By Adam Berlin
Special to CBSSports.com
Joshua Clottey is preparing for Miguel Cotto.
It's May 22, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, but for Clottey, the IBF welterweight champ, a day at the beach isn't on the agenda. A day in the country is. From Madison Square Garden, which will host the big event, it's a 70-mile shot west on Route 80 to the Fernwood Hotel and Resort, where Clottey has set up camp in the Pocono Mountains.
My brother and I pulled out of Harlem at noon, and in no time, trees had replaced concrete; we cracked the car windows to fill our lungs with fresh air. I've visited many gyms. I've watched many fighters hone their skills. But I'd never visited a training camp. I expected a rustic setting replete with log cabins, lakes and deer skittering into the woods as the fighter-in-training ran along dirt roads, solitude focusing his mind while he envisioned his upcoming fight. In The Professional by W.C. Heinz, perhaps the best boxing novel ever written, that's the setting described by the book's narrator, a journalist who covers a few pre-fight weeks in a title contender's life. The bulk of the novel takes place at a training camp in the mountains. Surrounded by silence, punctuated only by crickets or the calls of waking birds, the writer observes as the boxer prepares.
The Fernwood Hotel is not the stuff of novels. It's less resort, more compound. We stopped at the front desk of the tacky main building and told the clerk we were here to see Joshua Clottey. She called his room, told him we'd arrived, then drew the route on a map that had too many structures and paved roads, not enough wilderness. Clottey's cabin was a townhouse sandwiched between other townhouses set on a semi-manicured golf course. The Fernwood Hotel is no idyllic getaway, but at least it's away. There's fresh air. There's space to run. There are no city distractions. Undisciplined fighters are forced to stay disciplined in the country, where there's not much to do, and disciplined fighters like Clottey can focus even more clearly on the job at hand.
We knocked and were told to come in. The scene looked like a frat house. TV blaring. Sweatshirts and sneakers scattered on the floor. A pillow and blanket piled on a chair. Clearly someone had spent the night on the couch. Boxes of cereal. Containers of protein power. Beverage containers, some half-full, some empty. A large man sat in a chair, thick arms filling out his T-shirt, a gun at his side. A young man stood and shook our hands. He was cut, in his muscles and literally, a scar of past battles on his cheek. Clearly a sparring partner. Another man was sitting at the table, eating. We later found out he was the cook and assistant for the camp and had once been Ike Quartey's sparring partner.
Kwame Asante, the well-regarded trainer who, like his charge Clottey, is from Ghana, came upstairs and we spoke for a bit. Asante seemed at ease and assured us that Clottey was training hard, ready to fight. We waited for Clottey. He was downstairs, changing for his afternoon workout and would soon be up. On the table were stacks of DVDs. A box set of Rocky movies, Hollywood's version of the real thing. I went out on the porch and surveyed the golf green. A large bee touched the cabin, touched it again, found nothing sweet and buzzed off.
Clottey came upstairs. There's a difference between men who are in shape and men who fight for a living. There's something in their muscles, in the way their faces are stripped down, in the way their noses and cheekbones and even their eyes seem anatomically configured to take punishment. Fighting is their job, and Clottey, like the character in the W.C. Heinz novel, is a true professional.
HBO was coming to film footage of Clottey working out. They needed a few minutes of pre-fight hype before the bell rings on June 13, so Clottey had agreed to work out even though Friday was supposed to be his day off. We spoke with Clottey for a few minutes. He was feeling strong, had been running country hills and his wind was great. At 156, he was ready to drop 10 pounds in a day if he had to. Asante sat down with his laptop. The big man with the sidearm and the sparring partner with the scar left for the weekend. Another sparring partner, do-rag on his head, slim as a marathoner, came upstairs. I wondered how many people had been spending the night in this cabin that wasn't a cabin. My brother and I got into our car, Clottey and his sparring partner got into Asante's van, and we drove to meet the HBO crew.
Across from the Fernwood reception area is a large structure that could hold a skating rink. It's warehouse-size, and as we walked the steps, I thought how it didn't really matter where we were. Walking steps means boxing, anywhere. The three steps to the ring. The Sisyphusian steps up the proverbial mountain. On Clottey's shoulders is the boulder of his country. When he speaks about his fights, it is always in terms of making Ghana and its people proud. The Fernwood gym is simple but spacious. Fight posters on the wall tell of Fernwood's glory days, now 20 years past, when James Toney was undefeated and relatively svelte and fought as a headliner at the resort. The gym has one ring. Two Everlast heavybags. Two Everlast speedbags. Unusual was the green backdrop HBO had set up for the interview.
After some pre-interview banter, the interviewer asked Clottey to state his name for the camera. Lights. Action. The sound man nodded his head.
"I am Joshua Clottey."
The cameraman asked Clottey to raise his chin a little, to keep his eyes on the camera while he spoke. Clottey listened to the stage directions, then said it again.
