A SLIM, bright-eyed man of immense dignity and integrity, Ray Arcel always insisted that he taught boxers, rather than trained them. From 1917, when he first walked into Grupp's gym in New York City, until 1982 when he retired after one last appearance in the corner of the then world heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes, Arcel was a master of a craft shrouded in mystery.
There are many motivaters, many cornermen, many who can wipe a man down and shove him up for the next round. There are few who know and understand the craft of boxing and the art of teaching as well as Arcel did. Arcel saw the great Jack Dempsey box in 1916, trained 20 world champions over six decades and ended his days as a boxing sage who always had time for those who wanted to learn.
He was born into a Jewish family in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1899 and grew up in New York City, where life was hectic. 'Fighting in the street meant nothing,' he said a few years ago. 'Wherever you'd go you'd see two guys fighting. If you didn't fight, you were yellow. People brought their hatreds with them from Europe. They didn't go to school, so they fought.'
His father wanted him to be a doctor, but Arcel had a handful of professional fights, then learnt the art of training from Frank 'Doc' Bagley, who had a habit of stemming bleeding by shoving chewing tobacco into the wound, and Dai Dollings, a Welshman who had been a bare-knuckle pugilist. From them he learnt how to study his fighter as a rounded human being, how to analyse him piece by piece and how best to work with him.
He worked with champions like Britain's Jack 'Kid' Berg, whom he called 'Yidl', Frankie Genaro, Charley Phil Rosenberg, Barney Ross, Kid Gavilan and Tony Zale. During the Great Depression, Arcel partnered another legendary trainer, Whitey Bimstein, operating a partnership that lasted for 10 years. 'There were no days off,' Arcel said, 'You had to try to pick up a dollars 5 bill some place. You learnt how to starve quietly.'
His personal hero was Benny Leonard, world lightweight champion from 1917 to 1925, and whom he knew as a friend in New York when he was learning his trade. When Leonard lost his fortune in the Wall Street Crash, and decided to come back, he sought out Arcel to work with him. 'I knew he had nothing. He was washed up, but he was dead broke. Leonard was like a brother. I took care of him as much as I could.'
Arcel's fighters were not always successful, but he was there for them. Boxing can be cruel. And at one stage Arcel was known as 'Meat Wagon' after appearing in the corners of a succession of men who fought the world heavyweight champion, Joe Louis. He was in James J. Braddock's corner when Louis won the title in 1937. And he was with Ezzard Charles when Louis lost his final title fight in 1950.
A teetotaller, Arcel believed in a strict mental and physical regime. He walked miles at a fast pace even in his retirement and often did the roadwork alongside his fighters, particularly those who had a tendency to be lazy. He did not swear.
In 1954 Arcel retired from boxing and stayed away for more than 15 years, building a successful steel business in New York. Then he was asked to help a Panamanian light- welterweight named Alfonso 'Peppermint' Frazer prepare for a world title fight. Arcel spied on the champion, Nicolino Locche of Argentina, and devised a plan of victory. It worked. He was hooked again.
After that he enlisted an old friend, Freddie Brown, to help him mould the young Robert Duran into a world champion. Duran's Panamanian trainers could not handle him, but Arcel and Brown moulded him gently into one of the best - and most cunning - fighters in ring history.
Before Duran fought Sugar Ray Leonard for the world welterweight title in 1980, doctors broke the 'news' to Arcel that his fighter had a heart problem. 'Duran's got a heart problem? Listen, Duran doesn't even have a heart,' the elderly trainer said. Duran passed his medical and won on points.
Arcel's last appearance in a ring was when Larry Holmes stopped Gerry Cooney in 1982. This time he worked alongside the 71-year-old Eddie Futch, whom he had known for 40 years. Holmes stopped Cooney in 13 rounds.
'Boxing is brain over brawn,' Arcel told Dave Anderson, for the latter's book Ringmasters (1991), when he was past his 90th birthday. 'I don't care how much ability you've got as a fighter. If you can't think, you're just another bum in the park.'
Nobody thought more about boxing, or knew more about boxers, than Ray Arcel.