Nobody to my mind has revealed a deeper knowledge of his sport or imparted greater wisdom than Futch

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Eddie Futch has lived a long time and now it is time for him to retire from boxing - the most scholarly of trainers, wise and independent, 87 years old and at last wearied by the rough old game.

To have been active so long, to have worked with more than 20 world champions, to be able to say that, as a young welterweight in Detroit, he sparred frequently with his friend Joe Louis is in itself remarkable.

But there is more. There is rare dignity, benevolence and an acute awareness of boxing's perils. Futch is probably better remembered for stopping a fight than helping to bring about two of Muhammad Ali's five defeats.

After 14 brutal rounds between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975, the celebrated "Thrilla in Manila" both men were almost out on their feet but Frazier's welfare mattered more in Futch's mind than the heavyweight championship. "The swelling in Joe's left eye became so pronounced that he could no longer see out of it," Futch recalled. "And the right eye was begining to close also. The 12th round wasn't a good round but it wasn't as bad as the two that would follow. And we had to abandon the fight plan. The plan was to stay low and stay in close, work the body, and make Ali bring his hands down and then shift to the head. But when Joe's left eye began to close he had to pull back a step and stand up so that he could see better out of the right - which put him right in Ali's range."

During the 14th round, even though he had Frazier slightly ahead, Futch decided to end the contest. "I knew Joe as a great father," Futch said over dinner one night in Las Vegas where he has lived for many years. "He had a good family. He loved those kids and those kids loved him. I said: `Now I can't let this man get badly hurt. All these kids are his life - and he is their life. If he wound up a vegetable, that would be one of the greatest tragedies in boxing. I can't let it happen.' "

When Frazier returned to his corner he heard Futch say that it was over. He jumped up in protest but responded to the gentle pressure Futch applied to his shoulders. "It's over Joe," he heard Futch say again. Afterwards, Frazier said: "I didn't want to be stopped. I wanted to go on. But I'd never go against Eddie."

On numerous visits to Las Vegas I have spent many edifying hours in Futch's company. Nobody to my mind has revealed a deeper knowledge of his sport or imparted greater wisdom. Listening to Futch is an education. For example, the mechanics of punching. "The fist is only the postman for power," he says. "A punch begins in the feet if they are properly planted. The power travels up through a fighter's body. Joe Louis was one of the greatest hitters but he would pull a punch if his feet weren't in the right place."

This knowledge enabled him to spar safely with Louis when they were aspiring young amateurs. "Joe wanted me for speed, and I was able to keep out of trouble with lateral movement that prevented him from setting up for punches. I used to catch Joe with a sneak left hook. You couldn't do it often but you could do it once in a while. He never could understand how I could hit him with that left hook. And he never could counter-punch on me."

It troubles Futch that so many fighters today find themselves in championship fights before they have completed an apprenticeship. "I see kids going for titles when they should still be learning," he said. "Their mistakes make me shudder. Ray Robinson, who is probably the most accomplished fighter in history, didn't become a champion until his 74th professional bout and by then there wasn't much anybody could teach him."

Most of the stories about Futch are instructional. When Marlon Starling, a former welterweight champion, made angrily for the door of the gymnasium, Futch called out to him. "Marlon," he said, "a lot of great fighters listened. Listened and learned."

When Starling began to showboat on his way to beating Lloyd Honeyghan for the title, Futch admonished him in the corner. "I want you to cut that out," he said, "and if you don't, I won't be here when you get back."

Many outstanding fighters, Frazier, Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, Michael Spinks, Bob Foster, Alexis Arguello, Mike McCallum, Riddick Bowe, Don Jordan, have reason to be grateful for Futch's astute instruction.

Four years ago, when I was still recovering from a serious accident, Futch inquired about my progress. I told him that my friend, the late Eddie Thomas, said that I could either lay down or get up. "I got up," I said.

Futch nodded approvingly.