ST. PETERSBURG — For the past 25 years, the St. Pete Boxing Club has produced some of the best fighters in the sport, including Winky Wright and Jeff Lacy.
Now a vital part of that team is gone.
Mike Birmingham, who with brother Dan had trained hundreds of local boxers, including Wright and Lacy, was found dead Sunday in his Sunset Beach apartment. He was 49. His death, which is still under investigation, has stunned the local and national boxing communities.
"No question about it, they were the pioneers in boxing … in St. Petersburg," said boxing analyst Mark Beiro. While Dan Birmingham took the lead role in training fighters, younger brother Mike was always by his side.
"I have never fought without Dan, and I have never fought without Mike," said Wright, 37. A former undisputed light middleweight champion, he started training at the St. Pete Boxing Club at 14. Lacy started at age 9.
Mike Birmingham grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, the youngest of six. He took his first boxing lesson at age 6.
"Mike was always the toughest kid in his class, the toughest kid on his block and also one of the nicest kids," older brother Dan said. "He was the one who beat the bullies up."
At 14, he moved to St. Petersburg. He lied about his age to fight in amateur bouts.
"His strength was his power," said Jim McLaughlin, who founded the St. Pete Boxing Club in the 1970s. "He had a very, very hard jab and he was a strong puncher.
At 16, Mr. Birmingham's toughness got him a job as a bouncer at Satan's Den, a topless club.
A few years later, his brother Dan joined McLaughlin in running the boxing club. Though it had started as a place for fighters to train, it soon turned into a school. Though the school never had any money, its fighters, including Mike, won a slew of amateur titles in the 1980s.
Mike Birmingham dropped boxing in his mid 20s to focus on training. He took Lacy under his wing, who would later become a super-middleweight champion.
He excelled as a cut man, a trade he had learned in Ohio from Eddie "the Clot" Aliano and other veterans.
"He could stop open-heart surgery," his brother said.
The knack came in handy in a 2007 bout, when Bernard Hopkins opened a gash over Wright's eye in the second round. Hopkins won the decision, but Wright stayed in the fight all 12 rounds.
Mr. Birmingham also knew how to motivate fighters. "If there is a fire in you, he knew how to put the fuel in it to make it blaze," said Lenroy Thomas, a 24-year-old heavyweight.
Around the gym he could be sensitive. "If somebody said the wrong thing, he'd be out the door. He'd just disappear," Dan Birmingham said. Later, it would be as if nothing had happened.
About 11 years ago, a chiropractor's attempt to "adjust" Birmingham's neck ended up breaking two discs, his brother said. Birmingham lost 50 pounds and wore a neck brace. He sued but recovered little money after medical bills and attorney's fees.
He enjoyed walking his black Labrador, Buddy, several times a day along Sunset Beach. On Sunday, a neighbor who had not seen him walking the dog since Thursday knocked on the door of his apartment. Mr. Birmingham was found on the floor near his bed, a towel wrapped around his waist.
The Pinellas County Medical Examiner's Office has performed an autopsy, but have not yet determined a cause of death.
In recent days, tough guys from all over the country have called Dan Birmingham, their voices coming apart.
"They're in shock," he said. "They knew Mike had a problem with his neck and spine and all that stuff. They didn't expect him to just drop dead. Nobody did."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]