A Closer Look at Elite Boxing Trainer and 2024 Hall of Fame Inductee Kenny Adams


By Arne K. Lang

Kenny Adams will be formally enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame and Museum in Canastota, New York, next month. It is a long overdue honor for the longtime Las Vegas boxing coach who turns 84 in September.

Adams grew up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where he was raised by a great aunt and her husband. He had his first amateur fight at age 11 in Sikeston, Missouri, and dozens more in smokers in other nearby towns. Upon graduation, he enlisted in the Army where he was a two-time all-service champion and was part of an elite squadron that worked behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War. He would eventually rise to the rank of Master Sergeant.

Adams first attracted attention as the coach of an Army team that dominated inter-service competitions. After serving as an assistant on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, he was named head coach of the 1988 squad for the Seoul Summer Games.

The U.S. dominated the boxing competition at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, winning a gold medal in nine of the 12 weight categories, but that achievement should probably come with an asterisk. The Soviets boycotted the Games as did the powerful East Germany contingent.

Expectations were low for the 1988 squad which lacked a charismatic personality. There was no Sugar Ray Leonard or Mark Breland to whet the interest of America’s top sports scribes. The fighter that got the most pre-tournament buzz was Kelcie Banks, a spindly featherweight from Chicago who would be knocked out in the opening round.

Defying the odds, the Americans won three gold medals and two silvers. Heavyweight Ray Mercer, light heavyweight Andrew Maynard, and bantamweight Kennedy McKinney won gold. All three were Army men. Light middleweight Roy Jones Jr and light flyweight Michael Carbajal had to settle for silver after losing controversial decisions in the finals. Jones’ setback to his South Korean opponent was considered so rancid that he was named the tournament’s outstanding boxer.

Adams acknowledges the role played by his top assistants, Hank Johnson, an Army combat medic and the brother of light heavyweight champion Marvin Johnson, and Alton Merkerson, best known as the trainer of Roy Jones Jr. However, Kenny gives himself full credit for selecting the venue where the Army fighters trained for the Summer Games.

He chose Fort Huachuca, an Army installation near the Mexican border in Cochise County, Arizona. “It was perfect,” says Adams, “very secluded. A boxer couldn’t leave the base or have a visitor without us knowing about it.” (The nearest good-sized city was Tucson and that is 77 miles away.)

After the 1988 Games, as Adams was finishing up a 30-year hitch, Top Rank came calling with the proverbial offer too good to refuse. Bob Arum was putting together a syndicate to manage the careers of some of the top amateur boxers who were about to turn pro and he wanted Adams to coach them.

Notable members of the syndicate, which took the name Las Vegas Gloves, were Las Vegas businessman/restaurateur Freddie Glusman, future Las Vegas mayor Ron Lurie, and UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. The fighters entrusted to Adams included McKinney, the most prized of the signees, Vincent Phillips, Cleveland Woods, and Eddie Cook, all former U.S. Army soldiers, plus Freddie Norwood, a boyhood friend of Cook from St. Louis.

The syndicate lost money, notwithstanding the fact that McKinney, Cook, Phillips, and Norwood captured world titles.

Eddie Cook was the first American fighter that Kenny Adams molded into a world title-holder. In 1992, Cook dethroned WBA bantamweight champion Israel Contreras, knocking out the Venezuelan veteran in the fifth round. (He lost the belt in his first defense and retired two years later, leaving the sport with a 19-3 record after suffering a TKO at the hands of future Hall of Famer Marco Antonio Barrera.)

Before Cook won his title, Adams played a role in one of the most startling upsets in boxing history.

While training boxers in Germany, Adams was introduced to Rene Jacquot, a boxer from France. Jacquot’s management inquired if Adams would “polish” him.

“He was a very good student,” recalled Adams, “a hard worker. I trained him in the American style and it enhanced him.”

Nonetheless, no one gave Jacquot a chance when he was matched against Donald Curry in Grenoble, France on Feb. 11, 1989 in a match televised on CBS. Jacquot’s reported record, 24-10, was that of a journeyman.

Curry had started to slip. He had been stopped by Lloyd Honeyghan and Mike McCallum. But a few years prior during his reign as a world welterweight champion, Curry was rated in some quarters as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. Although the fight was in France, Rene Jacquot was considered nothing more than speed bump for the American invader.

When the smoke cleared, Rene Jacquot was the new WBC 154-pound champion. The decision in his favor was unanimous and eminently fair. (He would lose the belt in his first defense, knocked out in the opening round by John “The Beast” Mugabi. Adams wasn’t around for that one.)

The Ring magazine named Jacquot vs Curry the 1989 Upset of the Year. Eight years later, Adams would be on the right side of yet another fight that would receive this distinction.

While Adams worked with Rene Jacquot for only one fight, he had a long run with Vince Phillips. It was rocky at times. Phillips, in common with his pal Kennedy McKinney, developed a cocaine problem early in his pro career. Las Vegas was no Fort Huachuca. There were temptations galore.

Phillips had a fine pro record (35-3, 24 KOs) when he challenged IBF 140-pound kingpin Kostya Tszyu at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City on May 31, 1997, but he had lost two of his last four fights, had been knocked out in three rounds by Ike Quartey, and was dropping down in weight to meet an undefeated fighter who was considered the best junior welterweight to come down the pike since Aaron Pryor.

“Cool Vince” took the fight out of the judges’ hands, scoring a 10th-round TKO. It was the 1997 Upset of the Year.

Adams would eventually train more than two dozen world champions including such notables as Diego Corrales, Edwin Valero, Johnny Tapia, and Nonito Donaire. In some cases, these relationships were long-lasting; others were fleeting as some boxers seem to change trainers as often as they change their underwear.

Nowadays, Kenny Adams can be found most afternoons at the DLX Boxing Gym in Las Vegas. The facility is a short walk from the handsome home that Adams shares with his wife of 57 years, the former Claudia Campbell of Clarksville, Tennessee.

There are no stuffed shirts at DLX. Adams is often the subject of good-natured ribbing. “I didn’t know they had a hall of fame for spit-bucket carriers,” joshed the young trainer Manny Savoy, addressing Adams one afternoon when we happened to be there.

In common with most others of his vintage and especially those that led wildly exciting lives, Adams is experiencing some memory loss. Recalling events, the timeline gets jumbled. And physically he has had a number of maladies that have slowed him down. But when Kenny works the pads with a boxer – often a schoolboy as DLX trends younger in the afternoon when school lets out – the years roll off him. By some mysterious alchemy, his reflexes become that of the young man that he once was.


Note: The 2024 renewal of the annual Hall of Fame Induction Weekend, a 4-day jamboree, runs June 6-9. The event concludes on Sunday with the Parade of Champions in the Downtown Canastota District followed by the formal induction of this year’s honorees in the showroom of the Turning Stone Casino-Resort in Verona, NY, one exit away on the New York State Thruway.