Boxing trainer Freddie Roach takes us inside his and fighter Manny Pacquiao’s strategy for Saturday’s WBO welterweight championship and explains why his Parkinson’s is no obstacle as a trainer.
Following his own successful career in the ring, Freddie Roach has trained boxing greats from Mike Tyson to Oscar De La Hoya. We caught up with him at his gym in Los Angeles just before his fighter, Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao (49-3-2), takes on WBO welterweight champion Miguel Ángel Cotto (34-1-0) this Saturday. Roach took us inside their strategy for the upcoming fight, explained why his Parkinson’s is no obstacle for him as a trainer, and gave some straight talk on why the United States can’t produce a decent heavyweight these days.
Interviewed by Martin Mulkeen
MJ: Sounds like you’re at the gym right now. Working with Manny?
FR: No, not right now. I got 14 other pros. Gotta take care of them too.
How do you like running a gym?
I opened the Wild Card in Los Angeles 15 years ago. When I built it I never thought it would turn into this place. We get all kinds here — white-collar people, pros, gold medal champions, Shane my one-eyed guy, the crazy actors; it’s a fun place. People have approached me about doing reality shows in here and stuff like that, but if I did that it would ruin the gym.
Tell me about the upcoming Manny-Cotto fight. How have you tailored your system to this bout?
Manny used to be a kind of brawler looking for a knockout, but now he’s a much smarter fighter. He knows the game plan and he knows the system as well as I do. He’s a machine: You just wind him up and point him in the right direction, and he’ll do the rest. We’re identifying Cotto’s good habits and staying away from them as best we can. The bad habits we just take advantage of.
What’s the game plan?
Well, it really depends on what Cotto brings. He can be a boxer, or he can be very aggressive. I’m thinking he’ll bring his strength early, and when that doesn’t work, he’ll try to be a boxer. So we’re really getting ready for two different fights.
How do you spot raw boxing talent? What qualities do you look for?
Work ethic is the biggest thing. You know they really want to do it and they’re not just there to fuck around. To be a fighter you have to have discipline. A new guy comes in, and I’ll tell him to work out on his own. And I’ll watch him the whole time, but he won’t know it. I’ll check if he’s really working out or just going through the motions. Manny Pacquaio walked into my gym one day and asked me if I would work the mitts with him — he heard I was good in the mitts — and after one round I went over to my corner, and my people said, “Wow, can this guy fight,” and Manny went to his manager and said, “We have a new trainer.” That was after one round. It was probably the luckiest day in my life.
What did he show you that day?
He showed me speed, power, his work ethic. His energy level was so high. I said “Wow, this guy — I’ve never seen a fighter work as hard as this guy does. I mean, when I put him on the heavy bag, people stopped working out just to watch him because he’s trying to fucking kill the bag, stuff like that.
You’ve branched out into mixed martial arts and UFC training a little bit. How does that kind of training differ?
I haven’t really branched out because the MMA guys come here so I can teach them to box — that’s all I really know. So I don’t teach them the ground game. I wrestled in high school, but that’s as far as I go. I have to make certain adjustments with the MMA guys, though. For example, you can’t go under punches the way a boxer would, ’cause you’ll get kicked, or you’ll get kneed in the face. But I’m really not into two guys wrestling on the ground. I know there’s a science to it, but I don’t know it, and I don’t appreciate it the way some people might.
From your perspective, having been in the ring and now working as a trainer, how have you seen boxing change through the years, and where do you see it going?
Boxing is a worldwide thing now. The heavyweight champions are from Russia and other places. The world is on equal playing field now, where at one time the United States had better trainers and better techniques and better fighters, but now people travel the world and bring in different trainers and different styles. I just like a good fight. If it’s MMA, if it’s a good fight, I’ll like it. I’m not against any other sport, but I truly don’t think MMA will take us over.
Why doesn’t the USA produce great heavyweight champions anymore?
If you’re big and you’re an athlete, you’re on TV playing in the NFL or you’re playing basketball. And, of course the Russians, they’ve always had good programs for amateurs, and we really don’t have a great amateur program in America anymore.
Why are the amateur boxing programs in the United States so weak? Because young athletes are funneled into other sports?
That’s one reason, but the other thing is our Olympic team — they’re too soft; they’re not hungry. I’ve talked to some of the amateur coaches, and they say the guys are overweight and they’re killing themselves to make weight right before the fight. Bring them to the Wild Card, and we’ll teach them to train for a fight ’cause it seems they’re just too comfortable up there in Colorado.
Speaking of the Wild Card, tell me about your slogan, “It ain’t easy.” What does that mean to you?
If you want to be a boxer, it’s just not easy. It was either going to be “It ain’t easy” or “Losing sucks.” Those are my two statements.
What do you think about the possibility of Pacquiao fighting Floyd Mayweather Jr.? Is this fight inevitable?
That’s a fight the whole world wants to see. Wherever I go in the world, that’s what people talk about. I think the best need to fight the best, obviously. Negotiations will be tough, but hopefully they can work it out.
I know you train plenty of ordinary guys just trying to stay in shape. Where should an amateur start?
Start with the footwork, of course, because balance is everything. Start with jumping rope and learning how to throw a punch correctly. As you go, you get the routine down and then after a while you don’t need lessons every day. If you don’t want to get hit, that’s fine. Usually the white-collar people don’t. But sometimes they’ll try getting in the ring after a while because everyone wants to see what they’ve learned. I make sure to put them in with one of my pro fighters that can take care of them so nobody gets hurt, of course.
Does Parkinson’s get in your way at all as a trainer?
Nah, I don’t let it. I just take my medication. I can function. Yesterday I did mitts with 12 guys, so I think me working hard is going to keep that at bay. I’m not really worried about it, to be honest with you. I don’t even think about it. I hope I can do this for the rest of my life.
Manny Pacquiao vs. Miguel Cotto, Nov. 14, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO Pay Per View