Picking a Trainer of the Year in boxing is a difficult task, and not only because there are so many elite men and women doing the job out of the spotlight around the world.
Training a fighter is part teaching technique, but it’s also part psychologist, part conditioning coach, part friend, part father (or mother) figure, part motivator and part communicator. And those skills are only part of the job.
A trainer could do all of those jobs well, and if his fighter doesn’t feel well or is having an emotional issue in his life, like the illness or death of a loved one, he may not perform. That shouldn’t reflect on his trainer, but it does.
There are so many things a trainer must overcome to have his fighters win, and win consistently, and in 2016, few have done that as well as Abel Sanchez.
Sanchez is best known for his work with middleweight kingpin Gennady Golovkin, but he’s had a busy year at his gym, The Summit, in Big Bear, Calif. He also trained Murat Gassiev — If you haven’t seen this guy yet, you should, and fast — to the IBF cruiserweight title. He also has led Dennis Shafikov to victory in a lightweight title eliminator, and Shafikov will fight for the IBF belt in 2017. Sanchez coached Andy Ruiz, the gifted but up-and-down heavyweight, to a close loss in a title match with Joe Parker.
And he had several other successful fighters, including 31-0 welterweight Konstantin Ponomarev.
He edged a strong field of contenders, but most notably Shane McGuigan. McGuigan, the son of International Boxing Hall of Fame member Barry McGuigan, led Carl “The Jackal” Frampton to wins in world title fights at super bantamweight and featherweight and helped Frampton win the Yahoo Sports Fighter of the Year Award for 2016.
Sanchez’s all-around work, though, was spectacular. He led Golovkin to title wins over Dominic Wade by second-round knockout, and Kell Brook by fifth-round TKO. But Gassiev’s emergence on the world scene helped to solidify Sanchez’s choice.
The 23-year-old Gassiev won a split decision over veteran Denis Lebedev on Dec. 3 to take the IBF cruiserweight championship, but he earned that shot with a devastating knockout of Jordan Shimmell in the first-round on May 17.
Sanchez’s secret starts with conditioning. He’s a stickler for making certain his fighters are in great shape, which is one of the reasons he was hired to train Ruiz. For years, Ruiz was thought to be a top prospect, but he was always soft in the middle and didn’t get himself into the kind of condition he needed to be in in order to compete with elite fighters.
Sanchez made a difference with him, as was evidenced in the Parker fight, though he didn’t have as long of a time with Ruiz as he would have lived to have really gotten Ruiz into the condition he wanted.
Sanchez, though, is the choice given his success with numerous fighters and the credit they willingly give him for improvements in their games. He’s an old-school type of coach who runs his gym with an iron fist, and it won’t work with everyone.
But for the ones it does, he’s highly impactful, and it’s why Abel Sanchez is now the back-to-back winner of the Yahoo Sports boxing Trainer of the Year award.
KO of the Year — I’m going with another repeat winner here and choosing Canelo Alvarez for his vicious knockout of Amir Khan on May 6 in Las Vegas. Skill counts in picking an award like this, because there are dozens of unbelievable knockouts in the year.
Khan is a talented, highly skilled fighter, and the fact that he was blasted out with one vicious right hand from Alvarez makes the KO all the more impressive. Yes, Khan was moving up in weight, but that punch would have knocked just about anyone out had it landed.
Alvarez won the award in 2015 for his violent KO of James Kirkland.
Prospect of the Year — In order to be considered for our prospect award, a fighter must have been born on Jan. 1, 1991, or later, not have a world championship and have 25 or fewer pro fights.
As a result, that led me to either Erickson Lubin or JoJo Diaz, both of whom would be good choices.
I’m going with Lubin, the 21-year-old super welterweight who is 17-0 with 12 KOs and was 4-0 in 2016. Diaz, a 2012 U.S. Olympian, moved up in competition and went 4-0 in the year to improve his record to 23-0 with 13 KOs.
My feeling is that Lubin has a higher ceiling and the ability to be one of the world’s best pound-for-pound fighters. Diaz gets hit a lot, and he’s still not facing the kind of elite opposition he will when he becomes a title contender or a champion. It’s something he needs to work on, and in the end, that’s why I chose Erickson Lubin as the 2016 Yahoo Sports boxing Prospect of the Year.
Story of the Year — It’s not even close: The death of “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, is easily the biggest news story in boxing in 2016. The world grieved together when news of Ali’s death was announced on June 3.
He was a breathtakingly gifted fighter, an unforgettable athlete and one of the most significant historical figures of the 20th century.