He wouldn't have gone to that funeral no matter whose it was, and no matter who urged him to go. Not his mother's. Not his older brothers'. Not for Mike Tyson or Manny Pacquiao or Oscar De La Hoya or any of the other 24 world champions he has trained. ¬∂ So on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend—the day Joey Roach was buried back home in Dedham, Mass.—Freddie Roach was at his Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood. His body trembled as he alternately answered phones behind the front desk and wrapped hands and slipped on the mitts out on the floor. It's the kind of multitasking he performs six days a week, Christmas included. ¬∂ What about the sadness? The gut-wrenching reality that Joey, his younger brother and favorite sparring partner, had died in his sleep at age 47? It would have to creep in later, as Freddie Roach, 49, fell asleep still wearing his horn-rimmed glasses, a video of Pacquiao's next opponent, Miguel Cotto, playing on the TV. Until then the best boxing trainer in the world would be at work.
This is an article from the Nov. 16, 2009 issue
"Last time I saw a dead person was 1981," says Roach. "I went with my girlfriend to see her father's body the night before his funeral. Ever since, all these great memories I had of the guy have always ended with him lying there. I don't want that to be the last thing I remember about someone."
The walls of the Wild Card are plastered with memories of Freddie's choosing. There are rows of posters from his fighting days as the Choir Boy, a speed-bag-busting lightweight who had the legendary Eddie Futch in his corner. There are posed shots with actors such as Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg, who come to spray sweat with the $5-a-day regulars. There are photos of Roach's brigade of titlists, a floor-to-ceiling who's who of the sweet science: Tyson, Pacquiao, De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, James Toney and Wladimir Klitschko, to name just a few.
"Freddie Roach is up there among the all-time greats," boxing historian Bert Sugar says. "Like a jockey with a racehorse, a trainer is known by the productivity of his fighters. And Freddie's done one hell of a job."
But as Roach prepares Pacquiao for the most anticipated fight of the year, a WBO welterweight title bout against Cotto on Saturday in Las Vegas (page 72), what is most remarkable about all that productivity is its context. Few people know exactly how hard it is for Roach to do the job he loves. The man with three Trainer of the Year awards—the most ever won by one person—not only trembles involuntarily but also suffers other symptoms of Parkinson's disease, the result of his own career as a boxer. "What Freddie does is amazing," says Joseph Chung, Roach's neurologist. "No one understands the pain he's in every day."
And there's a reason no one understands. Around Roach's gym and training camps only three topics are verboten: politics, religion and the boss's mortality.
"We're fighters," says former cruiserweight Marcus Harvey, one of several former boxers employed by Roach as trainers. "We know time is ticking, but why would we want to imagine that?"
On Oct. 13, 1928, in an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association titled "Punch Drunk," pathologist Harrison Martland first noted symptoms such as slowed movement, verbal hesitancy and tremors among boxers. Then, as now, the underlying science was simple: The more the skull is shaken, and the brain is jostled like Jell-O in a bowl, the greater the likelihood of a neurodegenerative disorder that would come to be called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In boxing, says Robert Cantu, clinical professor of neurosurgery and codirector of the Center for Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University Medical Center, "the punishment [to the brain] is so much greater than [in] any other sport. Nothing else can even compare."
Indeed, for all the current concern over CTE in retired NFL players, boxing is in the very names of CTE diagnoses such as dementia pugilistica (seen in former champs Sugar Ray Robinson and Bobby Chacon, for example) and pugilistic parkinsonism (Muhammad Ali and Roach, among others). Cantu believes that the rate of chronic brain damage among fighters is at least one in five and more likely one in two. One article written for the National Parkinson Foundation by Dr. Ira Casson, chairman of the NFL's committee on concussions, estimated that boxers with at least 50 pro bouts often show "MRI and psychological test abnormalities" as well as "obvious symptoms of brain injury."
