Roach masters ring, remains a student

Freddie Roach doesn't look like a typical trainer.

He's not old and gray. He doesn't have a raspy voice or tell stories of how things were in the old days.

His old days are the 1990s. Or for that matter the 2000s. Roach is the new thing to come along.

Fighters, managers and other trainers come to his Wild Card Boxing club in Hollywood, Calif., to gain knowledge. They all want to know what Roach has to say, and they all want to watch him work.

Roach doesn't act like he knows everything. He wants to learn himself. Just the other day a Cuban fighter who is 5-0 gave Roach a tip on defense.

It's tips such as these that Roach, who turned 50 last Friday, might give a guy like Manny Pacquiao for his WBO welterweight title fight on March 13 against Joshua Clottey at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

And why not?

Since he hooked up with Roach in 2001, Pacquiao has transformed from being an unknown fighter from the Philippines into one of the best boxers of his generation.

Under Roach, Pacquiao is 18-1-2 with 14 knockouts. He's won his last 11 fights, seven by knockout. To say Pacquiao owes his success to Roach is like saying that a winning politician owes registered voters a handshake after an election.

"Freddie is like my dad and a brother," Pacquiao said last week. "He's like a teacher, like my master. I was in grade school in 2001, and now I'm ready to graduate from college."

Roach can relate to the way Pacquiao perceives him. As a lightweight from Dedham, Mass., just a little guy at 5-foot-5, he fought under legendary trainer Eddie Futch.

Roach loved Futch and learned everything he knows about boxing from him.

After a few losses in the 1980s, Futch told Roach it was time to retire. But Roach wouldn't listen and left his trainer.

Perhaps he should have listened. In 1985, Roach suffered back-to-back losses to quality fighters Greg Haugen and Hector Camacho but kept going. His career ended with five losses in his last six fights, including the last one, a majority decision to David Rivello.

Then and only then did Roach decide to retire.

"It was just time," Roach said. "It was hard to leave the sport I loved, but I knew I could do something else."

Roach became a student of the game under Futch and later became a trainer. The first boxer Roach trained to become a world champion was Virgil Hill, who won the WBA light heavyweight title in 1987.

Over time, the lasting effects of boxing caught up to Roach. He has Parkinson's disease. There is no clear scientific evidence suggesting years of boxing leads to Parkinson's, but numerous studies on the issue have hinted at a link.

Roach takes medications to control the disease, and he shakes and stutters at times.

But when Roach is working the mitts with his fighters, the symptoms disappear somewhat. Muhammad Ali, who also suffers from Parkinson's, worked out at the Wild Card gym a few years ago and threw punches on the heavy bag with no problems.

"It's like my comfort zone," Roach said of holding the mitts for a boxer. "When Ali came come to my gym five years ago, he hit the heavy bag and his tremors went away. He was in a comfort zone like me."

Still, the disease worries people close to him, like Pacquiao.

"For him, it's something he controls and it makes him better, and tougher, having to go through that stuff," Pacquiao said. "Every day, it prepares him for my punches."

Roach doesn't believe that boxing led to his condition. If anything, his success in the ring as a trainer -- he's trained 17 fighters who have won titles -- makes some forget that he is afflicted.

"I chose the sport, nobody forced me to do it," he said. "I love the sport. I'm happy. We live in a country where we have freedom of choice. I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me. It's a pain in the ass to take the medication, and sometimes the tremors are embarrassing, but I don't hate boxing for it. Maybe I would have had it anyway."

It hasn't stopped Roach from leading Pacquiao into the elite of his sport.

On Saturday, Clottey, a tough fighter from Ghana, believes he has a shot to knock off Pacquiao.

"No matter what, people are going to talk about him. He is the best now," Clottey said. "When he beats guys, like in the [Miguel] Cotto fight, he beats guys that don't have a good defense. I have a defense."

Roach doesn't seem worried. Why should he be?

He learned from Futch. He also learned from watching and taking bits and pieces here and there to give to his pupils.

"He's my best work," Roach said of Pacquiao. "For me, we came a long way, and he's the best student I ever had."

Calvin Watkins covers boxing for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter.