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Freddie Roach Goes the Distance
November 16, 2009
Even as he preps Manny Pacquiao for the bout of the year, boxing's best trainer is determined to protect his fighters from progressive brain damage—the condition that will one day force him to give up the work he loves
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November 16, 2009

Freddie Roach Goes The Distance

Even as he preps Manny Pacquiao for the bout of the year, boxing's best trainer is determined to protect his fighters from progressive brain damage—the condition that will one day force him to give up the work he loves

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His goal, ironically, was to resemble the man whose advice he once rejected. "I'm 100 percent modeled after Mr. Futch," Roach says. "People have called me his clone, and there's nothing that makes me prouder." (Futch died at age 90 in 2001.)

Like Futch, Roach is a disciplinarian who doesn't yell; a mentor who, by virtue of how deeply he breathes the sport, has the total confidence of his fighters. "Freddie's so emotionally involved," Hill says. "You respect him because he knows exactly how a fighter feels. He's been there and done that."

Mixed martial arts champions such as Anderson Silva and B.J. Penn hire Roach to teach them how to box. De La Hoya, now a boxing promoter and entrepreneur, hopes to reorganize the U.S. Olympic boxing program and make Roach its trainer. "The biggest thing for me is to just get in fighters' heads and make them trust me," Roach says. "The ring is my world."

The ring is also where Roach feels the healthiest. When he puts on the mitts and bounces back and forth, catching hundreds of punches mere centimeters from his goatee, the tremors, which began 20 years ago, stop and his old quickness returns. Like Futch, Roach is an offensive wizard, and he thinks he's better at physically rehearsing strategy than at anything else. "He always wants you to get within an inch of your opponent," says assistant Jesse Reid.

That philosophy is what has made Pacquiao, who is generally considered the world's best fighter pound for pound, his perfect pupil. Roach, who calls the Filipino southpaw's burnished right hook "my baby," has tuned Pacquiao's frantic cacophony of punches into a graceful arpeggio.

But there are limits. Sitting behind his desk, Roach will tell you that his training is centered on defense. Against boxing tradition, he refuses to let his fighters spar more than three times a week, for fear of the extra damage it could do to their brains. And even if it cuts down on his income (Roach makes the trainer's standard 10%), he tries to persuade trainees to quit when their advancing careers begin to threaten their health. "Even," Roach says, with a small grin, "when they all tell me to go f--- myself."

Among his world champs, he has suggested retirement to the 45-year-old Hill, who hasn't fought since 2007; to heavyweight James Toney, who's still pursuing a comeback at 41; to super bantamweight Israel Vázquez, 31, who began slurring his words after Rafael Márquez broke his nose in 2007; to super bantamweight Wayne McCullough, age 39, who was discovered to have a cyst between his brain and skull; and even to Hopkins, after Roach watched him walk to the wrong corner four times in a loss to Joe Calzaghe last year. Memorably, Hopkins, then 43, left Roach and beat Kelly Pavlik last fall. "I didn't take it personally," Hopkins says. "Even my wife was concerned about me."

And now—to the chagrin of promoters and fans—Roach is advising Pacquiao, who has made the trainer arguably the most popular foreigner in the Philippines, to retire after two more fights. "Quitting is against boxing's religion," Freddie says, "but my duty is to protect my fighter."

Indeed, for all of the medical community's ideas to make boxing safer—headgear, bigger gloves, a ban on blows to the head, none of which are likely to be implemented—Roach believes in the unilateral power of the corner. After all, only a trainer sees a fighter's regression up close, and only a trainer can throw in the towel. "I suppose you can call me a hypocrite," Roach says, his voice low. "I teach people to do what gave me this disease." Then again, as Hill points out, "Who better to tell a kid, 'Son, maybe you need to look at other options'?"

There is no one else, really. And too rarely does a teacher get a second chance to take his own advice. When Roach's own clock winds down again—when training becomes too fast for him—there will be no weeping and no denial. He knows that for all his donations to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, there will probably not be a cure for Parkinson's in his lifetime. So, he pledges, he will go far away from the Wild Card, far away from the sport he lives and breathes. Unlike his brother Joey, he doesn't even want a funeral.

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