Freddie Roach Goes the Distance
He wouldn't have gone to that funeral no matter whose it was, and no matter who urged him to go. Not his mother's. Not his older brothers'. Not for
So on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend -- the day
What about the sadness?
The gut-wrenching reality that Joey, his younger brother and favorite sparring partner, had died in his sleep at age 47? It would have to creep in later, as Freddie Roach, 49, fell asleep still wearing his horn-rimmed glasses, a video of Pacquiao's next opponent,
"Last time I saw a dead person was 1981," says Roach. "I went with my girlfriend to see her father's body the night before his funeral. Ever since, all these great memories I had of the guy have always ended with him lying there. I don't want that to be the last thing I remember about someone."
The walls of the Wild Card are plastered with memories of Freddie's choosing. There are rows of posters from his fighting days as the Choir Boy, a speed-bag-busting lightweight who had the legendary
"Freddie Roach is up there among the all-time greats," boxing historian
But as Roach prepares Pacquiao for the most anticipated fight of the year, a WBO welterweight title bout against Cotto on Saturday in Las Vegas, what is most remarkable about all that productivity is its context. Few people know exactly how hard it is for Roach to do the job he loves. The man with three Trainer of the Year awards -- the most ever won by one person -- not only trembles involuntarily but also suffers other symptoms of Parkinson's disease, the result of his own career as a boxer. "What Freddie does is amazing," says
And there's a reason no one understands. Around Roach's gym and training camps only three topics are verboten: politics, religion and the boss's mortality.
"We're fighters," says former cruiserweight Marcus Harvey, one of several former boxers employed by Roach as trainers. "We know time is ticking, but why would we want to imagine that?"
On Oct. 13, 1928, in an article in
Indeed, for all the current concern over CTE in retired NFL players, boxing is in the very names of CTE diagnoses such as dementia pugilistica (seen in former champs
With Roach, the most obvious symptom is the tremors, which awaken him each day by 6 a.m. In the ring the Choir Boy had a never-back-down style, and he absorbed punishment for a total of 406 rounds in 53 pro bouts. Roach has other symptoms associated with Parkinson's too, which he is loath to belabor for fear of arousing pity: drop-foot (his left foot drags with each step), arthritis in both elbows and, most agonizing, cervical dystonia (muscle contractions in the neck). He takes three kinds of medication daily, and every three months he is injected with Botox to treat the dystonia, which Chung likens to "constantly having a charley horse in your neck." It causes Roach's head to jerk backward and to his right, as if someone were pulling on his hair.
"I've got the best life in the world," Roach says without sarcasm. "I don't want sympathy. I love my job; I have a house, a car. But yeah, sometimes I wonder, Why the f--- does it have to be me?"
His own trainer tried to warn him. Futch, who worked with four of the five men who defeated Ali -- and who threw in the towel for one of them,
When master and pupil had first met, people said that this pale kid with the soft voice, all of 5-foot-6 and constantly attacking, looked like a white version of Futch. Once, an opponent took a look at Roach and scoffed, "That little kid?" That little kid knocked him out.
But some 20 ESPN fights and one broken right hand later, Roach's quickness had evaporated in the Las Vegas desert. After the Haugen fight Futch began to tell Roach about older boxers who were slowing down -- really hurting themselves -- and the young fighter cried. Then he did what he always did after taking a good punch: fling all judgment out the window, say "F--- you" and keep going.
In five bouts without Futch, Roach was destroyed four times. When he finally retired, in 1986, he was 39-13 and moonlighting as a telemarketer, hawking coffee mugs and key tags with two of his four brothers, Joey and
How important are trainers in boxing? Roach agrees with Bert Sugar: Fighters make trainers, the way thoroughbreds make jockeys. "Anyone can put a towel on their shoulder and be a coach," Roach says. "I have great fighters. The worst part about this whole game are trainers and managers."
But former middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins, once a charge of Roach's, offers a critical distinction. "There are too many damn trainers and not enough teachers," he says, practically yelling. "There's a 20-mile difference between some trainer and a teacher. Freddie Roach is a teacher."
