Albert "Mean Machine" Valentine is arguably one of Juneau's most notable Roughhouse boxers. He also is one of the best cornermen, a fact that often goes unnoticed unless you happen to be strapped into a pair of gloves as you're staring down an opponent across the ring.
"I don't have them fight like me," Valentine said of the fighters he supports. "My style is a bit more unconventional, so to speak, from a classical-fighting standpoint. But I can take a punch."
Each punch he has taken over the years has been ingrained into his memory, and he uses his fighting experiences to guide local fighters, from first-timers to champions.
"I can tell as soon as someone touches the ropes to get in the ring just how talented, experienced and capable he is," Valentine said. "The smart ones listen to you, the dumb ones don't and the cocky ones wish they did."
A cornerman does more than put out a stool for his fighter between rounds, hand the fighter a bottle of water and a bucket to spit in, and give them a towel to wipe away sweat and blood. Cornermen are, in some small way, doctors, psychologists, professors and coaches.
"A lot of the guys have a different variety of talents and haven't been in the ring before," second- year cornerman Greg Taylor said. "I tell them to keep their hands up, defend themselves, throw a jab, throw a jab, throw a hook, and not get hit so much."
Taylor's wife is an assistant to the ring promoter, and cornering lets them spend more time together. Taylor said his 'unhighlight' as a cornerman was "getting hugged by a very sweaty, fat man, happy to win."
At a recent Roughhouse Boxing fight at Marlintini's Lounge, Taylor's opposing cornerman was Air National Guardsmen Andrew Swanston, a 12-year veteran of the ropes. It also was Taylor's last fight in the ring.
"I was pretty rough at the time, throwing a lot of punches," Taylor said. "He caught me with a wicked left; I bled heavily out the nose, and I retired. I feel better in the corner."
Cornermen will tell the nervous-looking fighters to relax and have some fun, throw punches and try not to get hit. If they are getting beat, advice is to keep their hands up, get out of the way and don't get hit. Cornermen control breathing, stop bleeding, assess the opponents' style, and call over an emergency medical technician for second opinions.
"Basically, you want to keep the composure of your fighter," Swanston said. "Make sure they are staying calm, evaluate what they are doing after that first round and give them some pointers. You don't want to give them too much information; just pick one or two things that they can really focus on so they will be paying attention, because usually they are a little bit tired and nervous and don't hear anything the cornerman says. We focus on a few small things, so maybe they will go back in the ring and remember one."
Some fighters bring their friends to corner. Fueled by alcohol or a lack of fighting technique experience, that plan usually backfires. Some listen too much to the fans around the ring or to their own egos.
"I had a guy come out and do exactly what I said not to," Swanston said. "Right off the bat, he got hit with a shot and was out cold in the ring. I had to jump out there and grab his mouthpiece out while he was literally snoring."
At the Roughhouse Boxing event, Brian Lauth, 19, worked on stretches behind a pool table in a corner. He meditated. He had studied his opponent, famous fighters, and talked to his cornerman. He went on to defeat middleweight champ Shaun Guthrie, 27, who said, "Roughhouse is the ultimate single-man combat sport. You don't worry about anyone but the guy on the other side of the ring."
Hoonah friends Nathan Nichols and Eric Larson cornered each other. Nichols, a mill operator, had never fought in Roughhouse Boxing because his probation forbid him to be in bars. He said a life of fighting on the streets of Portland was his training - that and cutting firewood. Larson's body has been chiseled out of the forest he works in. Both tell each other to punch hard. Both know their buddy's strength, yet both lose to Klawock brothers Steven and James "The Beast" Roberts.
"Look at them," Valentine observed. "All sound and fury signifying nothing. They need a corner. And Guthrie just met a good tactician. They should be listening to that girl."
The woman Valentine pointed to was semi-retired Ladies Lightweight Champ Edna Abbott. Never beaten with her crown still intact, her cheers contained technical jargon, ring vantage points and movement slang.
"I'm giving up the cornering life," Abbott said. "I train all the time. I'm ready to get back in the ring. Anyone out there who is 125-pounds, I am ready to fight."
And for her corner? "I'd take Valentine," Abbot said. "Just look at him. You had better listen to what he says ... and he knows what he is talking about."
Contact Klas Stolpe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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