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Freddie Roach Goes the Distance
November 16, 2009
Even as he preps Manny Pacquiao for the bout of the year, boxing's best trainer is determined to protect his fighters from progressive brain damage—the condition that will one day force him to give up the work he loves
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November 16, 2009

Freddie Roach Goes The Distance

Even as he preps Manny Pacquiao for the bout of the year, boxing's best trainer is determined to protect his fighters from progressive brain damage—the condition that will one day force him to give up the work he loves

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He wouldn't have gone to that funeral no matter whose it was, and no matter who urged him to go. Not his mother's. Not his older brothers'. Not for Mike Tyson or Manny Pacquiao or Oscar De La Hoya or any of the other 24 world champions he has trained. ¶ So on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend—the day Joey Roach was buried back home in Dedham, Mass.—Freddie Roach was at his Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood. His body trembled as he alternately answered phones behind the front desk and wrapped hands and slipped on the mitts out on the floor. It's the kind of multitasking he performs six days a week, Christmas included. ¶ What about the sadness? The gut-wrenching reality that Joey, his younger brother and favorite sparring partner, had died in his sleep at age 47? It would have to creep in later, as Freddie Roach, 49, fell asleep still wearing his horn-rimmed glasses, a video of Pacquiao's next opponent, Miguel Cotto, playing on the TV. Until then the best boxing trainer in the world would be at work.

"Last time I saw a dead person was 1981," says Roach. "I went with my girlfriend to see her father's body the night before his funeral. Ever since, all these great memories I had of the guy have always ended with him lying there. I don't want that to be the last thing I remember about someone."

The walls of the Wild Card are plastered with memories of Freddie's choosing. There are rows of posters from his fighting days as the Choir Boy, a speed-bag-busting lightweight who had the legendary Eddie Futch in his corner. There are posed shots with actors such as Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg, who come to spray sweat with the $5-a-day regulars. There are photos of Roach's brigade of titlists, a floor-to-ceiling who's who of the sweet science: Tyson, Pacquiao, De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, James Toney and Wladimir Klitschko, to name just a few.

"Freddie Roach is up there among the all-time greats," boxing historian Bert Sugar says. "Like a jockey with a racehorse, a trainer is known by the productivity of his fighters. And Freddie's done one hell of a job."

But as Roach prepares Pacquiao for the most anticipated fight of the year, a WBO welterweight title bout against Cotto on Saturday in Las Vegas (page 72), what is most remarkable about all that productivity is its context. Few people know exactly how hard it is for Roach to do the job he loves. The man with three Trainer of the Year awards—the most ever won by one person—not only trembles involuntarily but also suffers other symptoms of Parkinson's disease, the result of his own career as a boxer. "What Freddie does is amazing," says Joseph Chung, Roach's neurologist. "No one understands the pain he's in every day."

And there's a reason no one understands. Around Roach's gym and training camps only three topics are verboten: politics, religion and the boss's mortality.

"We're fighters," says former cruiserweight Marcus Harvey, one of several former boxers employed by Roach as trainers. "We know time is ticking, but why would we want to imagine that?"

On Oct. 13, 1928, in an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association titled "Punch Drunk," pathologist Harrison Martland first noted symptoms such as slowed movement, verbal hesitancy and tremors among boxers. Then, as now, the underlying science was simple: The more the skull is shaken, and the brain is jostled like Jell-O in a bowl, the greater the likelihood of a neurodegenerative disorder that would come to be called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In boxing, says Robert Cantu, clinical professor of neurosurgery and codirector of the Center for Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University Medical Center, "the punishment [to the brain] is so much greater than [in] any other sport. Nothing else can even compare."

Indeed, for all the current concern over CTE in retired NFL players, boxing is in the very names of CTE diagnoses such as dementia pugilistica (seen in former champs Sugar Ray Robinson and Bobby Chacon, for example) and pugilistic parkinsonism (Muhammad Ali and Roach, among others). Cantu believes that the rate of chronic brain damage among fighters is at least one in five and more likely one in two. One article written for the National Parkinson Foundation by Dr. Ira Casson, chairman of the NFL's committee on concussions, estimated that boxers with at least 50 pro bouts often show "MRI and psychological test abnormalities" as well as "obvious symptoms of brain injury."

With Roach, the most obvious symptom is the tremors, which awaken him each day by 6 a.m. In the ring the Choir Boy had a never-back-down style, and he absorbed punishment for a total of 406 rounds in 53 pro bouts. Roach has other symptoms associated with Parkinson's too, which he is loath to belabor for fear of arousing pity: drop-foot (his left foot drags with each step), arthritis in both elbows and, most agonizing, cervical dystonia (muscle contractions in the neck). He takes three kinds of medication daily, and every three months he is injected with Botox to treat the dystonia, which Chung likens to "constantly having a charley horse in your neck." It causes Roach's head to jerk backward and to his right, as if someone were pulling on his hair.

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