ORLANDO -- The cell phone buzzed in Freddie Roach's pocket, and it didn't take Roach more than a few seconds to think he was getting punked. It was last July, and on the other end of the line was a voice claiming to be Miguel Cotto, calling to ask if the Hall of Fame trainer would take him on for his next fight.
"I said 'Stop f------ around,'" Roach told SI.com. "Honestly, I thought someone was playing a joke."
And why wouldn't he? Roach and Cotto had never been close. In 2009, Roach's prized pupil, Manny Pacquiao, squared off against Cotto for a welterweight title. At the weigh-in, a skirmish broke out between Roach and members of Cotto's team. In the middle of it, Roach said, he told Cotto "to go f--- himself. And Miguel told me the same. And that was the last time I really talked to him."
Time -- and circumstance -- have a funny way of resolving old rifts. Last year wasn't a particularly good one for Cotto. In May, he dropped a decision to Floyd Mayweather, a fight Cotto made competitive but one which nobody, save for perhaps Cotto himself, thought he won. In December, Cotto lost another decision, this time to Austin Trout -- and watched a lucrative payday for a fight with Saul Alvarez vanish in the process. There is no shame in losing to Mayweather or Trout, of course. But after more than a decade of wars in the ring, including battles with Pacquiao, Mayweather, Antonio Margarito and Shane Mosley, it was fair to question just how much Cotto had left.
Roach admitted he wondered that, too. "Watching the Trout fight, you might want to think that [he was almost done]," Roach said. "But something was wrong in that fight. He was really flat." So as Cotto and Roach talked, Roach quickly warmed to the idea of training him. "I've got at least three good fights left in me," Cotto told Roach. "And I want you to be a part of them." So after clearing it with Pacquiao -- who quickly approved -- Roach took over Cotto's camp.
From the start, Roach said, the goal wasn't to change Cotto, who will face Delvin Rodriguez on Saturday at the Amway Center (HBO, 9:45 p.m.). It was to get him doing some of his best stuff again.
"I want to bring back that work to the body, his bread and butter," Roach said. "That's what got him to where he is today. I am not going to change him, of course, because he is a great fighter as he is. We just need a reminder of the fundamentals of boxing."
"When he was at his best it was the fundamentals of boxing which he excelled at. He's been getting a little older and so-forth, so we cut back in the roadwork and do more conditioning, because running every day for six days a week your whole life is hard on your body. So we cut back on that a little bit and added a few things to replace it."
By all accounts, the Roach-Cotto pairing has been successful. Roach calls this Cotto camp the best he has ever been a part of, high praise from a man who has spent more than three decades in the sport. He says Cotto is "100 percent" receptive to his suggestions and is a tireless worker. Consider: In the past, Cotto has struggled to make weight. Fight week often involves long runs to cut down to the limit. For this fight, Cotto's conditioning has been so good that on Thursday, Roach gave him the day off.
Said Roach, "I'm not lying when I say this has been my best camp. Miguel has been one of the best students I have ever had."
Cotto has been similarly pleased. He praised Roach for his preparation and for helping him rediscover his old strengths. And while Cotto is loathe to look too far ahead, he appears eager to finish his career with Roach in his corner.
"The way things are going makes me feel like I am going to finish my career with him," Cotto said. "I feel I can do the best I can with Freddie."
Cotto and Roach are on the same page about something else, too: Both understand the urgency of Cotto's situation. Losses to Mayweather and Trout can be easily explained. A loss to Rodriguez --a tough, rugged journeyman with a fraction of Cotto's talent -- cannot. A win will propel Cotto toward an anticipated matchup with Alvarez or a middleweight showdown with Sergio Martinez. A loss could push him into retirement.
"We are in a must-win situation for sure," Roach said. "That's why we are working so hard and [why] we are working well together. We start conditioning work every morning at 5 a.m. and that ends at 8 a.m. That leaves Miguel a little time to rest then we come back to the gym at 2 pm. and from 2-4 we are sparring or working with the mitts. We do about nine rounds every day. We are working real hard and we know what the situation is."