CARLOS OSORIO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Brandon Cook walks through the sliding doors of the Ajax Community Centre, lugging duffel bags full of boxing gear and an oversized jug of water he’ll need to guzzle in his meticulous quest to get down to 154 pounds before Saturday.
Families hurry past the local fighter in the busy lobby of this sports complex, better known for its hockey rinks, swimming pool and outdoor soccer fields. Most don’t know Cook yet, or the small boxing club into which he disappears, tucked deep inside this place. This is where the 32-year-old trains six days a week for the greatest opportunity of his life – a world title shot in Las Vegas on the biggest boxing card of the year. He even quit his job installing windows to chase his boxing dream full-time and sold his house to finance it.
Cook winds his way down a long hallway to the Ajax Boxing Club, sequestered behind some squash courts. It has timeworn faded wood floors that give it character, a single boxing ring and a cluster of hanging punching bags. Between chin-up bars and speed bags, its walls tell stories of its boxers, through its local news clippings and fight posters held up with duct tape – including the fascinating journey of Brandon (Bad Boy) Cook.
This is where he first discovered boxing as a cocky 19-year-old who’d been mixed up in many street fights. He’d been coaxed to the club by school friend Mike Guyett, who’d seen Cook knock countless guys out in school yards and variety stores, and thought his buddy could use an outlet for that aggression.
These days, Guyett, 32, is his coach, holding the red pads as Cook peppers him with a rapid flurry of jabs. On Saturday, this Ajax, Ont., boxer will be part of an HBO pay-per-view evening watched by millions. He’ll get a title shot against undefeated WBO light-middleweight world champion Jaime Munguia of Mexico in Las Vegas. They’ll set the stage for the biggest boxing match of the year, the middleweight title rematch between megastars Saul (Canelo) Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin. Another Canadian is on the card in a non-title fight: Montreal middleweight David Lemieux taking on Irishman Gary O’Sullivan.
Cook’s opponent is a 21-year-old phenom with a 30-0 record – 25 by knockout – backed by Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions. Cook has built a 20-1 record (13 KOs) in his seven-year pro career with fights in Canada and Kazakhstan. An unknown in the U.S. boxing market, Vegas oddsmakers have Cook as an enormous underdog, at 14 to 1. “There’s no pressure on me, I’m not supposed to win. But I’m gonna win,” says Cook, who stands 5 foot 9 and will face the 6-foot fighter from Tijuana. “People will write me off – an Ontario guy fighting for a world title. Lots are obviously betting on Munguia. But I promise you that once that bell rings and they see the kind of punches I can throw, they’ll think, ‘Oh, maybe we shouldn’t have bet against this guy.’”
Cook’s parents split up when he was 7, and he lived mostly with his mother in Scarborough, in east Toronto. He says he was a pudgy kid, couldn’t focus on school work and went to a special program to help his reading and writing. He figures he had nearly 50 street fights growing up, necessitating a few moves between high schools in Scarborough and 30 minutes east in suburban Ajax, where his father lived.
He’d fight anybody and usually dropped a guy to the ground with the first punch. Once the toughest kid in school picked a fight with him over $5 in a dice game and Cook hit him so hard, the kid had to have his jaw wired shut.
Guyett, who had competed for the Ajax Boxing Club, took Cook there to try the sport and warned him not to run his mouth. Cook didn’t listen.
“I sparred with one of the coaches here and he tried to knock me out because I was a real tough guy,” Cook says. “It took two rounds and I got my ass kicked. It was so bad. He couldn’t drop me though. So I thought, ‘Well I want to keep trying this because I like it, and I can’t get in trouble for it.’ It changed my whole life around walking into this boxing club rather than fighting people in the streets or in bars.”
It bothers Guyett now to recall Cook in that brutal sparring session, that an adult would try to teach a kid a lesson that way, especially a newcomer to the sport. Rather than deter Cook, though, it seemed to fuel him.
Cook kept training there. He was tough and he loved boxing, but he was a mediocre amateur fighter.
“He had a 15-17 record in amateurs,” says Guyett, who has been coaching boxers since he was 18. “I can’t tell you the number of amateur fights I watched him lose where he laid a total beating on the other guy, but he didn’t get enough points. Brandon would go in trying to rip someone’s head off and that’s not how you get points and win in amateur boxing.”
Cook wanted to pursue a career in police work and graduated from the Canadian Law Enforcement Training College. He had to wear a uniform every day, shine his shoes, be clean-shaven and lead his classmates in parade each morning.
“It was so cool, I really liked it. I’d like to be a cop someday after boxing – not giving people tickets, but with a SWAT team or something, breaking down doors and getting things done. I’d be good at it,” Cook says. “But I wanted to achieve more as a boxer first.”
Right after graduation, Cook became a pro fighter, but no coach would dedicate enough time to training him. Guyett took over as his coach and also got him a job alongside him, installing windows and doors throughout the Greater Toronto Area.
“He was truly a diamond in the rough, but no one ever seemed to see that but me, “ Guyett says. “There are plenty of trainers who have been coaching boxers for decades and will never have the opportunity to work with a boxer as talented as Brandon. I did it for the friendship.”
While building his boxing record, Cook went on early morning runs before going to work. He and Guyett would train at the boxing club after work, often both with hands that were tender and bloodied from glass cuts. They’d run stairs and hills all around Toronto. Cook would often be right back on the job the Monday after a bout, black eyes and all.
Cook’s aggressive style made him a big draw for fights at Mississauga’s Hershey Centre, where some 5,000 would watch each of his fights. The likeable boxer was good at selling hundreds of his own tickets and mingling with fans. His boss would even buy some tickets to give to clients having their windows installed.
