He gives Winky a fightning chance

Early edition

Published November 28, 2006

He will be the proudest papa in the joint Saturday night, working the corners for his guys,  Winky Wright and Jeff Lacy, marveling at the wonderfulness of it all.

For trainer Dan Birmingham, things could be better but he’s not sure how. The kids he trained in hot, dusty little boxes with no windows and no air conditioning  will fight as men in the spacious  St. Pete Times Forum on HBO as thousands applaud their work.

Fans will chant Wright’s name as he walks down Ike Quartey, and scream for Lacy to knock out Vitali Tsypko.  Between rounds, the fighters will try to block it out and focus on Birmingham, their teacher and holder of the blueprint for victory.

“It will be,’’ Birmingham says, “a dream come true.’’

That dream began as a cliche:  kid gets in a few fights at school, heads for the nearest  gym to learn how to defend himself, becomes a pretty good boxer.

Birmingham  said he would run  5 miles every night to trainer Art Mayorga’s place on the west side of Youngstown, Ohio, to train in the basement . He learned the art of defensive fighting, the importance of a strong jab and a no-nonsense style he would pass on to his fighters.

“Danny just loved it,’’ said his father, Jim, who repaired telephone lines  while raising five boys (Dan was the oldest) on his own. “And he was pretty good at it, too.’’

As an amateur, Birmingham says, he was 35-7 and won  a few local championships .

“He was really good,’’ said Mike, his youngest brother and longtime coaching partner. “He weighed 85 pounds in his first tournament and had to fight in the 112-pound weight class, but he used to stop guys all the time with his jab.’’

Birmingham said he never entertained thoughts of turning pro. But with Mayorga’s influence,  he thought maybe he’d like to train fighters.

Just not in Youngstown.

It was cold and lonely on Interstate 80 that morning in 1971 when a 20-year-old Birmingham headed south on  foot, his thumb jutting out at  passing cars begging for a ride.

He had a  suitcase with his life inside,  $160 in his pocket and an invitation from a friend to visit Florida.

Start on small stage

Getting to Florida was the easy part. Everything the next 25 years wasn’t.

He started  as a roofer. Then he drove a bread truck, a milk truck and a beer truck. In 1978, he started his own commercial painting business.

He worked 60-hour weeks, filling the rest of his time training fighters wherever he could.

His first fighter? Brother Mike, whom  he had trained  in Ohio and reunited with in Florida, together running aspiring boxers in and out of nearby parks.

When he had the money, he’d find places to train indoors. In 1984, he hooked up with local trainer Jimmy McLoughlin, and together they put everything they had into running gyms and training fighters, wondering from day to day how they would pay to keep the place open.

“Long, long days,’’ Birmingham said.

Together, McLoughlin and Birmingham built one of the finest amateur  clubs in the country. Then one day in 1988, a kid named Ronald “Winky” Wright walked in, and Birmingham saw greatness.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“I just knew he was a lot more talented than the other guys,’’ Birmingham said. “I had no idea of the magnitude.’’

Birmingham wore many hats during Wright’s formative years as a fighter. He was the manager, the public relations director, the fighter’s voice and his staunchest supporter.He told anyone who would listen that Saturday would come.

After Wright won his first world title in 1996, he promised a small celebratory gathering at the St. Pete Boxing Club that one day his fighter would be one of the world’s best, and he would triumphantly return to Tampa Bay to prove it in the ring.

The past two years, Birmingham has been named by the Boxing Writers Association of America as the sport’s best trainer.

Wright finally got his big break and seized  it by unifying the 154-pound division, Lacy returned to St. Petersburg and was steered to a world title, and Birmingham’s cell phone doesn’t stop ringing with fighters looking for help.He  trains undefeated light heavyweight title hopeful Chad Dawson and The Contender star Joey Gilbert.

One of the country’s top amateurs, Keith Thurman, is based at  the St. Pete Boxing Club, which Birmingham jointly owns with Wright and father-in-law Andy Lockhart. 

Birmingham basks in his success and what it has brought his family — wife Pam, sons Joey (15) and Daniel (9), daughter Nicole (16) — but says  he’ll never rest on his laurels.

He learned that from Jim Birmingham.His dream comes true this weekend.

While  it unfolds, the white Birmingham Painting Company truck is still parked out back, stocked with tools and filled with gas. And  somewhere a kid watches the fight and wonders, “Where can I learn to box like that?’’

John C. Cotey can be reached at 727-869-6261 or cotey@sptimes.com.