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Inside Manny Pacquiao's Uncommon Relationship With Longtime Trainer Freddie Roach

Roach has been by the 42-year-old boxing legend's side for 20 years. How did he have this kind of staying power with one of the sport's most famous figures?

LAS VEGAS – There was at least one. Maybe two. Freddie Roach can’t remember. How many people have tried to get him fired from Manny Pacquiao’s corner? 

Bob Arum did. That was back in 2007, when Pacquiao was training for a fight against Jorge Solís. Roach spent part of that camp in Puerto Rico, training Oscar De La Hoya. Roach worked Pacquiao’s corner against Solís. Arum gave the trainers check to his assistant, Justin Fortune. 

Michael Koncz, Pacquiao’s longtime advisor, has. Buboy Fernandez, Pacquiao’s close friend and assistant trainer, says Roach, still is. “Buboy wants me gone so bad right now,” says Roach. “I used to help Buboy. Now he just wants to be the head trainer.”

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It’s mid-week, and a masked Roach is seated in the media center at the MGM Grand. Behind him, a blood orange banner with Pacquiao’s likeness. In it, Pacquiao’s left arm, the powerful appendage that has turned the Filipino into one of the great knockout artists of this generation, is fully extended. Roach, though, wants to talk about the right one, the hand he worked tirelessly with Pacquiao to develop. David Díaz was the first to feel the power of Pacquiao’s right hand. “Díaz said after he thought I was in the ring hitting him, too,” says Roach. “That was great.”

Roach still beams when talking about Pacquiao. It has been 20 years since Pacquiao wandered into Roach’s Wild Card gym, a skinny ex-112 pound champion seeking direction. There have been wins and losses, highs and lows but, save for a brief, one-fight split in 2018, Roach and Pacquiao have done it together. On Saturday, Roach will corner Pacquiao for the 37th fight, when Pacquiao faces Yordenis Ugás for a piece of the 147-pound title. They are the Muhammad Ali-Angelo Dundee of this generation, one of the most successful fighter-trainer pairings in boxing history.

But how? How in a sport where fighters swap out trainers like tube socks have Roach and Pacquiao had this kind of staying power? The two have no contract.

 “Freddie used to wonder after every fight if Manny planned on hiring him back,” says Bruce Trampler, Top Rank’s longtime matchmaker. Roach rattles off a couple of reasons. First, says Roach, is Pacquiao’s deep desire to constantly improve. Roach first saw it in 2001, when Pacquiao handed him VHS tapes of his two pro losses. Roach wondered: Why does he want me to watch these? Does he not want me to work with him? Pacquiao, says Roach, wanted him to see everything before he made a decision to work with him. Pacquiao bought into Roach’s coaching back then. He still does to this day. “They are so in synch,” says Trampler. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

Another: Pacquiao takes losing well. “Better than anyone in the world,” says Roach. Many fighters don’t. The trainer often pays for it. Roach knows. In 2007, Oscar De La Hoya fired Roach after his loss to Floyd Mayweather. In 2012, Amir Khan canned Roach after a knockout loss to Danny García. José Ramírez dropped Roach after winning a title in 2018. Pacquiao is different. In 2005, Pacquiao lost to Erik Morales. Roach stayed. In 2012, it was back-to-back losses to Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Márquez. Roach stayed. In 2015, Pacquiao lost to Mayweather. Again … Roach stayed.

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“Freddie and I, we’re not only boxer and trainer,” says Pacquiao. “We’re family. We’re friends. Best friends.”

The lone speed bump came in 2017. Pacquiao traveled to Australia to face Jeff Horn. The training camp was bad. “Just so sporadic,” says Roach. The fight was worse. Horn, a journeyman, grappled his way to a close—and widely disputed—decision. Afterwards, Roach suggested Pacquiao, a Filipino senator with eyes on higher office—needed to choose between politics and boxing. The two didn’t speak for 16 months. Pacquiao went on to stop a faded Lucas Matthysse in 2018. Roach watched from his couch. “I probably got myself fired,” says Roach. “I walked into it."

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The two reconciled in 2019, reconnecting for Pacquiao’s wins over Adrien Broner and Keith Thurman. At 40, Pacquiao was, again, a world champion. Against Ugás, who was awarded Pacquiao’s title by a shadowy sanctioning body due to Pacquiao’s inactivity the last two years, Pacquiao will attempt to win the title back. “He is a champion because the WBA gave my title to him,” Pacquiao said. “Now we will settle this in the ring.”

Indeed. Pacquiao will fight Ugás. But will he fight anyone else? A loss would certainly push Pacquiao, 42, towards retirement. But a win might usher him there, too. Pacquiao intends to run for president of the Philippines in 2022. Campaigning takes time. Energy. That leaves less time and less energy for boxing. Maybe none.

Roach knows. He doesn’t think Pacquiao needs to retire. Long ago, he promised Pacquiao he would tell him when he thinks it’s time to quit. Roach doesn’t believe that time is now. He says Pacquiao’s preparation for this fight has been excellent. He believes the game plan for Ugás, a late replacement for Errol Spence, is solid. “We don’t want to stand and trade with this guy,” says Roach. “We want to move in and out. He’s ready.”

But Pacquiao has bigger goals. Roach gets this. So he enters each fight understanding it could be their last. He’s appreciative of Pacquiao. Roach was a good trainer before Pacquiao climbed the stairs to his gym, guiding Virgil Hill and Brian Viloria, among others. Pacquiao made him a great one. “One of the dumbest things people say to me is, ‘Freddie, I’ve got the next Manny Pacquiao,’” says Roach. “It’s the worst line in the world. Eight-division world champion? There is no next Manny Pacquiao.”

Whenever it ends, Roach believes his friendship with Pacquiao will endure. Pacquiao calls Roach his brother. “We went from father to brother,” says Roach. “It all works.” Pacquiao’s wife, Jinkee, has led the push to make Roach an honorary Filipino citizen. “We’re close,” says Roach. “And I think we’ll always be close.” Until then, they are partners. What began in 2001, against Lehlo Ledwaba, continues on Saturday, against Ugás. Roach will speak. Pacquiao will listen. And, if all goes well, both will win. 

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