I will miss Manny Pacquiao’s third fight with Erik Morales a week from now (Sunday morning, Manila time), because I will be on the road at the very same time, to keep a 2pm appointment in Baguio with a thousand students. I will have to settle for the replay. To mirror my growing excitement over the coming epic, however, I thought I’d post three pieces I wrote for the March 20, 2005 issue of the Inquirer, for a supplement devoted to the first Pacquiao-Morales fight. Here’s the first.
Pacquiao’s Wild Card advantage
Freddie Roach’s championship gym adds technique and discipline to boxer’s power and speed
By John Nery
You could say the whole point is to live up to the gym’s name.
A wild card, of course, is American slang for something unpredictable, an unforeseeable factor. That makes Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym, in Hollywood, the perfect place to train Manny Pacquiao. You could say the million-dollar boxer’s "longest training camp" was designed to make him less predictable.
After beating the first of the Mexican trinity of boxing icons, Marco Antonio Barrera, into submission, Pacquiao showed his limitations when he drew with the second, Juan Manuel Marquez. He had famously knocked Marquez down three times in the first round with his thundering left cross; but success with his most potent weapon made him forget everything else in his armory.
That night last May, to hear the laidback Roach say it, "he got kinda happy with the left hand."
After getting his bearings in the first two rounds, Marquez figured out how and when to avoid Pacquiao’s left, or at least contain the damage. After the controversial draw, some boxing experts immediately said the Marquez match proved that Pacquiao was a one-dimensional fighter. Rather memorably, one boxing writer said Pacquiao showed up at the MGM Grand Arena without a Plan B.
So you could say that the whole point of his eight-week training, in preparation for today’s fight against the third person of the Mexican trinity, Erik Morales, was precisely to furnish him with Plan B, and perhaps C and D and E as well.
"I’m just making Manny a more complete fighter," Roach told the Inquirer and InqTV last month, in his cramped office inside Wild Card.
The smell of sweat
Wild Card, located at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vine Street, in the heart of Hollywood, is a small, simple, four-walls-and-a-ring affair. It sits on top of a Laundromat; you enter through a solitary door at the back.
When you walk in, you immediately smell the faint scent of sweat. Even on Sundays, when the gym is technically closed, you can smell it. (Technically, because some die-hards continue to show up, and some of the trainers live in the gym.) The windows are never opened. "Everybody’s trying to make weight," one of its seven trainers once said.
As you walk in, there is a workaday counter to your left. That’s where much of the business part of the gym is conducted: ex-heavyweight Justin Fortune advising a gym regular, ex-featherweight Pepper Roach (the coach’s brother) answering the occasional phone call, ex-light heavyweight Maka Foley collecting the dues.
(The rates are $50 a month, or "$5 a day if you come once a week," in Pepper’s words. The dues allow you to use the gym, but to hire the services of a trainer you need to pay them by the hour. Some charge $50 an hour, others $25, still others $10.)
In the center of the gym is a standard Everlast ring. Gym bags and duffel bags line one side of it.
There is a treadmill, a couple of double-end bags, three speed bags, four punching bags.
The walls are plastered with boxing pictures, fight bills, posters of famous boxers. In the middle of the gym, along one side of the ring, is a black-and-white picture of a young Muhammad Ali. It looks to all the world like an icon on a boxing altar.
Across the gym from this picture, on the outside wall of Roach’s cramped office, is another picture of Ali, no longer young. He is inside a ring, giving pointers to his daughter Laila, who of course took up the unforgiving sport after him. It takes some time before your eyes adjust, and then you realize that the picture was taken in Wild Card.
Roach has said in more than one interview that Ali’s visit was the happiest day of his life. Coming from a man who was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame for training numerous world champions, starting with his first one, four-time champion Virgil Hill, and including James Toney and Mike Tyson, this is saying something.
Working the mitts
Like his two brothers Pepper and Joey and his father Paul, Roach fought as a featherweight, but a knee injury stopped him cold. Today he walks with a limp, but if you only saw him inside the ring, working the punch mitts, and unless you knew about it beforehand, you wouldn’t know his knees had betrayed him.
When Pacquiao is in training, he follows Roach’s regular schedule: sparring sessions three times a week, and punch mitts on alternate days.
One session started with Pacquiao rattling off with a series of right hooks, seven or eight of them, in quick succession.
They then quickly settle into a routine, trying or practicing certain sequences. Two right jabs, a left cross, then a right hook. A right jab, a left hook, a right hook, then a right to the side. Two right jabs, then a left hook.
Pacquiao punctuates the sequences with his own sound effects. A one-two combination: "pak, boom!" Two rights then a left hook: "pak, pak, boom!" A prolonged sequence: "uhm, uhm, uhm," then, "boom!"
(At one point, bothered by the headband he was wearing, he takes it off and throws it across the ring.)
Roach, who has taken off his eyeglasses, is all business. "One-two," he calls out. Or "Four," meaning two right jabs, a left hook, then a right. "Again." And then "Again." He grunts instructions or encouragement. "Good." "In." "Under."
Working with the mitts, Pacquiao and Roach talk all the time. In another session, for instance, Pacquiao stops in the middle of a round and looks up at Roach. "Sometimes," he says, outlining a right cross to the body, "but sometimes," he continues, exaggerating a right hook. His trainer nods. Good. Okay.
When the automated bell rings, they take a break for 30 seconds. When the bell rings again, they jump back to the center. Each session runs three minutes, like a regular round in boxing. On a regular day, they do six or seven rounds.
"My philosophy on boxing is we box three days a week, and the other three days we work on technique with the mitts," Roach explained.
Technique, you might say, is just another word for Plan B.