Freddie Roach is a great trainer. His base of operations is the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood. He is 45 years old and was born in Brockton, Mass. in 1960. His father was a tree surgeon. His mother was a housewife. They lived in Dedham. There were many children.
“There’s seven kids in my family, so we fought a lot, against each other or anybody else in the projects,” Roach told me. “So growing up I was more physical than most. My dad was an ex-pro fighter and he wanted all his kids to be fighters also. My first fight I think I was six. My first tournament I was eight and I won the Junior Olympic 50-pound division. I had 50 amateur fights. I lost nine.”
Freddie Roach turned pro in 1978.
“My first four pro fights were under my dad, who was my trainer as a kid. But then we knew to get to the big league we moved west and I hooked up with Eddie Futch in Las Vegas. After Eddie saw me, he liked my work ethic, and he started training me at Johnny Tocco’s Ringside Gym. That was in 1978.”
Freddie Roach was fighting at 122, super bantamweight, at the time. “Probably that was my best division,” he said. “I think I was 27-1 there and I was [ranked number] seven in the world. I had a title shot to fight a guy in Argentina, but I broke my hand in the fight against Mario Chavez. I broke it in the second round, but I won a ten round decision. But I messed my hand up pretty good. I had surgery and so forth on that, and it really never came back, it was never the same.”
But he continued to fight?
“For a long time,” replied Roach. “The thing is, after the broken hand I get back down to 122 and I get knocked out by Lenny Valdez, a good puncher out of Mexico. I just couldn’t make that weight anymore, so I skipped 126 and went right to 130. I think a lot of it had to do with my living habits had changed and so forth. It was easy to blame that on my hand back then of course, but as a grownup now I know. I started going out, maybe having a few drinks, and before then I would never do that. But your lifestyle changes sometimes – especially living in Las Vegas.”
I wondered if Roach adapted his style to compensate for the hand.
“The thing was, I was a good boxer as a kid, not much of a puncher, and then being with Eddie, around my 10th, 11th, 12th pro fight, I started really setting down and I started hitting guys with one shot and knocking them out. And after I broke the hand, I just never had the confidence again. Every time I landed the right hand, it would blow up on me and then I had to resort to shooting it up before fights with xylocaine and cortisone, and almost every fight after that I just had a hand problem and couldn’t punch any more. I had a lotta good fights after that, but they were tough fights to do, a lotta hard fights, ‘cause I couldn’t knock the guy out pretty much. But I fought Camacho and Bobby Chacon and Tommy Cordova – tough guys – and I did the best I could, but I wasn’t as good as I once was.”
Freddie Roach laughed. “It’s funny,” he said. “I have a headline. It says, ‘Old Man Roach Makes Comeback.’ I was 24 ... But I had a lotta fights, and then I retired when I was 27.”
For many ex-fighters, boxing is the only thing they know. Was Roach determined to stay in boxing after he hung up his gloves?
“I wanted nothing to do with it. I put kinda everything of my life into it, and I didn’t get anything out of it. I was broke when I retired. My biggest payday was $7000. I didn’t make any money and stuff like that. So I got a job as a telemarketer,” the boxing trainer said. “And then drinking a little too much and, just, stupid things.”
Telemarketing’s loss would become boxing’s gain, but no one knew it at the time.
“And then Virgil Hill – his first year pro was my last year pro – we were both trained by Eddie – ‘cause Eddie was so busy with Michael Spinks and Larry Holmes and those guys, Virgil asked me if I could help out in the camp. So I started making the gym my priority in life. Eddie needed as assistant and we just kinda grew into that. We spoke the same language, because I was trained by him for nine years, and he knew I was dependable, so it all worked out well.”
I asked Roach about his approach to training a fighter.
“You never want to change somebody,” he said. “People used to ask me, how can you train Virgil Hill when he’s the exact opposite of the way I fought? And I said, ‘I don’t want Virgil to be me. I want Virgil to be Virgil.’ Because when a guy gets out there after the first bell rings he’s always going to revert to what he is naturally. I mean, once he gets hit, if he’s a mover he’s going to move, if he’s a fighter he’s going to set down and fight you.
“Eddie told me this a long time ago: you never want to change a guy. You want to take their strengths and refine them, and you want to take their weaknesses and make them better also. Every fighter needs to be treated as an individual. I remember when I had Marlon Starling and Virgil Hill in the same camp. But they were so different, Virgil needed this, Marlon needed that, but they were just individuals, and unique individuals, as champions are, so you’ve got to really adapt to them a little bit and get inside their heads to get them to believe in you. So he’ll trust you. So he’ll listen to you between rounds.”
In addition to Starling and Hill, Roach has seconded “Stevie Collins, Frankie Liles, both middleweight champions, Johnny Tapia, James Toney, Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer. I got Pacquiao and Angel Vasquez and Brian Villoria. I think we now stand at like 17 world champions the last time I tried to count them all,” Roach said. “I do believe that champions are born and not made. I can guide them and point them in the right direction, but they’re the ones that have to perform. They have to pull it off. So I don’t like to take too much credit.”
From contender to telemarketer to trainer is a journey few men make. Freddie Roach is one of the lucky ones.
“As a trainer I found something that I did better than boxing. Of course I would have liked to have been champion myself – every fighter does – but this keeps me from making comebacks. It keeps me close to the game, and it’s a lot more fun on this side, because I don’t get hit that much.”
But it must still be a rush when one of his fighters goes all the way and wins a title.
“Definitely,” Roach said, while lowering his voice. “You know, the thing is, I think losing sucks ... but I never dreamt that this would ever happen to me. I never – after being in boxing for such a long time and fighting a lotta fights – I never thought I would be a trainer at all.”
To be a trainer in the mold of Eddie Futch is no small feat.
“It’s the program,” Roach said. “A lot of Eddie has rubbed off on me. And thanks to Eddie I have some success with my fighters. I just agree with his style so much. I know it so well ‘cause I fought for him so long. I don’t really believe in the yelling and screaming at fighters. I believe if the fighter’s out there thinking, let him fight his fight. You trained him and prepared him for it, so let him think for himself. I remember being in fights where a cornerman would be screaming at me and I’m thinking about something else, trying to set something up. So my corner is very quiet and very direct. I don’t say a lot in the corner, but just one or two important issues that you need to change or adjust to, and then go from there. You can’t write a book in one minute, but some guys try to.”
I asked Freddie Roach, who seconded James Toney during the fight with John Ruiz, what he thought about the steroids scandal.
“It was very disappointing to me,” he said, “because this guy won the heavyweight championship of the world, and it gets taken away from him … But the thing is, after the surgeries and so forth, he says they gave him some steroids to heal. I don’t know that much about steroids. All my fighters know that I’m really against it. Because if you can’t do it on your own, I don’t think you should do it at all. But this is part of boxing and James is going to have to rebuild himself and if he’s taking drugs he’s going to have to get clean, because they’re going to test every time now. But I think James can make a comeback and beat Klitschko and become the best heavyweight in the world.”
After the ups, the downs, and the everythings in-between, Roach is still a fight game partisan.
“It’s opened a lotta doors for me. My friends who still live in the projects in Dedham, Massachusetts, which is where I’m from, they say I’m lucky I made it out. And I tell them, ‘It’s just a decision. You can make it too.’ If you want to make something for yourself in life, especially in the country we live in, there’s opportunity out there. If you work hard good things happen. I mean that’s what it’s all about. I get to the gym at nine o’clock and I come home at eight o’clock at night, and people say, ‘How can you spend so much time in the gym?’” Freddie Roach paused. “But it’s what I do,” he said. “Box is what I do.”