In early March I visited Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, NY to speak with James ‘Country’ Thornwell and Delen ‘Blimp’ Parsley, the world class professional boxing trainers featured in the Esquire Channel’s White Collar Brawlers series. Every episode of the series chronicles two white collar professionals in a friendly office rivalry, being paired respectively with either Country or Blimp for a period of ten weeks training to face each other in an amateur boxing match. I viewed the first three episodes last fall before my TV service dropped the Esquire Channel to spoil my enjoyment. But in previous visits to Gleason’s over the last ten years I’ve often spoken to Blimp and also met Country, so I decided to converse with them both about the experience of training these White Collar combatants and about their lives as professional boxing trainers.
Both trainers have interesting backgrounds, Country Thornwell the elder having never been a competitive boxer and Blimp Parsley having been a successful New York Golden Gloves champion.
Thornwell got his nickname when in his youth a teenage girl playfully arguing with him said he talked foolishness, sounding “country.” Thornwell recounts the story with a smile, explaining, “the name just stuck.” Three doors down from his family home in the Brownsville projects in Brooklyn lived his friend, Eddie Gregory, a boxer who upon becoming the light heavyweight champion of the world changed his name to Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Country played a lot of sports, including basketball, with Muhammad, and through their friendship was always around boxing. Then in his young adulthood he was in the entourage of ‘Terrible’ Tim Witherspoon, a sparring partner of Muhammad Ali who eventually became WBC heavyweight champion of the world.
“I was happy just being in the entourage,” Country says. “But one day Tim Witherspoon says, ‘Country, why don’t you become a trainer?’
Country was immediately incredulous, but after some persuasion gave the endeavor serious thought He elaborates the story as if it happened a day ago.
“Eddie Mustaffa took me up to Deer Lake, to Muhammad Ali’s camp; and that’s where I met Tim Witherspoon. So when I met Tim Witherspoon, Tim was 2 and 0 or 3 and 0. So we became friends. We’d talk on the phone and he’d invite me to fights wherever it was gonna be. . . He would pay for the ticket, he would pay for my room, he would pay for the food, everything. We was talking one day and Tim said to me, ‘Country—why don’t you become a trainer?’ He shocked me when he said that. I said, ‘A trainer? What do you mean, ‘A trainer?’ He said, ‘Why don’t you train fighters?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to train no fighter.’ I never did that before. I never tried. I didn’t even know what it was about. He said, ‘You know how when I be fighting and you be telling me to throw this punch and throw that punch? Move your head and all ‘a that?’ I caught onto that fast. So he said to me, ‘All you have to do now is get you a fighter and get him in shape. Once you get him in shape, then you all gonna fight.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna get you a fighter.’ He got me his brother, Anthony Witherspoon.”
Anthony Witherspoon was a light heavyweight. He trained Anthony Witherspoon for a while and learned the profession at a higher level than many experience at the beginning of their careers as a trainer. But their early success got derailed and it took a little time for Country to get back on the trainer path
“When I first met Anthony, Anthony was 6 and 0 with 6 knockouts. We stayed together for a while and then the drug thing hit us. And once the drug thing hit us, [it] upset the whole applecart. So it was never the same again; and then everybody’s using drugs—friends, family, everybody. Seemed like during that era everybody was in drugs. I know cops, I know a judge, I know lawyers that was using drugs because that was the era that it came out and once it came out it just seemed like a plague. . . After a while, I knew it wasn’t for me; I backed up off of it. . . So I left that alone and then I went back to the boxing thing and I started training amateurs and I hooked up with Blimp in ’93, 94, something like that. I hooked up with Blimp and we’ve been boxing ever since.
Blimp was a successful Golden Gloves champion out of the Bedford Stuyvesant Boxing Association in Brooklyn. Now 53 years old, Blimp started coaching while still a competitive amateur boxer. Something in common with two great trainers from Detroit—the late Eddie Futch who was an amateur teammate of Joe Louis and the late Emmanuel Steward who won the National Golden Gloves—Blimp never fought professionally. But his experience, his eye for detail, and his motivational abilities make him a natural trainer for both amateur and professional boxers. Having worked with more than one world champion and now in his early 50s, he has the potential to develop more professionals on the world class level, just like other successful trainers who never fought professionally.
“I became a trainer when I was fighting because I used to work with Bedford Stuyvesant Boxing Association when they had that open and I had a job there training fighters,” Blimp says. “I had Riddick Bowe when he first came up as a kid, Anthony Perez, I had—most of the guys that came up there—I used to train them down in the basement before they went upstairs to George and all those guys. I was training and fighting both at the same time.”
George, the man Blimp refers to with “all those guys” upstairs, is George Washington, one of the main trainers at Bedford Stuyvesant. “He was an amateur trainer, a pro trainer; he made Riddick Bowe, all these guys.”
Blimp worked with Vivian Harris, WBA Light Welterweight Champion from October 2002 through July 2005as well as Juan Guzman, and heavyweight Monte Barrett, who challenged for various titles, losing a 12 round decision to Hasim Rachman in 2005 for the WBC Interim Heavyweight championship and losing in the 11th round to Nikolay Valuev for the WBA Heavyweight championship in 2006. Blimp continues working with assistance from Country to bring boxers to this level of world class competition, knowing that day by day dedication brings the boxers and them closer to championship excellence. It’s something both of them love, a rare talent in an unforgiving arena that anyone who dares to enter it with honest hard work learns what inner resources they really have. Blimp and Country love boxing and love helping others discover within themselves the strength and dedication to succeed in it, which is why they get so much satisfaction working with White Collar Brawlers who come to them with no experience and full of fear.
