Changes of Fortune: Justin Fortune interview
Luke G. Williams
When Justin Fortune grew up in Perth, Western Australia he never dreamed he'd end up running a Hollywood Gym. He tells Luke G. Williams how boxing entered his blood...
Justin Fortune is a brave man.
Brave enough to have not flinched when conceding eight inches in height and nearly 30lbs in weight to the great Lennox Lewis on an atmospheric night at The Point in Dublin in 1995.
Brave enough to have opened his own gym in Los Angeles during the worst recession of the last few decades.
And brave enough to admit that there were times, after his 2014 diagnosis with throat and neck cancer, that he came close to despair.
“There were a couple of times where I could easily have put a fucking bullet in my head and I’m no pussy,” the gruff and tough 53-year-old tells Boxing Monthly by telephone from his LA home, prior to flying out to the Philippines to work as Manny Pacquiao’s strength and conditioning coach for his 15 July clash with Lucas Matthysse in Kuala Lumpur, which the great Filipino went on to win via seventh-round TKO.
“I went through chemo and radiation treatment and there were times it was pretty tough. My cancer was stage 4. They opened me up from my chin to my fucking ear.
“[When you have cancer] you have to change your lifestyle, your diet, your outlook - everything. And you have to fight. Or you roll over and fucking die and I didn’t want to do that.
“So I stopped being a fucking scumbag. I stopped stressing, I changed my diet. Got rid of sugar and eliminated all the crap. I’m clear now but you can never jump the gun. Every time I see a doctor, if they’re happy, I’m happy.”
It’s a classic Fortune response – unfiltered, painfully honest and littered with an industrial strike rate of F-bombs. All in all, the overriding impression the Australian makes is of a tough but endearing man who you’d definitely want to be in the trenches with you.
Like many tough men, he also possesses an emotional streak, paying a heartfelt tribute to his wife Tamara for her role in sustaining him throughout this difficult period.
“We’d only been married for like six fucking months when I was diagnosed. A lot of people would have just bailed. But she sure as hell stuck through it. It takes a really strong person to stand by someone who has cancer. Anyone who’s going through cancer knows the care givers are fucking gold.”
Before undergoing treatment, Fortune froze some of his sperm in case he and his wife wanted to start a family at a later date. Last August, the couple were delighted to welcome twins (a boy and girl) into the world.
“From having cancer all of a sudden a couple of years later we’ve got nine-month old twins running around, it’s brilliant and a blessing - absolutely.”
A further blessing is the fact that 2018 marks ten eventful years since he opened ‘Fortune’s Gym’ on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
“We opened in 2008, right when the worst fucking recession hit this country. It was great fucking timing!” Fortune quips with his characteristic dry sense of humour.
“The first four or five years were brutal, but we’ve stuck it through. It’s a good gym. I don’t take shit from anybody, I’ve thrown out a lot of dirt-bags and now we have a real close community in the gym. There’s no shit. It’s clean. Women can come in and not be harassed.”
The gym has been frequented by a host of Hollywood actors and celebrities over the years, while as a trainer or strength and conditioning coach Fortune has worked with over 30 world champions at various times.
Appropriately enough, given his LA base, he also met his wife through a celebrity connection of sorts.
“She’s an ex-college athlete,” he explains. “We met when I was training her for a celebrity boxing match against Kim Kardashian. She beat Kim up and gave her a black eye.
“I didn’t actually show up for the fight because it was embarrassing. I thought: ‘I’ve trained world champions I can’t show up for this!’ She was like: ‘you bastard!’ Then we started dating and the rest is history!”
All in all, Fortune admits that - metaphorically and literally - it’s been a long and unlikely journey for a man born in the somewhat sleepy western Australian city of Perth in 1965.
“Never in a million years did I ever imagine I’d end up in Hollywood!” he admits with a chuckle. “Perth is the furthest city from the rest of the fucking world on the map!
“My dad was in the car business, my mum was a decorator and designer. As a kid I was always interested in boxing and was always in fights on the streets but I was committed to other sports.
“I was involved in power-lifting – I had world records, Australian records, Commonwealth records, all that bullshit, but there was no money in it. So I turned to boxing – I always enjoyed the purity of one on one sport
“I started when I was 18 or 19. I had 26 or so bouts as an amateur, went to the World Cup, Commonwealth Games, was Australian champion and all that. Then I turned pro and had four or five fights in Australia.”
At the same time, Fortune had also embarked on a career as a classically trained French chef. “I wasn’t smart enough for university so I got a trade. I went to Sydney to start my chef’s apprenticeship when I was 15.”
It was a chance encounter and conversation with future Hall of Famer Virgil Hill that propelled Fortune to the United States.
“I was sparring with Virgil and he said: ‘you’re tough, you need to go to the States.’ He made a connection for me with Freddie Roach. Three weeks later, I was off! My first wife wasn’t very happy about it but who gives a shit. That was it - the rest is fucking history.”
Fortune has a vivid memory of his American debut at the Mirage Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas on 15 February 1992. “I got 400 bucks for a four-rounder against Sammy Speech. I bust his nose, dropped him once - or was it twice? - and got a fucking draw!
“I was like: ‘what the fuck?’, but Freddie said: ‘shut up we got a fucking draw against one of Don King’s fighters.’ I made 400 bucks, had a beer and that was it.”
The most-high profile fight of Fortune’s career, of course, was his 1995 engagement with heavyweight great Lewis, then rebuilding his career after the shock loss of his WBC title to Oliver McCall.
