These days coach Freddie Roach is best known as the guy who first said "yes" to superstar Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao back when everybody else was saying "no." Roach owns the Wild Card gym on Santa Monica and Vine. He has been an L.A. fixture for years, but his career started heating up big-time eight years ago, when Pacquiao walked in, looking for a trainer. Their collaboration will go down in history as one of the truly magical pairings in sports. Together, they've revitalized the boxing scene, which had been losing ground to mixed martial arts.
Roach, who is currently fighting a personal battle with Parkinson's disease, was once a boxer, too. He started at age 6, quit at 27, then eventually learned how to be a coach under the legendary Eddie Futch, adopting the latter's quiet, cerebral, strategy-focused approach. He doesn't aim to change the boxers he coaches. He takes their natural strengths and refines them.
Roach is a millionaire now, but he grew up poor in the hardscrabble Boston projects. "We had a boys' room and a girls' room and my parents' room, and that was it," he says. "Boxing was our way out."
With the exception of his fancy car — a tan Mercedes-Benz — the man nicknamed La Cucaracha and the Choir Boy has lowbrow tastes. Roach is bad with money, so his accountant gives him an allowance, which he spends primarily in restaurants because he doesn't cook. Otherwise, his life revolves around his sport of choice. He isn't married and says that the problem seems to be that he can't find a woman willing to take second place to boxing. For a long time, he and his gym were almost one. He lived in the ratty apartment, grafted to it like a Siamese twin.
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Acknowledged as one of the best and smartest in the business, Roach has trained world champions — among them Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Virgil Hill and Amir Khan — but at first, he didn't even want to be a coach. He wanted to be an arborist. Roach attended an agricultural high school, where he studied forestry. Those who know him say he can name hundreds of tree species. But ask him about it, and he'll grumble that he knows nothing about trees.
Roach had dark days for a while. He began drinking, then took a job doing telemarketing. One of the guys he happened to call was actor Mickey Rourke, who was dabbling in boxing. Rourke needed a coach, and soon, Roach was back in the game. The darkness began to lift.
The question the trainer is asked most now is, "Who is the next Manny Pacquiao?"
People come to his gym for tryouts every day. He won't train guys who just go through the motions. "They're a waste of time," Roach says. "I know. At one point in my life I was just going through the motions, too."