Freddie Roach Is the Best Damned Trainer Alive

Manny Pacquiao is just one of a ringful of boxing champions the ex-fighter has honed. What makes Roach so good?
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Anticipating his March 13 fight with Joshua Clottey, Manny Pacquiao sets out on a press tour of the United States. From the Philippines the world’s best pound-for-pound boxer flies to Los Angeles, then east to Dallas. He makes a quick stop in New York before settling again in L.A. The following six weeks are lived in relative seclusion.

Pacquiao’s days are scheduled around his training sessions at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, a stripped-down space where even novices in tennis shoes can pay $5 a day to bang out their troubles. The Wild Card starts to get busy not long after it opens; the dry snap of early-morning jabs hitting padded fists mingles with the smell of sweat and Vaseline, overwhelming the senses as soon as you step through the door.

Freddie Roach founded the place in 1995, and his presence is the main draw here. Athletes come from other continents just to learn from the sport’s most famous trainer. His pupils have included past champions such as Virgil Hill, James Toney, Oscar De La Hoya, and Mike Tyson. Freddie routinely puts in 12-hour days. A fighter’s emotional confidence and physical health weigh heavily, and Freddie spends most of his waking hours working on students’ footwork and handspeed, their conditioning and mental toughness.

At any given moment there might be half a dozen trainers walking these stained-carpet floors. As accomplished as some of them may be, they are satellites to Freddie’s sun. Whenever he stops moving, leaning in and correcting a fighter’s bad habit, someone is usually straining to get closer and soak up the knowledge being conferred.

Shane Langford is a former Canadian boxer whose career in the ring ended in 2005 when his left eye was permanently beaten shut. He helps out around the gym, often working with children and walk-in amateurs. As Freddie makes his daily rounds, Shane is often nearby, taking notes on a spare Post-it. “Freddie understands movement,” says Shane. “He can copy and take apart any opponent. The rest of us—it’s like we’re all monkeys and he is the scientist. We’re all throwing our shit at the walls while he has actually solved the problem. Most of us don’t even have an inkling of what we’re doing. We’re just watching him, trying to understand.”

Photograph courtesy Freddie Roach

Like many masters of their craft, Freddie inherited his. He was born in 1960 in Dedham, Massachusetts, one of seven siblings. His father was an ex-pro fighter turned tree surgeon who pushed each of his five sons to follow in his footsteps. “I hated this sport as a kid,” says Freddie. “I did it to please my father, to make life easier. Because if you boxed, he was happy. There would be less beatings.”

Freddie went pro along with two of his brothers. One of them, Pepper Roach, can usually be found at the Wild Card. A burly man with a gray buzz cut, he’ll happily expound on the hardest punchers, his five years in prison, or the power dynamics of the Roach family when he was a kid. “You know, I was always a better boxer,” he says. “I joined the army in ’78, and when I got out in ’82, Freddie could kick my ass. I’d always been our father’s favorite, but not after that. If you were the better fighter, Dad liked you best. Freddie always had more drive.”

Nine years after becoming a professional, Freddie retired at the age of 27 with 41 wins and 13 losses. Even though he never captured a title or reached the sport’s elite ranks, he repeatedly proved he could take one hell of a punch. Maybe he should have hung it up a little sooner; a few different choices made back then and he might never have developed Parkinson’s disease, which has left him with a slight tremor and a hitch in his step.

Freddie says that he doesn’t care about the affliction he lives with, and he prefers that you don’t, either. “I don’t blame boxing. I chose it,” he says. “People make a big deal out of it and feel sorry for me. Well, don’t feel sorry for me—I’m fucking doing good. I have the best life in the world.” For a 50-year-old man with a debilitating condition, Freddie’s five-foot-six-inch body is dense and muscular. Pushing him around the ring is akin to uprooting an oak tree. He has a head of spiked hair, and save for the smile he flashes at a good joke or a well-timed punch, his face bears a deadpan expression.

His career choices after giving up the gloves ranged from the unremarkable to the self-destructive: There was a short spell as a telemarketer, a year of getting drunk every night for lack of anything else to do. While hanging out in Vegas at the gym of his former teacher, the legendary Eddie Futch, Freddie began working with Virgil Hill. Futch was spread too thin in those days, looking after such marquee names as Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks. Freddie took over Hill’s training. A year later, in September 1987, the pair won the Light Heavyweight crown. “In that moment,” remembers Freddie, “I knew that I made a better trainer than I did a fighter.”

Manny Pacquiao has called Freddie “Coach” since 2001. On the day they met, Freddie was walking the Wild Card’s floors, bringing order to the anarchy of so many sweating bodies dancing around one another. Suddenly Pacquiao and his manager wandered in. The boxer had neither a trainer nor a promoter at that point; more than a few people had taken a pass at the chance to add him to their stable.

This was Freddie’s first time meeting the lanky Filipino. Nevertheless, he took exceptional pride in his ability to catch a fighter’s punch with his mitts. So he quickly dressed himself in his thick body padding and stepped into the ring.

