Ready for Freddie (Roach That Is)

By Robert Ecksel on November 9, 2011
Ready for Freddie (Roach That Is)
““Manny has the openness to learn, but he’s gifted also.” (Chris Farina/Top Rank)

A hand that never properly healed, living in Las Vegas, staying out late and drinking—not ideal for a boxer who dreamed of a title…

“Nobody never learned him nothing.”—Trainer Whitey Bimstein on Rocky Graziano

There have always been great trainers in the fight game. Sometimes unheralded and sometimes not, they were the learned professors who imparted the secret (and sometimes not so secret) knowledge of the fistic arts to their eager charges. Trainers like Ray Arcel, Whitey Bimstein, Jack Blackburn, Freddie Brown, Angelo Dundee, Eddie Futch, Charlie Goldman and Al Silvani earned their rightful place in the annals of boxing. Tasked with turning potentially great fighters into the greatest fighters in history, we may not see their likes again. But there are other trainers working today that future generations will look upon with the same reverence we feel for the venerable trainers of the past.

One such trainer is Freddie Roach.

Wanting a historian’s perspective on the trainer’s art, I spoke with Mike Silver, author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science, and asked what he thought of Freddie Roach.

“Freddie has the advantage of having been tutored, having been mentored, by an old-time master trainer in Eddie Futch,” he said. “Years ago, that’s the way trainers came up. A lot of ex-fighters became trainers, but they weren’t very good trainers because they just weren’t good teachers. Whenever Dempsey tried to train a fighter, he always tried to get the fighter to fight like him. Henry Armstrong, Beau Jack, whenever they tried to train fighters it was also to be carbon copies of themselves, not realizing how much of an original they were and how difficult it was to master that particular style.

“A true teacher, like a Charlie Goldman, will take the fighter’s strengths and magnify them, and try to diminish the weaknesses. The perfect example of course is Charlie Goldman and Rocky Marciano. Most trainers probably would have dismissed Marciano, having the reach of a lightweight and clumsy. But a master teacher sees things in a fighter that other people do not see.”

Goldman’s work with Marciano was nothing short of alchemy, but the chances of that happening today are slim to none.

“These old-school trainers had the advantage of learning the industry while boxing was still a major industry, when there were dozens of gyms in every major city, where you could seek out and find quality trainers who were role models and mentors. Most trainers today don’t have that. That’s why Freddie Roach is more effective than most trainers today. And he’s one of the last trainers, along with Teddy Atlas and Manny Steward, to have an old-school mentor, and that translates to the benefit of their fighters.”

Freddie Roach is, as Silver pointed out, one of the best trainers in the fight game today. He was a fighter before he was a trainer, but Roach has been fighting all his life. He is 51 years old and was born in Brockton, Massachusetts in 1960. His father was a tree surgeon. His mother was a housewife. There were many children.

“There’s seven kids in my family,” Roach told me, “so we fought a lot, against each other or anybody else in the projects. 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.”

Roach was fighting at 122, super bantamweight, at the time, which he said was “Probably my best division. 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 10-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.”

Roach continued to fight. But his days of winning, and the discipline needed to make winning possible, was beginning to erode.

“The thing is,” said Roach, “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.”

A hand that never properly healed, living in Las Vegas, staying out late and drinking—not ideal for a boxer who dreamed of a title.

“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. One doesn’t become neuroscientist or violinist, not when trying to hit and not get hit is all one knows. For Roach, who had been fighting since he was six, the transition was harder than most.

“I wanted nothing to do with it (boxing). 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. 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—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.”

It all worked out extremely well, not just for Roach but for the fighters he trains. He’s a calm presence in the corner. Histrionics aren’t part of his game. He was who he was as a fighter, and is who he is and as trainer, and this has shaped Roach’s philosophy as to what makes a trainer great.

“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 over 20 world champions, including Manny Pacquiao, Amir Khan, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Brian Viloria, MMA superstars Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre, Mike Tyson, Stevie Collins, Frankie Liles, Johnny Tapia, Michael Moorer and James Toney. “I do believe that champions are born and not made,” said Roach. “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, and he made it work for himself and his fighters.

“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.

“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 world-class trainer is no small feat. To be a trainer like the great Eddie Futch is a greater accomplishment still.

“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.”

Roach’s greatest book is the magnum opus we know as Manny Pacquiao.

“Manny’s made me a better trainer,” Roach told Boxing.com, “by being able to do what I ask. The thing is he’s such an athlete and so coordinated, just like working the angles and so forth. It works so well for him and it’s something that I can show to the rest of my fighters. Not to make them Manny Pacquiao of course, but make them fight smarter. I think he really changed the sport a little bit by fighting smarter and by fighting on angles and not fighting head to head so much, and it’s been successful and the rest of my guys are following in his footsteps—because if you are able to obtain an angle on an opponent, you’re in the driver’s seat.

“Manny has the openness to learn, but he’s gifted also. The thing is his work ethic is better than anybody I’ve ever seen. He works harder today than when we first started because he has much on the line. He has his whole country behind him and if he lost he feels like he let them down and he refuses to do that.”

After all the ups and downs, and everything 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 for a moment and said, “But it’s what I do. Box is what I do.”

Asked if he had a prediction for Saturday’s fight with Marquez, Roach said “I think we’ll win by knockout and finally shut this guy up. It’s a tough fight, but I think we’ll get him out of there.”