"I am Joshua Clottey."
This line reading had a bit more defiance, a bit more dare. The rehearsal had done Clottey good. The delivery was full of subtext, a lifetime of experience under the words and tone.
Who is Joshua Clottey? Like a good method actor who studies his role and makes the character his own before opening night, Clottey studies himself, then studies his opponents as he readies himself for each fight, using the best parts of himself to exploit the worst parts in others. Stanislavski, the famous acting teacher who wrote the seminal book on method acting, An Actor Prepares, believed that to create a realistic performance, an actor had to prepare in a specific way. More than just delivering lines dramatically, he had to know the meaning of each line and make it his own. For each moment on stage, a concrete memory had to be attached so that the line didn't only sound real but was real, and Stanislavski knew that the best memories are not fabricated, but real.
Think Marlon Brando sitting in the back of a taxicab, famously stating, "I could have been a contender." Brando was never a professional fighter, let alone a top 10, but he was a champion actor who studied the Stanislavski method. When he delivered the now-famous line from On The Waterfront, you can be sure he was thinking of a moment that really happened in his life. In Brando's simple, honest delivery, we hear the immediate disappointment of a man whose brother has done him wrong and, more important, we hear an entire lifetime of regret, the lingering, heart-breaking despair of a dream lost. It's perhaps the saddest note a tough guy ever played in the movies. It might be performance, but it is also real. Brando used the method to prepare himself, he used what he knew, and he won an Oscar.
Joshua Clottey is preparing for Miguel Cotto.
"I know it's not going to be easy," Clottey says. "I'm not worried about his uncle or his training. He knows what he has to do to win. He knows what is at hand. And I know what I have to do."
What does Clottey know? What life experience and ring experience does he have to draw upon to fight the most important fight of his life against a smart, skilled opponent named Miguel Cotto, who has reigned as welterweight king for many years and whose sole loss might have come at the hands of plaster of Paris?
The answer: Clottey knows himself. At the Delphic Oracle, two sayings were carved in stone, two character traits that defined a true hero. Know Thyself was one. Nothing in Excess was the other.
Clottey started as a soccer player. He was skilled. He was fast. Then one day he got tired of a bully on the soccer field who was beating people.
"I wanted to fight him. I beat him. I fell in love with the sport."
In that instant, Clottey moved from the field, from a team sport, to the ring, the most individual of sports. He trained hard in Ghana; today he trains hard in the United States, usually at John's Gym in the Bronx where he now resides. If he does one thing in excess (he doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't do drugs, he has none of the classic vices of excess), he trains. Clottey runs constantly, he is in the gym constantly, he is always in fighting shape. When I asked him about his confident demeanor, the confidence so clearly part of his "I am Joshua Clottey" line delivery, the confidence so clearly evident whenever he steps in the ring, Clottey quietly answered, "As soon as I sign the paper for the fight, I have to be confident. I have that in my mind."
This confidence, this stoic calm is part of Clottey's body language in and outside the ring. He is firm and quiet, and even when he gets animated, Clottey quickly returns to his even demeanor. This same stoicism is best seen in his footwork when he fights. No matter the punch he throws, no matter the angle, he always remains balanced, always in control. Perhaps he learned his stoicism from growing up tough in Ghana. Perhaps he learned it from coming to America, being a poor immigrant and struggling in the Bronx. Perhaps he learned it because he has had to wait so long to secure the mega-fights he deserves.
By comparison, Cotto has had it easy. He was heralded right out of the shoot. So were the other welterweight champs of recent history. Shane Mosley. Zab Judah. Floyd Mayweather. Paul Williams. Put Clottey against any one of these men, and he has more than a real chance. But as a hyped fighter, a marquee name, he has had to wait offstage far too long. Perhaps his confidence comes from the strength it takes to wait, to bide his time productively, to stay in perfect shape, to fight for purses far below what he deserves. Think Sisyphus. Whatever it is, Clottey knows himself and what he needs to do
Clottey has an impressive 31-2 record and has never been stopped. He was beating Margarito until he hurt his hand, then toughed it out to lose a close decision. He can box as well as any pound-for-pounder. Watch his footwork. Watch his crisp left jabs and deceptive left hooks that seem wide but land with a thud to the liver or a crack to the jaw. Watch his defense. It might be Boxing 101 for a fighter to keep his hands up, but Clottey's remain up for 12 full rounds, something rarely seen in boxing. His forearms take the brunt of his opponents' blows. Danny Morales, Clottey's trim sparring partner with the marathoner's build, a 140-pound professional, glowed when he described Clottey's defensive skills.
"He's so good. When I spar with him, I barely hit him. His style is totally different. I can't get anything in. I'm so much faster than he is, but when he blocks punches nothing gets in. He's the hardest guy I ever sparred with. Guys quit sparring with him because they can't hit him. And everything hits me. He's fast and hard."
