Former world champ Brian Viloria embraces new role as trainer ahead of Van Heerden fight

Brian Viloria tapes up Chris Van Heerden's hands before a training session. Viloria, a four-time world champion, hopes to take experiences from his own career and translate that into a successful career as a trainer for fighters like Van Heerden. Steve Kim for ESPN

Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 19, 2019.

When welterweight Chris Van Heerden (26-2-1, 12 KO's) fights this weekend at The Hangar in Costa Mesa, California, he'll have a familiar face in his corner -- four-time world champion Brian Viloria.

More than a year removed from his active boxing career, Viloria, 38, is back in his comfort zone in his new role as a trainer. After working under the legendary guidance of Freddie Roach and Robert Garcia during his career, Viloria accumulated a plethora of mental notes on how to prepare a boxer.

"I want to be that source for those fighters," Viloria told ESPN. "I've given my life to the sport."

It's a far different feeling than the one Viloria had the last time he stepped in the ring.

Viloria retired in February 2018 after his shot at a fifth world title ended with a loss to Artem Dalakian. In the immediate lead-up to that bout at The Forum in Los Angeles, Viloria felt strangely indifferent about the fight.

Viloria had long counted on a key ingredient -- "that fear, that scared feeling," as he told ESPN -- but it was missing before that final fight. Over 12 rounds, Viloria put forth a rather listless effort in losing to the awkward Dalakian.

"My mind was there, but my body wasn't really responding to some of the things. I feel like I did lose a step or two," he admitted.

Viloria made a promise to himself during his early days as a pro that when that pilot light began to flicker, in terms of his passion for fighting, he would walk away from the game.

"I feel as though I came across that bridge that last fight," Viloria said.

He certainly had a memorable career up to that point. He began his journey from a young age, and after a storied amateur run, Viloria represented the United States in the 2000 Olympics. Then, over the course of his professional career, Viloria won world titles in two divisions (junior flyweight and flyweight).

Viloria's professional resume went far beyond who he fought and his accomplishments, too. Viloria performed everywhere from the world-famous Madison Square Garden in New York, to the historic Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, all the way down to places like the Alameda Swap Meet. He fought in foreign locales like Japan, Macao and the Philippines. The "Hawaiian Punch" made a title defense in Honolulu in 2009, and then won a world flyweight title there in 2011.

But as he hung up the gloves for good, Viloria had to figure out what was next. At first, when considering his options, the thought of getting a "regular" job crossed his mind -- even though he'd never had such a job in his life.

That idea wasn't going to fly.

"I thought about it, and it did scare me," admitted Viloria, "I thought about doing that 9-to-5 thing, but I talked to my wife, 'Y'know what? I've gained so much in terms of knowledge and experience in this sport. I really just want to transfer that over to the young guys and the guys that want to pick my brain.'"

Viloria thought back to when he would go to the IMB Academy in Torrance, California, to help his uncle, Richard Bustillo, with his boxing classes. Viloria found that he enjoyed sharing his knowledge of the sport, but it wasn't something he'd ever fully focused on during his active career.

After conferring with those close to him -- mainly with his wife, Erica, and longtime manager Gary Gittlesohn -- Viloria decided to dip his toe into the world of training. He contemplated opening up his own gym with trainer Marvin Somodio around the Los Angeles area.

That idea quickly went south, as Viloria was let in on a dirty little secret: boxing gyms basically lose money, especially those that don't have established boxers or an established clientele.

During the summer months last year, as he was searching for a building, Viloria got a call from boxing enthusiast and noted director Peter Berg, who owns the Churchill Boxing Club (formerly Wild Card West). Berg presented an offer Viloria couldn't refuse.

"Peter opened his door and said, 'Listen, I have a gym. Here, see how it is to be a trainer,'" recalled Viloria. "'Come work out of here, so you don't have to worry about overhead, leases and rent, and just focus on training fighters.'''

Viloria accepted, and began teaching boxing classes for the white-collar members of the Santa Monica facility, which is often used for media days in the lead-up to big fights.

In addition to Van Heerden, Viloria also works with former lightweight titlist Ray Beltran and Alberto Melian, a 4-0 prospect from Argentina. It's clear that Viloria is enjoying his new role, to the point that he dismisses any talk of a comeback.

"I'm having so much fun being on this side of the fence, I'm more engaged in the boxing world,'' Viloria said.

Viloria feels as though he has found his calling, after spending 18 years chasing his own boxing dreams.

On one Friday in particular, Viloria worked with a regular gym member paying by the hour before overseeing Van Heerden's sparring session. Viloria said the income he takes in from private one-on-one lessons actually surpasses what he made during many of the individual years of his career. It's commonplace for trainers, especially those getting started, because while boxers pay a percentage of their purse after a fight, affluent clients keep the income flowing in steadily.

Then it was time to go to work. With about two weeks to go before Van Heerden's bout against Mohonry Montes (35-8-1, 24 KO's), the southpaw from South Africa went through eight rounds of sparring. Watching Van Heerden in action, it's clear that Viloria's message is getting through. There's an emphasis on being mobile and creating angles out of his left-handed stance. When Van Heerden languishes on the ropes, Viloria reminds him to slide off and pivot, create space and utilize feints from the outside.

"Chris has a lot of speed, a lot of movement," Viloria said. "I've seen his last couple fights -- I don't know what it is, but he tends to sit down and be a slugger, which I don't think is his main weapon. ... Hopefully it will show in the next fight that he's able to give guys a lot of problems and fits to guys at 147."

Van Heerden, 31, is beginning a pivotal stretch of his career. Having inked a deal with Top Rank, he hopes to fight for a welterweight title after a few fights, and has entrusted his career to a relatively inexperienced trainer. But Viloria's boxing pedigree speaks for itself, in Van Heerden's mind.

"From experience, he's a four-time world champion, the guy knows what I'm going through as a fighter," Van Heerden said. "So I'm comfortable having him with me in my corner. I really enjoyed what he was teaching me. As a fighter and trainer, we have to be able to connect -- and we do."