EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview was a part of a promotional package between American Giant and Wild Card Boxing Club. The complete story including the video and photos can be found at AMERICAN-GIANT.com/WILDCARD.
MICHAEL RAPAPORT: How did Wild Card come about?
FREDDIE ROACH: I had moved to Los Angeles from Las Vegas and me and Mickey Rourke had a gym together. It went pretty well but I wanted to have my own gym. Having partners is a pain in the ass. I had 10,000 dollars to build a gym and it was rough. I didn’t have enough to even buy a boxing ring so the original ring that is still up I framed out with lumber, like a house. 12 by 2’s, 16’s on center, some cables going up into the walls and so-forth. But we made it work. We spend 10,000 dollars, my entire budget was gone and I think I had 50 bucks left at the end and I bought like 25 flyers. Then people started coming, and the thing is we made rent the first month so it worked out pretty good.
MR: Was it tough going at first?
FR: We had a pretty good following from the other gyms, so it actually started out OK. Then all of a sudden I had a couple champions: Stevie Collins, Frankie Liles, and things got even better from that point on. My trainer Eddie Futch always told me “Don’t ever build a gym it’s a pain in the ass and a lot of work.” I said “Yea but you never know when the next Mike Tyson is gonna walk through your doors,” an about 6 months later a guy named Manny Pacquiao walked through my door. That changed my life.
MR: What was that like?
FR: Pacquiao was unbelievable- I never saw so much talent. A little guy that could punch really hard and knock you out. We are still out there 14 years later. Manny Pacquiao was my Mike Tyson for sure.
MR:Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, think that the gym would become what it is today? You know? It’s a part of Los Angeles culture.
FR: (laughs) It is. It’s like buses are going to start stopping by and point out the gym. We’ve had so many actors, so many fighters, so many world champions come out of this gym. I never thought it would be like that.
MR: You’ve had some pretty great fighters work out here.
FR: Yeah. I mean, my 4th year into the gym, Muhammad Ali walks in and says, “can I workout here?” and I says “Yea, okay.” So he puts on his clothes in the dressing room, gets his gloves out and starts hitting the bag. His tremors were pretty bad but as soon as he started hitting the bag he had no more tremors. And I thought, “Well look at that, that’s like me.” When I get in the ring I don’t have tremors anymore. That was one of the best days in my life having him in the gym. I started to call some people over and invited them over because I wanted everyone to see this. But then I said, let me just let this happen natural. Whoever shows up, shows up and gets to enjoy this. We had the best 4 hours ever. He told jokes, did levitation magic, he was the greatest guy. That was a great day.
MR: The gym is successful, it’s iconic, and yet charge only $5 a workout. Why do you keep it so open and fair?
FR: You know, 5 bucks a day is fair! I mean if you want to come in and work out for 5 bucks I don’t think that’s too much. My accountants disagree with me and want me to charge more, but I say the 5 is fair. I’ve kept it like that since day 1 an that’ll never change.
MR: What is the most important thing about the gym that you want to keep consistent even after you retire?
FR: Well you know, I’m thinking about retiring but what the fuck would I do with my life? Stay home and watch TV or something? I need to come here—I don’t have to come here but I want to come here. It’s a lot of fun, all of my friends are here (laughs). Someone told me, you’re going to grow old and lonely someday. You’re 54, you’ve never been married, you have no kids. I says “Well I don’t give a fuck about that so much. I’m really happy with what I have” The main thing is I want the gym to stay fair and I want everyone o be treated with respect. When you treat people with respect you get respect back and that’s what I want.
MR: Everyone associates Freddie Roach with Shamrock, the Irish Catholic. Talk about the myth of Freddie Roach “The Irish Catholic” and what the reality is.
FR: I learned how to fight in Southie, which is all Irish of course, but my family is mostly French-Canadian and Scottish. But I might have a little Irish in me somewhere. I have an Irish tattoo because my friend Danny Boy from House of Pain drew it for me and I liked it so I put it on my arm, but it really doesn’t mean that I’m Irish. You know who made me Irish? It was the promoters. When “Irish Freddie Roach” fought instead of just “Freddie Roach” we sold more tickets. So that was their fault to be honest with you (laughs).
