FREDDIE ROACH KNOWS A GOOD FIGHTER WHEN HE SEES ONE
Freddie Roach is scheduled to appear on Inside MMA on Monday, March 26th. You can win a pair of boxing gloves autographed by Freddie by asking him a question on our new Facebook Tab. The winning question will be answered LIVE on Inside MMA!
Sitting beside Freddie Roach before a boxing show at Asylum Arena in Philadelphia is akin to hanging out with Mick Jagger at a concert. Everyone in the place wants to get a look at him. They stare in reverence. Some get close enough to have a picture taken, or an autograph. He accommodates all requests. He is the rock star of pugilism.
Roach has delivered hit after hit after hit, dating back to his own days in the ring, where he won 40 times. Trained by the legendary Eddie Futch he became a world championship contender fighting for the lightweight and super featherweight titles.
Roach went on to assist, and eventually take over for Futch. He guided Virgil Hill to the first belt, and he has only risen higher and higher, becoming a Hall of Fame trainer with over than two-dozen champions.
Roach has turned out virtually every other star in the boxing galaxy over the last two decades. Before Manny Pacquiao, the Sirius of the sport, was winning any division he chose and Amir Khan was shining bright with a belt there were: Bernard Hopkins, Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, James Toney, Michael Moorer and on and on. He’s also trained Mark Wahlberg for a movie role, and worked with basketball star Shaquille O’Neal.
We’re sitting in the arena where several key scenes for the movie “The Wrestler” were filmed. The scene triggers conversation of star Mickey Rourke, whom Roach trained (of course), during his brief pro boxing career. “With Mickey… who still stops by, we’ve always kept in touch, I experienced something I never had with any fighter. He had claustrophobic hands. Really. He didn’t like his hands taped, would be so uneasy during the whole process, fidgeting around and all. So I came up with this plan. I found a guy whose hands were the same size as his and would wrap those hands just a little looser so we could then slip them off him and slip them over Mickey’s hands, tighten up fast and he was ready to go. Problem solved.”
There is nothing he hasn’t seen or done in boxing. Since his adolescence in the Boston area Roach has always appreciated a good fight, and a good fighter. But one thing that has really distinguished this icon from all others in the Sweet Science; if that fighter happens to be in mixed martial arts, the door at his Wild Card Boxing facility in California has always been wide open.
Even when boxing purists mocked MMA fighters. Even when MMA purists lambasted boxing as, too old, and too out of touch for the new adrenaline rush generation, Roach saw obvious technical differences in the sports, but a trainable fighter was always his focal point.
His first MMA trainee was Oleg Taktarov, “The Russian Bear,” for his Superfight Title showdown with Ken Shamrock in 1995 at UFC 7. It ended in a draw and with no judges back then to decide, Shamrock kept his belt in the wild freewheeling days of MMA.
“It was forty-five minutes in the cage with Shamrock,” he laughs at the memory. “Just keep going and going. Sometime in that fight they both went past conditioning and kept going on sheer will. It was a different sport in a lot of ways back then.”
Back then, and to an extent now, there are those who prefer their highest profile trainer forget about the octagon and remain only in the squared circle.
“Boxers want me to hate the sport. But I tell them, everyone, if I meet someone who is a better fighter it piques my interest.”
Along with Pepper and Joey, he was one of three Roach brothers fighting professionally in the 1980’s. It was then he came across another young fighter in the area who would go on to make an indelible mark in another area of fighting.
“Dana White (UFC President) trained in my father’s gym. I don’t remember him though. People ask me that because we’re both Boston guys and I tell them I only remember the good fighters.” He pauses for affect and laughs loudly. “Over the years Dana and I have had, well you know, a few moments.”
Roach has a sly sense of humor to match an uncanny eye for instantly knowing if this is a fighter who can make it, and how far and fast he will rise. He is a combination guru and instructor. Nuances he picks up before the fighter himself realizes, just a move here or a step there.
“Students at a certain level are easier to teach, they come with a solid fighting background. Boxing and MMA… the distance is different because of the room necessary for kicks. It’s more under and out. MMA fighters can’t stay in the pocket that I want boxers to because the knee is so available.”
Then there is the biggest difference, the ground game. It’s what most of the top MMA fighters have brought to the gym, with hopes of Roach working his magic to make their striking game sparkle.
