The first step was to sit down for an interview with Coach, and I began to learn his remarkable story. Right away, I could see that high performance was in his nature. In my life and work, I have noticed a consistency across the board among individuals I deem to be “high performers.” You often find them at the pinnacle of their profession or hobby, but you can find them in any field and tackling any pursuit. These are not individuals who rise by chance or default into positions of power; rather, they are folks who consistently and across the board set their compass on working smart—and then work hard as hell and unremittingly along that smartly chosen path towards one goal after another. To high performers, no goal is ever fully met; each goal is just a benchmark, because there is always more to be achieved. I think of them as climbers of an endless mountain; while most people will stop at a point that they deem to be the summit, for the high performer, the summit is always an endless horizon of which they are in constant pursuit. Because of this, many of the highest performers can come across as almost unreasonably humble, downplaying their life’s achievements. It has taken me a long time to understand this humility, but I have come to see that it is a natural reflection of the way that they look at their own pursuits. No matter what they accomplish, they always seem to focus on what more they could’ve done—how they could’ve been better, and what they could improve upon next time.
Coach’s account of his own life story took on exactly this tone. I could tell from the get-go that he was the type of man to downplay his own achievements—it was going to be up to me and, later, Casey, to fill in the blanks. But this is the gist of his story.
Coach was born in the Philippines in the early ‘60s, living peacefully on a farm but surrounded by corruption and violence until he immigrated to the US when he was 11 years old. Casey was born when Coach was 18, and in order to support his son, he enlisted in the Army, where he served as a tanker in the Gulf War. He shared that his had been one of the M1 Abrams tanks that the US lost in that conflict; Coach had been serving as the Platoon Leader’s gunner when it happened.
“I was firing the 7.62,” he recalled, “and the enemy’s rounds were bouncing off the tank. When the 7.62 is running, the Nuclear Biological Chemical (NBC) system activates. So the blower was running the whole time, and the NBC filter overheated and exploded. It was up in smoke.”
The Commander thought that they had been hit, so they evacuated the tanks and joined the crews of two others. Moments later, his Battalion Commander had to destroy the tank because it had been left behind enemy lines. Fortunately, no American lives were lost in the event—but it did leave scars. “Boxing is my number one therapy for my PTSD,” Coach told me. “The gym keeps me busy, keeps me going, and I don’t even think about it.”
His reliance upon boxing as an outlet extends back many years. His first amateur bout was at a USMC recruiting event in California in 1980. Competing as a 147 lb Welterweight, prior to that fight he had never boxed competitively before. All of his training had come from hanging around with friends, sparring and hitting the bag. He downplays it, but whatever training he was doing was clearly worth something—it landed him 21 pro fights with no formal training. He fought far more than that, though—at least a fight a week for 3 years, from ‘86 straight through to ’89.
Despite this impressive career, I couldn’t get Coach to open up any more about his personal achievements—or how he had come to coach at such a high level. When I spoke to Casey later, he was able to shed more light on his dad’s career and reputation. “He knows everybody in boxing!” Casey explained. “I grew up going to all these boxing events and meeting famous people and famous boxers. We went to Roy Jones Jr.’s gym in the early ‘90s and all these different gyms, and you’d see the same people you see on TV training or whatever. He knows a lot of people; I don’t know how he knows everybody. He knows Manny Pacquiao. I don’t know how he settled in at [the gym where he currently coaches]…I don’t know how he got in the door. But I’ve been there several times, and I don’t think I could just go in there and pick up some mitts and have somebody hit them.”
The one thing that Coach will say is that he doesn’t believe he was born to be a fighter; he was born to coach. “Boxing is an art,” he says, “There’s a lot of fighters that have accumulated so many fights but never understand the concept of the art of boxing. Because how boxing was introduced to them. Because of the people who introduced it to them.” He feels that the secret to his coaching is in his emphasis on the fundamentals, and his ability to convey this information effectively to fighters from all over the world. “They are satisfied with my teaching because it’s very simple,” he insists. “A lot of people will say ‘I never understood boxing the way you introduced it to me.’”
All of this knowledge and expertise, but Coach refuses to classify himself as the warrior type. “I’ve been in combat, and I did my job, but…I’m not a warrior,” he emphasizes. A combat veteran who has lived his entire life immersed in the fight world—really? I wonder if this is the type of humility many high performers share that I mentioned earlier. He is hard on himself.
I tell him: “I think it’s funny you’re a guy who fought so much and so often, but you don’t think you have the warrior spirit.
Coach: “I’m the nervous type; scared type. I go in and do it anyway. Even at the weigh in, I’d get all nervous, but I’d still go through with it. I just had the courage.”