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  1. "Old Yank" Schneider 12:52pm, 11/09/2011

    Mike—I’ve often wondered if one of the issues that separate a trainer like Buddy McGirt from Freddie Roach is Freddie’s ability to work with a fighter’s strengths rather than trying to turn him into something he’s not.

  2. mikecasey 12:14pm, 11/09/2011

    My God, stop all this endless nonsense - PLEASE!! Go and have an argument with each other on a table tennis website.

  3. "Old Yank" Schneider 11:55am, 11/09/2011

    The Thresher—With all due respect, your translations of my words and uncanny ability to edit them and remove them from context leave one wanting—and let’s leave it at that!  I have voiced strong disagreement with the legitimacy of Freddie Roach’s need to structure contracts that tilt the playing field – it is a practice in boxing that I dislike when Roach does it and when others do it.  This is a difference of opinion on the legitimacy of his actions and not a reflection on any dislikes or disrespect for his skills or passion.

  4. mikecasey 11:09am, 11/09/2011

    Very nicely done, Robert. You would have found Freddie in the forties or fifties with guys like Charley Goldman and Whitey Bimstein. God, we so need great trainers. Count Roach as one of them.

  5. the thresher 10:18am, 11/09/2011

    Another thing that FREDDIE BRINGS TO THE TABLE IS STREET SMARTS AND SHREWDNESS. This comes from growing up in the projects in Dedham. Few can get anything by him and on a one-on-one situation, few can ever get the best of him. Think not? Ask Roger Mayweather about Margarito.

  6. the thresher 10:04am, 11/09/2011

    Yank, with all due respect, you have terribly insulted Freddie in the past. Don’t make me prove it. Let’s just move on and say that you now like him. That’s good enough for me.

  7. Don from Prov 08:36am, 11/09/2011

    I just want to say that this was a very well-written article.  Thanks: I enjoyed it.

  8. "Old Yank" Schneider 08:29am, 11/09/2011

    The Thresher—I’ve always held Roach in high regard for his training skills and passion.  Often when praising him his fans conveniently omit the guys who’ve crashed and burned under his tutelage – not every charge has been Pacquiao or Khan.  Was Colonel Tom Parker one of the greatest promoters that ever lived or did having Elvis under his tutelage lend a hand in making him who he was?  I’ve NOT agreed with Roach insisting on tying an opponent’s hand behind their back in order to fight his guy Pacquiao (read: catchweights).  Respect and disagreement can coexist.  To be sure, some of Roach’s success might be attributable to clever matchmaking and possibly contorted contracts rather than great success in training his charge – a side-skill worthy of respect (but for different reasons).  I’ll have more on this tomorrow.

  9. the thresher 07:22am, 11/09/2011

    The other thing about Freddie is that he never waivers or stumbles. He is like a force. He just keeps coming and coming like an incoming fighter. Nothing real fancy. What you see is what you get, but what you get will never stop. Freddie beileves the shortest distance bewteen two points is a straight line. He simplifies things. He does not complicate. He makes it all pretty easy and then he inspires by example in the training gym.

    If Freddie has a fault, it’s that he spreads himself too thin. Atlas never tires of reminding us of this.  Other trainers seem to have issues with Freddie, but he totally ignores them which drives them up the wall. Freddie does it “my way.” He is an original. None other like him though Brother Naazim comes close.

  10. the thresher 07:14am, 11/09/2011

    Allowing passion to take you wherever it takes you can be very dangerous. Freddie has always been in boxing. It’s what he does. He is like a guy who has always been in Advertising. It’s what he does. You say to yourself, “hey, this is what I want too do,” and then you do it. He went about it the right way by learning his trade much like an apprentice bricklayer learns his. He then became a journeyman craftsman. Nothing real magical about all that except that he overcame Parkinson’s to do it. That’s the magical part of all this. His abilty to work around his disability.

  11. the thresher 07:08am, 11/09/2011

    I have ALWAYS been a fan of Freddie’s. I knew him when he lived in Dedham. He is true grit. He was from a very dysfunctional family of fighters and he had no silver spoon to help him along the way. He is also a RING 4 brother.

    Freddie is pure gold in the Boston boxing community and those who would make fun of his Parkinson’s on another site (not to be named) need to be dipped in acid.

    This guy is the embodiment of what tough is all about.

  12. the thresher 07:04am, 11/09/2011

    Apparently you have shifted your opinion on Roach. Glad to see that.

  13. "Old Yank" Schneider 06:55am, 11/09/2011

    There is a really great feel to this piece.  Almost nothing can take the place of passion.  Some call it attitude—but attitude often carries a nuance of arrogance—passion is in the soul and there ain’t much a man can do about it but allow it to lead him wherever it takes him – sometimes stumbling; sometimes running; sometimes gleaming with crystal clarity; and sometimes misunderstood.  This is the nature of unbridled passion.  Freddie lives it and is obviously grateful that he sees it and can touch it.  For those who have passion it is often the greatest magnet in their life.  But like any strong magnet, passions from opposite poles repel—often without respect for recognizing that they are actually the same magnet, only powered from different ends.  There is something that feels “gifted” about a man who uses his passion in ways to draw things closer – Freddie Roach strikes me as just such a man.

  14. Iron Beach 04:16am, 11/09/2011

    Spot on piece of writing Mr. Ecksel, my compliments.

  15. the thresher 04:12am, 11/09/2011

    “But it’s what I do. Box is what I do.” Great quote.

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