Freddie Roach: A mastermind who turns men into champions

He has worked with 24 world title holders, and tonight in Manchester his latest charge, Amir Khan, may well become the 25th. Freddie Roach speaks to Steve Bunce about the perfect punch, Manny Pacquiao and living with Parkinson's
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The Independent Online

Freddie Roach was told to quit fighting by the man he came to regard as a father, but he ignored the words of iconic fight figure Eddie Futch and lost four of his last five fights.

Nobody will ever be able to prove that Roach's Parkinson's disease was caused by the extended beatings that Futch told his fallen prospect not to risk. "Maybe it would have happened anyway," offers Roach, with a shrug.

Since he finally quit the ring, Roach has worked as a trainer with 24 world champions, including the world's best fighter at the moment, Manny Pacquiao. And tonight the attention is on Roach again, along with his latest charge, Amir Khan, who he hopes will become number 25 when he steps through the ropes tonight at the MEN Arena, Manchester, to fight World Boxing Association light-welterweight champion Andreas Kotelnik.

Roach is a man who knows the power of a mentor. When he did finally walk away from the boxing ring, after 54 pro fights and just over 150 amateur contests, Roach fell under Futch's control once again and switched from prospect to apprentice.

"I had first met Eddie after I turned pro and I went out to Las Vegas with my father," remembers Roach. "It was 1979, I'd had a few fights and I was in Vegas with my dad looking for a new trainer. We met Eddie on the second day and that was it." Roach's father returned to the east coast and their family home in Massachusetts, and Futch, often referred to as Papa Smurf, had a new baby to feed and teach. Roach was 19 and unbeaten in four pro fights.

Under Futch's care, Roach developed from a slugger into a boxer, but it was not a transition that came easy and neither was it a change that lasted long once the punches started to flow. Roach had grown up in the poor part of town, the projects as they say in America, and fighting was part of the small man's life from a very early age. "I was always fighting with my brothers, with other people. Always fighting, it is what I did and what I was good at," adds Roach, whose gentle face, which is shaped by his sharp glasses, conceals a life devoted to giving and taking punishment.

He is a ruthless operator as a trainer and drops fighters and assistants if and when they fall short of his expectations. "I never fought for a world title but I met some good fighters," Roach continues. He did mix with quality, however, and started to excel on the safe side of the ropes and soon eclipsed his own achievements. "I took so much from Eddie in the gym. It was a listening time and I was good at listening. I never took his advice when I was fighting – it was different when I started looking after fighters," he says.

Roach quit fighting in 1986, first suspected something was wrong a couple of years later and was diagnosed in 1992. He is, in many ways, the most unlikely and unassuming poster boy for other Parkinson's sufferers.

"I treat it with medication and take my tablets every day," continues Roach. "I get some tremors when I'm nervous, but I can generally stop it. I have to admit that I think it is trauma-related, but I chose boxing and nobody held a gun to my head."

Khan and Roach have been together since last September when the British boxer arrived at his Wildcard gym in West Hollywood, an outpost of sweat and fistic excellence. Before he came to Roach, young Khan was in desperate need of some old-style boxing magic, having just been knocked out by little-known Colombian Breidis Prescott. His career was in turmoil, his chin was in ruins and Roach was given the task of mending the fallen boy.

"On his [Khan's] first day in the gym he sparred with Manny," explains Roach, whose gym has a reputation for ruthless sparring sessions when they are called for. "Amir has talent, but I needed to put him back on the horse, I needed to see that he was not being half-arsed about boxing."

I can only imagine the faces of Khan's travelling party when Roach told the kid to climb in and start his first day at work with a few rounds against the sport's most dangerous fighter. Pacquiao, it should be added, has since sent Oscar de la Hoya into retirement after a savage beating, and left Ricky Hatton unconscious on the canvas. Roach took up his position in the corner and the bell sounded.

Roach tells the story of the day: "Some of the guys in the gym said 'Freddie, this is a bad idea'. I said, 'We will see'. They said, 'What if he gets knocked out?' I said, 'If he gets knocked out, he goes home.'"

Roach was not joking and on that first fateful day, Khan held his own, perhaps even came off best, and that impressed his new trainer.

"Manny never took it easy. We don't do that in my gym. Some days Amir got the better and other days it would be Manny's turn. The more they did, Manny got the better because he is more mature and Amir is still a very young guy," adds Roach. Once Roach was convinced that Khan could fight, he had to change him, just like Futch had done with Roach all those years ago in Las Vegas. The defeat was not the first time that Khan had been over or wobbled, and the boxer left behind a chorus of doubters when he flew out for emergency salvation at Roach's outpost.

"Some people have better chins than others. That is a fact of life," said Roach. "If you don't have a great chin, you have to protect it. We started to work on defence from the first day and I also told him that he got knocked out because he was looking for a knockout. I want him to box."

Roach also stopped Khan from using weights on his upper body and slowly the bulky muscles across the boxer's neck and shoulders started to fade. It was all part of a simple plan to give Khan back the speed that had slowly been lost to bulk since he first became an attraction as a 17-year-old boy in the Olympic final in Athens.

"You have to have speed, why would you take his best advantage away? He's got the speed back and I think that the mental aspect is now stronger than ever. I also think that his chin will be better at 140-pounds [the light-welterweight limit]. At 135-pounds [the lightweight limit] he drained himself a little bit," Roach claims.

Tonight, Roach will have to be at his calming and soothing best to keep Khan under control in a fight that everybody in the British boxing business knows that Khan must not lose by stoppage. Kotelnik, himself a losing Olympic finalist from the Sydney Games, is not a devastating puncher, but he claims to have never been off his feet as a pro, and his two defeats were controversial and were both to world champions. "If he [Khan] lost by knockout, we would have to look at the performance and talk and think about the future," Roach admits. "Amir is a really good kid and I don't want to see him get hurt. I don't see it happening that way, Amir will use his speed and I want him to go for points." Roach has also talked about Khan's body shots being a factor.

However, if Kotelnik is simply too tough and slick, an expert at surviving and nicking a fight without dominating, a Khan loss on points would not be a disaster. "Amir can and will win with speed. I will get another world champion and then later this year he can make his American debut," Roach says.

At midnight tonight all will be clear and tomorrow Roach will get back on a plane to Los Angeles to take up his regular position in the corner at his glorious gym of misfits and heroes. And I believe Khan will be joining him in a few weeks to start preparing for the American fight.

Freddie Roach: My Other Life

I'm in the gym six days a week and 12 hours a day. On Sunday I like a day off. I like to go to the movies. I don't care what I watch – serious films, funny films or kids' films. It is what I do to relax and forget about the boxing. I liked The Incredibles; I like a lot of animated movies. When I'm at the movies I can just switch off and that is exactly what I need to do after all the work in the gym.