In his current role as a boxing trainer, Johnathon Banks has spent the last year shaping a game plan for Gennady Golovkin entering his trilogy fight against Canelo Alvarez on Saturday.
But in his past life as a boxer, Banks aspired to be as big and as successful as one of his idols, Thomas Hearns.
When Banks was 14, he got a lesson on just what would it take to reach that level of greatness.
In 1996, Banks just happened to be at Detroit’s famous Kronk Gym when Hearns was training for a fight. As Hearns got to the segment of his sparring session where he needed to work on his jab, he glanced over at Banks, inviting the teenager into the ring.
“Heck yeah,” was the response from Banks, without hesitation.
Hearns delivered his jab with precision, and Banks threw his right back. When the session ended, Banks just happened to see his reflection in a nearby mirror.
He had a black eye.
“I saw Tommy about six months [later] in the airport and told him that he gave me my first black eye, and he said ‘Johnathon, I’m sorry,’ ” Banks said, laughing. “I said: ‘Tommy, you don’t have to apologize to me. That black eye was one of the best things that happened to me.’ ”
While he would go on to have a successful boxing career (he held the IBO cruiserweight title from 2008 to 2009), Banks, now 40, is having a better career as a trainer. He went from being handpicked to succeed Emanuel Steward as trainer for then-heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko to his current job of working the corner of Golovkin (aka Triple G), who faces Alvarez on Saturday in what’s expected to be one of the biggest fights of the year.
“Going from being a fighter to being a trainer, that’s the last thing I expected to do,” Banks said. “But I’m here, and I feel privileged to be in the position that I’m in today.”
The reason Banks got into this position of being a top trainer? It’s all due to Steward, his trainer, seeing something special in him as they analyzed tape while preparing for fights.
“He’d tell me that one day I’d make for an excellent trainer,” Banks said. “I didn’t think much about it because being a trainer was the last thing I wanted to do.”
As Steward recovered from surgery in 2012 in the months before a Wladimir Klitschko fight in 2012, the camp came to an agreement that Banks — who has sparred with Klitschko for years — would step into the role as trainer. That Klitschko title defense against Mariusz Wach was on Nov. 10, 2012, in Hamburg, Germany, just a week ahead of Banks’ fight for the WBC International Heavyweight title fight against Seth Mitchell on Nov. 17, 2012, in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“It was all put in my lap — Emanuel wanted me to train him, and Wladimir called me to see if I would be willing to do it,” Banks said. “I really thought it was going to be a onetime thing.”
But Steward’s death in October, a month before those November fights, led to Banks becoming Klitschko’s full-time trainer. It’s a position he served until Klitschko’s retirement in 2017.
“I was lucky to have made my training debut at the very top, with the longest reigning heavyweight champion,” Banks said. “Working with Wladimir was an honor.”
These days Banks is concerned about Klitschko’s plight alongside his brother, Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, Ukraine, as the two fight the Russian invasion.
“I try to keep up with him as much as possible, and I’m really concerned with what’s going on in Ukraine,” Banks said. “That he’s out there volunteering to defend his country in a dangerous situation is amazing.”
Right now Banks’ focus is the final preparation for Golovkin as he seeks his first win over Alvarez. When Golovkin announced Banks as his trainer in 2019, the main reason was his connection to greatness.
“He’s young but he has good experience, he’s old-school,” Golovkin said in 2019. “I like old-school. He learned from Emanuel Steward. I believe in this school of boxing.”
While Banks is in his third year training Golovkin, this will be his first role in a trilogy that ended in a controversial split draw in 2017 (ringside boxing experts had Golovkin winning on points) and a majority decision win by Alvarez in 2018.
It’s been four years since Alvarez and Golovkin fought. Golovkin’s now 40, which is often seen as ancient for a fighter (Alvarez is 32). But Banks says don’t let the numbers fool you.
“A lot of people underestimate fighters who live a healthy lifestyle and take care of themselves,” Banks said. “[Golovkin] is in great shape. We’ll just need to pick up the pace in this fight at the start, and we’ll be fine.”