It was just before a news conference in New York City last week, and Freddie Roach had that glint in his eye. If you write about boxing, the moment you see the glint, you look to the heavens in gratitude.
Roach was about to tell a story. They aren’t all great, just 99% of them. A Roach story is like the Super Bowl — much anticipated and not to be missed.
MANNY “Pacman” PACQUIAO will fight TIMOTHY “Desert Storm” BRADLEY JR. April 9 in Las Vegas. That’s why we were all gathered in the Big Apple. The hype had begun.
Roach’s story had nothing to do with the Pacquiao-Bradley fight. And everything.
A fascination in every major fight is how it gets put together. Who has the final say? Who gives it the last push to get it to the ring? Who has the most influence, real veto power, besides the boxers themselves, the cable networks and the boxers’ promoters — in this case, Top Rank’s Bob Arum.
In the case of Pacquiao, obviously high on that list is Roach, who has trained him to eight weight-division world titles and, in essence, into boxing history. Roach and Pacquiao are as close to father and son as real fathers and sons.
“We’ve lasted longer than most marriages,” Roach jokes.
You can bet Roach gave his nod to the Bradley match, a rubber match in their three-bout series, which will likely bring an end to Pacquiao’s long and illustrious career, no matter what the outcome. The right opponent for the right kind of going-away party is important for the boxing Philippine congressman, who soon will be, in all likelihood, the former boxing Philippine senator.
Roach is fine with this one. But let us harken back to the summer of 2008, when they were trying to make a blockbuster fight between Pacquiao and Oscar De La Hoya. Roach wasn’t fine with that one.
“I didn’t want it, couldn’t see it,” Roach said. “I just said no. No way.”
His reasoning was the same as that of most fight experts. De La Hoya, while aging and declining a bit, was still one of the greats of an era and was simply too big a man for Pacquiao to face. Pacquiao had started his career in fights for boxers 106 pounds and now, in his prime, had trouble getting to up to weights even as much as 140. De La Hoya fought several times at 154 and even went to 160 for Bernard Hopkins.
Writers made David and Goliath comparisons, and few seemed to think David would have an effective slingshot this time. One pre-match writers’ poll of a couple dozen allegedly knowledgeable scribes showed only two picking Pacquiao to win — this one and Ed Graney of the Las Vegas Review Journal. Graney actually knows what he is talking about. In the week before the fight, our peers were careful not to be seen in our company. That was driven either by embarrassment for us, or the fear of guilt by association.
Little did any of us know at the time why Roach hadn’t nixed the fight, even though he had been outspoken against it for a long time.
Roach had been De La Hoya’s trainer only once, in the May 5, 2007 match with Floyd Mayweather Jr. They were to train for eight weeks in Puerto Rico, where De La Hoya had a home and where his wife was a star singer.
“I needed sparring partners,” Roach says. “Some were coming in from Philadelphia, but they were late arriving. I ran into Ivan Calderon. He is from Puerto Rico and was the 106-pound world champ. I told him about my sparring-partner problem and he says, ‘I’ll spar with De La Hoya.’ ”
Roach says he told Calderon that was silly. De La Hoya was too big. Calderon might get hurt. But Calderon was a left-hander, as Pacquiao is, and was also lightning fast, like Pacquiao. Maybe there would be some value, Roach reasoned.
“He kept insisting,” Roach says. “And I needed somebody, so I finally let him, even though I was afraid he’d get killed.”
So what happened? According to Roach, Calderon “beat up” De La Hoya three days in a row.
Roach says he remembered thinking that was “the first sign” that De La Hoya’s boxing skills, once unmatched by anybody, were fading. But he kind of filed it away, did the training job he was being paid to do and felt good about his work, even though De La Hoya lost to Mayweather.
“I felt good for about one day,” Roach says. “I got fired the next day.”
Flash forward a year or so, when the talk was about Pacquiao-De La Hoya. Broadcaster Larry Merchant had floated the idea first, and the boxing world buzzed. Roach resisted, never losing the thought that De La Hoya was just too big.
“And then,” Roach says, “I woke up in the middle of the night one night, and there it was. Ivan Calderon.”
It was a bolt of lightning. It was all right there. Calderon was a lefty. He had shown he was faster than De La Hoya, handling him in sparring, even though he was 50 pounds lighter.
“The next day,” Roach says, “I called up and said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do it.’ “
And so they did, on Dec. 6, 2008. And Pacquiao, who had won the lightweight title in his last fight, moved up two weight classes and won convincingly. De La Hoya quit in a later round, after taking a beating from the much smaller Pacquiao, whose trainer, Roach, had predicted exactly that outcome, telling anybody who chose to listen that De La Hoya was done.
It was a shocking, dramatic ending, not only to the fight, but to De La Hoya’s Golden Boy career. Shortly after stopping the fight, De La Hoya walked across the ring to Roach and said, “You were right, Freddie. I don’t have it anymore.”
Pacquiao’s victory that night vaulted him from rising star to established superstar. We can only wonder if Calderon ever got a thank-you note.