John’s Gym buzzed with young fighters on Monday while New York public schools were closed for Passover. Two teenagers sparred in the smaller of two rings, taking swings at each other with misguided hooks. One punch finally caught the taller of the two. He spiraled to the ground. Dazed, he got up and grabbed the ropes, staggering off to his trainer who fixed his headgear.
Edwin Viruet, 59, sat in his “office,” a ringside table plastered with photos from his professional lightweight career. With glasses and permanent grin, he doesn’t look like much of a fighter. But every boxer that entered the gym offered Viruet a handshake. He critiqued the boxers and their trainers, and pointed out that the kid who was getting beat was wearing heavier gloves. The first thing Viruet does with a new fighter is make sure the gear is right. Then he moves into the basics. Jabs, footwork and defense.
“I love teaching,” Viruet said. “I get fun out of it. It is like watching them learn to walk.” For a retired fighter, one of the few ways to stay in the game is to train a promising member of the next generation.
Viruet learned to box at 10-years-old at the Boy’s Club in the Lower East Side. He went 18-0 as an amateur, and turned pro after winning the New York Golden Gloves for the second time in 1969. Viruet fell a few points short of becoming the World Lightweight Champion in 1977. He now trains amateur fighters six days a week at John’s Gym, though most of his money comes from managing and arranging fights.
Big things have been happening at the small gym. Joshua Clottey, a boxer from Ghana who trains in the Bronx, fought world welterweight champ Manny Pacquiao on March 13. He lost by unanimous decision, but was watched by millions in the pay-per-view fight. Stivens Bujaj, another John’s Gym regular, won the 2010 Daily News Golden Gloves heavyweight title. Neither fighter, however, trained with Viruet.
He contends that they would be even better if they had. Viruet’s favorite tool is the double-end bag, an inflated red ball that hangs from the ceiling from a thin rope and is attached to the ground with a rubber cord. Unlike a traditional punching bag, the double-end hits back.
“It teaches you to move your head,” said Viruet, working with a new boxer. The novice was stalwart, powerful and quick, but lacked coordination. Viruet saw his potential and quickly picked him up. His first fight is in a month, and Viruet said he would be ready.
“The way I prepare, you are going to have a hard time with my fighter,” he said.
Viruet is the most accomplished trainer at the gym. During his prime, Viruet was known for his footwork and classiness, and was even compared to a young Muhammad Ali. He is the only man to have gone 25 full rounds with Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Durant, one of the best fighters of all time. Their genuine rivalry was one of boxing’s best.
Viruet first met Durant in a 1975 fight, which he lost by unanimous decision. The crowd was shocked, as was Viruet, who thought he had won. The two met again at the 1977 World Lightweight Championship title fight. Durant retained the belt after 15 rounds. Viruet blamed promoter Don King for swaying the judges and in turn ruining his career. In spite of the loss, Viruet reveled in the experience, knowing he gave Durant the fight of his life.
“When you get to fight the biggest man, the champ of the world, it is like going to the moon for the first time,” Viruet said. “I played with him, he couldn’t knock me out.”
Not many boxers could. Viruet went 37 professional fights before being knocked out. He was only knocked out twice; they were his last two fights. Viruet retired in 1983 with 31 wins, six loses and two draws. He went on to train Wesley Snipes for a 1986 boxing role in ‘Streets of Gold’.
Viruet plans to continue training at John’s Gym for now. If he gets bored, Viruet might move back to Puerto Rico to spend time with his 90-year-old father and start up a gym. When he is not looking for a champion, Viruet tries to keep up with the ladies the best he can.
“I have fun, I look for girls,” Viruet said, letting out a gruff laugh. “I am a bachelor here! But, it’s not easy, you got to make sure you got the right one.”