Freddie Roach has become the go-to guy for a feel-good story in boxing. He's the former pug of middling ability turned master builder of the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world; the altar boy turned acolyte of legendary cornerman Eddie Futch (and Eddie begat Freddie); the trainer to the stars (he's worked with Mickey Rourke! Marky Mark!) who has become a star in his own right, as the wise, calm voice amid the behind-the-scenes madness of HBO's 24/7, and a friend to boxing writers everywhere for his thoughtful, engaging (and always crafty) interviews. And, of course, he is a model of courage, battling his Parkinson's with grace and dignity even as he works to protect his own fighters from the same sort of damage in the ring.
Plus, he's funny and a really nice guy.
All of which is compelling, but it doesn't make Roach SI.com's Trainer of the Year.
What makes him that is the fact that he can really train fighters, and had a great 2009 doing so. At 49, Roach is at the top of his game -- at the very top of the game. His star charge, of course, is Manny Pacquiao. Now Pacquiao, who in '09 cemented his status as boxing's best by flattening Ricky Hatton and brutally dismantling Miguel Cotto, would make any trainer look great. But the fact is that Roach has made, and continues to make, Pacquiao better. He has harnessed the boxer's immense energy and fighting force and channeled it ever more effectively.
Manny is a much more complete fighter now -- with a full range of offensive weapons and a superb sense of pace and control of distance in the ring -- and with Roach's guidance he executed the perfect game plans against both Hatton and Cotto. And no sooner had Cotto been dispatched than Roach was laying the foundation for Pacquiao's next bout, against Floyd Mayweather Jr. All in all, it's hard to envision a more successful trainer-fighter relationship than the one between Freddie and Manny.
But Roach is far from a one-man (or Manny) show. Over the past year, he has done very good work with a number of fighters. Foremost, perhaps, is Amir Khan. The explosive junior welterweight from Bolton, in the U.K., had run up a record of 18-0 under previous trainers before suffering a devastating 54-second knockout loss to Colombian Breidis Prescott in September 2008. It was the kind of defeat that can permanently derail a young fighter's career.
But Kahn's management brought the 23-year-old to Roach immediately after that bout, and the trainer has undertaken a complete rebuilding project.
Even Roach has said that they're "only halfway there" so far, but the signs are encouraging. After disposing of a sadly-over-the-hill Marco Antonio Barrera (big name, no risk) last March, Khan grabbed his first world title with a careful decision over Andreas Kotelnik. Then, early this month, he blasted out Dmitriy Salita in 1:16 of the first round. While it's true that no one can train a fighter to have a good chin -- and the tinkling sound of fine British china still echoes behind Khan -- but already Roach has Khan fighting with power and confidence again. In the coming year he should be a player in the stacked junior welterweight division.
And then there's Guillermo Rigondeaux. The 29-year-old super bantamweight has had just four pro fights. Before that, of course, as a member of the Cuban national team, he had more than 400 amateur bouts, winning two Olympic gold medals. The 5-foot-7 southpaw, who defected early in 2009, is, not surprisingly, far more polished than other new pros. Roach's task, therefore, is to tweak Rigondeaux's skills to make them more suitable to the professional ranks. Last week Rigondeaux passed a minor test, going eight rounds for the first time in his life to take an easy win over somebody named Lantey Addy in New York City. Hardly earth-shaking but, to Roach, a step in the right direction.
Last Saturday night, on the Pavlik undercard, another Roach fighter, junior middleweight Vanes Martirosyan, ran his record to 26-0 with a third-round TKO of Willie Lee. The win earned the 23-year-old Martirosyan the NABF and NABO 154-pound titles and, more important, vaulted him into contention for a big-time bout. Born in Armenia, but raised in the U.S., Martirosyan made the 2004 Olympic team, and turned pro in 2005 with Roach as his trainer. In '08, he left to train under Ronnie Shields in Houston, but returned to Roach early in '09. In his three fights since, Martirosyan has shown increased speed and power. "Freddie is teaching me to be more explosive," he says, "like Manny Pacquiao." He may be getting a little ahead of himself there, but it does appear that Martirosyan, an attractive prospect, is progressing well under Roach.
In the end, though, it all comes back to Manny. He is unquestionably the Man in the sport right now. And Roach is the man behind the Man. That says it all.