HOLLYWOOD — It’s a warm March afternoon, warmer inside the confines of Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club, where Roach, a seven-time BWAA Trainer of the Year, traces his steps on the padded floor of the private workout room beneath the main gym. Ruslan Provodnikov, a television-friendly former world champion whom Roach is training for an April 18 showdown with Lucas Matthysse, has come and gone. So, too, has Denis Lebedev, the WBA cruiserweight champion whom Roach is preparing for his title defense on April 10. The real work has yet to come: Manny Pacquiao, Roach’s prized pupil, who is in the early stages of training for his May 2 showdown against Floyd Mayweather.
Pacquiao is late, at least an hour, though Roach shrugs his shoulders when asked about it. “If he’s late it means he’s sleeping,” Roach says. “I have no problem with that.” Besides, an hour isn’t that late. When Roach trained Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. he would often be idle for hours; occasionally Chavez would decide he wasn’t going to show up at all.
Recently, a neurologist asked Roach, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, if he ever had thoughts of suicide.
“Yes,” Roach told him.
“When?” the doctor asked.
“When I was waiting for Chavez in a hotel room for hours, bored out of my mind,” Roach replied.
“What stopped you?” the doctor probed further.
“I looked out the window,” Roach told him, “and realized landing would hurt.”
Roach was kidding. The doctor? He didn’t get the joke. He still checks in with Roach regularly.
Besides, when trying to track down Pacquiao, Roach’s options are limited. Says Roach: “I don’t have his phone number.”
Huh? The best trainer of this generation and the Fighter of the Decade don’t swap digits? It’s a quirky—but highly effective—relationship. It’s 14 years and counting for Pacquiao and Roach, a conjoining that began on a sweltering summer afternoon in 2001 with Pacquiao, then a sturdy super bantamweight (122-pounds) contender, a former flyweight champion, shuffling through the door of Roach’s gym. Eddie Futch, Roach’s former trainer, warned against opening a gym. Too much of a hassle, Futch said. Still, Roach’s Field of Dreams philosophy consumed him. If you build it, Roach reasoned, they will come. They being the next Mike Tyson or Sugar Ray Leonard.
Or the first Manny Pacquiao.
Roach remembers it vividly. He remembers the manager, Rod Nazario, who made the introduction. He remembers the pop behind Pacquiao’s punches when the two worked the mitts. And he remembers the swell of excitement he felt when Pacquiao informed Nazario that Roach was now his trainer.
“I just remember thinking, ‘This guy can really fight,’” Roach says. “I knew he would be good—though I’d be lying if I said I knew he would be this good.”
Says Pacquiao, “It just felt good. I trusted Freddie. I trusted his judgment.”
Indeed: Shortly after Pacquiao and Roach began working together, an opportunity came up. Pacquiao was offered a super bantamweight title shot against Lehlo Ledwaba, the once-beaten champion who had already made five title defenses. Ledwaba’s opponent had fallen out, and Pacquiao was offered the fight on two weeks notice. It would be his U.S. debut. Roach told Pacquiao to take it. Pacquiao agreed. He won every minute on the way to a sixth-round knockout.
The rest is there to be seen in the record book. Pacquiao is 28-3-1 under Roach, holding wins over Miguel Cotto, Ricky Hatton and Oscar De La Hoya. He has beaten Juan Manuel Marquez twice and Erik Morales twice. He has won titles in eight weight classes, seven with Roach in his corner. He erased one of his losses with Roach—a highly questionable decision defeat to Timothy Bradley in 2012—with a dominating decision win over Bradley last year. He rebounded from a stunning knockout loss to Marquez in ’12 with three straight wins, reestablishing himself, at 36, as one of the top three fighters in the world.
The value in a fighter-trainer relationship isn’t in the actual training; a few years into a pro career, most fighters can train themselves. They can run the mountains, work the bags and get themselves to weight without much help. The value is in the strategy, an area in which Roach excels. Roach possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Pacquiao’s strengths, a wizard-like ability to discern an opponent’s weaknesses and an understanding of how to devise a game plan to take advantage of both. Consider: Against Cotto, Roach prodded Pacquiao to use his handspeed to bury Cotto under an avalanche of punches; Cotto went down twice before the fight was stopped in the 12th round. Against Hatton, Roach noted that Hatton was open for a right hook; Pacquiao pummeled Hatton right hooks in the first round before ending the fight with a skull crushing left in the second. Pacquiao has taken to calling Roach “the master” and processes his every word like it’s gospel.
“Freddie knows what is best for me,” Pacquiao says. “He’s the best trainer in boxing.”
There is another responsibility Roach has: Telling Pacquiao when to quit. Roach knows firsthand the dangers of fighting too long; his Parkinson’s, doctors have told Roach, is connected to the brutal beatings he put his body through during his boxing career. Roach has sworn to tell Pacquiao when it’s his time, has declared that he won’t work with him if Pacquiao continues to fight after he does. But Roach says he doesn’t see those signs in Pacquiao. He still sees a fighter near his peak.
“Time catches up with all of us,” Roach says. “Manny is not as consistent maybe as he used to be, but his work ethic is still there and he still trains really hard. I don’t know that it’s as easy as it used to be for him. But his legs are still good. He hasn’t lost his step at all.”
The hype surrounding the Mayweather fight is unprecedented, but Roach has kept camp consistent. Pacquiao runs in the morning under the watchful eye of strength coach Justin Fortune. He trains in the afternoon in a locked room with cameras above the door to identify the handful of people who are allowed through it. Media access has been restricted and Roach has made sparring partners sign non-disclosure agreements, part of an effort to protect the game plan for Mayweather.
And Roach knows Pacquiao will follow that plan. When Pacquiao arrives at the gym—white long sleeve t-shirt, shorts, socks and flip flops is a frequent look—the two exchange smiles and nods before Pacquiao darts into his dressing room.
“That’s it,” Roach says. “Time to get to work.”
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