A Conversation With NYC’s Most Notorious Trainer on the Current State of Boxing

From celeb fights to exhibition fights to actual fights, Eric Kelly's got opinions

January 13, 2021 10:25 am
A Conversation With NYC’s Most Notorious Trainer on the Current State of Boxing
Robert Maxwell | SouthBoX

Anyone who knows famed NYC boxing trainer Eric Kelly will tell you two things: 

  1. He knows the world of boxing. In his younger years, Kelly was a four-time National Amateur Boxing champion, two-time NYC Golden Gloves champion, Olympic Team alternate and twice ranked #1 in the USA. Sidelined by an eye injury sustained in a barroom altercation, he turned to coaching, where his outsize personality and encyclopedic knowledge of all things sweet science has made him one of the most sought-after trainers in the city and now the proprietor of his own gym, SouthBoX by Eric Kelly in the South Bronx.
  2. He is … opinionated. Whether it’s mercilessly hazing finance bros in the gym, feuding with Chrissy Teigen on Twitter or acting as a combat drill sergeant at the Civilian Military Combine, the guy has forever been known for talking an unabashed amount of shit.

So in the wake of recent boxing events including a geriatric Mike Tyson contesting a lusterless exhibition match against an only-slightly-less geriatric Roy Jones Jr., a bonafide Instagram celebrity by the name of Ryan Garcia fighting for the WBC interim lightweight title, and YouTube star Jake Paul knocking former NBA player Nate Robinson flatter than Kyrie Irving’s conception of earth, your correspondent figured Kelly would be a good person to talk to. We sat down (virtually) to chat the state of the sport, where it’s headed, and what he thinks of the current crop of fighters out there. True to form, he did not disappoint.

InsideHook: Boxing has always been a sport of spectacle, but I feel like it’s trending in a direction where the spectacle is becoming more important than the actual sport — do you believe that to be true?

Eric Kelly: Yeah, and that is because boxing, in my opinion right now, is clout chasing. Boxing is chasing clout. 

When you say “clout chasing,” do you mean that fighters are starting to view boxing as a method of getting internet famous rather than a sport they actually love? Like boxing is a springboard to something else?

That has lots to do with it. These fighters see the glam and glitz, but don’t understand what Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather had to do to get to that point where they are the shot caller. Look at their first 20 fights, and look at the first 20 fights of most of these champions today. There’s a great lack of quality in terms of competition fought.

I’ve also heard you say that the lack of charisma amongst today’s top fighters has opened the door for some of these gimmicks?

You got a lot of the top boxers who are obviously some of the top athletes in the world, and they’re great fighters, great boxers, but they’re lacking in personality, they’re lacking in charisma. That natural personality and charisma that kept the people talking. Muhammad Ali was a freedom fighter. You understand what I’m saying? He fought for the justice of our people. He was extremely charismatic, he was poetic, he was a comedian, he was a magician, and he was a fucking dynamite fighter. 

And then you got guys like Sugar Ray Leonard, who was the golden boy coming off of the 1976 Olympic gold medal, and he had his own flash of flurries in the ring and stuff like that, that kept him interesting. He was very mean, he was taking out fighters like Tommy Hitman Hearns, Roberto Durán, Wilfred Benítez, Marvelous Marvin Hagler. He had those four guys who were in and around his division and they all fought each other. And each one of those guys had crazy, crazy charisma. Roberto Durán was considered the most dangerous man on the planet.

Fast forward to Mike Tyson. Mike Tyson was a ball of charisma. From crazy knockouts to insane interviews, to, “Yo, is this motherfucker crazy?” Even his legal problems. And then you have guys like Prince Naseem Hamed who, in my opinion, put the whole United Kingdom on the map in terms of boxing. Prince Naseem Hamed separated himself because everything he did in terms of boxing was a knockout, and on top of that, he was a great entertainer. Right now go to YouTube and type in “Prince Naseem Hamed entrance.” Just look at his entrances and how he came into the ring every fight. Not one fight, every fight. So he gives you a dynamite entrance, then he gives you a dynamite knockout.

You had fighters like that, that made boxing interesting. Now you’ve got a bunch of great fighters, but these fighters lack that charisma. One of the most dangerous things a fighter can do is say, “I do my talking in the ring.” Don’t get me wrong, in the ring is where you’re supposed to do your talking, but you also must know you’ve got to do your talking outside of the ring. You’ve got to build a fan base. You’ve got to make people want to see you.

Which is exactly what the Paul brothers have, a massive fan base that wants to see them do absolutely anything.

They’re nothing but charisma. But honestly, keeping it real with you, it’s not even really charisma. These guys aren’t that funny. I’m way funnier than all these motherfuckers put together, and I’m just an old-ass gentleman. But you know what? They’re into something that the whole world is into, and that’s the World Wide Web. Right now, social media platforms is where it’s at. These kids grew up in probably fucking Beverly Hills or some shit, living behind computers. These older fighters was fighting federal fucking offenses before they fought their way out of their predicament. 

