Freddie Roach now makes millions of dollars a year and he is one of the most prominent figures in boxing, but there is one suspicious trend that has emerged in his belated entree to superstardom; his fighters are underperforming. It might be convenient to acquit Roach for Manny Pacquiao's failure to impress during his last two fights. After all, Pacquiao is aging and there are valid concerns about his commitment to the sport. However, a number of Roach's fighters, from Jorge Linares to Amir Khan to Craig McEwan, have recently come up short on the sport's largest stages.
An additional concern is Roach's talent evaluation. Prior to Khan facing Marcos Maidana, Roach didn't believe that Maidana would win a round; Khan won a life-and-death struggle. Roach predicted an early knockout for Pacquiao against foil Juan Manuel Marquez before their third fight in 2011. Pacquiao wound up squeaking by only because of some sympathetic Las Vegas judges. Roach stated that Linares would quickly ascend to the top of the lightweight division – Linares was knocked out in his next two fights and Oscar de la Hoya, his promoter, suggested that the trainer wasn’t devoting enough time to work with the fighter. De la Hoya publicly called for Linares to switch trainers, a highly unusual move for a promoter regarding a Hall of Fame cornerman.
Roach’s displays of hubris and his difficulties in assessing the quality of his own fighters, or their opponents, are troubling. Sure, one of a trainer's jobs is to hype his fighters' matches, but Roach's pronouncements were not examples of mere braggadocio; he sincerely believed in those predictions. He's too smart to provide meaningless bulletin-board material. One must now wonder if he is having trouble getting through to his fighters, if many have been overhyped because of his celebrity, or if his fighters are leaving a lot in the gym. In addition, it's more than appropriate to ask whether Roach's role as a traveling media figure and boxing ambassador may be curtailing his ability or efficacy in getting the most out of his fighters.
Roach's talent as a trainer is considerable. His success in teaching offensive techniques and implementing strategy is among the best in the sport. His career masterwork, the transformation of Pacquiao from a one-dimensional, one-handed pressure fighter to a well-rounded boxing master, is worthy of a museum display. In addition, the strides he made with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., especially with his defense, have been stunning.
However, there are negatives in his ledger. Pacquiao still looked flummoxed against a counterpuncher, Khan hasn't developed a solid inside game, McEwan's endurance problems never abated and Linares' defensive issues continued to manifest. For a man who was essentially the de facto Trainer of the Year for a half decade, Roach now faces the type of serious questions about his performance that have befallen other former "hot" trainers, such as Buddy McGirt and Ronnie Shields. How he responds to this professional crisis will determine whether he becomes a boxing institution like Angelo Dundee and Emanuel Steward, or something significantly less.
Any successful boxing trainer will have a string of losses or bad showings. Sometimes, he just doesn't have the horses. However, Roach's recent down period has occurred with fights in which his boxers were favored or were at least in 50-50 propositions, the type of scenarios in which a trainer can exert a maximum amount of influence.
Inarguably, Freddie Roach has helped grow the sport of boxing. His Wild Card Gym might be the most famous training ground for boxers in the entire sport. His personal story, an inspirational one that involves overcoming parental abuse and coping with Parkinson's disease, has been recounted far beyond the reaches of boxing's traditional media footprint. In addition, his journey from a middling professional fighter to a world-class trainer should provide hope for many who wish to have a second career in boxing.
As Pacquiao's star has ascended in the sport, so has Roach's. The trainer would be recognized in any gym in America and the Philippines (thanks to Pacquiao), and likely in any serious boxing center around the world. In short, he has become an ambassador for the sport and he's taken to the role.
Roach also has devoted his time to improving the U.S. amateur program. He has worked with the 2012 Olympic Team to help revive the American amateur program's dreadful international standing. His elevated stature within the sport has enabled him to bypass the bureaucracy and machinations of USA Boxing, an institution that has been plagued by officiousness, incompetence and unchecked ego.
The business of Freddie Roach is also booming. In addition to training champion-level fighters, Roach runs a fully functional boxing gym that bustles all year. The Wild Card features a robust assemblage of professional fighters, amateur aspirants and weekend warriors. The gym's merchandise sells internationally. Media members, movie stars and other celebrities know their way to the Wild Card by heart.
Roach also has become a media personality. He provides color commentary for EPIX and NBC Sports Network. He also approved and starred in the six-part HBO documentary series "On Freddie Roach," which provided an insider's viewpoint of his personal and professional glories and struggles. Roach is highly quotable and he has helped cultivate a warm rapport with many of the national and California-based writers who cover the sport. He seems to really enjoy his place in boxing's limelight.
Ultimately, Roach has some vital decisions to make. If he is determined to become a permanent media presence, he could reduce the number of fighters he directly works with àla Manny Steward. Perhaps once Pacquiao retires, he will be able to devote more time to his other boxers. Maybe his best course of action is to curtail his media appearances. Whatever he decides, he must choose what role best suits him in boxing. His current commitments have led to an overextension; his fighters have been the ones who have suffered.
Roach faces a real crisis point. Will he still dedicate the hard work and time needed to cultivate his current crop of fighters or is he dulled by the self-satisfaction of his stature within the sport? In addition, does his schedule inhibit his ability to land boxing's next big thing? Will young talent flock to someone like Robert Garcia or Joel Diaz instead?
The shelf life of a successful trainer can extend for decades, but make no mistake: coaches go in and out of vogue with regularity. As an established cornerman, Roach now faces perhaps the most serious test of his career. Externally, it's been business as usual for Roach, but warning signs are everywhere. If Roach's 2012 is similar to his 2011, things could get ugly for him, and fast. But maybe he has already mapped out an exit plan from the rigors and grinds of being an everyday trainer.
I'm sure that Roach never fathomed his current success in boxing when he started out as an assistant trainer in Las Vegas. He probably would have been content just to earn a living in the sport he loves. Now that he has surpassed that reality, a different set of decisions has to be made. Roach Inc. is now a seven-figure enterprise. But is he a businessman or a trainer? Can he effectively do both?
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