Of the handful of trainers who are spoken of by people in boxing as being especially humane and progressive, probably no one is so described more often than Eddie Futch, trainer of Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Michael Spinks, Alexis Arguello, Larry Holmes and a score of other notable fighters. That's why it wasn't surprising that Futch hired Daeshik Seo, a Korean physical therapist, as a special trainer for Holmes as he prepared for his June 1982 WBC heavyweight title bout with Gerry Cooney. Seo's job included designing a conditioning program for Holmes that consisted largely of static (or non-calisthenic) stretching exercises. He also treated other people in Holmes's Easton, Pa. camp for maladies ranging from leg cramps to ligament damage in the hip.
Holmes's handlers were impressed. So was featherweight Freddie Roach, who credits Seo with "practically saving my career." When an operation on his right hand failed to relieve intense pain from injured ligaments, Roach was faced with the prospect of early retirement. "He probed my hand with his fingers," Roach says of Seo's treatment, "and told me that a ligament was still out of place and that he could put it back. I didn't believe him, because three of the best hand surgeons I could find had been unsuccessful, but I figured I had nothing to lose. All he did was massage my hand and use acupressure on my arm, and then he lifted the ligament into place. On the spot." A month later Roach was back in the ring.
Seo's methods may sound like hocus-pocus, but there's nothing mysterious about them. For the most part, his treatments are commonsense applications of techniques widely known in Korean sports medicine. Seo combines Jeep Ap Beop, an ancient Korean method of acupressure, with static stretching. The principal difference between Seo and his Western counterparts is that, like most Eastern trainers, he acts as both trainer and healer. Or more accurately, he believes there's no real division between the two roles. Seo acquired his knowledge of the body through extensive hands-on experience. "Master Seo," says one friend and patient, "has the touch of a blind sculptor."
Ancient or not, several of Seo's techniques are heretical to Western trainers. For one thing, Seo advocates heat, particularly moist heat, in most situations in which Americans use ice. In the long run, he feels, heat is more beneficial because it improves circulation, which aids the body's natural healing process.
Seo sometimes has a tough time getting his message across, as when he treated junior welterweight champion Aaron Pryor for an injured right elbow before a title fight. "Daeshik warned us to use heat instead of ice when we tried to treat Aaron's injury ourselves," says Pryor's wife, Theresa, "but it went so much against what other trainers told us that we didn't listen. Daeshik got upset with us. But he agreed to work on Aaron's elbow himself with massage and acupressure and heat, but after he was through, he scolded Aaron and said, 'Now maybe you listen to me!' We will, too."
A few years ago it would have been surprising if a Holmes or a Pryor had even considered listening to Seo. When he arrived in Manchester, N.H. in 1975 from Seoul, he had $380 and an English vocabulary that wouldn't have helped him at a Burger King. He also had a wife and four children to support. Seo says he came to the U.S. "because my sister was here, and she said to me, 'Daeshik, this is the country where you can put all your talents and abilities to real use, where you can make the life you want for your family,' and I believed it."
Seo's r�sum� included a B.S. in physical education, sports medicine and physiology from Kwangju National Teachers College, a masters in the same disciplines granted by the Korean Ministry of Education, an international Tae Kwon Do master instructor's certificate, a gold medal in modern dance from the International Culture Association and stints of teaching volleyball, gymnastics, track, basketball, judo and soccer (his Korean high school national champion team qualified for the Asian Junior Soccer Championship in 1965). He also was the Korean lightweight boxing champion for six years, and he has a seventh-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Unfortunately, he had no degree in the politics of the American education system, and he soon added the term "overqualified" to his rapidly expanding English vocabulary. He found work teaching boxing, yoga and Tae Kwon Do—he's now president of the American Korean Tae Kwon Do Association—at New Hampshire College, and, later coaching the soccer team at Daniel Webster College. Still, he was forced to supplement his income by taking other jobs.
Seo's fortunes changed when William Bowers, a friend of his from New Hampshire, happened to pass through Easton before the Holmes-Cooney fight and by happenstance met one of Holmes's sparring partners, who had a knot in his calf. Bowers applied acupressure, which he had learned from Seo, and relieved the ailment. The man was impressed, and Bowers said his work was nothing compared to that of this remarkable fellow in New Hampshire who treated virtually any athletic injury without ice or drugs. Word got back to Holmes, who was intrigued enough to send two plane tickets to New Hampshire so that Bowers and Seo would come to Easton. "I was fortunate that my first experience in American boxing was with a man like Eddie Futch," says Seo, who now calls Futch "my American father." Seo has been working with champions ever since.
When Michael Dokes injured his right arm preparing for his WBA heavyweight championship match with Mike Weaver last December, Willie Brown, a member of Dokes's camp, called Seo and asked him to fly to Las Vegas. "I couldn't throw a hard right without a pain that felt like a needle jabbing into me," says Dokes. "I was worried about more than just the Weaver fight." Seo discovered two twisted tendons and a twisted nerve in Dokes's arm, and after numerous hot towel applications and massages, he realigned the tendons. Three days later Dokes resumed sparring.
Seo's static stretching therapy goes against the grain of teachers and trainers who still believe stretching weakens muscles. Bob Anderson, author of Stretching, who has worked with the Dodgers, Lakers, Broncos and other pro teams, feels that American athletic teaching at the high school level is still "mostly medieval. You just can't convince these old-timers that stretching not only relaxes a muscle, but that it also increases a muscle's efficient strength. The result is that thousands of American athletes wind up with brittle, injury-prone bodies by the time they're 30."