Before his loss to Floyd Mayweather, Jr., in 2007, Oscar De La Hoya turned to his trainer Freddie Roach in the dressing room and said, “I will never fight again without you in my corner.” Soon after, De La Hoya fired him. Roach first heard of this decision not from De La Hoya himself but from ESPN reporter Dan Rafael, in the lobby of a hotel. (De La Hoya claims Roach gave him the wrong strategy for the fight. Roach says De La Hoya deviated from the plan in the later rounds and “fought his own fight.”)
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, congressional elections had just ended. Manny Pacquiao had lost his first political campaign, oblivious that De La Hoya had just given him a generous consolation prize: a trainer’s undivided devotion to getting Pacquiao the fight of his life, against De La Hoya. If Pacquiao wins, Roach stands to earn a $1 million trainer’s fee from the fight. Although HBO commentator Larry Merchant first publicly proposed a De La Hoya–Pacquiao bout, De La Hoya told me, while dousing a spinach omelette with hot sauce at his training camp in Big Bear, California, that Roach more than anyone “wanted the fight…Freddie was the one. He was just chasing it down until he convinced everybody.” In war, two parties sit down at the end of fighting to sign an agreement of peace; in boxing, they sit down in peace to agree to a fight. Diplomacy among pugilists is an art of provoking—not preventing—epic battles. Trainers usually are powerless in the negotiating process, but Roach can persuade any two parties through a tactic so confounding it bends them to his will: he speaks the truth.
With his thick glasses, amiable mien, and chronic limp, Roach has an unimposing 5’5” frame which, combined with his devastating punch, creates an Escher-like optical illusion. Roach fought professionally in the ’70s and ’80s, but before he went pro, he honed his skills in the streets. He continued this practice into adulthood, putting an end to it only recently once it cost him money: in 2004, he was forced to pay $10,000 after he punched out a Kinko’s customer who threatened him. He regrets that fight, “I said to him, ‘If you take another step, I’m gonna knock you out,’” Roach recalls, “Motherfuckers always take that step.” Whenever a fist is waved in Roach’s face, he now remembers the mantra “Don’t forget Kinko’s.”
Roach is the middle child of seven from a family of boxers in Dedham, Massachusetts. His father, Paul, picked up his mother at a factory. They married young. “I was looking for someone to get me out of my house,” his mother, Barbara, told me, “and [Paul] was looking for someone named Barbara, which he had already tattooed on his arm. And there we were.” Roach’s five brothers were all reared to be pro fighters; the oldest brother, Al, according to Roach, was thrown out of the house at the age of 16 for refusing to box. The children were never punished for stealing—only for getting caught. This lesson was demonstrated profitably to Roach at the age of 12, when his father had his five sons fight at a benefit at Harvard. Seeing everyone was drunk, he had his children collect cash in buckets, on which they hastily scrawled the words “Junior Olympics.” (It was not entirely a scam: Roach would win the Junior Olympics five times.)
After high school, Roach turned pro, a decision he made when his mother “told me once I couldn’t fight…not that I wasn’t allowed, but I was no good at it. I became the best fighter in the family starting that night.” In 1980, Roach signed with Bob Arum (who happens to be co-promoting the De La Hoya–Pacquiao matchup, along with De La Hoya’s Golden Boy promotions), and fought 54 fights, but struggled to pay his bills. “If I won a fight, I got $5,000. If I lost a fight, it was $2,500…With the money I was making, I could have probably collected food stamps.” The most Roach ever made for a fight, $7,500, was from his 1985 loss against Hector Camacho (who, with his 1997 loss to De La Hoya, is the last southpaw that the Golden Boy has faced. Pacquiao will be the next). “I signed for the check after the fight. The I.R.S. took all of it. I was broke when I retired.” Roach has a boxer’s knack for finance (“I keep giving cars away”), compounded by a small-town mentality about big business. (When his lawyer took him to a Wells Fargo branch to open a checking account, Roach was hesitant: “Can we really trust these guys?”) After retirement, Roach took a job in Las Vegas as a telemarketer, selling pens under the name Joe Davis, and moonlit as a valet. He drank for a year and a half and put on 45 lbs. At that point, his former trainer and mentor, Eddie Futch, hired him as an assistant. (Roach quit drinking at once, although recently he starred in a beer commercial in the Philippines, where—on account of Pacquiao—he may be the most beloved white man in the country.) While doing roadwork with a fighter, Roach broke his left leg. Doctors noticed certain motor skill malfunctions and eventually diagnosed him with Parkinson’s. He was 30 years old.
Roach’s boxers trust him with a level of admiration that most champions reserve only for themselves. Pacquiao says he’s like a father. Rourke says he’s like an older brother. Roach’s concern for the wellbeing of his fighters is unimpeachable, made apparent this year when he passed up a lucrative opportunity to train a friend, former middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, 43, believing his age put his health at risk. If Roach is pushing Pacquiao to the limit, it is because he believes his champion can exceed it.