With Roach, the most obvious symptom is the tremors, which awaken him each day by 6 a.m. In the ring the Choir Boy had a never-back-down style, and he absorbed punishment for a total of 406 rounds in 53 pro bouts. Roach has other symptoms associated with Parkinson's too, which he is loath to belabor for fear of arousing pity: drop-foot (his left foot drags with each step), arthritis in both elbows and, most agonizing, cervical dystonia (muscle contractions in the neck). He takes three kinds of medication daily, and every three months he is injected with Botox to treat the dystonia, which Chung likens to "constantly having a charley horse in your neck." It causes Roach's head to jerk backward and to his right, as if someone were pulling on his hair.
"I've got the best life in the world," Roach says without sarcasm. "I don't want sympathy. I love my job; I have a house, a car. But yeah, sometimes I wonder, Why the f--- does it have to be me?"
His own trainer tried to warn him. Futch, who worked with four of the five men who defeated Ali—and who threw in the towel for one of them, Joe Frazier, after the 14th round of the Thrilla in Manila—sat the 25-year-old Roach down for a talk the day after he was TKO'd by Greg Haugen in 1985.
When master and pupil had first met, people said that this pale kid with the soft voice, all of 5'6" and constantly attacking, looked like a white version of Futch. Once, an opponent took a look at Roach and scoffed, "That little kid?" That little kid knocked him out.
But some 20 ESPN fights and one broken right hand later, Roach's quickness had evaporated in the Las Vegas desert. After the Haugen fight Futch began to tell Roach about older boxers who were slowing down—really hurting themselves—and the young fighter cried. Then he did what he always did after taking a good punch: fling all judgment out the window, say "F--- you" and keep going.
In five bouts without Futch, Roach was destroyed four times. When he finally retired, in 1986, he was 39--13 and moonlighting as a telemarketer, hawking coffee mugs and key tags with two of his four brothers, Joey and Pepper—both former fighters, as all Roach men were. (Their mom, Barbara, was also the first female boxing judge in Massachusetts, as a plaque on a Wild Card wall attests.) At night Freddie boozed and got into brawls on the Strip.
How important are trainers in boxing? Roach agrees with Bert Sugar: Fighters make trainers, the way thoroughbreds make jockeys. "Anyone can put a towel on their shoulder and be a coach," Roach says. "I have great fighters. The worst part about this whole game are trainers and managers."
But former middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins, once a charge of Roach's, offers a critical distinction. "There are too many damn trainers and not enough teachers," he says, practically yelling. "There's a 20-mile difference between some trainer and a teacher. Freddie Roach is a teacher."
That's how Roach got into the business, albeit inadvertently. One afternoon, after he'd reconciled with Futch, Roach was hanging out at a gym in Las Vegas when he was asked to take water over to one of Futch's lesser prospects, light heavyweight Virgil Hill. Casually Roach inched closer to the apron, seeing possibilities in Hill's technique, thinking of input he could offer the fighter. From then on Roach showed up at the gym every day, and by the next year he was Futch's most trusted assistant. On Sept. 7, 1987, Hill won the WBA light heavyweight title by TKO with Roach in his corner. It was the first world championship for them both.
Since then Roach has taken a total of three vacations—one, in 2001, was when he became engaged (he never did marry)—and none were for very long. He is inside the Wild Card from eight to eight on weekdays and nine to four on Saturdays. Recently, over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills, Roach named two other things he doesn't do: drink and eat carbs. His main vice? Movies. "Kung-Fu Panda," he asserted in his Massachusetts accent, "might be the best movie of all time. I've seen it seven or eight times."
This rigid schedule is not what you'd expect from a former brawler. (Roach says he once had to bite out a mugger's eyeball to save his own life in Vegas. "I had eyelashes in my teeth," he recalls.) Until last spring, when he moved to L.A.'s Hancock Park neighborhood, he literally lived in gyms. When Roach first came to L.A., to work with actor and light heavyweight boxer Mickey Rourke in 1991, he lived in Rourke's Outlaw Gym at Hollywood and Highland. Eventually he moved into half of a former Vine Street club whose other half houses the Wild Card, and the renovation was an episode of Cribs in reverse: Roach had to remove two stripper poles.
