LOS ANGELES – On July 2, inside a locker room at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Australia, the boxing trainer Freddie Roach found his protégé in the bathroom. Manny Pacquiao stood there, at a mirror, running a comb through his black hair, trying to cover a cut that opened on his head earlier that afternoon. His face was blank but barely marked.
Roach cared less that Pacquiao had “lost” to Jeff Horn, an unknown Australian welterweight that afternoon. He thought that Pacquiao had won easily and most of the world agreed with him. He cared more, far more, about how Pacquiao looked against Horn, how Pacquiao almost finished Horn in the ninth round but could not summon the kind of late flurry that defined his rise to international superstardom.
By then, it was obvious. This was Manny Pacquaio. But this wasn’t Manny Pacquiao, a boxer who once broke the orbital bones in opponents’ faces and struck with the force of a man twice his size, a fighter who made other fighters feel the name of his entrance music. Thunderstruck. “Manny wasn’t himself,” Roach told SI.com. “He didn’t look like the Manny Pacquiao I’ve known for a long time.”
Is that the first time you felt that way? Roach is asked. “The first time ever,” he says. “It was almost over in the ninth. One more round like that and, man …” His voice trails off.
“He just couldn’t do it,” Roach says.
Roach considered all that in the locker room and pushed through Pacquiao’s sizeable entourage into the bathroom. He didn’t want to come right out and say it— Are you going to retire? Maybe you should think about it— but he wanted to gauge the fighter’s reaction to how he fought, not the terrible decision. He wanted to see Pacquiao’s body language, hear his thought process. “I was trying to see where his head was at,” Roach says. “And I could not even get him to say hi to me. I don’t know if he was upset with me or what.”
It was an unusual bout, to say the least. In the week that led up to the Horn fight, Roach says Pacquiao watched all of his old highlights. It was like the boxer knew he was getting closer to the end and wanted to summon that old magic. The night before the bout, he saw himself batter a legend in Oscar De La Hoya, in the fight that announced Pacquiao to the wider mainstream sports world. What Roach remembers about that night is how smoothly it unfolded.
He thought back to that as Horn stalked and pressured Pacquiao and chaos unfolded in Pacquiao’s corner between rounds. Roach describes Pacquiao’s longtime confidant Buboy Fernandez as “hysterical,” and says he couldn’t get cutman Miguel Diaz to stop shouting when, in Roach’s opinion, more time should have been spent tending to the cuts on Pacquiao’s head, which bled profusely, leaking into his eyes. Then Roach makes a relatively stunning admission. “After watching the De La Hoya fight the night before and then this …” he says, trailing off again before picking back up.
“I once kicked two guys out Johnny Tapia’s corner,” Roach says. “His wife helped me in the later rounds, in a short dress and high heels, going up and down the stairs. Here it was just so far off that … I kind of gave up. That’s unusual for me.”
In the locker room, Pacquiao continued to comb his hair. He didn’t look at Roach. He stared at his reflection in the mirror. Roach has long said that when it’s time for Pacquiao to retire, he will tell him. He will be honest when others will look to cash in on the boxer’s fame without caring about his health. He will say the words that Pacquiao does not want to hear. “Maybe that’s what he thought I was there to tell him,” Roach says. “But I wouldn’t pick that moment. There were a lot of people. I wouldn’t embarrass anybody like that.” But try as Roach might, Pacquiao didn’t look at or respond to him. “Like he wanted his hair to be perfect,” Roach says.
He adds, “He was definitely avoiding me.”
Roach says this Monday at his gym, the Wild Card Boxing Club, after an afternoon spent working out Miguel Cotto, the super welterweight and future Hall of Famer who fights again this August. Everything is different than it was two months ago with Pacquiao. Before the Horn fight, Pacquiao had won two straight (over Tim Bradley and Jessie Vargas) after losing to Floyd Mayweather Jr. in May 2015, while competing with a torn rotator cuff.
Roach figured they’d target a Mayweather rematch after Pacquiao dispatched Horn. “That’s why we stayed in the game,” he says. “We were chasing that fight again. Because I know Manny can fight better than he did the first time he fought Mayweather. Everybody wanted that fight to happen and go on. And I wanted to cancel the fight, because I said, with that shoulder he’s not going to be able to win.”
He’s asked what he means by everybody? The people around Pacquiao? The networks? “Everyone in the world,” Roach says. “If they didn’t fight then, they said it would never happen.”
In the dressing room in Australia, Roach knew—deep in his soul—that fights like the Mayweather fight for Pacquiao were over now. On his way back to the United States, Roach told Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports! that he suggested to Pacquiao he should retire. But on Monday, Roach does not say that. Now, he says that Pacquiao should stage a rematch with Horn or retire. When pressed on which option he would choose, if it were solely up to him—and it most definitely is not—he says, “I would give him the benefit of the doubt and let him have one more. I would.”
But what if he looked the same? “Look, I wouldn’t expect a new guy to come out there,” Roach says. “I know what I have now.”
What about Terence Crawford? That’s a fight that Roach says he would not sanction. “If we fight Terance Crawford right now, he’s very athletic,” Roach says. “He’s very mobile. He’s like a young Manny Pacquiao. I don’t think we want to fight a guy like that, at this point.”
As Roach sees it, Pacquiao had two issues before the Horn bout. The first was the time required to serve as a Senator in his native country, the Philippines. The second was how he trained, and it wasn’t that Pacquiao spent too little time working out. It was that he trained too much, trained like he was 28 rather than 38.
When the Senate session ended in the middle of training, Roach says he and Team Pacquiao decamped to General Santos City and training picked up exponentially. It was strange, because Roach says the martial law had been enacted, and everywhere he went, he had two bodyguards shadowing him, police officers who carried M16s. In hindsight—and to be clear here, Roach is not saying that he could tell before the Horn fight that Pacquiao would struggle in the later rounds—Roach says they “left a lot in the gym.”
He points to Cotto as a comparison for how he would like Pacquiao to train. Cotto is 36 now, toward the end of his career, and as he aged, he ran twice a week rather than six times a week, replacing road miles with lower-impact training, like pool exercises and what not. Roach believes those decisions ultimately prolonged Cotto’s career. But with Pacquiao, he says, “I don’t think I could convince him.”
In response to critical public comments made by Pacquiao’s promoter, Bob Arum of Top Rank Boxing, who said Pacquiao was overconfident and that his corner didn’t yell enough at the referee over Horn’s tactics between rounds, Roach shrugged. He’d only heard what Arum said second hand. He says he asked the inspector to speak with the referee after Round 5, because he was concerned by Horn’s head butts (he counted 25 upon review) and the way he continually pushed Pacquiao’s head down. He said the inspector warned him he would be disqualified for that.
Thirty minutes had passed Monday. Roach sat there, on the ring apron, surrounded by the framed pictures of himself and boxing royalty hanging on the wall. Then he made an interesting pivot. If the MMA star Conor McGregor wanted to beat Mayweather in August, Roach says, he now had a blueprint for how it’s possible: pressure, roughhouse, engage—basically what Horn did to Pacquiao, turning a boxing match into something closer to a brawl. “I wouldn’t count McGregor out anymore,” Roach says. “He can win if he gets the right breaks.”
He’s asked if he felt the same way before Australia. “I don’t think so,” Roach admits.
Eventually, he came back to Pacquiao, to that moment in the dressing room, when the fighter who felt more like a son to him would not look him in the eye. Roach and Pacquiao have worked together for more than a decade now. He had never seen Pacquiao like that. What stood out was the silence. “I really don’t know if he’s mad at me,” Roach says. “But I can tell you this: I haven’t been paid yet. So who knows?”