Right now, your social media presence determines your presence. If somebody wants you to be an ambassador for their brand, they’re going to go see your Twitter, Instagram, they want to look at how many followers you got. They want to see if you’ve got a blue check. It’s no longer more about who you are and what you can do. It’s about how fake you can be, because most of these motherfucking followers are paid for. Kim Kardashian got busted paying for followers. Justin Bieber got busted paying for followers. Those guys are fucking superstars and they’re paying for followers. So right now, it’s a façade. And everyone’s buying into the façade. We live in a capitalistic society, so everybody wants to seem bigger and better, like they got the most.

I feel like the idea of celebrities or people with internet clout getting to “cut the line” to these big exhibition fights and huge paydays, that sucks for actual fighters out there working really hard.

It sucks. Because they’re getting way more press time and money than the actual fighters. Not all the actual fighters, but a lot of the actual fighters, most of the actual fighters. They’re getting more money because they’re already coming in with five million followers, two million followers, you know what I’m saying? That’s how they’re coming into the game.

Now you got a kid who came out the amateurs and he about to turn pro. He went to the Olympics, he probably got a gold medal. And you look at his Instagram, he got a 100,000 followers, 150,000 followers. That’s a lot. But meanwhile, you’ve got so-and-so who’s got five million followers, he ain’t never boxed a day in his life. He doesn’t know a left hook from a fish hook. But he’s got five million followers and he’s obviously got a different audience behind him that’s going to tune in because they want to see their sideshow fight.

The people that tune in to watch Jake Paul fight Logan Paul, or Nate Robinson, they’re not tuned in to watch the main event, they’re tuned in to watch the sideshow. They had to pay for the whole card, but they only wanted to see the Paul brothers or the YouTuber. They don’t give a fuck about Terence Crawford. They don’t give a fuck about Errol Spence. And don’t get me wrong, Errol Spence, Terence Crawford, great fighters, amazing, and they’ve got a good fan base, but they don’t got a fan base like them Paul brothers, like them YouTube stars.

Have you ever watched either of the Paul brothers fight?

I’ve never really watched them fight, no. I did see highlights of the Nate Robinson KO though. He hit Nate so hard, Nate farted! I saw the back of his trunks blow. 

What do you think of a guy like Ryan García, who obviously knows the power of social media, but is also very skilled in the ring? Is this what the future of the sport needs to be? Fighters who’ve got, to your earlier point, that charisma, they know how to promote themselves on social media, but they also know how to fight at an elite level?

Yeah, Ryan García is a good fighter. I like him. You got a handsome young man who’s got a good social media presence and everything, like five million followers or something like that, so he’s doing very well. I see he’s fighting this weekend against Luke Campbell. Luke Campbell’s from the United Kingdom, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist. I think Ryan is going to win this fight. (Ed. note: he did.) But at the top level, against other young up and coming fighters, in and around his division, like Tank Davis, Shakur Stevenson, Devin Haney, Teófimo López, I don’t think Ryan wins those fights, yet. I think Ryan fights Luke Campbell, he’s going to get a good one in and that’s the first big name on his resume. Then from there, I think they’re going to match him against guys that he can beat. You understand what I’m saying?

Ryan is training with Canelo Alvarez’s team right now, and Canelo’s team has been guilty of some fugazi doings in boxing. Canelo’s career has been perfectly orchestrated. Fighting guys way older, way smaller, always issuing stipulations in the contract when he does have an opponent who may be a challenge. I do give him props for fighting Lara, Jacobs, Mayweather, Trout, Triple G. But with Ryan having Canelo’s team around him now, and coaching him, I think that a bit of that Canelo Alvarez influence is going to play into the career of Ryan García. I foresee a lot of shit that’s going to be a little bit fugazi.

It seems like this sort of orchestration is something that has contributed in a big way to the decline of boxing.

I’m still in love with authenticity. I love it. I like when it’s real. I like when boxing is done how it was done when I grew up and fell in love with it. When Terry Norris fought Simon Brown. When Pernell Whitaker fought Buddy McGirt. When Roy Jones Jr. fought James Toney. When Bernard Hopkins fought Antwun Echols. That’s the boxing I love. When Sugar Ray Leonard fought Marvelous Marvin Hagler, that’s the boxing I love.

It was authentic and it was less gimmicky and the best fought the best all the time. Don King would promote the show and he would have four or five fights on the cards and each one of these fights could have been main events. He’d have Terry Norris versus Simon Brown. He’d have Gerald McClellan versus Julian Jackson. He would have Julio César Chávez versus Meldrick Taylor. And this was on the same card. Each one of these fights would be main events today.

That’s when I fucking loved boxing, when the best fought the best. That’s what got me hooked to this shit. That’s why I was able to become the champion that I was in boxing, because I looked at things like that and I wanted that to be me and that inspired me. I wanted to be there, I wanted to do that. And don’t get me wrong, I didn’t make it to that level, but I did get enough … well, I was able to perform in Madison Square Garden and I was able to win national championships and represent my country, the USA, and I was able to garner respect from a lot of those fighters that I looked up to, for my contribution to the sport.

