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September 30, 2009
Part II: Creating a fighter
Ballard's normally calm, lackadaisical expression turned into a menacing growl as he entered the ring. Fans could barely make out the public address announcer's voice, which fought the excited chatter of the ringside fans. Before the opening buzzer, a hushed silence came over the crowd as the announcer began his introductions. Cordoza was introduced first, then Ballard:
"At 152 pounds, in the blue corner, D'Mitrius Ballard." His voice echoed off the walls, like a cry from a deep canyon.
Roach leaned in and yelled last-minute instructions in Ballard's ear, reminding him to wear down his opponent's body and then use his left hook. No need. Ballard had already stopped his two previous opponents with his signature left, a punch so ferocious it culled up images of a Holyfield fight.
"D'Mitrius reminds me of Evander Holyfield," said Roach, who has almost three decades of boxing experience. "He's aggressive, he attacks, he has a big left hook and he moves just like him, too."
As Ballard waited, he crouched in his corner, back turned to his opponent, head down in silent contemplation. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He turned around and tapped gloves with his opponent, a sign of boxing etiquette. Then the buzzer sounded.
Roach boxed in the military back in the '80s, and after serving his time became a licensed trainer. For the last 20 years he's taught a number of champions, including DeMarcus "Chop Chop" Curley, a former welterweight world champion. Using his military background as a foundation, Roach drilled Ballard in the finer points of pugilism. He taught him how to play defense, how to move on offense, how to recognize a punch and how to wear down an opponent's body. In the ring, Roach would throw punches at Ballard, testing his reaction time. He told Ballard to watch his shoulders, not his hands. After all, the shoulders telegraph the punch.
"You know the laws of math and the different theories you need to arrive at the right answer?" Roach said. "Well, I showed D'Mitrius the laws of boxing you need. Unless you understand those laws, you won't be successful."
Besides honing technique, Roach stresses conditioning. Ballard's daily gym workout would make Ray Lewis proud. His routine consists of 350 sit-ups, pushups with 45-pound weights on his back, jump-rope sets for six minutes straight, pull-ups, crunches and other various speed and agility drills. And that doesn't even include the rigorous cardio training he does beforehand.
"I have to keep working harder, pushing myself every day in order to get to the Olympics," Ballard said. "I will be ready for the big time. Just give me a little time and I'll be ready."
At the start of round one, Ballard, a svelte boxer with long, lean muscles, came out bouncing on the balls of his feet. He toyed with his opponent, keeping his right arm extended like a taut clothesline. He moved around the ring like a figure skater -- feinting, ducking, dancing, jabbing, always attacking. Two jabs, a block, another series of jabs, a good right, more jabs. Cordoza landed a strong right, but at the end of the round, Ballard forced Cordoza into the ropes and unloaded two good body shots. Advantage: Ballard.
If Ballard qualifies for the Olympics, it will be because Roach led him there. After three years, trainer and fighter have developed a strong bond. They trust each other.
"Coach Roach is the only person I want in my corner when I fight," Ballard said. "He's helped me develop my ability, my technique and my talent. I've always been a heavy puncher, but now I'm faster and stronger and I hit even harder thanks to Coach Roach."
Of course, they didn't always get along. Roach recalls a fight when Ballard first started training under him. Instead of listening to Roach's instructions, Ballard hesitated and began boxing his own way. Ballard couldn't land his left hook and eventually lost the decision.
"I think after that fight he started to really respect me," Roach said. "He knew he could have won if he had listened to me. Now he trusts me."
Trust is essential. Without it, Ballard would be nothing but a bum fighter: all fists but no heart.