How Roach met Manny

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson -

Freddie Roach and Manny Pacquiao met by accident but they were destined to work wonders in the ring together.

It was in 2001 when Pacquiao’s business manager Rod Nazario brought the then 22-year-old fighter to the US in search of greener pastures. Pacquiao had just knocked out Wethya Sakmuangklang of Thailand in Kidapawan to register his sixth straight win since losing the WBC flyweight title to Medgeon 3-K Battery because he had outgrown the 112-pound division in 1999.

Pacquiao had run out of suitable opponents in Asia and Nazario knew it was time to bring him to the next level. Nazario was convinced Pacquiao was ready to conquer the world.

Nazario tried to shop Pacquiao around but couldn’t find a promoter willing to take the chance on the General Santos City southpaw. Their first stop was San Francisco and Nazario even took Pacquiao, then sporting hair with blond streaks, to watch promising Filipino featherweight Orlando Villaflor face Luis Lizarraga in a show. Villaflor stopped Lizarraga to raise his record to 19-0-1, with 14 KOs, but after losing to Yoni Vargas by knockout in his next fight two months later in Anaheim, mysteriously disappeared from the fight radar.

Nazario contacted an American lawyer based in the Bay Area, Sydney Hall, to look for a promoter. Hall, whose secretary Jane was a Filipina, frequently visited Manila for business and had a soft spot for Filipinos. Hall couldn’t locate an interested party until he stumbled on New Jersey promoter Murad Muhammad who felt he had nothing to lose with Pacquiao.

Exasperated because he found no Bay Area trainers willing to invest time in Pacquiao, Nazario went to Los Angeles where two of Bebot Elorde’s fighters, Reynante Jamili and Ernesto Rubillar, were working out in a gym in Hollywood. The facility turned out to be owned by Roach and yes, it was called the Wild Card Gym. Jamili and Rubillar weren’t trained by Roach but spent time using the gym’s facilities.

Writer Graham Houston, in Boxing Monthly (March 2009), said, “The long-standing relationship started from a session on the hand pads – called mitts in America – that are used by trainers to sharpen a fighter’s hand-eye coordination.”

Roach, quoted by Houston, recalled, “He just walked in my gym one day – his manager (Nazario) asked me if I could work the mitts with Manny because they’d heard I was good on the mitts. After one round on the mitts, I said to my guys, ‘Wow, this guy can fight.’ And Manny went up to his manager and said, ‘We have a new trainer.’”

Then came the break. While Pacquiao was busy staying in shape with Roach, an opportunity came to challenge IBF superbantamweight champion Lehlo Ledwaba at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Ledwaba, then ranked one of the world’s top pound-for-pound fighters, was tipped to face challenger Enrique Sanchez but was suddenly without an opponent when the Mexican backed out due to an injury.

Matchmaker Sampson Lewkowicz went through the ranks of available contenders and found Pacquiao at No. 6. A call to the Wild Card Gym located Pacquiao who, when asked if he would take the fight at two weeks notice, said yes without hesitation.

Pacquiao’s fight against Ledwaba was in the undercard of a WBC lightmiddleweight title fight between Oscar de la Hoya and Spain’s Javier Castillejo. Who would’ve imagined at the time that seven years later, Pacquiao would fight and beat De la Hoya in the same MGM Grand Garden Arena ring?

In the dressing room before the Ledwaba bout, Nazario sat nervously. It was Pacquiao’s US debut and he was a huge underdog going up against a highly-touted champion with just a few weeks of preparation. Roach, Lito Mondejar and Hall were in the dressing room, too. Not too many others were around as the L. A. Boys and the Team Pacquiao entourage from the Philippines were still a few years from being formed.

Waiting for the call to enter the ring, Pacquiao reassured his nervous backers in the dugout. He raised his arms and said, “Don’t be nervous, just think, at the end of the fight, you’ll hear ... and the new IBF superbantamweight champion of the world, Manny Pacquiao.” Everyone broke into a wide grin with Pacquiao’s show of confidence.

As Pacquiao marched towards the ring, Nazario sidled up to him and said, “Manny, I only have one request – break his nose with your first punch.” As it turned out, Pacquiao did exactly as he was told. He broke Ledwaba’s nose in the first round and the champion, profusely bleeding from the nostrils, was never the same after that. Pacquiao scored a sixth round knockout and as he imagined in the dressing room, was declared the new champion.

* * *

I will never forget that historic fight because I was in the farthest row in the press section to cover the bout for The STAR When the fight was over, I jumped up and down from my seat. Bert Randolph Sugar, the prolific boxing chronicler, walked over to me and shook my hand, obviously realizing my nationality. “That kid’s going to go far,” he predicted. Sugar’s words were prophetic.

Since the Ledwaba fight, Roach has never left Pacquiao’s side. They’ve been partners in Pacquiao’s rise to fame and fortune. Roach has been Pacquiao’s trainer in his last 20 bouts where the Filipino lost only once (to Erik Morales on points) and drew once (with the late Agapito Sanchez). Nazario has retired as Pacquiao’s business manager and Top Rank now promotes the Filipino icon.

Roach, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease since it was diagnosed in 1992, has worked with a slew of world champions, including James Toney, Mike Tyson, De la Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, Marlon Starling, Michael Moorer, Virgil Hill and Steve Collins but by far, his biggest star is Pacquiao with whom he enjoys a unique father-son relationship.











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