Me: “But do you think that warriors don’t get scared?”
Him: “No, I’m sure they do. If they don’t, there’s something wrong with them.”
I ask for an example of a fighter who exemplifies the warrior type, and he cites Gennady Glovkin (GGG). “When I see him,” Coach points out, “he is not properly taught the proper way of boxing. The art of boxing. But in the ring, he finds a way to win. That’s a real fighter. A real warrior right there.”
This is what I want to know. I want Coach to show me where to find that warrior spirit; where it comes from, and how to recognize it. But it’s not that simple; apparently, it took him a while even to see it in his own firstborn son.
Or so he says: “If I had known Casey had that warrior spirit as a boy, I would have forced him into boxing.” I laugh, because for anyone outside of this absurdly high-achieving family, the existence of Casey’s “warrior spirit” would be an undebatable fact from day one. But this is a family where the standards for what constitutes “warrior spirit” are significantly higher than that which would pass for it in the majority of the population. Casey boxed throughout childhood, and became an all-star football player at his San Diego high school, where he says football soon eclipsed his budding boxing career. After high school, he would train some MMA and Muay Thai with friends who were pro fighters, but he says that he didn’t really start seriously getting back into the gym—and back into boxing—until several months before he joined the Army at 22. At that time, Casey was working security at a bar, so during the day, he would train. Incessantly. It was gym, lifting, cardio, and “martial arts stuff” for 3 hours each morning, followed by a 2-hour boxing session with his dad in the evenings. 5-hour daily workouts…for the fun of it. Or because, as I mentioned before, high performers don’t know any other way. If there’s a limit to be pushed, it gets pushed. Casey, in his youth, was no exception.
I’m starting to recognize a pattern here, but I think that it’s not just the American warrior class humility that I sense. I wonder if it might in part also be a feature of the family’s Filipino heritage. I think of the fighter Manny Pacquiao, one of the top pound-for-pound boxers of all time and Senator of the Philippines who can stand on the world stage before a $100M fight with an almost bashful sweetness that masks the killer instinct inside. I wonder how my lavish praise and admiration is being received. But I also realize that neither Coach nor Casey is every going to be comfortable boasting about their own achievements, because that’s not who they are. And I wonder if their authentic humility is part of the “secret to their success.” It is something to explore. At the very least, it’s a reminder that Coach and Casey are definitely a big deal—even if they will be the last ones to tell you so.
At the end of the day, I don’t need Coach to tell me if he’s a warrior or not. I see his fire when I ask him for help with my own fight game. “Stay cool, calm, and vicious-minded with intention,” he tells me, emphasizing: “Vicious-minded with intention. Because this is a fight game. Bad intention. You’re there to hurt your opponent. It is either you or her.” What about my tendency to get emotional in sparring? It’s human nature to get emotional in boxing, he reassures me, but your reaction to the emotion is what makes you a champion. “Some are sensitive and soft and explode with no control. Others shake it off and keep driving on, and that’s better. Don’t cry about it. Stay positive. Go forward. And just get more meaner.”
My favorite piece of advice from coach?
“Stay cool; calm. Your time will come to beat your opponent down and to get that revenge. Cool, calm, and you’re using your mind like playing chess…When you lose it, you’re like kamikaze. You’ll land one good shot, but get killed in order to do it. But if you stay cool and calm, you can stay cool and calm, and say, ‘Ok, motherfucker, what should I do next.’ It’s a mind game.”
A mind game. What percentage of boxing is mental? I ask him to give me a number.
“70-80%,” he tells me.
And the advice he gives me, on managing my mindset in the fog of combat, is 100% tactical. This is the stuff that every warrior has to grapple with—from the door kicking meat eater overseas to the kid under the lights in the ring. How can you make smart choices, tactical choices, when your adrenaline is firing in overdrive, every nerve in your body electric, feeling fear (or not), and facing off with a mortal threat?
There is a former Navy SEAL turned pro-MMA fighter named Mitch Aguiar who has popularized the tagline “Mindset is Everything.” I think of this, and wonder if Coach gave Casey the same kind of advice growing up. If he did, without realizing it, this emphasis on mindset was priming his son for the success he would later achieve serving in the highest echelons of the US Army as a Green Beret.
I fire off a text message to Casey.
“What’s your take on fear? When you are facing a fight, do you feel fear? A lot of people define courage as ‘feeling fear and doing it anyway.’ Do you think this is accurate in your case?”
It’s early on his side of the globe when he gets my message; not even 7 a.m. yet for him. He is currently on active duty, and the man clearly has shit to do. Still, he gets back to me.
“Yes,” he replies.