By Dan Wetzel
His head tilts to the right. When he walks, a foot drags a little behind him. His hands tremble. His voice is shaky. Freddie Roach is 49 and has been fighting Parkinson’s disease for 17 years.
There are times he looks it.
Then he gets into a ring wearing mitts to train one of his fighters, who range from L.A. ham and eggers to Manny Pacquiao, the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world who takes on Miguel Cotto for the World Boxing Organization welterweight championship Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
It’s then that Roach moves with light feet and quick hands. He demonstrates some of the speed that made him a boxing headliner back in the day (“Crowd Pleasing Veteran,” the Camacho-Roach poster declares.)
Here’s Freddie Roach, moving and bobbing and throwing punches just the way Cotto, a man 20 years his junior, does. He is mimicking the style that he’s watched in endless scouting sessions of past fights, which is how he always prepares. He’s deft enough at it that Pacquiao hasn’t just blossomed into a superstar, but Roach has become the greatest trainer in the game today.
“Once I get in the ring, all the diseases go away,” Roach said. “I don’t shake.”
It’s a startling transformation; a demanding, athletic task seemingly conquering a physically debilitating disease. Where he slows outside the ropes, he comes to life within them, becoming the ultimate example of a man living with, rather than dying from, an ailment.
It’s left Roach confident that the end of his career is nowhere in sight. That he’ll be able to continue to work the mitts for fighters, that he’ll continue his frenetic pace – he works six days a week, often 12-hour days at his Wild Card Boxing Gym in Hollywood, Calif.
And mostly that he’ll continue to not just work championship fights, but develop championship fighters, the way he has with Pacquiao over the last eight years.
“Freddie believes he has 25 more years in his career,” said Roach’s long-time agent, Nick Khan. “We never discuss retiring.”
Roach’s strengths as a trainer are numerous, but two stand out.
One is his dedication to teaching the game. He isn’t just about preparing a fighter for a single fight (although that’s part of it). It’s about long-range construction also.
The second is that through the education process, his blunt honesty and unwavering dedication to the sport creates a trust with his fighters that can’t be shaken. Here’s a guy with a serious disease, pouring everything into them – he has no wife and few outside interests.
One feeds into the other. The more he teaches, the more they trust. The more they trust, the more teachable they become.
It is how a middle-aged guy from suburban Boston and a kid from the streets of General Santos City in the Philippines became so tight.
“The conditions in General Santos City is 50 times worse than any inner city in America,” Khan said. “Manny, coming from there, has a lot of street smarts and I think he recognized what Freddie was about immediately.”
Roach calls the day he met Pacquiao the “luckiest of my life.” At the time, few top trainers wanted anything to do with the fighter.
“Everyone turned him down because he was only 122 pounds, there wasn’t a lot of money at that weight,” Roach said. “I saw a lot of potential in Manny Pacquiao. He was just rough around the edges.
“The first day he came into the gym, the first round we wore the mitts, we connected like we knew each other for years.”
Together they built a near-perfect fighter, one that has helped make both of them rich and famous.
“He’s the master,” Pacquiao said. “I used to call him Coach Freddie, but now he’s just the master; the master of boxing.”
The master refuses to be slowed on Thursday. He isn’t in the ring but working radio row here at the MGM’s media center. This isn’t his comfort zone. After his boxing career ended, Roach was broke and needed work. He worked for a stretch as a telemarketer, which didn’t always go so well, “I’m not a great speaker so I wasn’t a great salesman.”
And that was before he got sick. Now he has to sell the fight, one radio show, one television interview, at a time. He’s become one of the most recognizable faces in the sport due to his series of appearances on HBO’s “24/7” reality show. Roach is earnest, though. He does his job, always, attacking each question like he hadn’t already answered it 100 times this week.
Roach shrugs. He’s not too proud to do what it takes. Post-fighting career he worked for a stretch as a bus boy in Vegas, the same city he once headlined cards. “I think that was humbling,” Khan said.
The one thing that time of his life taught him was financial discipline. He’s notoriously stingy. For years he lived in a spare room at the Wild Card gym. When his friends and family finally convinced him to buy a house, he paid cash for it.
“I don’t buy stuff until I can afford it,” he said. “It’s the best way, I think. The first big pay day I had was [$13,500], in six months it was gone, I was out of money. I said, ‘Where’d it go?’ I said to myself, ‘You know, I never make that mistake again in my life. I’ll always have money.’ ”
All of this rings true for the fighters. They may not know his story, but they sense his humility. They may not understand his disease, but they see the symptoms he overcomes. They may not know the full depth of his dedication, but they see enough to know how much he cares. They recognize that he’s lived it all – the training, the fights, the money, the injuries that linger (his Parkinson’s was brought on by taking too many punches).
They see the shaking hands, the dropped foot when he walks, the tilt of his head. It makes them listen more closely.
He’ll scoff at anyone who thinks the disease affects his present or will limit his future. Training fighters isn’t killing him; it’s keeping him alive and well. There’s no greater therapy, physical or mental, than round after round in the ring, “40 or 50 a day,” he estimates.
“One-hundred percent it’s helped,” he said. “The hand-eye coordination alone. I’m better now than when I was diagnosed in 1992.”
True in every imaginable way.