De La Hoya–Pacquiao may be the most critical referendum on Roach’s judgment since 2003, when he agreed to train the notoriously untamable Mike Tyson. The first day, Roach told himself, “I’m probably going to get hit at least once in this camp.” The prediction was accurate. In time, Roach unearthed a Tyson who was “a real caring, loving person … Obviously, he has a bad side to him, but he’s one of my favorite people in the world.” One day, Roach’s business partner Billy Keane came to training with his ex-girlfriend, actress Meg Ryan, who was hoping to photograph Tyson’s workout. According to Roach, “she comes in the dressing room and she starts taking pictures of me wrapping his hands.” Acknowledging Ryan’s presence, Tyson remarked to her, “Your mother has an animal hospital.” Ryan, confused, replied, “No.” Mildly irritated, Tyson repeated, “Your mother owns a refuge for lions and tigers.” Again, Ryan assured him that her mother did not, causing Tyson to erupt, “Then what the fuck are you doing here, motherfucker?” Evidently, Tyson had confused Meg Ryan with Melanie Griffith, whose mother, Tippi Hedren, does run a wild-animal preserve. Roach defused the situation when he began laughing, and though Tyson did kick Ryan out of the gym, the two had a cordial chat afterward. That same day, Roach refused to let Iron Mike quit training even after he had vomited in the ring. “I had to show him I was the boss…but he hit me on the chin the next day working the mitts. I didn’t go down, but the room was getting really dark. I was like, ‘Am I going to be dead or just knocked out?’” The pair worked together on two fights, for a win and a loss.
As for less established boxers, Roach insists on seeing them before he agrees to take them on. The prospect must travel to Roach’s kingdom: the Wild Card Boxing Club, a 14-year-old gym perched above a laundromat in a Hollywood mini-mall. The interior is plastered with posters from fights of Roach’s boxers, photos of him with everyone he has ever met, and enough obscure, colorful flags to stage an impromptu Renaissance fair. Roach explains, “The rule is this: if you bring a flag in, I put it up.” Even Pacquiao, despite already being a champion, made the pilgrimage to the gym from Manila in 2001. After one round on the mitts with Roach, Pacquiao told his entourage that he had found a new trainer. Roach was equally impressed: “I had never seen speed and power like that before.”
Despite the millions Roach has earned as one of the most sought-after trainers, Wild Card operates self-sufficiently on $5-a-day memberships. “We have never missed rent,” Roach beams with pride. “We break about even every year…though the guys you can’t trust will say, ‘I already paid Pep,’” referring to Roach’s older brother. A fixture of Wild Card, Pepper is a cheerful recovered meth addict with a dodgy memory, bold “SS” and white power tattoos from prison, and a Jewish wife who is the daughter of a kosher butcher. His criminal record began at 17 when he and his father ran a vehicle ID theft scheme. (If you inquire about what he learned from the experience, Pep will smile and say, “Porsche is a great car.”) In addition to being Roach’s brother, Pep is a former boxer, making him family in two ways. The Wild Card patriarch is firm on this point, “I will never turn my back on a fighter.”
As a boy, Roach’s mother, now a psychiatric nurse, gave her son two pieces of advice: “Brush your teeth and don’t get married.” To this day, Roach remains a bachelor, though he’ll confess to a cavity or two. He was once engaged to a former Olympic track star, and the two are still friends. From their stint globetrotting together, Mickey Rourke discovered Roach was a lady-killer, and accidentally walked in on him with a girl one day to find out, “he’s fucking hung like John Holmes.”
Roach is at Wild Card six days a week, 11 hours a day. When asked if he goes on vacation, he held up three fingers. “Three times a year,” I jotted down. “No,” Roach corrected, “three times in my life.” He greets everyone who enters with a fist-bump, tells them they did good work as they leave, and pays no attention to how meaningful this exchange is to any of them. In 2004, Roach took over the property next door, an after-hours sex club (“I had to take out two stripper poles. I think I still got them in the closet”), and sunk $10,000 into renovations, which included converting a portion of the unit into a two-bedroom apartment where Roach lives alone. With the rest of the space, Roach built a private gym on the other side of Wild Card so he could train Pacquiao and keep the main gym open at the same time. The champion, however, is superstitious, and “doesn’t like that side,” according to Roach. “So now I have to just close the main gym.”
One afternoon in 1999, Muhammad Ali walked into Wild Card unannounced. Roach recalls, “He came in here and asked me if he could work out. He starts hitting the heavy bag. His tremors go away. I have Parkinson’s, too, and I don’t have tremors like he has. Mine are slight. His are violent, more violent than mine. He starts hitting the heavy bag and all the tremors go away…. It’s like when I’m doing the mitts. All my problems go away. I don’t walk that well. I shake a little bit, but when I’m in the ring, it’s okay…. [Ali] spent four hours here. He flirted with the girls. He took pictures with everybody in the gym. I asked him, ‘Can I have a picture?’ He said, ‘Did you call me a nigger?’ I said, ‘No.’ That’s exactly what he said to me. He was joking with me. He’s got a great sense of humor.” Ali then performed his famed magic trick: “He levitated for us here. He fooled me. He’s shaking like crazy, but can still levitate. His daughter came in later. I got photos of the two of them shadowboxing. It was the best day of the Wild Card.”
All the talk of brawls left me wondering, being younger and bigger than Roach, if I could take him in a fight. Seeming to read my mind, he flashed me a smirk as if to say, “Take that step.” Roach dragged his left foot onward, and pulling ahead of me, said, “Let me walk you to your car, so you don’t get jumped.”