Loyalty and Honesty? In the Ring? Believe it. Freddie Roach is one of the hottest trainers in the game because his fighters know they can trust him

June 07, 2004
June 07, 2004

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June 7, 2004

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Loyalty and Honesty? In the Ring? Believe it. Freddie Roach is one of the hottest trainers in the game because his fighters know they can trust him

Freddie Roach is slight and squinty, with a ginger-colored
goatee, Clark Kent glasses and a pale complexion. Parkinson's
disease has dogged the former featherweight for 16 years, causing
slurred speech and making him tremble and list slightly to the
left. "He isn't very intimidating to look at," says his fiancee,
Sheila Hudson, a onetime Olympian and the current American record
holder in the triple jump. "Yet in his gym, training boxers,
Freddie rules."

This is an article from the June 7, 2004 issue

At 44 the erstwhile Baby-Faced Assassin is a courteous man who
radiates benevolence. "I've never been coached by anyone so calm,
so laid-back," says Jeff Lacy, an undefeated super middleweight
in Roach's stable. "He speaks softly, but he makes you want to
listen. With all the pressures I face in the ring, focusing on
his soothing voice keeps my head straight. He's just a cool guy."

One of the coolest trainers in boxing is also one of the hottest.
Last year Roach engineered the comeback of heavyweight James
Toney and solidified his reputation as a shrewd strategist for
guiding 8-to-1 underdog Manny Pacquiao to a lopsided November
upset of Marco Antonio Barrera, at the time the world's finest
featherweight. He also helped Mike Tyson to a 49-second victory
over Clifford Etienne and Wladimir Klitschko to a first-round
knockout of Fabio Moli. He's currently working with Tyson for a
July bout against Kevin McBride.

In a sport in which athletes change trainers as often as
protective cups, Roach inspires loyalty and trust. "Freddie is
the only trainer I've ever had who's not afraid of me," says the
35-year-old Toney, whose career had been presumed dead until his
2003 victories over IBF cruiserweight champ Vassiliy Jirov and
Evander Holyfield. "He's unusually truthful. He refuses to
sugarcoat things for a payday."

"He's absolutely brilliant at breaking things down," says
unbeaten Irish featherweight Bernard Dunne. "He'll make time to
help you understand, no matter who you are or what your ability.
He treats all of us the same, whether we're novices or world
champions. You just don't see that in boxing."

Upon hearing such praise, Roach smiles and his face turns the
color of a tomato. "I don't do anything special," he says. "I try
to treat my fighters with respect and figure out the best way to
get them to respond."

He's saying this while standing at the entrance to the Wild Card
Boxing Club, the gym he runs over a Wash 'n' Fold in a Hollywood
strip mall. His pros are working the bags alongside dozens of
white-collar regulars, including stockbrokers, secretaries,
actors, film editors and TV producers, most notably Simpsons
executive producer Sam Simon.

Roach's credo--IT AIN'T EASY--is on a poster above the ring. He
believes in the ancient verities: courage, perseverance, loyalty,
honor. Money doesn't even make the list. In fact, during the
first six of his eight years as Toney's trainer, Roach didn't get
paid. "James wasn't making any money," he says, "and I wasn't
taking any." (Roach does now; his 10% cut from the Holyfield
fight was $250,000.)

It's not that he dislikes money. "It just doesn't motivate me,"
says Roach, who draws most of his income from his white-collar
clients and seven pro fighters. "I live in a nice place. I have a
nice car. I feel safe at night. But if I lost it all, as I did
before, I'd survive."

Roach, a Dedham, Mass., native who had settled in Las Vegas, was
brought to L.A. 12 years ago by actor Mickey Rourke. The star of
9 1/2 Weeks wanted to be turned into a prizefighter in a lot less
time than that. In Hollywood style, Rourke skipped the first two
days of training. When he showed up on Day 3, Roach told him off
and drove home. "Mickey called me every day for the next month,"
Roach recalls. "He begged and begged me to come back." Roach
relented only after telling the actor, "The first day you have
off is the one I give you."

When he's not on the road with one of his pros, Roach hangs at
the Wild Card about 10 hours a day, six days at week. "I guess I
just feel I need to be here," he says. "I don't know what I'm
afraid I'll miss." He doesn't miss a lot. "You can spot a lot by
watching fighters in the gym, like when it's time for them to
retire," he says. "I'll be the first to tell a fighter to quit. I
don't want him to stay too long, the way I did."

The New England featherweight champion of 1980--a professional
title his father, Paul, held in 1947--Roach laced up his first
pair of gloves when he was eight and for the next 20 years hardly
ever took them off. He had 150 amateur fights before turning pro
in 1978 under Eddie Futch, the trainer of Joe Frazier, Larry
Holmes and Alexis Arguello, among others.

Futch believed champions were born, not made. "He taught me never
to change a boxer's style or take him out of his element," Roach
says. "Really, all you can do is take what he's got and improve
on it."

A reckless free swinger in the ring, Roach fought with
crowd-pleasing exuberance. He showed up so regularly on ESPN that
he should have won a Cable Ace Award. Living hard and spending
fast, Roach built a 26-2 record without defeating anybody of note
and without much to show for it. "My biggest purse was $13,000,"
he says, "but I never actually saw the money--I had to sign the
check over to the IRS."

