At first, Freddie Roach thought someone was pulling a prank on him.
It was early in the summer of 2013. His cellphone rang, and he took the call. At the other end was veteran middleweight Miguel Cotto.
“Why would Cotto be calling me?” Roach asked himself.
But it was indeed Cotto. He wanted to know if Roach would be willing to train him.
And once Roach was convinced this wasn’t some practical joke, it was the first step in the trust that is binding the relationship that he and the fighter have established.
Roach, who helped prepare Manny Pacquiao to fight Cotto in 2009 for Pacquiao’s World Boxing Organization welterweight belt, a bout in which Pacquiao knocked out Cotto in the 12th round, was willing to listen.
Cotto said he would come to Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif., instead of having Roach travel to Cotto’s native Puerto Rico. Cotto also said he was willing to change the way he fights. That’s how much Cotto trusted Roach with his career.
“I knew if I wanted to keep fighting, I had to change what I was doing,” said Cotto, who faces Canelo Alvarez on Saturday at Mandalay Bay on HBO Pay Per View. “I always respected Freddie and what he did for his fighters, and I believed he could help me.”
Roach was confident he could help Cotto. And once they met in person and got to know each other, Roach went to work.
“I knew all about Miguel from when Manny faced him,” Roach said. “Basically, what I had to do was turn him around from being the fighter we faced to the opposite and get him back to being the boxer and counter-puncher he was earlier in his career.”
Roach was smart enough not to mess with Cotto’s signature left hook. He kept that in the fighter’s arsenal, building around it. First, he got Cotto moving again, getting him on his toes and creating a once-again elusive target for the fighter’s opponents.
Next, he sharpened Cotto’s combinations, getting him to throw shorter, quicker bursts. From that, he got Cotto to again be an effective counter-puncher and get him out of the habit of laying on the ropes for extended periods during a round. And while Roach has always loved Cotto’s warrior spirit and wanted to turn that back into an advantage, the reality was that taking shots while stationary wasn’t an advantage.
“A fighter like Miguel who is so smart, you don’t want to change who he is,” Roach said. “I wasn’t going to tell him not to throw that left hook. But we needed to give him more than just the left hook if he was going to be a champion again.
“But he had to trust me to do the right thing, which he did. Everyone gets along. We don’t keep secrets from each other. If he’s not comfortable with something, we talk about it, and if it needs changing, we change it. For me, it has been a great experience working with Miguel. He’s a much nicer guy than I expected. We got into it a little before his fight with Manny. But I chalk that up to competitiveness on both our parts.”
Cotto (40-4, 33 knockouts) has not only won the three fights with Roach working his corner but also has looked good doing so, as he became the World Boxing Council’s middleweight champion after stopping Sergio Martinez in June 2014. And while Alvarez (45-1-1, 32 KOs) is the biggest test yet for the Cotto-Roach team, Cotto is confident Roach has him prepared to win.
“Every fight is different,” Cotto said. “So we prepared for this fight a certain way. Freddie has a great game plan, and my job is to go out and execute it.”
Roach said the key is taking advantage of Alvarez’s mistakes and make him pay.
“Canelo is a very good young fighter, but he makes a lot of mistakes and Miguel is ready to capitalize on those mistakes,” Roach said.
Cotto, 35, admits that had Roach said no to him in 2013, he’s not sure he still would be fighting.
“I had lost two straight fights, and I was trying to save my career,” he said, recalling the reason he dialed Roach. “If Freddie had turned me down, I probably would have retired.”
Instead, Cotto’s career has been revived. He is being promoted by Roc Nation Sports. He has a Hall of Fame trainer that he trusts in his corner. And his confidence level is at an all-time high. He seems happy and enjoys boxing again.
“The love (for boxing) was always there, but I think it took working with Freddie to bring it out in me,” Cotto said.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj