Stitch Duran: UFC’s Loss Boxing’s Gain

Combat sports are unique, and not solely because when a round begins two people beat each other up intentionally. That contests conclude with actual finality, and (theoretically) determine an unambiguous winner, is something very few other sports can boast. Fight outcomes can turn on a dime, along with the fortunes of those involved. This unpredictability makes it fitting that cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran’s fortunes are surprisingly good despite being sacked by the UFC last week for what amounted to insubordination.

“I have to give Dana a lot of credit for jump-starting my new career,” Duran only half-jokingly told The Fight City.

For Duran, the “new career” isn’t so much a transition, or even much of a change as far as his tasks are concerned; he will still be working his magic on facial injuries for pugilists near and far, it just won’t be under the UFC banner, an organization he’d contracted with for over a decade. In the interview with Bloody Elbow that got Duran fired, he spoke out about cutmen not being represented in negotiations between the UFC and its new sponsor Reebok, which resulted in a deal that saw cutmen lose out on valuable endorsements. Duran suggested that working with other MMA organizations was frowned upon by the UFC, making outside employment options limited.  Picking up more boxing gigs is now a realistic possibility.

“Stitch” Duran, seen here treating Georges St-Pierre.

After being fired and subsequently breaking the news on Twitter, Duran has been flooded with support from fighters and fans alike in the fight community. And the fiasco will likely be to Duran’s benefit in the long run, considering his new ventures and projects on the horizon. “I’m working the World Series of Fighting this weekend, Cory Schafer (President of the ISKA) asked me to work the GLORY fights, on August 14th I’ll be with Don House and Marco Huck for boxing… What started out a negative turned into a positive.”

No stranger to digging around for positives in negative situations, Duran grew up in the farming town of Planada, Calif., where a substantial portion of the population hovers at or below the poverty line. After money issues derailed his baseball ambitions at Merced College, Duran joined the U.S. Air Force and found himself stationed in Thailand, where he picked up an interest in martial arts and boxing. Duran became “Stitch” after coming home and opening up a kickboxing gym, learning how to work cuts on the job.

In boxing, the old adage states that the best referees go unnoticed during a fight. Likewise, cutmen tend to have bit parts in the grand production, but their roles are no less integral. “It’s really a team effort. The coach is keeping [the fighter] in the game, and I’m keeping them in the game. That’s just the bottom line in what we do,” Duran said. It’s a slight over-simplification of what he does, however. “Once the fighters come in the dressing room, we wrap their hands, we get them ready to fight — the psychological aspects of being in the trenches, at that point, and getting them ready, there’s no money you can put on that. I think we’re extremely instrumental in helping these fighters, and the fighters appreciate it and the fans know it.”

Stitch Before fight
A cutman’s responsibilities include helping the fighters before a bout.

What the fans also know is Duran’s name. He may be the only celebrity cutman in combat sports, and for good reason: the veteran has also been in five movies, including “Rocky Balboa” and “Here Comes the Boom,” and will also be in “Creed,” the upcoming Rocky spinoff. “I got a pretty nice role with that. I’m working with Rocky as he brings in Apollo’s son, Adonis, and I’m right in the mix of it, man. September 25, I’m doing another one with one of my Latin idols Edward James Olmos and Anderson Silva.”

While it seems Duran was already on the way up, getting dropped by the UFC only served to bounce him higher. And where MMA’s flagship organization has erred in cutting Duran loose, boxing can only gain. “I’ve given up a lot of [jobs at] big boxing events because I was already locked into the UFC, where the pay structure was astronomically different. I gave up fights with Wladimir Klitschko, with Andre Ward, Andre Berto and other guys. When it came to pay status, the payouts are a lot, a lot different.” And Duran would know, as in addition to being the most famous cutman around, he has recently worked with Chris Algieri, heavyweight champion Klitschko, and Ward; he also used to work on Johnny Tapia and Raul Marquez, neither of whom were strangers to bleeding.

Aside from his notoriety and experience, one of the greatest things about “Stitch” is his motivation to spread his knowledge and teach the techniques he’s fine-tuned. Though training manuals exist, much of the knowledge that’s passed on in gyms is learned through apprenticeship, by aspiring cutmen hanging around, watching, and then eventually doing. There were medical experts like Dr. Vincent Nardiello, a fight doctor from New York who served as “Sugar” Ray Robinson’s cutman and personal physician, but most were apprentices like Al Gavin, Joe Souza and Chuck Bodak, or Freddie Brown and Eddie Aliano. These men learned to keep the fights’ outcomes in the hands of the fighters, rather than have lacerations determine them, and they did so mostly in gyms where in-corner methods were secret. That’s where Duran is different, and perhaps represents an evolution.

Teaching his methods and working with youth are Stitch’s passions.

“One of my new goals is to educate as many cutmen, certify them and make sure they’re qualified to be working fights of this magnitude — or any magnitude. Even if you’re an amateur fighter, it’s just not fair for you to get penalized or lose a fight because a cutman couldn’t do his job,” Duran said. “Education is what I want to do. A group called me to participate in seminars and certify cutmen and other people under the rules of the ABC — the Associations of Boxing Commissions. That’s something I’m interested in, and I need a platform. I’m also the honorary president of the International Cutman Association, which is based out of Europe. But now the ICA is becoming a worldwide project and I’m going to heavily endorse them and help them out, because they’re all doing the right thing. It’s all about everybody working together and everybody learning.”

It wasn’t just a trusted cornerman the UFC released. Beyond his immense knowledge, the UFC lost a role model. Earlier this year, Duran helped the Sheriff’s Athletic League raise over $20,000 to open up a boxing gym aimed at keeping at-risk youth off the street in his hometown of Planada. It was a gesture of appreciation, and fully in the spirit of giving back to his community. “When I got to the fundraiser, there are all these camera crews there. I didn’t expect it. This is Planada, a small little town. When the question was asked to me by one of the Fresno channels, ‘How does it feel to be here?’ I choked up. I started crying. It meant a lot to the kids, to the parents.”

Boxing is a cutthroat sport that’s historically taken advantage of fighters; this can make finding the really nice guys seem like a fool’s errand. This time boxing can take advantage of an opportunity presented by the UFC, and use Duran’s participation to help the fighters and the sport.

           –  Patrick Connor

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