So that’s why today, I’m so excited to have my own gym, SouthBoX by Eric Kelly. So now I’m able to provide a platform for others coming up. And the only thing I can do is preach to them the right way to do it and how it’s supposed to be done. And I think I’d be doing a great disservice to the art, to the pugilistic art forms if I didn’t do that. 

I try and teach them the same authenticity. You get it how you live. You live real, you’re going to get it real. Motherfuckers worry about how many followers you got on Instagram. What about who you are as a man? Muhammad Ali stood for who you are as a man. Muhammad Ali said, “Listen, I’m not going to go fight in this war and kill people that never done nothing to me, when I can’t get freedom and justice in my own country.” Muhammad Ali had his prime years of his career stripped away from him. They took him out of boxing for some years. It’s about being a martyr for authenticity, for realness. And if you can’t be that, then what are you doing?

Real talk though, how good would Muhammad Ali have been at social media?

Muhammad Ali would have been the GOAT of social media.

With the charisma that he had, I feel like he would have been the biggest thing ever on Instagram.

He would have had a billion followers. A billion followers.

This brings me around to the idea of these big names from the past coming back around for exhibition fights — should anyone truly care when they’re not scoring it and there’s no actual winner? Do the fighters even care?

Tyson and Jones, they were superstars of yesterday. They did everything they could do in boxing and more, so those two specifically, they know what time it is. They don’t care about no decision. They don’t give a fuck about that. Because when decisions mattered, they were more than great at getting the decision in their favor.

And guess what? They took home 10 million dollars. They took home 10 million dollars apiece! Take you — and you’re just some skinny-ass, nerdy-ass white boy from, what, Denver or some shit like that? For 10 million dollars, wouldn’t you get in the ring with Mike Tyson?

Probably not, but I take your point. I just don’t think I’d live long enough to spend that money.

Listen, from the moment he touches you the first time with the one-two, a shot that didn’t even look like it hurt, you just fall down, count to 10, you’ve got 10 million dollars. I’m in there.

Ok but in a fight like that, do you think those guys are even really trying, or are we essentially just paying to watch two old dudes work out together?

They tried, but they didn’t try — they’re putting on a good show. Roy fought to not get hit, he put a couple little flurries together. Mike Tyson threw some real good punches in the fight, but Mike Tyson wasn’t on the kill. Mike Tyson wasn’t on the prowl. He wasn’t stalking Roy behind the jab and getting on the inside and working the body and comin’ up top. Don’t get me wrong, he managed a few good punches, of course he did, but he wasn’t going for the kill. That was a very, very modified version.

Any chance in a fight like that you could see a fighter’s instinct override the plan to do a “modified version?”

What you’re saying is true. They say they’re going to go easy until one of them gets caught with a good shot. Even if the shot isn’t powerful, they get caught with a good shot and then they hear the crowd go, “Ohhhh,” and then the ego kicks in, so now it’s an all-out fight. Some shit like that could happen.

What about the co-mingling of boxing and MMA? Do you think this should continue to be a thing, or is it just damaging both sports for the sake of viewers? Obviously the Money Fight proved that it can be a huge draw.

I don’t think it should be a thing. Me, Eric Kelly, no. But they’re doing what they got to do. They’re milking it so that they can get more money. You feel me? Conor McGregor got more money than he ever made in his whole career fighting Floyd Mayweather. Dana White is raping them boys over there [in the UFC].

Do you think any MMA fighter out there stands a chance against an elite boxer in a straight-up boxing match?

Not at all. Canelo Álvarez would destroy any MMA fighter in boxing. Terence Crawford would destroy any MMA fighter in boxing. Triple G will destroy any MMA fighter. Errol Spence, Shakur Stevenson, Teófimo López, I can go on. No.

But don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot of boxers who were great yesterday, 10 years ago, and they’ve been knocked out a couple times, their punches just haven’t stayed the same, and they’re broken and they can use a couple bucks. They might fight a young up and coming MMA fighter who’s on top currently, and then he gets in the ring and knocks the fighter out in boxing. But listen, you’re putting the best version of that MMA fighter against the worst version of that boxer.

Alright, last question: If you could fight any celebrity, who would you want to fight? Not a boxer, a celebrity.

You know who I would want to fight? I’m too big, but if I could make it happen, I’d fuck Conor McGregor up.

You think you’re guaranteed to win that fight?

Is a pig’s pussy pork?

Why him?

Because he’s a fighter, I’m a fighter, we’re both Irish —

You’re Irish?

Yeah, my last name’s Kelly. So, Irish somewhere, motherfucker. You know what I’m saying? So I think that Conor McGregor would be a good one. I think that the press conferences and the jokes and the shit talking would be fucking chaotic. Because the shit I’m going to bring? He can only do that shit against guys that got no charisma. 

Conor, actually his name is Condom. Condom McGregor. You know what? You don’t want no issues with me, Condom. You feeling me? I’m way funnier. I’m way wittier. I’m a way better boxer. One eye and all. That don’t mean nothing. One eye and all, don’t let the eye fool you. I don’t need two. I will beat him to death and beat him back to life.

Conor McGregor, consider yourself on notice.

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