Few disciplines yield such intense rivalries as boxing. Grudges between fighters outside of the ropes often spill into the ring, and vice versa. They sometimes pull in promoters, managers and even trainers, although rivalries between cornermen rarely are seen in anything but the highest-profile fights.
Still, the school of thought that a trainer builds over time, infused with his own personal values and technical beliefs, occasionally grows to the point that a collision with the disciplines of another can be spotted by the average fight fan. A handful of past clashes of contrasting styles -- Ray Arcel and Charley Goldman in the 1950s, Angelo Dundee and Eddie Futch in the '70s, Lou Duva and Emmanuel Steward in the '80s – set the standard.
And now, as then, boxing seems on the verge of another clash of the corners. A pair of former fighters-turned-trainers who have emerged almost simultaneously, and practically within a stone's throw of one another, threaten to wrest the title of world's best trainer from the man whose hold on the claim has become increasingly tenuous.
Freddie Roach, the five-time trainer of the year who is credited with molding Manny Pacquiao, Amir Khan and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., among other top fighters, is widely acknowledged as boxing's top teacher operating today. But only miles away from the Wild Card Gym, the Los Angeles mini-Mecca where Roach trains his charges, two of boxing's fastest-rising trainers ply their trade in the same town -- Oxnard, Calif. -- engineering the next generation of world titleholders and pound-for-pound stars.
Pablo Sarmiento, trainer to middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, arrived in Oxnard along with his brother Gabriel -- Martinez's original trainer -- from his native Argentina by way of Spain after a long residence in Europe. Robert Garcia has lived in Oxnard since he was a boy, and his family -- father Eduardo and older brother Danny, both trainers, and younger brother Miguel Angel, a featherweight contender -- has done as much as anyone to put the town on the map as a hot spot for the sport.
By now, the trainers know each other well. Sarmiento and Garcia ply their trades at gyms located within a couple of miles of each other, and each has a place among a group of emerging trainers whose level of recent success lately has eluded Roach. Pacquiao's decision loss (no matter how shady) to Timothy Bradley Jr., followed by Khan's shocking knockout at the hands of Danny Garcia, and then a Chavez whitewashing by Martinez -- those defeats, whether due to the failings of Roach or not, have put the planet's No. 1 trainer on the hot seat lately. And the new guys are bringing the fire.
"When fighters get here and see the work I do, they know the seriousness that I demand from them," said Sarmiento, who particularly emphasizes physical preparation in his fighters, including former light heavyweight champ Gabriel Campillo, lightweight contender Javier Fortuna and fast-rising Azael Cosio. "My school of boxing is to foster intelligence, for them to win in the ring not only by strength but also with their intelligence, and that is what I base my strategy on: to teach the fighter to defend himself and avoid getting hit."
Sarmiento, who works out of World Crown Sports gym, has a client list that is heavily populated but highly selective in its composition. He counts on his rigorous training methods to weed out the faint-hearted and leave behind only those who feed into the productive environment he demands.
"People come here to become champions in their own right, but I am the one setting the rules," Sarmiento said. "You've got to do what I say or else leave the team. And there are fighters who can't tolerate the training or who are used to something else. I had a few fighters who had to turn around and go back home."
A few blocks southeast in Oxnard, at the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy, the owner and head trainer is more receptive to adding new fighters to a long list that already includes Nonito Donaire, Brandon Rios and Marcos Maidana.
"I have enough time for the ones I have now, and for several more," Garcia said. "This gives me an advantage because if I have a good fighter who could come and train along with Maidana, for example, and maybe spar with him, then I could put them together. And that's going to work for them, because they'll learn from each other. Now that there are fights coming up for Brandon Rios and Maidana, I'm thinking about putting them together in the ring, because they could do some great sparring."
The differences between Sarmiento and Garcia don't end there. Former fighters themselves, both know well the rigors of training, yet one favors a spartan existence for his fighters while the other shows more leniency in terms of lifestyle.
"When I was a fighter, I used to be in training camp for two months before each fight, and it came to a point where I got tired of boxing. I started hating the sport," Garcia said. "At 26, I fought my last fight. I decided to quit. You spend two months in secluded training for each fight, and then you rest for a month or two, and then you come back to another camp to be away from your family. I had two small kids and I wasn't there for their first day of school, I wasn't there during holidays, and all because of boxing. And it came to a point where I did it because it was all I knew how to do, not because I loved it or because I enjoyed boxing. That's when I decided to retire and enjoy my family. And now I pass that freedom on to my fighters."