“I was supposed to fight Michael Moorer and everyone agreed to it but HBO knocked it back because I’d only had like 14 or 15 fights,” Fortune says. “Then Freddie was talking to some people and said to me: ‘you wanna fight Lennox Lewis?’ I said, ‘fuck yeah, I don’t give a fuck, I’ll fight anybody!’
“I jumped in the ring, saw Lennox was 6’6” and said: ‘hang about, something’s gone wrong here, did I agree to this?’
“But it was great. My attitude always was: I’m a fighter so put me in a fight! It was way too early for me to fight a former world champion who was 26-1 but what the fuck, I gave it my best shot, and they gave me a good pay day.”
Fortune is still aggrieved about the conclusion to the bout, which was waved off in round four after he absorbed some big uppercuts from Lewis.
The Australian stumbled back against the ropes and referee Roy Francis promptly waved proceedings off without a count being administered, before Fortune had even landed on the canvas. To add insult to injury, the Australian regained his feet immediately. The crowd greeted the stoppage with a chorus of boos.
“I got fucked over,” he argues. “Everyone saw the fight was prematurely stopped. I’m not saying I would have won, but I sure as hell would have gone more than four rounds. But it was what it was.
“The referee was changed at the last minute. It was the same referee who did Eubank vs Watson [the second fight in 1991] so he was real skittish. He probably thought: ‘if anything happens to this guy I’m fucked’, so he just stopped it.”
Post-Lewis, Fortune found it hard to land meaningful fights. “Everyone said: ‘stay away from this guy, there’s no reward to risk ratio in fighting him’. At one point I went and had a K1 fight in Japan because they offered good money. I got the shit kicked out of me but that’s part of the business.”
Fortune ended his career with a 15-9-2 record, and is proud to have campaigned at a time when he argues the heavyweight division was in far ruder health than it is today.
“There were lots of great heavyweight champions and contenders around. You could go in pretty much any gym and there’d be a couple of good heavyweights. The guys in the 1990s would have destroyed the heavyweights these days.
“The heavyweight division doesn’t have much excitement now. Some of them are disgusting. I mean look at that fucking disgrace of a fight [in March] between Dillian Whyte and Lucas Browne. Jesus! Whyte was in shape and came to fight, but Browne wasn’t. My god, what was he doing? When I saw him come in so heavy I knew it was going to be a shit fight.”
After he finished fighting professionally Fortune returned to the food business, running his own restaurant in Australia for four-and-a-half years, until a phone conversation with old mentor Roach dragged him back into boxing.
“Freddie said: ‘why don’t you come over and help me train fighters?’ I thought wow, ok. That was 2002 and it’s snowballed since. I’ve worked with all sorts of fighters – Pacquiao, Tyson, [Israel] Vasquez. For two or three years Freddie and I didn’t lose a single fight. Good times.”
Although their working relationship ruptured for a while, Fortune and Roach are once again on good terms, and the Australian believes their skills and knowledge form a perfect blend.
“We know what we’re both capable of. I know how to get at a fighter, then there’s my background in cooking and strength stuff. Combined with Freddie’s experience and knowledge, that makes a great recipe for success.”
Although Roach’s services were not retained for Pacquiao’s clash with Matthysse, it is a measure of the esteem the eight-weight world titlist has for Fortune that the Australian was once again part of his training set-up.
“He’s a freak,” is Fortune’s view of the Filipino. “Just like Floyd Mayweather, Mike Tyson or LeBron James - a freak of his sport. I mean he’s been world champion or number one for 15 years or whatever which is phenomenal – who else has ever done that?
“The world will never see another Pacquiao, that’s for sure and I sure as hell won’t either. He’s got a couple of fights left. He’s done enough in boxing but he just wants one more world title to solidify his legacy – for him, that is! The rest of us are like: ‘Manny you’ve already done enough!’”
Speaking before training camp began alongside Pacquiao’s new head trainer Buboy Fernandez, Fortune was confident Pac Man would be in top shape come July - unlike for his controversial points loss against Jeff Horn last year, when Fortune believes Pacquiao entered the ring over-trained.
“He always comes to camp already 60 or 70 per cent fit. He’s a nice guy, a good friend of mine. Easy to work with. And as a person, he gives a helluva lot back to his people. What more can anyone ask for?
“He’s a good religious guy, doesn’t drink any more, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t gamble. He’s pretty much the perfect fucking fighter.”
As Pacquiao’s career slowly approaches its sunset, rising Australian lightweight George ‘Ferocious’ Kambosos Jr (15-0, 9 KOs after winning on the Pacquiao vs Matthysse undercard) is hotly tipped to be Fortune’s next world champion.
“We’ve just signed with Lou DiBella. He’s a good promoter who knows how to take a fighter to a world title. George has the goods to do it for sure. He has that work ethic in the gym. He lives and fucking breathes the sport.
“He’s strong and he’s got the skills. He’s only 23 and already ranked five or six with the WBA.
"We’re going to give him some fights over here, maybe seven or eight fights in 18 months. He’ll be sparring here and in the Wild Card [Roach’s gym].”
With the likes of young gun Kambosos on his books and his gym continuing to thrive, Fortune can’t foresee a time when he won’t be involved with the sport. “I love boxing, it’s the ultimate competition of one on one, which teaches you to harden the fuck up basically.
“The other side, the business side of it? Trust fucking nobody! It’s a tough sport business-wise. Fighters are like racehorses, man, if one goes bad there’s another ten behind them. One day you get pushed aside and someone replaces you. I understand that. That’s business.
“But once you get boxing in your blood, you’re fucked because it’s hard to get it out. You only retire from boxing when you die.”