“Have to catch you later,” reads the text from Derrick James, responding to an interview request. “Getting on a plane.”
Nabbing some quality time for a round of questions with one of boxing’s most dynamic trainer proves as difficult as trying to land a punch on one of his fighters. James balances training blue-chip boxers with shaping white-collar celebrities as one of Dallas’ most successful fitness gurus.
He’s at the chic Cooper Fitness Center, just north of Preston Hollow.
He’s at his newly opened Derrick James World Class Boxing Gym in a repurposed warehouse along the Trinity River.
He’s making calls to Dallas’ rich and famous.
He’s a married father of three.
After winning “Trainer of the Year” from Ring magazine in 2017, he’s now nominated for a similar award by the Boxing Writers Association of America. He’s also squeezed in time to be in the corner for one of his two champion boxers as Jermell Charlo defended his 154-pound super welterweight belt.
“It’s amazing,” James says. “When I got started, I never imagined winning an award like this once, much less twice. I just grind away one day at a time and try to keep the bills paid. But now that I’m here and established, with these fighters I have coming up, maybe we’ll be talking about a three-peat next year.”
“Sorry,” says James frantically on the phone, “about to jump in the ring for training.”
James’ career was at the crossroads of fighter and trainer when he first laid eyes on Errol Spence Jr. At a local amateur event, James noticed and noted – out loud – that the Desoto teenager was “doing the same thing over and over” and was “too predictable.”
The observations resonated with Errol Spence Sr., who asked after the fight if James could help his son become a better boxer. Spence Jr. is in the process of launching one of American boxing’s most promising careers.
“Look at us now,” James says. “I’ve got the most talked about fighter in the world.”
James worked on Spence Jr.’s fitness, craft and fundamentals, nagging the boxer about footwork, hand positioning and listening. The result? Spence made it to the 2012 Olympics in London, where he lost the bronze medal bout. He hasn’t lost since returning home and turning pro. Today he is boxing’s welterweight champion with a 24-0 record, 21 knockouts and, at 147 pounds, the reputation as one of the best fighters in the world.
On March 16, Spence Jr. will make his pay-per-view debut in a fight against undefeated Mikey Garcia at AT&T Stadium.
“He was already a great athlete with amazing determination and will,” James says. “I just refined him a little, pushed him past his limits — past where I ever went as a fighter.”
“Man, bad timing,” James says. “I have to train a client right now. Try me again later?”
As a kid learning the sport at the Oak Cliff Boys Club, James never dreamed of being Errol Spence Jr.’s trainer. Because he wanted to be Errol Spence Jr.
“I was going to be a fighter,” James says, “not somebody’s trainer. I wanted to make the Olympics. Win a belt. Whole thing.”
The problem was he was good, but not good enough. James was a two-time Golden Gloves champion in Texas and turned pro at age 20 in 1992. He traded punches with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and rubbed elbows with Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler. He made it into the top 10 of his 168-pound weight class, but lost in the 1992 Olympic Trials and amassed a modest record of 21-7-1 in 16 years as a pro.
“I gave it my all,” James says. “But I’m enjoying training more than I ever imagined I could.”
In addition to his new job as director of boxing at Cooper, James took Spence Jr. and Charlo under his experienced wing around 2009. He started renting ring time at Dallas’ Maple Avenue Boxing Gym and later at R&R Boxing on Harry Hines. On Nov. 1 James, now 46, opened his own gym.
The nondescript old furniture space next to the metal junk yard may not look like much from the outside. But inside it’s home to the best trainer in boxing and two championship fighters.
“Sorry again, busy time for me,” James says. “I’ll hopefully have some time around 5 today.”
Most days for James involves the thunderous collision of heavy gloves in a musty, sweaty gym oozing testosterone. Often, it’s the faint pitty-pats of Parkinson’s patients, reaching out to make their pink gloves tap his hands inside his glass-encased studio.
Somedays it’s both.
“I’m working seven days a week,” James says. “I need the balance. I need the boxing. I need the clients. I need the reality of working with Parkinson’s patients. It gives me that humility and peace and patience I can take into the ring with me.”
While the patients at Cooper use boxing to slow the decline of their motor skills due to the disease, there are also those that summon James to their house at $130 per hour and up.
His client list includes: Ross Perot Jr. (Dallas tech tycoon), Emmitt Smith Jr. (son of the NFL’s all-time leading rusher), Daryl Johnston (three-time Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys), Clarice Tinsley (long-time DFW TV anchor), Dez Bryant (former Cowboys’ receiver) and Michael Dell (yes, that one).
James estimates he works 12 hours a day with his base of 40-plus clients. The at-home personal training business is built on word of mouth and good experiences. “They all bring unique challenges and different goals. It keeps things interesting.”
“Hello, yes, now is a good time. Finally, right?” James says. “Got some time here before appointments and events and all this stuff. Shoot. Thank you for your interest in interviewing me. What’s so interesting about me?”