To hit and not be hit. That's the definition of victory.
But to gain victory against the likes of Miguel Cotto, takes hard, hard work. HBO got its interview. Now they wanted to film Clottey in training. He might have needed two takes to introduce himself on camera, but when it comes to performing in the gym, Clottey needs no rehearsal.
The round clock is set, and Clottey gets busy. He dons a silver sweat jacket, a literal sweat jacket made of material that doesn't allow his body to breathe, and jumps rope for five rounds. There is no flash to his rope work, no easy showman's moves, and he doesn't rush the rope for the camera. He is steady, breathing easy, watching himself in the mirror, controlled, contained.
Clottey wraps his own hands like a master in record time. Asante helps him with the gloves and Clottey starts to hit the heavy bag. For four rounds he pummels the bag, each round a full three minutes of work without rest, an audible HA! at the end of each punch. He throws mostly lefts. Straight jabs. Hooks up and down. Uppercuts. Sometimes he throws a hard right, but usually his right arm stays in front of his face, a forearm shield of bone and steel muscle. Between rounds his cook gives him water, splashes his face, his arms, his neck. Again, Clottey hardly breathes.
Asante puts on the mitts and moves Clottey around the ring. Clottey's punches were crisp against the heavy bag, but they're crisper here. But it's his footwork that steals the show. I watch the HBO camera to make sure they're capturing the skills that separate Clottey from the pack. His economy of movement. His perfect balance. His awareness of where he's situated in the ring at all times. Asante's mitt technique is unique. He doesn't just field punches and throw feints. He uses the mitts as gloves, hitting Clottey to the body, trying to get at Clottey's head. Clottey's forearms block the shots. After four rounds, Asante is breathing heavily. Clottey looks ready for more.
Three rounds practicing defense, slipping the swinging bag.
One round shadowboxing in the ring.
Usually African music plays in the background, but HBO will fill in its own soundtrack and so the gym is as quiet as a college library during finals time. If Ghana's most famous fighter, Azumah Nelson, was called "The Professor," Joshua Clottey, diligent, focused, putting in the hours before his biggest test, seems destined for an advanced degree of his own.
The afternoon's session is over. Clottey has done 12 rounds of intense work, not including his jump-rope warmup that would exhaust most men. As the HBO crew starts to pack up, he tells them, "Because of you I train. Today is my rest day." Clottey, a serious-faced man who looks all business while he works, smiles a rare smile. The HBO crew clearly likes Clottey. Easy to talk to, always respectful, the opposite of a diva-boxer, Joshua Clottey wins people over by not trying too hard. He works hard. He practices without preaching.
Clottey goes off for a well-earned shower. Asante sits on the ring apron, pondering the day's workout, perhaps envisioning the fight to come. I too envision the fight. I've seen Miguel Cotto fight many times, and he always impresses. I've seen Joshua Clottey fight many times and he always impresses. Both men are professional prizefighters in the best way -- they're craftsmen in the ring, complete pugilists who can box and fight. And each man thinks as hard as he punches. My fear for Clottey is that he'll give away too many early rounds, that he won't be busy enough, that Cotto's output, even if much of his output connects against Clottey's forearms, will sway the judges. Unfortunately, aggression, even if it's ineffective, often trumps defense. I voice my concern to Asante, but he assures me Clottey will not start slowly.
"This is an important fight for us. When we beat Cotto, the division will be open for us. And in this fight we'll open up from the beginning. I'll make sure he throws a lot of punches."
Clottey returns from the shower. He doesn't look fatigued at all. His eyes are clear. His face glows with energy. We all hang out in the Fernwood parking lot, talking boxing talk. Clottey has one more week of training camp left. Tomorrow he'll take a real day off. But Clottey is a religious runner, and he'll put in the miles even as he rests.
"I do a lot of jogging. I run a lot. I run more than most fighters. I always want to feel good. I never want to feel tired. I think of Cotto when I'm running. Maybe he's not doing that. I'm running. He's not doing what I'm doing." And then he adds, "I'm not dreaming about this fight. I'm sleeping lots. I lie down. I'm asleep."
Clearly Clottey is ready. Clearly he is at peace with himself. They say guilty men sleep soundly, but fighters guilty of not training enough toss and turn in their sleep. There is no room for pretend in the ring. It's a stage Stanislavski would approve. The ring is that real, that true.
My brother and I drive back to Manhattan. In no time trees are replaced with concrete. In no time, because time moves too fast in New York City, Madison Square Garden will fill and the pre-fight instructions will be given and the bell will ring. With miles of Pocono Mountain roads in his legs, with hours of Fernwood Gym rounds in his muscles, Joshua Clottey will be well prepared. And like a great method actor, his performance is sure to be full of nuance and power.
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