting question. But I can’t answer it. And I’ll tell you why I can’t answer that question. Two days after I started boxing, I wanted to become a trainer. So for me to answer that question, I’d be lying if I said either one.”
With that training bug in his head, McGirt went all-in on learning boxing from the inside out. And as he developed his craft inside the ropes, outside it, he got his PhD at his co-manager and trainer Al Certo’s tailor shop in Secaucus.
“I remember back in 1982-83, I used to spend time with guys like Charlie Fusari, Joey Giardello, Jersey Joe Walcott, and I’d spend days with them in my manager’s tailor shop and sit there and pick their brains,” said McGirt, who is still young enough to be a bridge between the old school and the new generation. But his heart is still with the old school.
“Those were the days,” he said, laughing when the topic of the “real” boxing gym comes up.
“Here’s the funny part,” McGirt said. “Those were the gyms where you had to take a shower with your socks on. There’s no telling what you might catch. (Laughs) My manager used to say, ‘Leave your socks on. When you get out, throw your socks out. I’ll buy you a new pair of socks.’”
It’s been a good career for McGirt. Scratch that, a great career. Sure, he wanted a rematch with Taylor that he never got, he wishes he didn’t fight Pernell Whitaker the first time with a torn rotator cuff, and there are always those woulda, coulda, shouldas that every fighter has. But when you’ve had wins like McGirt had over Simon Brown, the kind of victory in which the New Yorker was so on that he might have given a fight to any welterweight in history on November 29, 1991, there’s no reason to think about the what ifs. The what was is so much better.