PHILLY BOXING HISTORY - February 03, 2017  
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Story by John DiSanto


Local boxing trainer George James passed away on Friday, February 3, 2017. He was two days shy of his 80th birthday. James dedicated much of his life to the sport of boxing, and his efforts impacted many young lives along the way. Through the years, he worked with many prominent fighters and countless unknowns. However despite logging sixty years in the business, he remained a well-kept Philadelphia secret outside the City of Brotherly Love. Within Philly however, James was a well-respected figure and a constant on the boxing scene. His primary job description was that of a boxing trainer, but he resisted that limited classification. 

“I don’t train fighters,” James told me nine months before his death. “I teach boxing.”

James understood the difference and devoted his life doing exactly that. I hadn’t met James until last year. We spoke on the phone a few times after he was voted into the PA Boxing Hall of Fame last year, and I visited him at his home as the 2016 induction ceremony approached. 

James was a great talker, spinning one story after another. He gave a lengthy, sprawling lists of the boxers he’d worked with – some of the fighters he developed, only to lose them to boxing sharks, and others called on James to step in to salvage either a specific fight or a sagging career in general.

Long before his days as a teacher of boxing, George’s career began at the South Philly Navy Yard when James competed as an amateur boxer himself. He was a natural fighter, but his fighting days were cut short after a freak accident caused an injury that prevented him from seriously competing ever again. The painful memory of an incident that changed the course of his life had lost much of its sting by 2016, and at 79, James was quick to show off a reminder of the accident - a thick scar that wrapped around his torso.

James eventually refocused his attention to working with boxers as a trainer and teacher. Early on, James met legendary fight manager Joe Gramby, who took a liking to him. Under Gramby’s tutelage, George learned every aspect of the game, from wrapping hands, to fixing cuts, to teaching the finer points of the sport. James became a jack of all trades in the corner and worked non-stop.

He is probably best known as the man who guided Bennie Briscoe at the very end, after mostly everyone else wanted to see him to hang up his gloves. Bennie insisted on fighting on, and George James was the person he tapped to train him. James claimed that he knew Bennie was near the end, but still signed on to do his best to protect Bennie in the final chapter of his great career. James worked Briscoe’s final seven bouts (1980-82).

Never shy of voicing his many opinions and his beliefs on the correct way of doing things, James gained a well-earned reputation as a “screamer” in the gym. He never hesitated to raise the volume on a stubborn or slow-learning fighter. Even those who knew and respected James for decades would often describe his infamous shouting with a head shake and a sigh. Despite having an intense, laser-focused eye contact when speaking with you outside the gym, you’d never guess he was such a screamer inside it.

James also worked with fine fighters like Richie Kates, Percy Manning, Tony Tassone, Calvin Porter, Kevin Howard, Young Joe Walcott, and Willie Monroe. He was buddies with Gypsy Joe Harris and spent many hours with him in the gym. James also worked as an exercise coach for heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.

After a lifetime in boxing, James was finally inducted into the PA Boxing Hall of Fame on May 15, 2016, less than nine months before his death. James had been overlooked by the Hall for far too long, but thankfully, we caught up with him in time. James was present for his induction and enjoyed the day with his family and many fans.

James was one of the last of the old-school Philly trainers. His departure reminds us of those great days of the sport when men like George James schooled boxers in a way that is pretty mush lost these days. Some fading remnants of that old style still remain, but for the most part, the glory days are slipping away. James is gone now, but his memory, his legend, and everything he stood for will be with us forever.

This video was recorded on May 5, 2016 at the home of George James.  




John DiSanto - Philadelphia - February 03, 2017