The first time Manny Pacquiao and Freddie Roach got together, Pacquiao was making his Las Vegas boxing debut and needed someone to work his corner against Lehlohonolo Ledwaba.
That was in 2001. With Roach in his corner, Pacquiao scored a sixth-round technical-knockout victory to win the IBF junior flyweight title.
Roach has been Pacquiao’s lead trainer ever since. Theirs is a bond built on trust and love. It goes way beyond Roach telling Pacquiao to keep his right hand up or use his jab more.
“It’s not just boxing,” Pacquiao said. “He’s like my father. My good friend. I trust Freddie.”
When Pacquiao decides he’s going to fight, as will be the case Saturday at Mandalay Bay when he faces Juan Manuel Marquez for the WBC super featherweight title in a rematch of their controversial draw in 2004, Roach focuses his entire attention on him. It has meant losing fighters in the process.
Roach said that’s fine.
“I owe Manny 100 percent of my attention,” Roach said. “He’s my pet. If that means I can’t work with other guys, fine. That’s just the way it is.”
Roach is a former lightweight who battled Greg Haugen, Hector Camacho and Bobby Chacon during his nine-year career, which saw him go 39-13 with one no-contest. But for the last 18 years, he has been waging a far tougher battle.
In 1990, Roach was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. But given that fighting is in his blood, he refuses to give in. He takes medication three times daily, and when he feels the tremors coming on, he stops what he’s doing and reaches for his medicine.
“To be honest, I really don’t think about it,” Roach said of his disease. “I live my life, and I go about my business.”
Roach, 48, doesn’t let much bother him. Yes, he has lost business because of his devotion to training Pacquiao. But Roach also is picking up fighters.
He’ll be in Bernard Hopkins’ corner April 19 when the veteran light heavyweight faces Joe Calzaghe at the Thomas & Mack Center. He’s training O’Neil Bell and Juan Carlos Gomez, and he works with Pacquiao’s younger brother, Bobby. His Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood isn’t lacking for warm bodies.
“Believe me, I’ve got enough to keep me busy,” Roach said.
Roach has worked on developing Pacquiao’s skills. His right hand is a potent weapon, and his ability to break down his opponents with an array of punches makes him dangerous.
“I’ve never seen a guy train like Pacquiao,” said Roach, who has worked with world champions Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer, James Toney and Virgil Hill. “Every task he does, he does 100 percent.
“He wants this fight badly. I can tell. Usually, he’ll stop playing basketball four weeks before a fight. This fight, he told me he hasn’t played basketball once since we started training eight weeks ago.”
For Roach, a three-time Trainer of the Year award-winner by the Boxing Writers of America, the friendship he has with Pacquiao will last long after Pacquiao leaves the ring for good, which doesn’t figure to be anytime soon.
“He’s only 29, yet he’s still willing to learn,” Roach said. “The right hand is getting better. He’s got more confidence in using it.”
Roach said Pacquiao (45-3-2, 35 knockouts) isn’t the easiest fighter to train. But because their relationship is so trusting, he doesn’t have many problems.
“You can’t be a dictator with him,” Roach said. You tell Manny to do something, he’ll go the other way. It’s a constant negotiation, but there’s a trust we have and an understanding of each other.
“When it’s time go to work, nobody works harder.”
Working with Pacquiao has been one of Roach’s best experiences in a sport in which he has spent his entire life.
“Manny’s a special person, very giving, very caring,” Roach said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with him and to be his friend.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@ reviewjournal.com or (702) 387-2913.