MR: Do you ever have dreams or thoughts about fighting?
FR: Not so much. You know the thing is that’s kind of passed already. I do dream about training the perfect fighter. But I don’t know about myself fighting. You know I wish I could have been World Champion but I wasn’t good enough to be at that level. And I know that there are only a special few who can be that. So I realize that, I accept that, I don’t dwell on that but at night before I go to sleep I think about training the best fighter ever. Some say I already have that with James Tony and Manny Pacquiao. 8-time world champion, no one will ever duplicate that. But you know, I would love the perfect heavyweight. In my dream he’s undefeated never been beat, and knocks everybody out. So I do dream about that, yes.
MR: Tell me about the demise of the Heavyweight division. Heavyweight champions used to be the most famous person in the world, now most people can’t even name who it is. How has that effected the sport?
FR: Guys like Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto, James Tony, they are great fighters but they never get the press that the heavyweight fighters get and the thing is they deserve it. I think they are actually fundamentally better fighters. They’re faster and they can do more. Heavyweights are more limited but they hit a lot harder. I trained Wladimir Klitschko for four fights and I had a great time with him. He’s a dedicated person. He trains hard and that’s why he’s champion of the world. But in America it seems that more of the big guys that are athletic they go into football, basketball… you know team sports are much easier. When you get tired in a team sport they take you out, you sit on the bench and you get some oxygen. In a boxing match, you’re stuck with it, man. You better fucking do something. Because this guy is trying to kill you. So the thing they are picking is the easier sports and that’s why we don’t dominate it anymore.
MR: What is the perfect fighter for you? If you could create the perfect fighter, what would that be to you?
FR: He has to understand ring generalship, which is not taught anymore. He would have to understand body shots, which is not done anymore. Everyone is headhunting all night long now. The knockouts come from the headshots but in the old days it was set up by the body shots. And then ring generalship. If you keep yourself in good position 90% of the time then you are gonna win 90% of the fight. It’s not that hard, but it’s a lost art. There are no teachers out there anymore that teach that part about boxing. My good friend, Gennady Golovkin, is one of the best ring generalship guys I’ve seen and I’m not sure if he got that from Russia before he was world champion, or if he got it from Abel Sanchez, who I respect very highly as a trainer. My perfect fighter does not make mistakes. He doesn’t have any flaws. He throws beautiful combinations. He does it like textbook, like it’s supposed to be done. He doesn’t put his hands down like Muhammad Ali and do foolish things sometimes that could get you in trouble. He is the perfect fighter and he never loses.
MR: Sometimes you’ll be training fighter and he’ll stop training with you and go to another trainer. Do you take that personally when a fighter leaves you to go to another guy?
FR: I don’t take that personally. Sometimes they think the grass is a little bit greener on the other side. I’ve been fired a couple of times in my life. I’ve been dismissed more. I remember when Virgil Hill fired me in the newspaper. I remember I read it and we were like best friends, but if someone doesn’t think I can help them I don’t really want to be there anyways. I want to be with somebody who has full confidence in me, and is going to listen to me and follow the game plan and instructions. I don’t take it personally.
MR: When you see a fighter get hurt or get in trouble, do you ever get actually scared? Is it an emotional thing?
FR: When I see one of my fighters get dressing room after he got up and I’m talking to him about what happened and he answered me very logically. He knew exactly where he was, and then I said to him, “Let’s go into the ambulance and go to the hospital and get checked out.” He says, “No I have to go to the bathroom first.” I says, “Why?” he says, “I have blood on my face.” I said okay he knew he had blood on his face and told me he was okay. He knew exactly where he was at, but getting knocked out is part of the sport. If you don’t think you can get knocked out in boxing then you better pick another sport.
MR: How are you approaching the Mayweather fight? Do you and Manny just start your process?
FR: I will do everything in my power to win that fucking fight. Everything I can do, I mean I’m not going to miss a step. The planning is all structured. I already have that covered. Manny has an 8 week training camp here at Wild Card. 6 weeks of sparring, I’ve studied this guy so much, I’ve got the game plan. I’ve got Plan A, B and C because Mayweather is versatile, he can change. So I can’t just go with one plan. So I’ve got this strategy worked out. I just gotta relay that to Manny. Me and him need to get on the same page. Manny will dislike some moves and like some moves. The ones he doesn’t like we’ll get rid of and they’ll go away. And the ones we like we will stick with. I think that’s going to be enough to win the fight.
MR: What does Manny Pacquiao mean to you at this point? You guys have done so much for each other.
FR: He’s one of my best friends in the world. We don’t talk on the phone, too often. Only when he’s in America. When he’s in Philippines we never speak. When we negotiate my fee and what the training camps are, we do it in person. When I see him it takes 15 minutes. Back and forth, this-this-this, what do you want, what do I want, it’s not a problem. At one time I was more of his father figure and some people say I still am. When he is playing basketball and he makes a 3-point shot the first place he looks (points at chest) me. Every fucking time (laughs).
MR: What makes Floyd Mayweather special? What makes him such a great fighter?
FR: Mayweather is special.. He’s been around boxing his whole life. I’ve known him since he was five years old. I remember when he was five years old and his dad and his uncle would train in the same gym I was in. And I didn’t get along with his uncle or his dad too well, but the thing was Floyd was always a nice young man. He was a fucking good fighter at 5 years old. He’s natural – he grew up with that. It’s like if you take my littlest brother and saw him box – he had all the moves. Because they grow up watching these people, ya know, the older brothers and their families and so forth. So he was a great fighter back then and he’s still a great fighter and he’s undefeated. Beating undefeated people – it’s difficult. They’ll die to keep that zero. It’s inborn to them. And he’s crafty – he’s not a great puncher. Manny’s a better puncher. That’s one of the few advantages we have. And Mayweather doesn’t fight lefties too well. He rolls into lefty’s power. And I have some thoughts and some plans about that also, but I know he knows that so I know he’s gonna try to take that away.
MR: How do you train for speed, because that’s something Mayweather’s got.
FR: You know, approaching speed is very difficult – speed is probably the best asset in the world. If you can pick one advantage to have over everyone else you would pick speed. But the thing is, Manny is just as fast as he is. I think maybe a little faster and a harder hitter. So the speed part I’m not really dwelling on because they both have great speed. I am fining his habits – things that he can’t not stop doing. You know like he rolls in one direction all the time, all the time, all the time. You know, if he does that against us, he’s gonna be in big trouble. He’ll try and correct that and adapt to not doing that anymore. But you know if you’re doing something your whole life and then 6 or 8 weeks before a fight you start trying to take that away, somewhere within the 12 rounds he’s gonna forget and he’ll roll into the shot and we’ll knock him out.
MR: That just gave me goosebumps (laughs). As a trainer, what’s your favorite part of training?
FR: My favorite part of training is winning the Eddie Futch award, named after my trainer – the greatest trainer of all time. I think I just won it for the 7th time – I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Eddie. I give him all the credit in the world for what I do.
MR: What’s the most frustrating part about training?
FR: The most frustrating thing about training is when you have a person that has talent and they’re lazy. I say you have talent buy why don’t you just go home because you’re not gonna make it. Lazy people do not make it in this sport. Pacquiao, Cotto, all my big stars, they don’t have that. I have some good young kids coming up that are good prospects, but they’re a little bit lazy. They take it for granted. It’ll get you knocked out because you’ll get tired. And believe me, the worst place in the world to get tired is that squared circle. I mean, when you’re in there, I’ve been there. I’ve gotten tire before when I was a kid, you know? It’s not a good feeling [laughing]. This guy is trying to fucking kill you, and you’re tired? It’s just not… So it really frustrates me when that happens.