The Wild Card Boxing Club is situated upstairs in the back of a strip mall near Vine and Santa Monica – the flatlands of Hollywood. Up the street was once the Hollywood Ranch Market, an early symbol of all that is unsavory and unwholesome lurking beneath the surface of the fantasy. It was the navel on the stretch-marked underbelly of Tinseltown.
Boxing gyms are always in such places. Boxing is tragic, in the same way bullfighting and the plays of Sophocles are. It is one of the last things in our culture to carry such weight. It remains an unregulated dark corner of the modern collective psyche. It connects us to the cold bedrock floor of prehistory, where social identity and mythic dream meet.
To practice those disciplines and arts in which blood is spilled as part of the contract is to give oneself over to impulses none of us too clearly understands. Fighters bring something unseen with them; it's about suffering and pain, but it's mostly about sacrifice. No one wants to be hit. It's safe to say that almost all fighters pursue the sport as a means of escaping the grinding, long-term brutality of wage slavery, and not because it's fun. “I hated it,” says Freddie Roach. “But I was good at it.” Freddie has been in gyms since he was 6.
“My father would wake us up, me and my brothers, real early, before school, so we could do our roadwork. Then we'd take the bus to school. After school I'd do my paper route, and then we'd take the bus down to the train station and catch a train that took us to the gym. Then we'd train until it was time to ride the train and bus back home.”
Freddie's father was a tree surgeon who'd broken his back in an accident. Unable to work, his family had been moved to the Veteran's Projects of Dedham, Massachusetts – part of the Irish South Boston cauldron of blue-collar misery.
“My father was tough, and he was mean. He didn't have a drinking problem or anything. He was just mean.”
Freddie entered the Junior Olympics when he was 8. He won it five consecutive years. Freddie will quickly tell you, however, that his older brother Pepper was the most talented. “He could kick my ass. I couldn't touch him.” Pepper Roach is now serving time in prison.
Freddie wasn't sure about becoming a fighter. “My father would tell you, if you asked, that he never forced us to fight. And I guess that's true, but life was sure easier if you did.”
Freddie's first professional fight was in 1978, in Portland, Maine. It was a six-round decision, and he was paid $90. He fought three more times in New England before deciding to move west (where there was a lot more opportunity for fighters in the lighter weight classes). He came out to Las Vegas with his father, who until then had been his only trainer, and was signed by the legendary Eddie Futch. He was 18.
“They had regular Wednesday fights at the Silver Slipper then. So I rented a trailer and got a job as a busboy at the Golden Nugget, midnight to 8. I'd train all day, then go home and sleep until 11, get up, go to work. I'll say this, I worked harder than anyone. You can ask Eddie. I trained harder than anyone.”
He was white, baby-faced and talented. (Sometimes they called him the Baby-Faced Assassin.) He had no trouble getting fights. His pivotal fight came on the eve of a Larry Holmes title defense. It was a Silver Slipper card, and Freddie's first eight-round bout. The planets aligned, and Freddie timed a right cross in the first minute of the first round, a knockout. Holmes visited him in the dressing room afterward. “You hit that boy so hard he's gonna need a birth certificate to remember who he is,” he said.
That week Bob Arum signed Freddie. He fought 54 fights in 10 years; at one point he was 27-1. He fought Mario “Buckets of Blood” Chavez, broke his hand in the second round and won the decision. He went on to fight world champs Bobby Chacon and Hector “Macho” Camacho. And he worked as sparring partner for the great Nicaraguan lightweight Alexis Arguello through five title fights. He learned more from Arguello, he says, than from anyone.
Freddie had no intention of going into training, or having anything to do with boxing at all. But he went to see his friend Virgil Hill fight James Schuler. Freddie noticed that nobody in Hill's corner was bringing him water between rounds. Freddie got up and took him some. Hill hired him as his trainer. Since then, he's trained three-time world champ Marlon Starling, cruiser champ Don Diego Poeder, recently retired middleweight champ Steve Collins (from Ireland), as well as former heavyweight champ Michael Moorer. And, of course, Lucia Rijker.
“Champions are born, not made,” Freddie says. Still, he makes fighters better because of who he is as much as by what he teaches – or maybe they're inseparable, those two things. Another ex-fighter and product of South Boston, Tommy Barrett, remarked to me once, “Freddie had the same thing you see in Steve Collins, where they go beyond what talent is into the place where it's all desire. He has no patience for lazy fighters.”
At 38, Freddie has a form of Parkinson's syndrome, but it certainly hasn't slowed him down. He's worked hard to buy and run the Wild Card. It hasn't been easy. It's one of the paradoxes of the sport today that while the gym has been a training home to fighters like Moorer and Collins, James Toney and recently even Roberto Duran, what really keeps it going are those who most conspicuously don't have to get hit but want to – or at least simulate it. On any given day there are celebrities of differing caliber hanging about – celebrity lawyers, celebrity athletes, celebrity celebrities.
On this particular afternoon an attractive 20-something (aspiring actress, I'm guessing) in spandex shorts and sports bra is punching awkwardly at the heavy bag. Her hands have been taped, just like a “real” fighter, her gloves tied, and there she is, hanging on every word her “trainer” gives her. Asked about her, Freddie just shrugs. He may see the irony in such matters, but he has a gym to run in a professional manner.
Actor Danny Trejo, who learned most of his boxing while in San Quentin, says, “There's Freddie, he looks like fucking Opie or some choir boy, but you better mind that left hook. Freddie though, he's a real gentleman.”
Freddie Roach is the real deal. He has created a serious but approachable club down on luminous lower Vine Street. Go check it out – but mind the left hook.