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"I've got the best life in the world," Roach says without sarcasm. "I don't want sympathy. I love my job; I have a house, a car. But yeah, sometimes I wonder, Why the f--- does it have to be me?"
His own trainer tried to warn him. Futch, who worked with four of the five men who defeated Ali—and who threw in the towel for one of them, Joe Frazier, after the 14th round of the Thrilla in Manila—sat the 25-year-old Roach down for a talk the day after he was TKO'd by Greg Haugen in 1985.
When master and pupil had first met, people said that this pale kid with the soft voice, all of 5'6" and constantly attacking, looked like a white version of Futch. Once, an opponent took a look at Roach and scoffed, "That little kid?" That little kid knocked him out.
But some 20 ESPN fights and one broken right hand later, Roach's quickness had evaporated in the Las Vegas desert. After the Haugen fight Futch began to tell Roach about older boxers who were slowing down—really hurting themselves—and the young fighter cried. Then he did what he always did after taking a good punch: fling all judgment out the window, say "F--- you" and keep going.
In five bouts without Futch, Roach was destroyed four times. When he finally retired, in 1986, he was 39--13 and moonlighting as a telemarketer, hawking coffee mugs and key tags with two of his four brothers, Joey and Pepper—both former fighters, as all Roach men were. (Their mom, Barbara, was also the first female boxing judge in Massachusetts, as a plaque on a Wild Card wall attests.) At night Freddie boozed and got into brawls on the Strip.
How important are trainers in boxing? Roach agrees with Bert Sugar: Fighters make trainers, the way thoroughbreds make jockeys. "Anyone can put a towel on their shoulder and be a coach," Roach says. "I have great fighters. The worst part about this whole game are trainers and managers."
But former middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins, once a charge of Roach's, offers a critical distinction. "There are too many damn trainers and not enough teachers," he says, practically yelling. "There's a 20-mile difference between some trainer and a teacher. Freddie Roach is a teacher."
That's how Roach got into the business, albeit inadvertently. One afternoon, after he'd reconciled with Futch, Roach was hanging out at a gym in Las Vegas when he was asked to take water over to one of Futch's lesser prospects, light heavyweight Virgil Hill. Casually Roach inched closer to the apron, seeing possibilities in Hill's technique, thinking of input he could offer the fighter. From then on Roach showed up at the gym every day, and by the next year he was Futch's most trusted assistant. On Sept. 7, 1987, Hill won the WBA light heavyweight title by TKO with Roach in his corner. It was the first world championship for them both.
Since then Roach has taken a total of three vacations—one, in 2001, was when he became engaged (he never did marry)—and none were for very long. He is inside the Wild Card from eight to eight on weekdays and nine to four on Saturdays. Recently, over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills, Roach named two other things he doesn't do: drink and eat carbs. His main vice? Movies. "Kung-Fu Panda," he asserted in his Massachusetts accent, "might be the best movie of all time. I've seen it seven or eight times."
This rigid schedule is not what you'd expect from a former brawler. (Roach says he once had to bite out a mugger's eyeball to save his own life in Vegas. "I had eyelashes in my teeth," he recalls.) Until last spring, when he moved to L.A.'s Hancock Park neighborhood, he literally lived in gyms. When Roach first came to L.A., to work with actor and light heavyweight boxer Mickey Rourke in 1991, he lived in Rourke's Outlaw Gym at Hollywood and Highland. Eventually he moved into half of a former Vine Street club whose other half houses the Wild Card, and the renovation was an episode of Cribs in reverse: Roach had to remove two stripper poles.