Dub Huntley’s career in boxing wasn’t by the book, but he had a good man in his corner

Boxing continues to stir Dub Huntley. He still trains fighters. And when a major championship bout comes on television, he gathers friends and family to watch.

After 58 years in the fight game, Huntley still loves it.

But it’s different now.

He misses his cut man.

Huntley and the late Jerry Boyd were more than corner colleagues. They were the best of friends.

“Me and Jerry, we hit it off when we first met,” Huntley says. “We did everything together.”

Boyd, under the pen name F.X. Toole, turned their adventures into a critically acclaimed book, “Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner.” The book in turn formed the basis of Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning 2004 film, “Million Dollar Baby,” with traces of Huntley’s personality embodied in two central characters — played by Eastwood and Oscar winner Morgan Freeman.

Boyd, however, died unexpectedly two years before the film’s release, taking a piece of Huntley’s heart with him.

“He left too early,” Huntley says.

Boyd, who as Toole became a literary sensation at age 70, was honored posthumously Friday in New York as winner of the Boxing Writers Assn. of America’s A.J. Liebling Award. It was another reminder to Huntley that his friend is gone.

Huntley, a 70-year-old grandfather, long ago came to grips with Boyd’s death. But when his friend, dying of pneumonia, took his last breath in September 2002, the longtime trainer “went into a depression,” says Jessie, his wife of nearly 50 years.

“A lot of time right now,” Huntley says in regard to training fighters, “I don’t want to be doing it no more.”

But still he carries on.

Seated in his tiny office/equipment room at the Broadway Boxing Gym in South Los Angeles, he explains. Referencing Boyd, he says, “I wanted us to get a world champion together. I always say, ‘He gone, but if I ever get a world champion, he’ll feel it.’ ”

An African American from Cairo, Ga., Huntley forged his improbable friendship with Boyd, a white man from the South Bay, more than 30 years ago, when Boyd turned to the sport in his late 40s intending nothing more than to get in shape.

Encountering Huntley, he asked the trainer how much he’d charge to work with him, and Huntley said he’d do it for free.

“I went home and told my wife, ‘This old white guy came in the gym and want me to train him,’ ” Huntley recalls. “I said I wasn’t going to charge him nothing and she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m going to run him out of the gym.’ ”

Huntley by then was a veteran of the fight game, having thrown his first knockout punch while still in grammar school.

“When I was 12,” he says, “I was boxing a kid at school. I knock him out. My dad said, ‘If you never drink or smoke, you can be a fighter.’ And I put that in my mind.

“I never drank and never smoked. Still haven’t.”

But that didn’t make him a great fighter. Born W.L. Huntley, the seventh of 10 kids born into a family of farmers, the middleweight won 17 of 39 pro bouts. He lost 19, with three draws.

“A lot of ‘em I lost,” Huntley insists, “I didn’t lose.”

In January 1970, during a bout in Rome, he caught a thumb in his left eye, suffering a detached retina.

“When I came out of the ring, I couldn’t see the step,” he says. “I had no feeling for it. I said, ‘Something’s wrong.’ But I wouldn’t tell nobody. I kept on trying to fight.”

Nodding toward his wife, he says, “One day she went to the fight and she say, ‘What wrong?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ ”

But they both knew.

Crushed that his dream of winning a world championship was over, Huntley vowed to never set foot in a gym again. Before long, however, he was back, this time as a trainer.

Among the fighters he has worked with are Iran Barkley, Johnny Tapia and Muhammad Ali’s daughter, Laila, whose errant punch inadvertently knocked out two of his front teeth.

Meanwhile, he never did shake Boyd, who kept turning up every day wanting to learn more about the sweet science.

Eventually, Huntley asked him to be his cut man and they traveled the world together, working corners.

Boyd, a frustrated writer who didn’t sell his first story until he was 69, later surprised his friend by telling him he was going to have a book published. For fear of spooking his fighters, Boyd hadn’t told anyone in boxing he was a writer.

“He said, ‘If I make any money from this book, you and I will never have to worry about nothing else,’ ” Huntley says. “ ‘Believe me,’ he says, ‘you will not have to worry about money.’ He said, ‘We’re going to have our own gym. You have your office in the gym and I’m going to have my office in the gym.’ ”

But by the time the movie was made, Boyd was gone.

“I didn’t make no money off that,” Huntley says. “But I believe if he had been here, I would have got some.

“The only thing I got from ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ they sent a limo to pick me up and take me to the awards.”

Not the Academy Awards, but an awards show at USC.

Huntley takes pride, however, in Boyd’s “Rope Burns” dedication to “Dub Huntley, my daddy in boxing.”

Says Huntley: “I thought it was wonderful. I really feel in my heart that he loved me. And I would have never thought he would feel that way about me.”

The feeling, of course, was mutual.

Still, Huntley has one regret.

“Every day I’d come to the gym, he’d be there waiting on me,” he says, laughing. “I should have charged him.”