Beyond his training methods, Garcia says his flexibility and synergy with his fighters -- a stark contrast to Sarmiento's my-way-or-the-highway approach -- pays dividends both in the ring and when it comes to landing new clients.
"Building fighters has a lot to do with what one asks from them, and with them doing what we ask from them in the fights, and that makes the entire team look good," Garcia said. "I believe it's also important to have a fluid relationship with the boxing world at large. When you get along with everyone, they think of you when they are looking for a trainer for a fighter."
It's an important consideration for Garcia, who has become known as something of a master foreman on reclamation projects -- the sort of teacher a fighter turns to in delicate times, when he can't find his path and there are no solutions on the horizon. The trainer cites Brian Viloria, Kelly Pavlik and Marcos Maidana among the fighters whom promoters and managers have sent his way in hopes of bringing them back from the brink. All have made apparent strides under Garcia.
Even a fighter like Rios, who has worked with Garcia since the start of his professional career, is in need of a bit of rescuing. In his past two fights, Rios was stripped of his lightweight title on the scales and then, after getting a chance to earn it back, again failed to make weight and barely avoided his first pro defeat. Rios, who is moving up to 140 pounds to face Mike Alvarado on Oct. 13, is counting on Garcia to lift him to his previous heights.
"He is a great coach. I think he can be a big player in the game," Rios said. "Everybody wants him to train their fighters, so I think Robert, when his time comes, he will be great -- and his time is coming already. He'll be up there as one of the big names one day."
Said Garcia: "I have only a few years as a trainer. I don't have the knowledge that the other trainers have. But after only a few years of doing this I believe I have the knowledge to bring a fighter back from the dead, as they say, to help him achieve something big."
Sarmiento's situation is different. Martinez and Campillo -- his highest-profile clients -- are championship-caliber fighters who have never required a career makeover. But the work needed to take them to the top was made more difficult by the fact that neither had a foothold in the U.S. Both clawed their way up by fighting in hostile territory, in bouts that saw all the benefits go to the opponent; even now, Martinez and Campillo still have trouble finding a favorable seat at the negotiating table. Having been in the same predicament himself as a fighter, Sarmiento understands this specific terrain, including the inherent risks of routinely fighting on the opposition's turf. His response to the threat: Work harder, make more sacrifices and, above all, be the smartest guy in the ring.
"Every fighter that I get is a fighter who is already on his way," Sarmiento said. "But at the same time, I try to make them follow my rules and start from scratch to learn my own brand of intelligent boxing. I try to make them practice the same boxing ideology that I have, and to learn that up there in the ring you can't be saved by your good stance or your punching power, but only by intelligence."
Garcia concedes that he is young and has plenty of years ahead to burnish his reputation. But he envies Roach's status, one that has allowed him to hitch himself to a fighter such as Pacquiao after he has become an established and steady champion.
"Having a fighter like Pacquiao changes everything," Garcia said. "The purses change, the amounts of money change, but also you get more attention because everyone talks about you. All of us would want to have a fighter like [Pacquiao]. What Freddie has accomplished with Pacquiao is something big, but it has a lot to do with the fighter. I think that if Pacquiao had worked with either Roach or Emanuel Steward or Nacho Beristain, or any other trainer you can think of, I believe Pacquiao would still have been Manny Pacquiao."
Garcia says Roach's recent rough patch is the product of mismanagement, if not neglect. He claims Roach has "stopped taking care of his fighters as he should have been," citing the inordinate amount of attention Pacquiao receives from the trainer and the fact that the schedules of Roach's other fighters are built around the needs and whims of the star client. In fact, Khan recently parted ways with Roach, who said he was told by Khan, "I know you're busy with your other fighters."
Here again is an area where Garcia and Sarmiento don't quite see eye to eye.
"To me, he is the best -- he's No. 1," Sarmiento said of Roach. "I admire his work a great deal, as well as everything he has earned. I also admire [Miguel] Cotto's trainer [Pedro Diaz] and Robert Garcia, because I've been to his gym many times and he does a great job with the fighters. I take a little bit from everyone and I learn a little bit from everyone, and that's how I keep improving."
Maybe, finally, we've discovered a common thread between the two men who may stand the best chance of snatching the title of boxing's best trainer away from Roach one day soon: the drive to constantly move ahead, for fear of falling behind.
"Because if the fighter doesn't look good," as Garcia says, "then only the trainer is to blame."