“The experience for me dealing with the White Collar Brawlers is just taking a raw fighter that don’t know anything about boxing and making him better than he thinks he really can be,” Blimp explains. “Me, the way I do things, I do everything consistently. I don’t show a guy the jab one day then the next day show him the right hand, and then the next day try to show him the hook. What I try to do, I try to stay consistent with the first thing first. I might work you with the jab for two weeks; two to three weeks. We have ten weeks to train, so I can use two to three weeks just working the jab. Then once you learn the jab, I mean, everything works off the jab. So if you can get them to learn the jab real good, you make it easy for him. . . so I just keep it basics. I train ‘em hard, get ‘em in shape.”
So these guys enter the gym, never having boxed before, maybe never even having gotten into a fight when growing up, and Blimp and Country teach them to train as real boxers. There is a peculiar kind of reward for the trainer and a great reward for the White Collar Brawler, who overcomes an initial fear and discovers previously unknown or even unimagined inner resources after entering the gym with great fear.
“Yeah, they be terrified,” Blimp explains. “I mean, they come into a place they never been to before, a gym, it’s all smelly and people throwing a lot of punches, people fightin’ and looking at you like, ‘You fool,’ like, “Oh, I got some new meet out here.’ You know, and they kind of nervous ‘cause they never been in this environment. You be here for the first time and you see real fighting—and you walking by and you see this guy in the ring getting knocked down or this guy in the ring with his nose bleeding. You know you say to yourself, like, ‘Yo, what the fuck did I sign up for?’ You know? And then after they get into it they become a part of the gym, work is done. You just got to do it every day, all day. And then you start enjoying it and like I said, the end part of it, maintaining and you start to see your fighter looking good and using the jab, and the smile on your face after it’s over, it’s like, ‘. . . I took this guy from not knowing how to hold his hands up to how to push off of his feet and how to slip, and he’s doing it naturally. And I did this within ten weeks. And after this . . . I love it.”
Country enjoys the competition with Blimp and has fun with the back and forth verbal punches thrown from trainer to trainer.
“It’s fun to me,” Country says. “It’s just fun. I don’t know how seriously he takes it. I mean, you know, everybody’s got their own feelings about it [the competition between trainers]. . . I enjoyed just talking junk to each other and seeing how we could get a guy that has nothing and see how fast we can get him to do something in six weeks. ‘Cause these guys come in , they don’t know a left hook from a fish hook. So we have to start from scratch and teach them everything—you gotta teach them how to stand, you gotta teach them how to punch, you gotta teach—you gotta teach them everything ‘cause they know nothing. They just fell outta the sky. But to me it was a challenge and I like challenges, I always liked challenges. So it was an ideal thing for me. “
Both Country and Blimp have their essentials in training fighters, the basic rules that have to be followed, the first thing that has to be concentrated on to succeed with anyone who boxes under their care.
“He has to hear my voice at all times no matter who’s talking,” Country says. “To me, that’s the number one thing. The second (or maybe I should say 1-A) is conditioning. ‘Cause if your ass ain’t in condition, you could be the best fighter in the world; you could have all the tools but if you get tired, it’s locked up in a box.”
He adds that it’s not the big things that make a trainer, but the little things.
“Teaching a guy how to stand and how to punch is just the beginning. Then the boxer needs to know when to punch, what to do after punching, and a whole lot of other little things. The little things, the details, are what a trainer needs to pay attention to so the boxer can put it all together when fighting.”
“Consistency,” says Blimp, is the most important thing to him. “Coming to the gym; the most important thing I need you to do is be in the gym every day. That’s the most important thing. Like I say, once you can get their attention and they’re here every day, it gets easier. “
If someone wants to become a trainer, learning from the most knowledgeable and experienced people available is the best piece of advice both men have.
“You know, I always liked good trainers,” Country says, “trainers that start from basics.”
He says he always tried to learn from trainers who had experience, who knew what they were doing, who taught well and got results.
“I trailed the, sat down and watched them and listened to them. I didn’t interfere with them, I just was, was just sponging it up, and that’s how I started.”
But his most central piece of advice to aspiring trainers is humility
“I’ve been in boxing since 1979 and my philosophy has always been, ‘when you think you know everything, get your ass out of boxing ‘cause you don’t know shit,” Country says. “A lot of people think, just ‘cause they throw a towel and get a guy, you know and show him how to throw the jab, right hand and hook that they’re good trainers. Now if the guy can fight a little bit and he got a little he might make it seem like that ‘cause he can fight a little bit. . . They Know the fight but they don’t know how to fight. You got to know how to move, how to slip, how to roll, it’s a lot of things to boxing.”
He ends the soliloquy with a profoundly sagacious assertion: “. . . You never, you can always, listen—the dumbest guy in boxing, the dumbest guy in boxing can teach you something. You know, but you got, you just gotta know what you looking for.”