His goal, ironically, was to resemble the man whose advice he once rejected. "I'm 100 percent modeled after Mr. Futch," Roach says. "People have called me his clone, and there's nothing that makes me prouder." (Futch died at age 90 in 2001.)
Like Futch, Roach is a disciplinarian who doesn't yell; a mentor who, by virtue of how deeply he breathes the sport, has the total confidence of his fighters. "Freddie's so emotionally involved," Hill says. "You respect him because he knows exactly how a fighter feels. He's been there and done that."
Mixed martial arts champions such as Anderson Silva and B.J. Penn hire Roach to teach them how to box. De La Hoya, now a boxing promoter and entrepreneur, hopes to reorganize the U.S. Olympic boxing program and make Roach its trainer. "The biggest thing for me is to just get in fighters' heads and make them trust me," Roach says. "The ring is my world."
The ring is also where Roach feels the healthiest. When he puts on the mitts and bounces back and forth, catching hundreds of punches mere centimeters from his goatee, the tremors, which began 20 years ago, stop and his old quickness returns. Like Futch, Roach is an offensive wizard, and he thinks he's better at physically rehearsing strategy than at anything else. "He always wants you to get within an inch of your opponent," says assistant Jesse Reid.
That philosophy is what has made Pacquiao, who is generally considered the world's best fighter pound for pound, his perfect pupil. Roach, who calls the Filipino southpaw's burnished right hook "my baby," has tuned Pacquiao's frantic cacophony of punches into a graceful arpeggio.
But there are limits. Sitting behind his desk, Roach will tell you that his training is centered on defense. Against boxing tradition, he refuses to let his fighters spar more than three times a week, for fear of the extra damage it could do to their brains. And even if it cuts down on his income (Roach makes the trainer's standard 10%), he tries to persuade trainees to quit when their advancing careers begin to threaten their health. "Even," Roach says, with a small grin, "when they all tell me to go f--- myself."
Among his world champs, he has suggested retirement to the 45-year-old Hill, who hasn't fought since 2007; to heavyweight James Toney, who's still pursuing a comeback at 41; to super bantamweight Israel Vàzquez, 31, who began slurring his words after Rafael Màrquez broke his nose in 2007; to super bantamweight Wayne McCullough, age 39, who was discovered to have a cyst between his brain and skull; and even to Hopkins, after Roach watched him walk to the wrong corner four times in a loss to Joe Calzaghe last year. Memorably, Hopkins, then 43, left Roach and beat Kelly Pavlik last fall. "I didn't take it personally," Hopkins says. "Even my wife was concerned about me."
And now—to the chagrin of promoters and fans—Roach is advising Pacquiao, who has made the trainer arguably the most popular foreigner in the Philippines, to retire after two more fights. "Quitting is against boxing's religion," Freddie says, "but my duty is to protect my fighter."
Indeed, for all of the medical community's ideas to make boxing safer—headgear, bigger gloves, a ban on blows to the head, none of which are likely to be implemented—Roach believes in the unilateral power of the corner. After all, only a trainer sees a fighter's regression up close, and only a trainer can throw in the towel. "I suppose you can call me a hypocrite," Roach says, his voice low. "I teach people to do what gave me this disease." Then again, as Hill points out, "Who better to tell a kid, 'Son, maybe you need to look at other options'"
There is no one else, really. And too rarely does a teacher get a second chance to take his own advice. When Roach's own clock winds down again—when training becomes too fast for him—there will be no weeping and no denial. He knows that for all his donations to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, there will probably not be a cure for Parkinson's in his lifetime. So, he pledges, he will go far away from the Wild Card, far away from the sport he lives and breathes. Unlike his brother Joey, he doesn't even want a funeral.
"I've already written my living will, and I want them to pour my ashes into the closest gutter," the best cornerman in boxing says with a smile, standing beneath the posters and photos on the walls of his gym. Those are the memories he has chosen.