There hasn't been a hotter trainer in boxing over the last several years than Freddie Roach. HBO is running a series devoted to following Freddie's life. Wildcard Gym in Los Angeles has become one of the most famous boxing gyms in the world. Celebrities, world class fighters, and street kids all intermingle to offer one of the warmest, most amusing atmospheres of any door you'll ever enter. Freddie arrives to work everyday early in the morning and I've never seen him not enjoy giving a fan a photograph.
After his own professional boxing career was over and prior to running the gym and training fighters, Roach worked as a telemarketer. His brother went to prison for stealing baseball cards ("Pepper" Roach will tell you himself he was known as "The Bubblegum Bandit"). Now Pepper works alongside Freddie with anyone looking to break a sweat or learn the sweet science. Freddie recently bought his brother a house in Los Angeles. He's also known to set up accounts with local store keepers as a preventive measure in case "The Bubblegum Bandit" strikes again.
And while you're trying to take all this in after you've climbed the steps to Freddie's gym, don't be surprised if you and anyone you're with is offered a cream from a helpful stranger promising weight loss and significant enlargement in a certain region of your anatomy. "Miracle cream! 10 bucks!"
Trying to reconcile any of it would spoil all the fun Freddie's created with his private universe.
When I first mentioned to Freddie about hearing that Tyson was one of the most knowledgeable people out there on boxing he quickly corrected me.
"Not one of," he glared. "Mike Tyson is the greatest boxing historian who ever lived. Back to the bare knuckle days, Tyson knows more about this sport than anyone on the planet. But I don't think he feels boxing has treated him too good. I think Mike Tyson could be the greatest boxing announcer we've ever had. We'll have to see if he can come back to boxing. He's moody. We all are."
Roach went on to say that he felt Tyson's style, moulded by Cus D'Amato, wasn't one he could ever endorse for his fighters. "Far too square. I came from a different school with Eddie Futch. Eddie and Cus never got along too good. But by the time I had Tyson he was too far along to waste anytime trying to change him. I tried to go back to where he came from. In those days, Tyson wasn't training with the intensity or focus he'd had in the early days."
I asked Freddie if he thought Tyson was shot by the time he'd had a chance to work with him.
"Put it this way," Freddie smiled diplomatically. "It would've been interesting to have had him when, say, Kevin Rooney started working with him. I love Mike. He's a great guy. It's sad what happened to him with his career but if anyone can turn it around, it's him."
"A great trainer without a great fighter is nothing," Freddie laughed. "Pacquiao made me."
If you've ever been to Wildcard when Manny Pacquiao is due to train, the parking lot outside the gym quickly fils with sometimes over a hundred people just waiting for a glimpse of Manny's sleek black Mercedes pulling in. He has his own security detail navigating the arrival. I've seen Filipino biker gangs show up, pull off their helmets, and have the same shy, expectant smiles on their faces as the children eagerly waiting with a glove or article of clothing to have Manny sign. Manny reduces just about everybody to why they first fell in love with boxing. It's a rare, magical quality he gives off with every smile and step.
One thing that caught me by surprise was when Freddie Roach touched on Manny's political run back in the Philippines. "He's broke because of that and all the people he flies around to his fights. He goes through money like you wouldn't believe. He can't say no."
Academy Award winning director Leon Gast, now filming a documentary on Pacquiao after finding such success with Muhammad Ali in When We Were Kings, confirms Manny's inability to say no to anyone.
"His heart is too big," Gast said to me back in Manhattan last week. "He has to hire people just to say "no" for him. You wouldn't believe all the people who come asking. But he can't say no."
Gast showed me a two minute promo for his new film on Pacquiao and the results are incredible.
Freddie had his suspicions about where all of Pacquiao's generosity will get him, "Of course he'll have to keep fighting. He does now. He won't be able to stop. But it's his life."
Roach predicts great things for Amir Khan.
"He has the talent and the determination to rise as far as he wants. After a weakness was exposed in his loss, he worked harder than ever. We've made adjustments. You're seeing the results of those adjustments. Just watch where we can go..."
Finally we come to perhaps Freddie Roach's most unusual pupil.
When Guillermo Rigondeaux first came to Freddie Roach, they worked the hand pads together. Despite a massive language barrier, all the essentials were communicated:
"Within a few minutes Guillermo taught me something new. I told him that. He said I'd done the same thing with him. We were both just about equally surprised. I was sold on him immediately."
Roach went on to say that Guillermo Rigondeaux reminded him a great deal of what it was like to first work with Pacquiao.
"Guillermo is the most talented fighter I've ever worked with. More talent than anyone. However, there are issues with him given his situation leaving behind his country, his family, the Miami people trying to get a hold of him––there's a minefield out there for him. Do I think he can make it? Sure. He could fight for two titles on the same night and I'm pretty sure win with no problem. But he has it much harder than most on the personal side."