Abel Sanchez: Building Houses, Building Fighters, Building Men

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By Sarah Deming

Abel Sanchez talks about his fighters as if they were his blood.

“We are a family in my gym,” Sanchez says. “We don’t allow very many people in there. And the fighters eat together, they sleep together, they watch TV together. They’re always together in my house.”

Sanchez’s most famous pugilistic son, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, puts his undefeated record on the line Saturday against Canelo Alvarez (8 PM ET/5 PM PT on HBO PPV), but if Sanchez is worried, he’s not letting on. Speaking over the phone from the gym he built in idyllic Big Bear, California, he radiates the confidence of a man who has raised seventeen world champions.

“My fighters come to fight,” Sanchez says. “Go back to Terry Norris. Terry Norris came to fight. If we lost, we lost, but he came to beat you up, and the people got their money’s worth. I’ve instilled that mentality in Golovkin."

Sanchez’s first great champion, Hall of Famer “Terrible” Terry Norris ruled the super welterweight ranks in the early ‘90s. But even back then, Sanchez made more money building houses and he was largely retired from the fight game when he got the call in 2010 to train Golovkin. The partnership would vault GGG to stardom and bring the spotlight back on Sanchez as one of the sport’s great polishers of talent.

“I want to be better than everybody at everything I do,” Sanchez says. “But I don’t want to buy it, I want to earn it.”

Sanchez was born in Tijuana, Mexico in 1955 and immigrated at six years old with his three younger siblings to San Marin, California. Their mother had been working as a housekeeper there when she met and married Ben Sanchez, an Army veteran and developer eleven years her senior. He adopted her four children, becoming the only father they ever knew.

“My parents were workaholics,” Sanchez says. “My father died at 54, because he worked himself to death. I think wanting my kids to have more than I ever had, that’s a driving force for me.”

From age nine, Abel began learning to build houses under his father’s strict eye: no summer vacations, no excuses. It paid off when he started his own business as a general contractor right after high school and, at age 22, landed the job framing and laying concrete for the houses in the movie E.T.

“You’re actually coaching when you’re doing construction,” Sanchez says. “You can talk to a certain employee one way, but you can’t talk to the other one that way. And it’s kind of the same thing in boxing. You have to learn how to manage men. As a coach, you’re a father, you’re a teacher, you’re a priest, you’re a doctor, you’re everything.”

Sanchez’s unique ability to connect brought him his first champion. In 1986, he heard that his friend’s son Lupe Aquino, disenchanted with his trainer, had prematurely hung up the gloves. Sanchez relocated Lupe, bought him a bicycle, and ironed things out with the commission. Within a year, they were flying to France to challenge Emmanuel Steward’s fighter Duane Thomas for the super welterweight crown.

“I was more scared of Emmanuel than I was of his fighter,” remembers Sanchez.

He idolized the great Kronk trainer and had formulated much of his coaching technique from watching Steward corner. But Sanchez knew that Lupe Aquino was game and in shape. They sent Duane Thomas to the canvas twice that night en route to a unanimous decision and Sanchez’s first world title. (Amazingly, the first three boxers Sanchez trained – Aquino, Terry Norris, and his brother Orlin – all captured world titles.)

To this day, Sanchez puts “ES” on all his tee-shirts in memory of his old friend and adversary in the opposite corner. Sanchez would finish with a 5-3 lifetime record against Steward.

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When asked to recall his best memory in the corner, Sanchez speaks of something that happened in between rounds eight and nine of Terry Norris-Sugar Ray Leonard. Norris was handily outboxing the faded Leonard, when Sanchez told his fighter that it was time to finish things off.

Norris refused, saying, “He’s my idol. He’s going twelve.”

“That’s what I call character,” Sanchez says. “I think that’s been more important to me, in my career, to train somebody that I don’t mind calling him my son, I don’t mind calling him my fighter, I’m not embarrassed by anything they do.”

“Abel was a real good trainer,” says Terry Norris. “He taught me to be a great attacker, to come to fight. Having him in my corner made me feel like nobody could beat me.”

Although Norris struggles with Parkinson’s, he and his wife Tanya have a good life in the Hollywood Hills. He teaches cardio boxing, travels around the world, and reminisces about the stunning left hook that took out John Mugabi in one round.

People forget about fighters once their glory days are past, but Abel Sanchez still reaches out sometimes and sends Norris tickets to GGG’s fights.

A double-end bag in the gym broke recently, hurting Norris’s eye. He wishes Sanchez would come and fix it.

Tanya says, “Abel is the only one he trusts.”

Paul “The Ultimate” Vaden, who held the super welterweight title in 1995, says Sanchez was unique in that he did not try to change him. Vaden was a converted southpaw with superior hand speed. Sanchez showed him how to channel his power into the uppercut that became his signature weapon.

An ardent Michael Jackson fan, Vaden appreciated Sanchez’s showmanship and perfectionism: “The Abester isn’t gonna drop the tape, he’s not gonna get water all over you. The moment is never bigger than him.”

Like Terry Norris, Vaden would also experience boxing’s dark side. In 1999, his opponent Stephan Johnson died after injuries sustained in the ring. Vaden retired soon thereafter and began a new career as a motivational speaker. Sanchez was one of the few friends Vaden trusted during the dark times, and the two remain close.

“When you find people like the Abester who come into your life, you get all of them,” Vaden says. “I think it’s almost belittling to call him a coach. He’s a teacher. He taught me so much it changed my life.”

Sanchez taught Paul Vaden the uppercut. He taught Terry Norris to seek and destroy. What is the most important thing he taught GGG?

“Patience,” says Golovkin, whose wait for the biggest fight of his life will soon be over.

Sanchez adds, “It’s easy to be patient when you’ve seen everything.”