“Whenever Brandon was fighting, you knew it was going to get loud, and as a promoter, you watch for guys like that,” said his promoter, Tyler Buxton of United Boxing Promotions. “We saw about 400 people travel from Ontario to Montreal when he fought there. He’s sold T-shirts and driven to people’s homes to drop them off. A lot of fighters would say, ‘I’m a pro, let them buy their tickets at the box office or their shirts at the fight’, but not Brandon.”
“Brandon’s standout quality is his humbleness," Gordon McPhail, Cook’s strength and conditioning coach, says after their daily workout at his Whitby, Ont.,-based gym, AreYouGame Conditioning Club, which he co-owns with his wife. “He just comes in and works like he’s no better than anyone else, even though he’s way better than everyone else.”
McPhail, whose wife Kim is Cook’s nutrition coach, has worked with Cook for about three years. “His work ethic is off the charts. I never hear him complain and I’ve done a lot of awful things to him to prepare him for fights.”
A 2017 fight at Montreal’s Bell Centre between Cook and another undefeated fighter increased his profile. Cook wore down 21-year-old Montrealer Steven Butler and eventually knocked him to the canvas in the seventh with a left hook to the jaw, leaving him wobbly enough for the ref to end the fight. The crowd turned ugly, and Cook was hit in the head with a metal ice bucket launched by a Butler supporter. Cook says the tiger tattoo he later got on his arm symbolizes what he conquered that night in Montreal.
Taking down undefeated Butler in such a hostile environment got Cook invited to Kazakhstan to fight two-time Olympian and undefeated pro Kanat Islam last September before 15,000 fans. Cook was knocked down three times, but persevered. The bout ended after nine entertaining rounds, by technical knockout, Cook’s first pro loss.
By then, Cook had sold his house in nearby Courtice, Ont., to move in with his father, a retired tow-truck driver. Cook eventually quit his job and used the profits from the house sale to train full time (Guyett still works his day job as an installer, coaches Cook after work, then goes home to his wife). Cook won two more fights in Mississauga, and to diversify his training, he began competing in run-bike duathlons around Ontario.
Then English boxing promoter Eddie Hearn called to offer Cook a fight with former British world champion Kell Brook at the 20,000-seat O2 Arena in London on July 28, with the winner promised a world title shot. The matchup led to many fans asking who this little-known Canadian was and why he was chosen. Because Cook had a high world ranking with three of boxing’s four governing bodies (11th in IBF, seventh in WBA, fourth in WBO), a win for Brook would have boosted the Brit’s ranking and helped to revive his career.
But Brook pulled out with an ankle injury and his replacement – Sam Eggington – then also cancelled on Cook, just days before the fight, citing an injured eye.
Cook was devastated not to fight at the O2. He went to London anyway, enjoying tourist sites with his girlfriend and attending boxing events with Buxton to build his profile in the sport and do interviews with British media.
“He was so disappointed not to fight in London, but he really made the most of that trip,” his girlfriend, Lindsay Yarmo, said. “People really got to see Brandon Cook the person and find out who this Canadian fighter is.”
Buxton had been talking to Golden Boy Promotions about a fight for Cook for months, but kept it quiet. Cook got fight-ready in July, but hadn’t got to fight. So it made him a prime choice when Golden Boy was looking for a well-ranked boxer to stage an intriguing fight with its rising star, Munguia – a fighter looking to defend his title for just the second time since winning it in May.
“I need to be very careful with him,” Munguia said about Cook in a teleconference. “Because I’ve seen a couple of fights, and when he’s hurt, he’s the most dangerous.”
A staple of Cook’s training has been what he calls the Saturday-night special, a gruelling two-hour workout that he does every Saturday night. The toughest comes two Saturdays out from a fight, as he does repetitive intervals of sprinting, boxing, sled-pushing and then power lunges on a soft mat meant to measure how well he can jump up if he gets knocked down. Each round ends with the ring of a bell.
In the final round of the workout, as Cook is dripping with sweat and his limbs are exhausted, Guyett holds up the red pads and chases him around a square space like an antagonizing opponent late in a bout. Cook, tired but stubborn, slips and moves and refuses to be backed up as he grunts and unleashes his final punches.
The weeklong obligations in Vegas – the world’s focal point of boxing – have been unlike anything Cook has ever experienced. Cook and his team arrived on Monday night and on Tuesday made a red-carpet entrance into the MGM Grand Hotel, walked past fans and media for a faceoff with Munguia and eventually posed with the legendary De La Hoya.
Buxton declined to say how much Cook stands to make on this fight but calls it “the most money Brandon has ever made and it has big bonuses if he wins. Sponsorship deals would likely follow. Even if he loses, it’s his biggest payday yet. A fight of this stature will change his life, win or lose.”
The final days before weigh-in, Cook has down to a science as he tries to get his usually 166-pound body down to 154 pounds. He drinks eight litres of water a day for three days, then tapers it down to almost nothing over the next final days as he eats asparagus and flushes all that water out. Cook is careful with his food intake, too. He took all his food with him to Las Vegas and picked up an inexpensive microwave at a local Walmart to cook it in his hotel room.
His Epsom-salts bath is the final touch and then he layers up with clothes and blankets to sweat out the final few pounds while watching TV.
His only indulgence with money is sneakers and he buys himself a new pair before every fight – always in his the grey, black or blue of his Bad Boy colour scheme.
“I have way too many shoes I should stop doing it,” Cook says. “But I’m not gonna stop this week. Hey, it’s Vegas.”