His 29th fight, against the unheralded Lenny Valdez, was supposed
to be a tune-up for the WBA super bantamweight title. But Valdez
won with a TKO in the second round. "That knockdown changed my
life," he says. "It was the first time I'd ever gone down. Before
that I had been fearless."

He had also been a contender. From then on he was just an
opponent. He won 12 of his next 20 fights, none of them
impressively. After a lopsided loss to Greg Haugen in 1985, Roach
was advised by Futch to retire and become his assistant. Roach
was a very old 25. "I couldn't accept what Eddie was telling me,"
he says. "I believed I could still fight. I cried and cried and

And so he plodded on without Futch, losing and losing and losing
until 14 months later, when he walked into a ring in Lowell,
Mass., and found himself going through the motions. "I wasn't
even trying to win, and the fans knew it," he says. "I got booed
for the first time in my life. It was embarrassing."

Roach lost by decision that night, then gave his gear away when
he returned to the gym two days later. "That was it with me and
boxing," he says. Well, not quite. After a year of drinking,
picking street fights and--had he no shame?--working as a
telemarketer, Roach finally took Futch up on his offer.

Overloaded with underworked prospects, Futch gave him a light
heavyweight, Virgil Hill, to train. Within a year the 27-year-old
Roach had guided Hill to a world title.

At about that time, Hill said to him, "Freddie, you're an

"I am not," said Roach. "I could quit today."

Hill bet he couldn't. Roach bet he could. "I quit drinking that
day," he says. "It was the easiest thing I ever did."

Far easier, he says, than training Tyson. Last year Roach spent
six frustrating weeks in Vegas preparing the 36-year-old former
champ for his bout with Etienne. "It's hard to get inside Mike's
head," Roach says, "and maybe most people wouldn't want to."

Roach thought he had gained entry until about a week before the
fight. That's when Tyson inexplicably had the left side of his
face tattooed, stopped coming to training camp and then pulled
out of the bout with the flu. "I watched it all from the
sidelines," Roach says. "Mike wouldn't take my calls." Then, just
as suddenly, Tyson said he was back in. Out of loyalty, or
perhaps perverse curiosity, Roach went along for the ride.

The day before the bout Tyson barred Roach from his hotel room.
The trainer remained out of the loop until the phone in his hotel
room rang at 4 a.m. It was Tyson, summoning Roach to his suite to
wrap his hands. "Is this the way you're going to wrap them
tonight?" Tyson asked.

"Yes," said Roach. "Exactly like this."

"Good. You can go now."

Roach didn't see Tyson again until an hour before the bout. He
used the little time they had together to work on a combination
that had eluded Tyson in camp--a left hook decoy and pivot into a
right hook. "I think Mike's best punch is a left hook," Roach
says, "but he doesn't. He likes the right hook. So I adapted to
his tastes."

In the dressing room Roach walked Tyson through the pivot. And
walked him through the pivot again. And again. Suddenly, Tyson's
eyes brightened. He and Roach exchanged a meaningful glance.
"Mike had confidence in me," Roach says. "I knew it. I felt it.
The bell rang, Mike decoyed with the left hook, and Etienne
walked right into it. Bam! First-round knockout. That kind of
trust is very unusual in the ring."

Hudson, Roach's fiancee, says she trusted Roach the moment they
met in 2001. At the time, she was a sportswriter for The
Sacramento Bee. "What impressed me about Freddie was his candor,"
Hudson says. "As a reporter I didn't always think the stories I
heard were truthful or even accurate. But with Freddie, there was
no pretense. It was really refreshing."

In the three years since, Hudson, 35, quit journalism and is now
an assistant track coach at Los Angeles State. Roach had planned
to attend a Golden Eagles meet last season, but he couldn't pry
himself away from the gym. He promised Hudson he would make the
final event but then remembered a conflict: He had pledged to
work the corner of one of his fighters, Bridgett Riley. Hudson
had heard it all before. She gave him hell.

"It's funny," she says. "As upset as I was, I really respected
Freddie. He was doing the best he could to honor his word to help
out in Riley's corner, and that's what he's all about."

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK STRAIGHT TALK "You can spot a lot by watching fighters in the gym," Roach says. "Like when it's time for them to retire."B/W PHOTO: ROBERT CHILD/AP (INSET) HARD KNOCKS Roach conveys lessons from his fight days (inset, far left) to up-and-comers like Pacquiao (above).COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above]

Trainer Freddie Roach has worked with fighters who were stars in
and out of the ring.

Fighter Weight Class Pro Record

James Toney Heavyweight 67-4-2
Has won 13 straight bouts and was Fighter of the Year in 2003

Mike Tyson Heavyweight 50-4-0
Roach prepared Iron Mike for his first-round KO of Clifford
Etienne in '03

Wladimir Klitschko Heavyweight 42-3-0
Between losses with other trainers, he was 2-0 under Roach last

Manny Pacquiao Featherweight 38-2-2
Roach engineered his upset of Marco Antonio Barrera, ensuring
title shot

Mickey Rourke Super middleweight 8-0-1
Under Roach, hammy actor in cheesy roles was unbeaten as club