LOS ANGELES — Freddie Roach is a fighter. Always has been. He grew up in a boxing family and brawled his way to 40 professional wins. He beat booze and refused to let Parkinson’s derail his trainer aspirations. He’s now the best trainer in the world.
He’s familiar with pain, in various forms, and how to overcome it, and now he must push through it once again. Because as Roach’s prized pupil, Manny Pacquiao, prepares for a fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. on May 2 in Las Vegas, a bout that will define the two best boxers of their generation, Roach is suffering from an injury that produces pain unlike any he has ever felt. It stems from an inflamed sciatic nerve, which shoots discomfort from his lower back down through his left leg.
“Worst pain I’ve ever had in my life,” Roach told SI.com.
“Definitely a 10,” he says.
“Bending over is almost impossible,” he says.
“Sometimes, I pee blood.”
At the news conference for the mega-fight on Wednesday, Roach carried on in as normal a way as possible, even if the event was anything but. He walked the red carpet. He did interviews. He smiled. He talked sparring partners (forgetting one’s name, he mentioned how many times he had been hit in the head). He swore seven times, notable because he promised Pacquiao $5 for each time he swore during training camp (Wednesday total: $35). He even, onstage, called the bout “the toughest fight of our life” and called Mayweather the “best fighter in the world.”
“And we’re going to kick his ass,” Roach added.
That’s Roach. That’s been his approach to training boxers through his various ailments. That will be his approach for this fight, too. The fighter is still fighting.
But it’s not easy. Roach says the nerve flared up about a month ago. Where it used to take him an hour to get ready in the morning and drive to his gym, the Wild Card Boxing Club, at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, it took him three hours when the pain first hit. It's better now, but it still takes him an hour and a half.
He's developed routines to cope. “I get dressed in different rooms,” he says. Which room depends on the chairs. He’ll push them up against tables of varying heights so he can prop his feet, which allows him to put on his socks and shoes.
The hardest part is waking up. Most mornings, his left leg is completely numb. “I know if I hit the floor, it’s not going to hold up,” he says. So he’ll do the exercises his therapist recommended.
He’s had three epidural treatments for the pain and expects to have a fourth this week. He’s had two MRI tests. When in Macau, China, for a recent bout, he visited four times with a therapist trained in holistic, traditional Chinese medicine. That helped. He feels better but not great. Doctors don’t have any sort of magic cure, just advice, and exercises they can recommend.
“They told me some people have operations,” Roach says. “Some people’s operations are successful. Some aren’t. Some people are bothered by pain their whole lives."
His doctor told Roach that maybe he just has to get used to it.
Not that anyone has suggested Roach slow down. Anyone that would has never met Roach. It’s boxing that pushed him through the Parkinson’s, that made him decide to quit drinking and forge a new career path. It’s boxing that will help him now, through this. He believes that.
Everyone wants to help Roach. They hear about the nerve and the pain, and they tell him to get acupuncture, or use specific stones or bath salts. Everyone has a solution. Roach believes he knows what will work best for him. He knows what has worked best for him.
That’s boxing. That’s being in the gym every morning at 8 a.m. and not leaving until dark. That’s working the mitts with Pacquiao, the fighter who climbed the stairs to his gym almost 15 years ago an unknown and rose to become a congressman in the Philippines and an eight-division world champion in the ring. This fight is too important to worry about the pain. Even if it hurts.
So Roach was in the gym on Tuesday, at work with Pacquiao, same as always. He closed the mitts portion of the workout to media and outside observers to better preserve the strategy they are working on for Mayweather. He didn’t just watch. He participated.
Then he retreated to a back room, away from the cameras and the reporters with their note pads and from his champion and the entourage that never leaves. “I’ll be fine,” Roach says. “I think Manny’s worried about me. But he beat the shit out of me anyway yesterday.”
Roach laughed. Then he climbed the stairs to the second floor of the gym, slowly, carefully. He had another training session.