Verno turned around, the spotlights were on him and he was shadowboxing, getting ready to walk out to the ring for his fight, and he looked at me and said, ‘Bro, you all right?’ I’ve never heard of a fighter asking the coach if he was all right before a fight,” says Trevor Wittman, owner of Denver’s Grudge Training Center. And he’d been recruited by veteran boxer Verno Phillips to work the other side of the ropes — coaching, rather than fighting.
Wittman opened Grudge after a painful period in his life: He had suffered a lung injury during a fight that shattered his amateur boxing career.
“It was a very hard time for me. I couldn’t box anymore, I was going through a child custody battle, and I just felt really down all the time, but I went back to the gym finally and started hitting mitts with the guys and just fell in love with it,” he says. So he put together an amateur boxing team training fighters out of his basement. He turned out really good fighters, boxers going up to the national level.
“So I got out of my basement and opened a gym up on Jewell and Parker, which was like 3,000 square feet and I called it ‘T’s KO Boxing.’” About six months later, Phillips came and asked if he could use Wittman’s gym to hit the bags.
“I said, ‘No problem,’ and he hit the bags for about two or three days, and then asked me if I wanted to hit the mitts with him,” Wittman says. Phillips was feeling him out. A couple weeks later, he asked Wittman if he wanted to coach.
“I never had any aspirations to coach, and I didn’t know anything about professional boxing,” Wittman says.
Pacing, rules, strategies and duration are all very different between the amateur and professional levels, but when Verno Phillips says you’re ready… “Inside my head I was like, ‘I’m not ready for this,’ but outside I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, no problem,’” Wittman says. They had a fight coming up in three weeks, a co-main event on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights. It was a huge test for an amateur boxer recently turned coach.
The promoter asked Phillips who Wittman was, then replied, “Who, that young guy? He don’t look like a coach.”
Wittman’s fighter pulled up his shirt, flexed his abs, and said, “He got me this.”
In his seventh round, they brought Wittman on air for an interview.
“I was so nervous, I was stuttering. … Every time I see that interview now, I laugh,” Wittman says.
That time they lost the fight, Wittman says, but he learned a lot from the experience, gained more fighters and went on to have success after success with fighters winning championships.
In 2002, legendary Muay Thai Duane Ludwig walked in Wittman’s doors and asked for training for his upcoming MMA (mixed martial arts) fight against three-time Ultimate Fighting Championship winner Jens Pulver.
“We went up to Montreal and Duane stomped Jens in the first round and we got that world title,” Wittman says.
It opened the door to more MMA success. Veteran UFC champion Nate Marquardt joined Wittman’s team some three years afterward, and Wittman opened Grudge Training Center. Now, six years later, Marquardt is the head trainer, Ludwig is the Muay Thai trainer, and the gym has a stable of established and up-and-coming fighters both in MMA and boxing.
“From 4 o’clock on, though it’s not a fight gym. It’s totally open to the public,” Wittman says. “There’s not another gym in Colorado that can compare to the facility we have, whether you want boxing, MMA, Brazilian, Jiu Jitsu, core classes, yoga. It’s a great place to come in, work on self defense, get in great shape, gain confidence, whatever you’re looking for in the martial arts, come and get it from worldclass fighters.”