Manny Pacquiao and trainer Freddie Roach prepare for Joshua Clottey fight, and eye bout with Floyd Mayweather
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
LOS ANGELES -- If you're an aging professional athlete, there are plenty of sports where you can hang around without endangering yourself. It's just that this isn't one of them. You hang on too long here, you leave damaged. The man with the tremors in his left hand knows it.
When especially tired or under stress, his entire body quivers like a tuning fork. He has Parkinson's disease. A few people pleaded with him to stop fighting, but he didn't listen. "Fighters don't want to quit," he says.
Nowadays a trainer, 50-year-old Freddie Roach keeps a careful eye on Manny Pacquiao, the best of his fighters, perhaps the best fighter on the planet, a dazzling pugilist he cares about like a son. He loves him, love being the word he never uses -- too soft for the maniacal world of a boxing gym. But it is the right word; it accounts for his ferocity when it comes to all things Pacquiao. At 5-foot-6 1/2 , with his toothy grin, close-set eyes and dark-framed glasses, Roach looks like a pint-sized Buddy Holly.
"You get closer to a fight, you always have questions keeping you up," he says. The question spinning in Roach's head at this moment is this: When does he get Pacquiao out of this game, so that the younger man doesn't run the risk of ever suffering like he does? He is contemplating the question while sitting behind the counter of the Wild Card Boxing Club, a small, cramped gym he owns in a seedy part of Hollywood, located on the second floor of a cheap strip mall where the gym sits above a laundromat.
There is no easy answer. A marvel of health and conditioning, Pacquiao is at the peak of his powers. He has won titles in a record seven weight classifications since his career began in the 1990s, ranging from the flyweight division to welterweight. But he is already 31 and already on the cusp of a boxer's twilight years.
At most, Roach would like him to fight twice more, and be out of the ring for good by early next year. One fight is coming Saturday, a defense of Pacquiao's WBO welterweight title against a tough but little-known Ghanaian named Joshua Clottey. The next fight, as Roach sees it, would be one of the most ballyhooed, most profitable, most contentious fights in boxing history: Pacquiao against the gifted, flighty and undefeated Floyd Mayweather, with whom negotiations for a bout have collapsed once before. The fight could bring each man $30 million.
"With everything else Manny has earned, that should be enough for him," Roach says. "I've told Manny I'd like him to retire as a fighter after that. I want him healthy, wealthy and happy. I don't ever want him having to take all the medication I have to take. I might retire, too. I've been doing this a long time."
Some of his friends in the gym tell Roach he's nuts. Pacquiao is your meal ticket, they say. Why are you talking about leaving millions more on the table? But that's Freddie, they say. Freddie says what he damn well wants to say to anyone, and that includes to Pacquiao.
Theirs is an unusual relationship. As most promising fighters develop into superstars, they, not their trainers, dictate what they'll do and not do. But Roach plays second fiddle to no one. Last year, when Roach noticed Pacquiao looking sluggish during training for his junior welterweight title fight with British star Ricky Hatton, the trainer pointedly asked the fighter why he seemed so sleepy. Pacquiao's lack of an answer only heightened Roach's irritation. When someone in Pacquiao's entourage told him that the fighter, an aspiring singer and actor, had been up into the wee hours singing karaoke with his friends, Roach erupted.
"This is not a singing contest you have coming up, Manny," Roach said. "You have a big fight. Curfew is 9 p.m. I'll put you in your bed if I have to. Never again."
No one else in recent memory had spoken like that to Pacquiao, a man talked about in his native Philippines as perhaps a national leader one day, a fighter of enormous courtesy but also enormous pride. Now he had been chastised like a child in front of his entourage.
For the next two days, Pacquiao didn't speak to Roach. Even as they worked out and Roach held up the big mitts that Pacquiao pounded during their ring work, the fighter made a point of not meeting his trainer's gaze. Roach considered the possibility that he might soon be out of a job.