Freddie Roach has been told that he is the third most famous man in the Philippines—the first is Manny Pacquiao, the second is the president—and, though it baffles him to think of it, he has no reason to dispute the claim.
The 52-year-old former boxer and founder of the Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles has been Pacquiao’s trainer since 2001. He is by now well-accustomed to being mobbed on the streets of Manila or Baguio City, smothered on the sidewalk and at the barber shop by screaming, feverish fans who would recognize him at 100 yards on the foggiest day of the year. It’s rare for a trainer to become a superstar in his own right, but this is all part of the routine for the man credited with molding an ambitious but virtually anonymous brawler into the most successful champion of the past decade.
After a respectable career in which he won 40 fights, Roach retired as a boxer at the age of 26. He had begun to show signs of early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and despite the pleas of his trainer Eddie Futch to give it up, fought several more times before finally quitting for good. When a broken ankle he suffered while running failed to heal properly and he started experiencing tremors in his leg, Roach visited a doctor and was informed of the reality of his symptoms.
The link between repeated head trauma in boxing and diseases like Parkinson’s and dementia is still a point of serious contention among medical experts and sports reform activists. Roach’s family has a history of Parkinson’s, but his father, who was also a boxer and was physically abusive toward his wife and sons, insisted that all three boys grow up to be boxers and started them on that mission as soon as they could walk.
As Roach puts it, his doctors can’t prove to him that boxing led to his Parkinson’s, but he can’t prove that it didn’t. The only thing we know for sure is that by the time Roach had the cast removed from his ankle and discovered that he could no longer plant his foot, he had already taken a lifetime of beatings.
A dark period followed the diagnosis, during which Roach was drinking heavily and struggling to come to grips with losing the only life he had ever known. One day, in 1986, he was at a gym, where he sat watching a sparring session between James Shuler, a rising young boxer who was training for a title fight, and his designated opponent for the afternoon, Virgil Hill. Roach noticed that, while Shuler had an entourage three rows deep shouting encouragement and propping up their man, there wasn’t a single person in Hill’s corner.
When the bell rang for the fighters to separate, Roach walked over to Hill and gave him some water, then offered a few quick instructions before the bell rang again. Hill tore Shuler to pieces in the next round, was promptly fired as a sparring partner, and Roach became a trainer.
Starting with Hill, Roach has trained more than two dozen fighters to world titles. The grinding physicality of his profession and the demands that come with his status as the premier corner man in boxing ensures that he is constantly on the move and has helped dramatically to ease the symptoms of his disease and keep the slowly advancing tremors at bay. The sport is now quite literally keeping him alive.
Pacquiao was already six years into his career when he landed in Roach’s Vine Street headquarters. The southpaw started out as prizefighter when he was just 16 years old, when he’d put weights in his pockets to make the 105-pound minimum and make up for the discrepancy with boundless energy and a violent left hand. He had compiled a record of 32-2 and won titles at flyweight and junior featherweight, but he had never fought outside of the Philippines and was unknown to all but the most diligent veterans in the boxing community.
When his turn came up, Pacquiao stepped through the ropes to work the mitts with Roach, who was immediately taken aback by the power behind the punches being thrown at him in bursts of four or five at a time. After one round together, the partnership was official.
Under Roach’s tutelage, Pacquiao expanded his arsenal well beyond the scattered raw pieces he brought with him to Los Angeles, showcasing more versatility with each successive bout and becoming substantially more dangerous as a result. He has now collected titles in a total of eight divisions, a patently absurd record not likely to be eclipsed within the lifetime of anyone who witnessed it. The campaign includes wins over nearly every notable contender and champion within range—except, of course, for Floyd Mayweather.
But as the two fighters move closer to the ends of their careers and continue to allow every manner of petty conflict to prevent the matchup from progressing beyond the preliminary stages, it is becoming clear that this will be the only milestone to remain out of reach for the great brawler and his guru.
Last month, Pacquiao made what will likely be his final appeal to get the fight made. After agreeing to each of Mayweather’s demands for comprehensive drug-testing—and settling his defamation lawsuit against Mayweather for claiming that he had used steroids in his rise through the divisions—Pacquiao announced that he would accept a 45-55 revenue split for the bout. Mayweather had previously offered him a flat payout of $40 million, a ridiculously insulting proposition for a fight that would likely generate three times that amount.
Since neither fighter has any reason to accept less than half of the proceeds and no rational claim to more, Pacquiao’s offer was a symbolic concession more than anything and a last-ditch attempt at compromise.
The offer was rejected, and it could prove to be the end of the story. Pacquiao’s reach has now expanded far beyond the ropes; after running unsuccessfully in the Philippines for a seat in congress back in 2007, he ran again in 2010 and won.
Naturally, he’s already planning to move up in weight, gearing up for a run at the governorship, and from there, the presidency. Roach has said for the past few years that he thought the time was fast approaching for his star pupil to retire from the ring. The two have done all they can together, and he doesn’t want to see Pacquiao hang around too long. The trainer may soon get his wish.
Read more in the “The long con” parts I and II.