Kirk Johnson pays heartfelt tribute to late trainer Curtis Cokes

Former top heavyweight contender Kirk Johnson has paid an emotional tribute to Curtis Cokes, his former trainer and world welterweight champion who passed away last week aged 82…

Truth be told, the greatness of former world welterweight champion turned trainer Curtis Cokes has often been overlooked.

Cokes – who passed away last week aged 82 – was not a man who courted publicity, deliberately inflamed or provoked public opinion or his opponents in order to advance his career or profile.

Indeed, as his former charge Kirk Johnson explained to Boxing Social, Cokes’ integrity is part of what made the Dallas native so special, and so worthy of a glowing epitaph.

“He was a tremendous influence on me,” said Johnson, his emotions clearly still raw from the news of Cokes’ passing. “My father Gary Johnson has coached me all my life, but Curtis was my first professional coach and my last professional coach.

“I didn’t just call him ‘coach Curtis’, I called him ‘father Curtis’. He was a gigantic influence on me.

“He was with me at the start and at the end of my career and he didn’t just teach me how to box and how to be a complete fighter, he also taught me how to be a man, how to treat people with respect, how to live life and live life as a good man.

“It was about more than just boxing when you were dealing with Curtis. He taught me how a real adult should behave around people. He was one of the inspirations of my life and it’s a great loss in my life.”

Johnson, who challenged John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight title in 2002, outlined how he came to work with Cokes.

“[When I turned pro] I signed a contract with Uppercut Boxing. Donald ‘The Cobra’ Curry from Fort Worth was one of the Uppercut Boxing managers. I was at Don Curry’s house and my father didn’t want Don to be my trainer because he felt he was too young to be training and leading me,” recalled Johnson.

“So my father asked Donald Curry if he had another trainer who could train and lead me. Donald said: ‘Yes I do, I’ve got Curtis Cokes the ex-world champion. Curtis would love to train Kirk because Curtis and Kirk have the same kind of style – they’re both boxer-punchers.”

Johnson’s memories of his first day training with Cokes remain vivid.

“I tried to impress Curtis with my shadow boxing,” he laughed. “I was shadow boxing hard, throwing every punch I could as fast as I could and as hard as I could. After four rounds, I was completely dead tired.

“Curtis said: ‘Let me tell you this, you’re a professional and as a professional you don’t have to kill yourself like you just did. You shadow box to warm yourself up and visualise the things you need to work on and want to work on’. That was a big lesson.

“The next day I started to shadow box easy and warm up the proper way. He was a really intelligent guy. He was old school. Although boxing looks very physical Curtis always said you had to have a brain behind you to make the physical aspect work for you.

“For example, he said you have to know when to throw a punch, when not to throw a punch, when to rest, when not to rest and what pace to go at. He always said you have to fight an opponent on your terms not their terms.”

The late, great Curtis Cokes. Photo: Tom Shaw, Dallas Morning News.

Cokes had a special term of endearment for the Canadian heavyweight as Johnson fondly recalled.

“He could never remember my name. He used to call me Bubba. He’d say: ‘Okay, little Bubba…’

“I’d say to him, ‘Curtis, how come you can’t remember my name? Your name is Curtis and my name is Kirk. That’s easy to remember!’ He replied: ‘Bubba, you better be satisfied with me calling you Bubba!’

“I said: ‘Okay, from now on it’s Bubba!’”

Cokes also had some other unique forms of communication.

“He had certain sayings,” Johnson chuckled. “He’d say, ‘Okay, Bubba you’re in a fight now, you’ve got to go take this dick down!’ That’s the way he talked.

“I fought on the undercard of Michael Moorer and George Foreman [against Tyrone Evans in 1994] and I was knocked down in the first round. In the corner Curtis said, ‘Okay Bubba, we’re in a fight now, you’re doing great but you’ve got to stand up and take that dick down! That’s the way he spoke.

“We ended up winning by eighth-round knockout and overcame the knockdown. It was one of my more impressive fights.”

Despite his sadness, Johnson was keen to emphasise the full and rich life that Cokes led – incorporating a near three-year reign as world welterweight champion as well as successfully training Johnson, and other high profile fighters, Quincy Taylor and Ike Ibeabuchi among them.

“He lived a long life and a good life. He would have been 83 on 15 June and he was healthy and mobile for at least 79 years of that. How many people can say they lived 80 good years?

“He accomplished a lot of things and he was a inspiration for thousands of kids.”