Senior Boxing Journalist @JamesDielhenn
Oscar De La Hoya and Gennadiy Golovkin's iconic former gym in Big Bear faces a struggle for survival
"I have four champions in my gym but when those guys are gone?"
Last Updated: 24/05/20 3:50pm
To train in Big Bear is both beautiful and brutal - its great strength, its remoteness, and the harshness of nature, is also what threatens its existence.
The gym up a mountain was made famous by Oscar De La Hoya and used as a springboard for Gennadiy Golovkin's dominance but its trainer Abel Sanchez has become fearful of what the future may hold.
Golovkin's departure robbed Sanchez of his prized asset and the one who would attract others to the same gym. The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the struggles that lie ahead for Sanchez and his fellow mountain-dwellers.
"I will be interested as long as my guys are interested, but the virus could retire a lot of us," Sanchez, the trainer and owner of The Summit gym in Big Bear, California, admitted to Sky Sports.
"I have four champions in my gym but when those guys are gone?
"I don't think things will be like they used to be. People forget that we need infrastructure to develop the next Joshuas, Furys, Golovkins.
"If we don't have the Olympics to develop these kids then we will run out of quality fighters.
"I can't see amateur shows going on because of all the tests that will be required. This will take its toll on the amateur programme and the four-rounders or six-rounders that are needed to develop talent. It will be difficult.
"The upkeep is not the problem, because my children can use it as a vacation house. It's the fact that there may not be the fighters available to bring up here.
"I'm in a cocoon up here but eventually we will have to fly."
Mexico-born Sanchez was a construction worker who took to developing properties in Big Bear Lake, a town of just 5,000 people in California's San Bernardino mountains. He stopped building houses and started building boxers but, in 2001, he suffered a heart attack and his newly-renovated gym went unused.
It was 'The Golden Boy' De La Hoya who, after first using the mountainous environment in the 90s, thrust Big Bear back into folklore when he flung open the gym doors in 2007 to prepare to face Manny Pacquiao. The 7,000ft altitude plus its lack of distractions were its selling point for fighters.
The media flocked, the sport's attention was gripped and a timely reminder was dealt of how stunning the backdrop was.
But it was Golovkin who kept Big Bear thriving. Sanchez received a call about him in 2010 and, after feeling the whack of his punches on the pads, came out of a decade-long hiatus to become his full-time trainer. Sanchez wrote the numbers 1-12 on a whiteboard, wrote Muhammad Ali's name next to No 1, and left No 2 blank. Stay in Big Bear, Golovkin was told, and the No 2 spot would become his.
"My facility was originally built as a resort for my children," Sanchez explained. "I have two condos and a private gym in my garage.
"The houses above, the two condos, are where the fighters stay. I built it so that I would have an alternative if I decide not to continue."
But the fighters came flocking to train alongside Golovkin who preferred the mountains instead of, for example, Freddie Roach's Wild Card gym because it reminded him of Kazakhstan.
Golovkin and Sanchez's relationship ended in 2018 after 22 fights, 20 wins, 19 via knockout. It was blighted by the two controversial Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez fights, a draw and a defeat for Golovkin.
Tyson Fury passed by prior to the first Deontay Wilder fight but cut his stay short. Undefeated British heavyweight Joe Joyce left too.
"You have to be a special sort of person to stay there otherwise you turn into a grizzly bear," Joyce's manager Sam Jones told Sky Sports. "It's hard work and only the strongest survive. You have to be a certain breed of human to stay up there.
"It's an unbelievable place, the smell of the pine reminds you of Christmas, the air is amazing. It's such a great training facility. But get your head around the fact that it's eat, sleep, train, repeat.
"You've got to be mentally ready to spend eight weeks up there. You've got a PlayStation and that's it. In Vegas we'd go and play games at the weekend.
"We were once in the car and boulders of snow were falling down the mountain towards us during a blizzard!"
Jones tells another story of being rescued by the local sheriff when his car broke down at midnight, halfway up the mountain, in pitch-black darkness.
It is clear that Big Bear's remoteness also works against it.
"Getting sparring partners up there was our biggest problem," Jones said. "We paid an Uber $250 to bobsleigh its way up the mountain to pick up a sparring partner!"
Sanchez's current loyalists up the mountain are former unified cruiserweight champion and emerging heavyweight threat Murat Gassiev, undisputed welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus, WBA cruiserweight champion Arsen Goulamirian and super-welterweight title challenger Michel Soro.
The rag-tag bunch are dealing with lockdown as best they can - Gassiev is back home in Russia, but Norway's Braekhus got stuck in the US and hasn't left Big Bear in five months.
"My gym is private and the boxers here also live here," Sanchez said. "We have thermometers, anti-bacteria wipes, we wear masks to go to the store. I always keep a clean gym but it's obviously dangerous outside."
Sanchez says of Gassiev, who he has tutored for seven years: "I saw his frame and his hands - he has tremendously big hands. I said: 'This young man will dominate the cruiserweight ranks then become a very good heavyweight'."
He says about Braekhus, the potential rival for Katie Taylor: "Her record indicates that she is one of the greatest female fighters ever but she is very humble and would say that she isn't. We have a poster of Christy Martin in the gym and Cecilia said: 'That's the pioneer and we all have a debt to pay her'. I would say Cecilia is the best ever but she would say no."
Sanchez is 61 but insists he will dedicate his life to boxing for however long his current crop demand of him.
"The four I have now will take me through the next four years.
"It's not a worry. The only reason I haven't retired already is because of the guys I have now, I won't quit on them. When they choose not to continue, we will stop.
"I'm not a quitter. They would have to finish their careers before I bow out. Unless a guy comes along at an advanced stage of their career, but right now I have just my big four."
The Summit gym could then be passed down to Sanchez's children, used as a weekend getaway or a ski resort, or sold altogether. Boxing in Big Bear has a fight on its hands.