The last time I stepped in the ring, I was nine months removed from a shoulder surgery. In the middle of the return fight, I re-Injured the shoulder, which ultimately required another surgery.
Between rounds, I told my trainer as much.
“I tore my shoulder again.”
“That’s alright, use the jab,” he responded.
Without the context of the established mutual trust, the request would have been asinine. The fight should have been stopped to protect the fighter. However, an unspoken understanding that my father would protect me, combined with his trust that the fighter–his son–would follow the game plan, allowed for that request to be followed with completion.
My father knew I wanted to finish the fight and if I listened to him, he knew that I could.
Stepping into the ring, I always trusted the judgement of my trainer. He was there for me in the gym each day and, as a father, was a large part of my life beyond boxing. A father-trainer’s understanding of their fighter is unmatched. A father knows his fears, his feelings, his strengths and his weaknesses unlike any other coach.
My father, Joseph Hill, had perfected the father-son/trainer-fighter dynamic, learning through years of being on the son/fighter side of the relationship, fighting over 160 times. In each of those bouts, he entered the ring with his father, Rusty Hill, in his corner.
In a 1977 Regional AAU open, my dad was knocked down for the first time.
“It was the first time I had been knocked down by a punch”, said Joseph, “I remember shaking my head ‘no’ when my dad was urging me to get up.”
A father sometimes knows what’s best for their son, even when they disagree.
“I got up and ultimately won the fight. Hardest fight of my life,” said Joseph. “Sometimes I questioned him, but I trusted him enough to know he was usually right.”
The intricacies of the relationship are difficult enough on the amateur level with, relatively speaking, nothing on the line. Now add promoters, media, contracts and millions of dollars into the equation and imagine the way those complexities are compounded.
Throughout their career, Shawn and Kenny Porter had to navigate this dynamic. At the end of his career, it’s ultimately what saved Shawn from incurring unnecessary damage at the end of a lost fight.
“The most important thing is he’s safe,” said Kenny Porter at the press conference following Terence Crawford‘s stoppage victory over Shawn Porter.
Clearly, at the time of the stoppage, Shawn disagreed vehemently. As Kenny stood at the ropes to wave off the fight, Shawn brushed his father aside and walked away. Regardless, the elder Porter saw more than just a fighter taking damage, he saw his son. In that moment Shawn had lost his dad’s trust, his father did not believe he would be able to protect himself.
“If I saw what I saw, I was stopping the fight,” said Kenny on his decision to throw in the towel.
In that moment, Shawn certainly questioned the credibility of his father’s actions. Ultimately, he was the fighter and believed he could continue in the fight and still held a chance at victory, but his father reminded him that the decision was beyond just boxing.
“Tomorrow morning I will be able to look outside of my window and see his house across the street,” said Kenny. “I’ll be able to play with my grandsons, I will be able to hug my daughter-in-law, and I will be able to love on my son. We won before we got here,” said Kenny.
This love and admiration has been displayed throughout the pair’s career. Regardless of how hard his father was on him in the gym, it was clear Kenny always worked in Shawn’s best interest. Conversely, Shawn consistently gave his father all of his efforts within the gym and ring alike.
In that, Shawn and Kenny were able to cultivate a culture of mutual respect and understanding, which led to unparalleled success. Even more impressive is the nature of their relationship with the ever-growing evidence of the potential for turmoil and strife that can be caused by paternal relationships in boxing, with too many examples to list.
Following the fight, Shawn Porter revealed that he had intended the Errol Spence fight to be his final fight in 2019. Here he was two years later, again fighting in his final fight, only this time it would actually be his last. In the announcement, Shawn said he had yet to tell his father, but as mentioned earlier, a father knows their son in a singular way.
“I’m his father, I knew that [it was his last fight]. I can see these things,” said Kenny. “I can see it in the training, I can see it in his movements, I can see it when he’s looking at the clock in training… I can see it.”
Even with the successful nature of their relationship within boxing, the very nature of the sport; specifically its training, lends itself to contention between coach and fighter. Having navigated those issues beautifully for years, Kenny found relief in knowing he could focus solely on the paternal side of his relationship with his world champion son. After over 300 amateur fights and 36 professional fights, they’d finally simply be father and son.
“I’m still his father, he’s still my son and we get to do that part,” said Kenny. “That’s a whole lot of life.”
It certainly doesn’t take any imagination to conjure images of failed father-son relationships within the sport of boxing. Sometimes to great success, but more often to nightmarish failure, the complexities of the paternal relationship is only made more convoluted by introducing the relationship of a fighter and a trainer to exist within it.
However, for the failure that often comes of such a relationship, there are the instances of triumph. Kenny and Shawn Porter might be the crowning achievement; a testament to the potential of such a relationship.