“After one round,” recalls Freddie, “I went over to my guys and I said, ‘Wow! Can this fucking kid fight!’ And Manny went to his manager and said, ‘We have a new trainer.’ It was like I’d known him my whole life.” That first meeting resulted in one of the classic partnerships in boxing history. Pacquiao has held an unprecedented seven world titles in seven distinct weight classes, six of which he won under Roach’s tutelage.

Freddie’s genius as a trainer, beyond his mastery of the sport’s mechanics, is his ability to crawl inside the heads of his  champions. He forces them back into the spartan mind-set that having an entourage tends to discourage. As a fighter grows in stature, the stakes of each battle rising in kind, a trainer’s job becomes as much psychological as physical. The trainer must bypass the inevitable yes men, laying waste to all distractions while assuring that the game plan is thoroughly absorbed.

“Take Tyson,” says Freddie. “He was hard. Every day he has his entourage, he bosses them around, but he talks to me. We were going to Memphis for his fight with Clifford Etienne. We had a private jet taking us, a G-IV. Everyone is there but him. The pilot comes back and says that if we don’t leave in a half hour, they’re going to cancel the flight. I said, ‘Let’s go. Let him take another plane.’ Tyson ends up taking the next one, a real cheap old plane with no food on it. He gets to Memphis, and he is pissed. He’d wanted to take his daughter for a ride on the G-IV. He won’t talk to me, and it’s two days before the fight. I went to his room, and he threw me out.

“An hour before the fight, we’re in the dressing room, and one of my assistants puts the mitts on to warm him up. Mike is still pissed at me. He throws a punch in the locker room. The guy pulls away because he’s scared of Mike, and Mike hurts the guy’s arm. I tell my assistant to sit the fuck down. I grab my mitts and I say, ‘Mike, let’s go.’ We start warming up. So we’re working this move, and he’s finally doing it—bing, bing, bing—fucking perfect! I tell him to do it again. It’s perfect. I can see it in his eyes—I’ve got the connection! I’ve got this guy right where I want him! We go out to the fight, and Tyson knocks the guy out in the first round with that exact move, that exact combination.”

In addition to Freddie’s knack for centering his fighters, his insistence on wearing the pads himself—on getting in the ring and weathering some share of the sport’s punishment—helps bond him with his students. A good trainer might stay in the corner at all times, but a great one doesn’t. Freddie is sure of it.

Shawn Tompkins is one of the premier trainers in mixed martial arts, a man with scars and broken bones from sparring with his fighters. “The sacrifice is there with Freddie, and you see it,” says Tompkins. “He doesn’t have to work every day, he doesn’t have to hold pads, but he does. I’m not a personal friend of Freddie Roach and I’ve always said to everyone that our sports are two different things. But I will tell everyone, this being my job: Freddie Roach is my mentor.” He views Freddie’s professionalism as an almost spiritual commitment. “I look at him and I am awestruck. I see where he is and I see his relationship with his fighters, and I say, ‘Wow, how does he do that?’?”

*****

The answer to Tompkins’s question walks in the door at one on a perfect winter afternoon. By the time Manny Pacquiao arrives, Freddie has already watched more than a handful of his fighters spar. A few students ignored Freddie’s between-rounds advice, frustrating him. Pacquiao is different, though. He always listens to Freddie, adjusting his punches accordingly.

Pacquiao is all smiles and handshakes as the gym’s other patrons file out the door. His sessions are closed to the public; otherwise he would goof off and perform for the onlookers. Pacquiao loves the spotlight. He has sung karaoke on television and sought political office at home in the Philippines. With a bare-bones crew left in the Wild Card, the champion stretches while Freddie straps on the pads.

They start in opposite corners as though bracing for a proper prizefight. Pacquiao moves to the center of the ring, and Freddie strides out to meet him. There is a bounce in his step; he is sharp and agile, lifting his hands so that they just barely frame his face. Pacquiao works a variety of jabs and overhand rights, feints to the body and fast hooks to the head. More than once, a punch slips through Freddie’s defense and tags him on the chin.

“Sorry,” says Pacquiao sheepishly.

“It’s OK. Keep going—beautiful,” responds Freddie, smiling widely.

As the two men get deeper into it, signs of Freddie’s disease—the shaking hands, the dragging foot—vanish. He throws a hook, catching Pacquiao off guard. The mitt lands squarely on the champion’s head. He laughs it off. “Keep your right up—defense,” Freddie barks while changing directions, using the ring’s angles, forcing his fighter to cut him off and throw combinations. A half hour in, it’s clear that Pacquiao was just getting warmed up. The punches come in flurries, eliciting fewer and fewer comments from Freddie. Pressed into the corner as hard shots rain on his padded midsection, Freddie just grins. Pacquiao is listening, and the physics of it all are perfect. Freddie comes off the ropes, continuing to move forward, toward his fighter and into his own state of grace.

Sacha Feinman has written for Slate, Fortune, and The New Republic. This is his first story for Los Angeles magazine.


This article appears in the March 2010 issue of Los Angeles magazine