Roach, Richardson share bonds

LAS VEGAS -- Things have never been easy for Freddie Roach and Naazim Richardson.

Then again, they rarely are for boxing trainers.

They are the rugged backbone of a sport that has often lost its way and a constant reminder that the fight game is as ruthless and unforgiving as the real world.

On the surface, the two men who will stand in opposing corners for Manny Pacquiao and Shane Mosley on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena have little in common.

Roach is white, diminutive and unimposing. He walks around the casino wearing a red and blue T-shirt and shorts. He is constantly adjusting his glasses. His hair is a disheveled mess. If you hadn't seen him during his days as a boxer in the 1980s you wouldn't know he was one of the toughest lightweight fighters.

Richardson is black, hefty and daunting. He attracts the attention of everyone as he walks past a food court wearing all black. He has a full gray beard, knitted skull cap and an intimidating glare. The devout Muslim is greeted by a few passers-by with "As-Salamu Alaykum," an Arabic greeting meaning "Peace be upon you."

In a sport where trainers are just as competitive and protective of their territory as boxers and promoters, the two men share a mutual respect for each another. Not only have they reached the pinnacle of their profession, but they both had to teach themselves how to do the simplest of tasks before they could ever teach their fighters the intricacies of a sport that has continually caused them as much pain as joy during their lives.

Freddie Roach likes to forget he has Parkinson's disease.

It's a challenge he faces on a daily basis when he wakes up in the morning and takes his medication.

As he sits on a velvet couch outside the MGM Grand Garden Arena, he twitches every so often and speaks softly, but nothing that would lead you to believe he was diagnosed with the debilitating illness in 1990.

"I don't dwell on it," Roach said. "I don't think about it. The only time I'm reminded of it is when I take my medication and I start shaking a little bit. I live a life like everyone else. I don't let it bother me."

Roach said neurologists told him his condition was probably caused by the impact blows he took to the head during his boxing career. Roach, however, is at peace with the sport he loves robbing him of his ability to speak, walk and function normally without taking three pills a day.

In many ways he was born to be a fighter whether he liked it or not.

When he was growing up in Dedham, Mass., as the fourth of seven children, it seemed as though he were always fighting. His late father, Paul Roach, was a pro boxer and gave his five sons boxing gloves for Christmas and raised his sons as fighters.

Roach fought more than 200 amateur and professional fights before retiring in 1987. He briefly became a telemarketer before his former trainer Eddie Futch convinced him to join the profession. He has gone on to train world champions, such as Pacquaio, Oscar De La Hoya and Mike Tyson, and on Friday night was presented with the Trainer of the Year award by the Boxing Writers' Association of America for the third straight year.

"I chose the sport. I don't blame anybody," Roach said. "I don't blame boxing. If there's anyone to blame it's me. I chose this sport and I believe in freedom of choice. I have something to deal with and I deal with it."

Roach not only deals with it, he thrives in spite of it. He owns and runs the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood and trains everyone from teenagers and "Weekend Warriors" to celebrities and world champions.

"If someone comes in for a lesson and wants to see what boxing is all about, I like to give them a good workout," Roach said. "It's fun. That's what I do in my down time. I don't charge anybody to work out. It's fun for me."

When Roach is in the ring, none of the fighters he works with can tell what he goes through behind closed doors when he takes his medication. He admits one day his illness may force him to retire from training but until that day comes, he refuses to slow down.

"Manny Pacquiao asked me the other day, 'If I start to slow down, will you tell me?' " Roach said. "I said, 'I'll be the first one to tell you and then you and me can both get jobs.' "

Naazim Richardson will never forget the day he couldn't pick up a bottle of water.

It was March 25, 2007 and Richardson had just returned home from training and simply couldn't do what he had done his whole life.

He couldn't grip his hands. He couldn't make a fist. He couldn't control of his body.

Richardson was having a stroke.

The left side of his body went numb and he fell to the ground in front of his sons, who pulled him off the ground and prayed as they drove him to the hospital.

Doctors said he would need a brain operation to save his life and even then he would probably lose his left leg.

Richardson, as he has done most of his life, beat the odds. He taught himself how to walk again, refusing to use the walker doctors and therapists implored him to take.

Less than a year after his stroke, Richardson lost his mother, Leah, who had a bypass operation. She had told him to leave her bedside to go back to the gym and train fighters who needed him more. She remembered how the boxing gym changed Richardson, who was jailed as a teenager in Philadelphia before turning his life around under the tutelage of trainers who shaped him into the trainer he is today.

"When you go through a traumatizing situation like that it gives you a new perspective on life," Richardson said. "There was a few things that happened during that time. Right after I came out of that I was blessed with a grandchild, I lost my mother, and I came to an understanding with my mortality. You realize there are things you need to get done and you have to get them done."

Richardson has gotten it done as a trainer since his recovery four years ago. He travels the country, training fighters of all ages and sizes, ranging from amateurs in Philadelphia to Golden Gloves hopefuls to Mosley, one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters of all time.

"I never lost faith," Richardson said. "I understand whatever God has for me is what I'm supposed to have. He had the stroke for me and he had the recovery for me. And whatever he has for me afterwards I have to accept it and understand it and do the best I can with it."

As Roach and Richardson stand on opposite ends of the stage during Friday's weigh-in at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, there is a rare mutual respect between the two fighters and trainers that isn't lost on the participants.

"Freddie has persevered and I've had the privilege of working with him and knowing him," Richardson said. "He's a man that doesn't limit himself because of his situation."

Before Roach and Richardson could help Pacquiao and Mosley square off in one of the most anticipated fights of the year, they had to teach themselves how to walk, talk and live a normal life again.

It's a battle Richardson will never forget and Roach continues to fight every day.

"The message is don't lay over and give up," Roach said. "Just fight on and fight through it. I'm a fighter and that's what we do."

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.