ARLINGTON, Tex. — After another signature win as a trainer, the car waited to whisk Derrick James back from the site of his latest success to the hotel. But after Errol Spence defeated Yordenis Ugas in April 2022, James waived away the black SUV parked in the bowels of AT&T Stadium. The distance from the home of the Dallas Cowboys to James’ hotel was less than a half-mile away.
James turned toward the northeast corner of the stadium and started walking. Just hours after he celebrated another title in front of 39,946 people, Spence and a reporter quietly strolled through Arlington, as if it was any other Saturday night.
Over the past few years, ESPN’s reigning trainer of the year has experienced the heights of his profession. His stable of fighters includes one of the sport’s pound-for-pound best (Spence), an undisputed champion (Jermell Charlo), a rising contender (Frank Martin) and now one of the world’s most popular athletes — former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua.
After Joshua faces Jermaine Franklin on April 1 at the O2 Arena in London, chances are that James will end the night by walking to his hotel, a ritual that helps explain his success. Despite the victories and accolades over the years, the 51-year-old has gone out of his way to remain as grounded as possible.
The postfight steps are a reminder to stay humble, despite being one of the top cornermen in the sport. He’s even turned walking into a hangout to keep some of his oldest friends active, but above all, it’s a discipline in humility.
“Once you do this one thing, you’re on the stage, you do whatever,” James said, “and after that you just go back to your regular life. So I don’t want to. I don’t want to be so caught up in that moment, and I can’t do that or go back to who I am.”
IN A SPORT filled with outsized egos, James has made it a point to operate as nondescript as possible.
The gym he trains his fighters in Dallas, the vaguely named World Class Boxing Gym, has no visible signage and is tucked away near a metal scrapyard downtown that covers roughly two and a half acres. Many picture frames remain on the floor from about five years ago, awaiting a redesign of the gym’s aesthetics that has yet to occur. The lone squat rack features a broken barbell that is held together by tape in the middle. Nobody has confessed as to who broke the equipment, but with a bevy of bags, a couple of treadmills, some free weights and a full ring in the back, sequestered in a separate room, it has everything James needs when training up-and-comers like Martin or established vets like Spence, Charlo and Joshua.
James’ postfight strolls are something that has become a habit over the years, with his first championship walk coming in 2017, when Spence beat Kell Brook in Sheffield, England, to win the IBF welterweight title.
James said he hated walking when he was younger. Even now, he doesn’t necessarily enjoy the activity. But after a fight, especially if the distance is less than a mile or two, it’s his preferred way to head home at the end of the night. Typically, he’s alone, listening to only the surroundings of his environment.
After Charlo beat Brian Castaño to become the undisputed champion at junior middleweight in 2022, he took a car home because the hotel was too far away, but he walked two miles after he got there.
During his walk, a sense of accomplishment and relief outweighs any feelings of joy, even after one of his fighters wins a title.
“You hired me to do a job,” James said. “I was able to help do the job I was hired to do. It’s like, ‘Man.’ Relief, right? And so with that relief, you just kind of walk, feel it, breathe and kind of live in that moment. And you’re kind of done with [the job].”
In this way, he equates success to a shark attack. According to the University of Florida, 93.2% of shark attacks during the previous decade were nonfatal. James believes so many people survived is because they kept moving.
James believes that relishing in success for too long is dangerous, especially in a sport like boxing, where reigns and dominance are often short-lived.
“You just got to keep moving, moving, moving, pedaling right along,” James said. “I think if you stay in one space, you pat yourself on the back too long and somebody’s going to catch up with you. … You get eaten by a shark.”
About a year ago, James started to include walking into his Sunday morning routines, too. Around 9 a.m., he and a few of his childhood friends will meet and walk together — 4.5 miles if they take the long route, three miles if they cut it short.
Eric McCoy, one of the four in the walking group, said that after the pandemic, the weekly meetups were a way for the others to stay active while also spending time with each other — especially once James’ schedule became busier with Spence and Charlo’s continued success.
“To be the best in the world of something and just to be still grounded and humble, still the same dude you’ve always been? That says a lot about a man’s character, right?” said Brandon Dotson, one of James’ longtime friends, who shares the walk with him weekly.
James is a regular speaker at the Boys & Girls Club in Oak Cliff, the section of Dallas where he grew up and trained on his way to becoming a fringe middleweight contender during his own boxing career. James said he concealed his occupation to the youths at the club for as long as he could. His cover was blown when parents gave him an award. Shaun Shelley, another member of the Sunday walking club, said the success James has experienced in his life hasn’t changed him.
“Anybody can get caught up in a limelight and turn into a whole new beast,” Shelley said.
TRAINERS OFTEN FIND themselves succumbing to stardom, often expanding their roster of fighters that tests the limits of tutelage. Joshua (24-3, 22 KOs) visited multiple trainers before settling on James, who still isn’t exactly sure why Joshua picked him. Joshua is looking to rebound after back-to-back losses to Oleksandr Usyk and eventually become a three-time heavyweight champion.
In an interview with the DAZN Boxing Show, Joshua didn’t expound on selecting James. However, he appeared to enjoy a fundamental approach to this camp on some of the tenets of a fight camp such as mitt work, skipping rope and sparring.
“He’s kind of like, ‘Let’s strip it back, let’s get back to the basics,'” Joshua told DAZN about working with James. “I like that. It’s good.”
James said Joshua’s talent and intelligence have been apparent during their camp in Dallas. But Joshua’s work ethic has been the most revelatory as they prepare for Franklin (21-1, 14 KOs). “The perception I got before I worked with him was he was somebody [who] was just kind of like, not hardworking, kind of lazy, whatever,” James said. “But then I realized, no man, he won’t stop.”
No matter what happens in London this weekend, James will once again wave off the car. He’ll leave the O2 Arena, understanding that this fight will most definitely be a little different given the increased exposure that comes with working in Joshua’s corner.
But when the fight is over, James will still aim to remain grounded and focused on whatever comes next. One step at a time.