“They don’t have boxing experience, they are capable wrestlers basically starting a new sport. It’s a little awkward for them at first, even the really good ones. Georges St. Pierre told me ‘I thought I was a good fighter until I met you.’ That’s common when MMA guys come here to train.”
Roach tutored St. Pierre for his Welterweight title defense against Josh Koscheck at UFC 124. As St. Pierre goes through rehabilitation after knee surgery in Los Angeles, he has stopped by the gym with a “can’t wait” attitude to get back into full training. “He works hard, the good ones always do and he’s getting much better as a striker. It’ll be fun when he is fully ready again. For Koscheck (fight) I studied so many tapes of fights. Saw many of (Nick) Diaz’ fights. I like his style and determination. But if that fight happens (with Diaz) there’s a game plan and Georges will be ready.”
Former UFC Heavyweight champ Andrei Arlovski was ready, training for two years with Roach, when he knocked out Ben Rothwell, and then Roy Nelson, to set up the Affliction showdown with Fedor Emelianenko in January 2009. Arlovski was in total control of the first round, actually turning it into a boxing match. He was moving well, in with jabs, a few combinations, then back out away from Emelianenko’s formidable power. Until he went off the plan and came out of the corner with a flying knee that fell short, and Emelianenko responded with one big over the top right. That was all that was needed. One punch, first round clear-cut knock out.
Roach remembers it vividly, still seeing Arlovski lying on the canvas being counted out. He shakes his head. “I asked Andrei ‘were you getting too comfortable out there winning the fight like that?’ and then he tried to fly in with the knee. We had the game plan. Fedor is a great puncher, his timing and accuracy are great. But he is so flatfooted and has trouble with angles. It’s a fight you’d like to have back. Andrei was becoming a pretty good boxer but with some of these recent losses, I wish he would retire. I know because I was like that when I fought it’s hard to walk away from it.”
There was talk, briefly, that Fedor was going to train with Roach when he came to the U.S. for Strikeforce fights. It never worked out.
The list of MMA guys who have and are still stopping by is a who’s who. Along with St. Pierre, Middleweight king Anderson Silva when he’s in the area comes by twice a week or more. “He gets it, such a good athlete who quickly picks up on things. He is a very good striker, long reach, fast hands.”
UFC Featherweight champ Jose Aldo has trained with Roach, as have two of the sport’s greats Tito Ortiz and B.J. Penn. “B.J. is the James Toney of MMA. I told him that. His weight fluctuates so much, needs more discipline. But he is a talent. One of the best strikers I’ve had come in out of all the MMA guys.”
K.J. Noons, who also has a solid pro boxing record to go along with his MMA accomplishments, also impresses Roach. “K.J. is pretty solid, he’s come in and sparred with several of my (boxing) guys.”
Dan Hardy, Frank Mir, Gegard Mousasi, Roger Huerta and Thierry Sokoudjou have all been trained by Roach at one time in their careers. “That Sokoudjou walks in and is so built, put together. He got those early knockouts was rising so fast. Not sure what happened along the way, he had a lot of potential.”
Stopping in occasionally to work out is another of the sport’s all-time stars, Dan Henderson. “I mean here’s this Olympic level wrestler and have you ever slapped him on the back?” for emphasis he smacks the table in front of his by the ring, “Rock solid, tremendous power.”
The fights he is here to call are about ready to start. Enough down time for him, Roach is perpetual motion. Someone always wants to talk to him and with his international reputation and the varying time zones; there really are more than twenty-four hours in his day. He has his own, widely acclaimed reality show on HBO. He’s an analyst for NBC Sports Network’s new “Fight Night” series and of course there are those champions. The always-anticipated next bout for Pacquiao, the return of GSP to full strength.
When there is that possibility of another title defense, or that young red-hot talent to develop, time stands still for Roach. They gravitate toward his magnetic pull as that rock star of combative sports he has richly earned. From boxing to MMA they want the best to get them ready. They know regardless of ring or cage, Freddie knows a good fighter when he sees one.
Freddie Roach is scheduled to appear on Inside MMA, Monday March 26th. You can win a pair of boxing gloves autographed by Freddie by asking him a question on our new Facebook Tab
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