That's how Roach got into the business, albeit inadvertently. One afternoon, after he'd reconciled with Futch, Roach was hanging out at a gym in Las Vegas when he was asked to take water over to one of Futch's lesser prospects, light heavyweight Virgil Hill. Casually Roach inched closer to the apron, seeing possibilities in Hill's technique, thinking of input he could offer the fighter. From then on Roach showed up at the gym every day, and by the next year he was Futch's most trusted assistant. On Sept. 7, 1987, Hill won the WBA light heavyweight title by TKO with Roach in his corner. It was the first world championship for them both.
Since then Roach has taken a total of three vacations -- one, in 2001, was when he became engaged (he never did marry) -- and none were for very long. He is inside the Wild Card from eight to eight on weekdays and nine to four on Saturdays. Recently, over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills, Roach named two other things he doesn't do: drink and eat carbs. His main vice? Movies. "
This rigid schedule is not what you'd expect from a former brawler. (Roach says he once had to bite out a mugger's eyeball to save his own life in Vegas. "I had eyelashes in my teeth," he recalls.) Until last spring, when he moved to L.A.'s Hancock Park neighborhood, he literally lived in gyms. When Roach first came to L.A., to work with actor and light heavyweight boxer
His goal, ironically, was to resemble the man whose advice he once rejected. "I'm 100 percent modeled after Mr. Futch," Roach says. "People have called me his clone, and there's nothing that makes me prouder." (Futch died at age 90 in 2001.)
Like Futch, Roach is a disciplinarian who doesn't yell; a mentor who, by virtue of how deeply he breathes the sport, has the total confidence of his fighters. "Freddie's so emotionally involved," Hill says. "You respect him because he knows exactly how a fighter feels. He's been there and done that."
Mixed martial arts champions such as
The ring is also where Roach feels the healthiest. When he puts on the mitts and bounces back and forth, catching hundreds of punches mere centimeters from his goatee, the tremors, which began 20 years ago, stop and his old quickness returns. Like Futch, Roach is http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/an offensive wizard, and he thinks he's better at physically rehearsing strategy than at anything else. "He always wants you to get within an inch of your opponent," says assistant
That philosophy is what has made Pacquiao, who is generally considered the world's best fighter pound for pound, his perfect pupil. Roach, who calls the Filipino southpaw's burnished right hook "my baby," has tuned Pacquiao's frantic cacophony of punches into a graceful arpeggio.
But there are limits. Sitting behind his desk, Roach will tell you that his training is centered on defense. Against boxing tradition, he refuses to let his fighters spar more than three times a week, for fear of the extra damage it could do to their brains. And even if it cuts down on his income (Roach makes the trainer's standard 10%), he tries to persuade trainees to quit when their advancing careers begin to threaten their health. "Even," Roach says, with a small grin, "when they all tell me to go f--- myself."
Among his world champs, he has suggested retirement to the 45-year-old Hill, who hasn't fought since 2007; to heavyweight
And now -- to the chagrin of promoters and fans -- Roach is advising Pacquiao, who has made the trainer arguably the most popular foreigner in the Philippines, to retire after two more fights. "Quitting is against boxing's religion," Freddie says, "but my duty is to protect my fighter."
Indeed, for all of the medical community's ideas to make boxing safer -- headgear, bigger gloves, a ban on blows to the head, none of which are likely to be implemented -- Roach believes in the unilateral power of the corner. After all, only a trainer sees a fighter's regression up close, and only a trainer can throw in the towel. "I suppose you can call me a hypocrite," Roach says, his voice low. "I teach people to do what gave me this disease." Then again, as Hill points out, "Who better to tell a kid, 'Son, maybe you need to look at other options'?"
There is no one else, really. And too rarely does a teacher get a second chance to take his own advice. When Roach's own clock winds down again -- when training becomes too fast for him -- there will be no weeping and no denial. He knows that for all his donations to the
"I've already written my living will, and I want them to pour my ashes into the closest gutter," the best cornerman in boxing says with a smile, standing beneath the posters and photos on the walls of his gym. Those are the memories he has chosen.