Roach’s store of boxing gems

Legendary trainer Freddie Roach isn’t allowing a battle with Parkinson’s Disease curtail his development of a new era of boxing superstars. Simon Lewis spoke to him in Los Angeles.

HE MAY have been flying high from the biggest victory of his training career but it didn’t take long for Freddie Roach to return to base, plotting the flight path to stardom for another squadron of fighters at his Wild Card gym in LA.

The week after Roach had overseen star pupil Manny Pacquiao’s eight-round dismantling of his former fighter Oscar De la Hoya in Las Vegas, the 48-year-old was busying himself once more in the hubbub of the Wild Card — where superstars, eager pros and a legion of local kids paying a bargain $50 a month to work out there — all share floor space.

The Wild Card is housed on the top floor of a characterless shoebox of a two-storey white building in Hollywood that Roach also calls home.

Many of boxing’s greats have parked their fancy cars outside and trudged up the concrete steps to take counsel from one of the sport’s finest trainers, motivators and tacticians. Though living with Parkinson’s Disease, Roach remains an ever-willing tutor to the best in the business and those with aspirations to join them.

One of those aspirants is a Dubliner called Dean Byrne, a pro with a 10-0 record, who followed a path laid by Bernard Dunne in 2001 by journeying to America’s west coast to tap into the wisdom of Roach and the great sparring opportunities he provides at the Wild Card.

“I couldn’t be in a better place,” Byrne says after a sparring session. “Freddie’s great.

“I love it here in the gym. It gives me so much confidence training with Freddie and all the moves and all the shots that he teaches me, I take into the ring and that makes life easier for me.

“I’m a confident kid but knowing that Freddie’s in my corner builds my confidence.

“And going back to the corner knowing you’ve done well feels very good when the best trainer in the world is waiting for you there.”

A professional fighter himself for eight years between 1978 and 1986, with a record at lightweight of 39-13, the 5ft 5ins Massachusetts-born Roach trained under the late Eddie Futch, the legendary coach who plotted four of the five pro defeats delivered to Muhammad Ali by Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Trevor Berbick and Larry Holmes.

AFTER 406 rounds of competitive action, the soft-spoken Roach, whose fighting nickname was ‘The Choir Boy’, was taken under Futch’s wing as an assistant trainer and landed his first world title as a corner man with Virgil Hill.

In addition, Roach has trained the likes of Mike Tyson, De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, Israel Vasquez, Michael Moorer, James Toney and Irish trio Steve Collins, Wayne McCullough and Bernard Dunne.

Now Byrne, sent to Roach by Collins’ brother Packie, is the latest Irishman to benefit from the Wild Card regime.

“It’s everything,” Byrne says of the Roach effect. “The knowledge he has, the experience he has, he’s been a fighter himself so he’s been in there and has a lot of experience.

“Obviously he’s had a lot of champions and worked with a lot of big names as well, so he knows his stuff.

“When I came here I was 6-0 and I hadn’t got that many knockouts (one, in his pro debut). I didn’t think I had the power but as soon as I came to Freddie, he noticed I was sitting down on my punches and all of a sudden I had some power. He’s made me more of an all-round boxer that can now finish guys off.”

Part of that rounding off process comes from the rigorous sparring sessions Roach puts his boxers through.

The day Byrne arrived, Roach threw the raw Dubliner into the ring with experienced Australian lightweight Michael Katsidis and he has since seen sparring time with Roman Karmazin, the Russian former IBF light-middleweight champion, Britain’s 2004 Olympic silver medalist Amir Khan, and even the great Pacquiao.

After 21 years as a trainer, Roach employs a tried and tested training regime for all his fighters, divided into two essential parts: a repeated honing of boxing’s fundamentals and those regular trips to the ring for demanding sparring.

“I don’t hire sparring partners,” Roach says, “I hire real fighters — contenders that are coming up that can really push my fighters. Sparring in my gym is not play.

“It’s pretty much a fight. The only rule is that if you hurt someone you don’t finish them, that’s because you might need him another day.”

Ahead of his showdown with De La Hoya, Pacquiao added further spice to his sparring with the likes of Khan and Byrne, who as well as benefiting from ring time with a world-class boxer, were given the incentive of a $1000 (€740) bonus if they knocked the Philippines star down.

The money remained uncollected throughout the training camp and the Pacquiao bank account was boosted further come fight night when the Filipino superstar outclassed and embarrassed De La Hoya in Vegas with an eighth-round stoppage, the Golden Boy preferring to stay on seat rather than come out for the ninth.

It was a sweet moment for Roach, who had hammered into Pacquiao the need to negate De La Hoya’s left hand, particularly the jab, and seen his fighter apply the plan to perfection.

18 months earlier in May 2007, Roach had been fired by De La Hoya following his split-decision defeat to Floyd Mayweather. And in the same MGM Grand Garden Arena ring, Roach was given the satisfaction of a battered De La Hoya, his left eye almost closed, approach him after the fight and pay his respects.

“No hard feelings, Freddie,” De La Hoya told him.

“You were right, I just don’t have it anymore.”

Roach would later express his belief that his former charge should retire for the sake of his own health, recalling the advice given to him by Futch.

“Eddie told me I should retire five fights before I did,” he said. “I lost four of those.

“I have compassion for Oscar because I think he’s a good guy with a nice family and he’s got so many other things he can do with his life.

“Retiring is the hardest thing to do, but look at me now. I have Parkinson’s disease.

“I would never want Oscar to go through what I’ve been through.

“This is such an addictive sport, because you put so much into it. When it’s over, it’s awfully tough on people. I saw Mike (Tyson) in Vegas, and I said, ‘What are you up to Mike?’ and he kept saying, ‘Nothing. Nothing.’ “So many fighters are lost after it’s over.”

ROACH is grateful he didn’t go the same way after he hung up his gloves and believes De La Hoya will be fine with Golden Boy Promotions thriving and his other business interests spreading to the media and a share in the Major League Soccer team Houston Dynamo.

“I was lucky enough that Eddie Futch took me under his wing and I was able to become a trainer and stay in the game because I have no other skills. I only know boxing.

“Oscar will be just fine after boxing. He’s got so many skills.”

Roach, though, will just carry on training, waking up each morning in his modest apartment in the same building as the Wild Card, close enough to hear the chime of the gym’s ring bell, which he has reportedly set on a timer to serve as his alarm clock.

And after his short walk to work, the trainer will go back to plotting his next ring coup, eager to top the upset Pacquiao scored over De La Hoya.

“I love beating the odds,” Roach says, “and you know what, if there weren’t any upsets in the world, it would be a boring place. What’s supposed to happen doesn’t always happen. Winning or losing, you’ve got to have one or the other, it’s a fact of life. I don’t like to lose but maybe the people who say I’ve bitten off more than I can chew will be smiling. I just don’t see it happening.”

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