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OLD SCHOOL: An Interview with Big Baby Miller’s Trainer, Harry Keitt
By: Patrick Mascoe
Boxing is a complex sport. Those of uswho love boxing love the action in the ring, and we often see the sport as a metaphor for life. Life is a struggle, a fight and for those who give up, success is never attained. Boxing has a history of wasted talent, crushed dreams and fighters who self-destruct. However, it also has a history of salvation and redemption. The life of veteran Brooklyn trainer Harry Keitt is such a story. Once a promising fighter, and a man who had sparred with the likes of Light Heavyweight Champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi and the great Muhammad Ali, Keitt soon found his life spiralling out of control.
Harry Keitt began using drugs and, at his lowest point, shot his own cousin. After serving his time in prison, he rededicated his life to helping the young people of his community. He wanted to make sure that they did not make some of the same mistakes that have haunted him. He has spent close to 30 years making up for that one error in judgement. In that time, he has become a man who has taken on the job of trainer, mentor and surrogate father to many in his Brooklyn neighbourhood. He has become a respected individual due to his strength of character, his wisdom, and more importantly, he now possesses self-worth and dignity.
How long have you actively been involved in the sport of boxing?
“I myself boxed for ten years from 1976 to 1986. In 1989, I became a trainer and have been involved in training fighters ever since.”
In that time, what major changes have you seen in sport with regards to match-making and training?
“Back in the day, if a champion lost a fight he would get an immediate rematch. He would be ranked as the number one contender. Now, if you lose, you may not even find yourself in the top ten. Boxing trainers are being replaced by strength and conditioning coaches. I get that everybody is trying to make a living, but everything is really upside down. These guys don’t really know boxing. Lots of guys today are using drugs to get stronger or faster. People are looking for an easy way to succeed.”
You have literally trained hundreds of fighters in your time. Do you have any favorites?
“I trained a young boy named Mark Anene. He came into the gym when he was ten years old weighing 170 lbs. When I asked him why he was crying all the time, he told me he was being picked on and laughed at. I told him that if you stick with boxing, the bullying would stop. That boy’s weight dropped to 156 lbs. and he became a Jr. National Champion, a Golden Gloves Champion, and a Jr. World Champion. Through boxing, he was able to achieve everything he wanted. He also became like a son to me. His goal was never to fight pro but rather to graduate high school and get a college degree. I attended his graduation and we are still in touch to this day. I also trained, well known contender, John Duddy (29-2), who may not have been the most skilled of fighters, but was so hard working and determined; he could have been a world champion. He is now a successful actor and doing very well. When training an amateur like Mark, or a professional like John, it was never about the money. It was always about training them right.”
Which fighters today impress you and have your attention?
“To be honest, fighters today aren’t the same. Most are looking for short cuts. The fighters of today lack hunger and don’t have a strong work ethic. Guys come in and they want to copy Floyd Mayweather’s style or Sugar Ray Leonard’s style. They don’t understand that you need to learn the basics and then find your own style. Guys like Mayweather and Leonard are gifted fighters. You have to develop your own style and that comes through training, not by copying another guy. I do like Deontay Wilder because I know that he is being trained the right way. His trainer, Mark Breland, is teaching him to have strong fundamentals and has instilled in him a strong work ethic. Breland, himself, was a great fighter and understands there are no short cuts to success. People keep predicting that Deontay is going to lose yet, he just keeps winning.”
In the eyes of many of the young men and women you train, you are seen as a surrogate father, a mentor, an advisor, and a teacher. What is the most important lesson to try to impart on these young people?
“I want them to learn to carry themselves with confidence. Kids need to develop self-confidence in order to succeed in life. The minute you think you can’t do something, then you have failed already.”
Knowing that not every person you train will turn professional or make a living as a boxer, how to you define your success as a trainer?
“I would love to see one of my fighters win a world title. That’s how I would define my personal success. But I think people need to be champions to themselves. As I said before, I trained Mark Anene and he was very successful. He graduated high school and college. He accomplished his dream. Knowing what his goal was, I often checked his report cards to make sure he stayed on track. Boxing was a path that he used to succeed. I want people to learn to believe in themselves.”
You are presently training undefeated heavyweight Jarrell Miller. He is currently ranked 9th in the world by Ring magazine. What is it like to work with Jarrell and how far do you think he can go?
“Jarrell can go as far as he wants. He can be a world champion. At times we have our ups and downs. As a trainer, I always want my fighters to train harder. I am old school. Young guys see me and they laugh because I don’t know much about Facebook or Twitter, but I know boxing. In the gym, I tell them I know what you know, but you don’t know what I know. Young guys get on the treadmill and run, but to me the treadmill is doing all the work. It is not the same. Go out and do your own roadwork. Guys need to work harder.”
Your personal story is one of redemption. Are you happy today with the path your life has taken?
“I feel great about myself. For a while, I was headed in the wrong direction and I was doing all the wrong things. When I came out of prison, I told myself that I would never go back. I needed to start doing the right thing. My life has been good. I was involved in a documentary movie in 1999, called On the Ropes, and it was nominated for an Oscar. I got the chance to attend the Academy Awards. My life has definitely gone in the other direction, a better direction.”
Harry Keitt presently works out of Mendez gym at 23 E. 26th Street in Manhattan, New York and trains undefeated heavyweight prospect Jarrell Miller. Miller’s next fight will be on April 28th at the Barclays Center on the under card of the Daniel Jacobs – Maceiej Sulecki fight. Harry Keitt readily acknowledges that he is an old school trainer. To him, that means teaching fighters to develop strong work ethics in order to become fundamentally sound. In a day and age when we sometimes see old as being passé, Harry Keitt is anything but. Honest, caring and knowledgeable trainers should be the norm, not the exception. He continues to preach to his young disciples – you need to be a champion to yourself. Although he may still possess some regrets about his earlier life, Harry Keitt has worked selflessly with the young people of Brooklyn and in return, he himself has become a champion.