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Thursday, November 10, 2011
Updated: November 11, 5:50 PM ET
Wild Card gym boasts a pair of aces

By Arash Markazi
ESPNLosAngeles.com

Wild Card
In a small gym inside a strip mall in Hollywood sits the Wild Card Boxing Club, where Freddie Roach trains Manny Pacquiao. But for $5, anyone can come and work out.
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- The characters that walk up the concrete stairs and through the metal screen door of Freddie Roach's Wild Card Boxing Club are as eclectic as those walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard, a few blocks to the north.

That's what happens when your gym is located on the second floor of a strip mall above a laundromat and you only charge customers $5 per day to train in what has become one of the world's most famous boxing clubs.

On a cool November night, just days before he leaves for Las Vegas with Manny Pacquiao for their fight this Saturday against Juan Manuel Marquez, Roach is sitting behind the desk at the front of his gym looking at the overflowing ring in front of him.

An elderly man, wearing a back brace and slacks, is punching away at nothing in particular with his eyes closed. A middle-aged man, wearing a tank top, jeans and fedora, is shadow boxing in the corner. A teenage girl in pink sweats is practicing straight jabs as she moves from side to side. And a young boy is learning how to follow through on punches from a trainer with a towel draped over his right shoulder.

Roach smiles as he watches from a distance. This is exactly why his mentor and legendary trainer Eddie Futch told him to never open his own gym.

"Eddie told me to never own a gym; it's the worst headache in the world, you're going to lose money on it and it's not worth it," Roach said. "I don't know why but I kept saying to myself if I open this gym one day the next Muhammad Ali is going to walk through that door."

Roach then pauses and looks down the flight of stairs from the gym door to the crowded parking lot where dozens of fans have gathered to get a glimpse of Pacquiao and Roach, who smiles and waves at the crowd.

"If I didn't open this gym," he said. "I would have never met Manny Pacquiao."

Manny Pacquiao
Pacquiao's manager Rod Nazario introduced the budding superstar to Roach 10 years ago, and the chemistry was there with the first jab.

Roach remembers when he first met Pacquiao like it was yesterday. This is probably because yesterday was the last time he retold the story of their chance encounter back in 2001. After all, everyone wants to know the genesis of possibly the greatest boxer-trainer tandem since Muhammad Ali and Angelo Dundee.

The way Roach remembers it, he was walking around the floor of his gym 10 years ago, checking up on the weekend warriors wailing away at the punching bugs, when he was approached by Pacquiao's now-late manager Rod Nazario, who said, "I hear you're good with the mitts."

Roach looked at Nazario and his scrawny 21-year-old client skeptically and said, "Yeah, I'm OK."

"Would you like to do some mitts with Manny Pacquiao?" Rosario asked. "He's a former 112-pound world champion."

Never one to turn down a chance to put on his punching mitts and see what a young fighter had, Roach agreed. Roach was the second trainer Rozario and Pacquiao had visited that day, in the hopes of pursuing a career in the states after Pacquiao compiled a 32-2 record in the Philippines.

After one round, Roach walked over to his corner and told a couple of boxers there, "Wow, this kid can f---ing punch." He would find out later from Rozario that Pacquiao walked over to his corner and told his manager, "We have a new trainer."

"We never missed a punch the whole time," Roach said. "I knew I had something special. It was the explosion of the punch. The speed was great, the power was great, but that combination together was something I'd never seen. The noise it made was something I'd never heard before. It stopped everyone from working out. Everyone looked to see what was making that noise. It was like a f---ing gun firing."

That power is still there today 10 years later as Roach straps on a protective sparring vest and punching mitts and steps into the ring with Pacquiao. "He punches harder than he did then," Roach said. "This is the best I've ever seen him."

Pacquiao's punches sound like a cross between a machine gun and a beatboxer as he provides his own sound effects as he connects on eight consecutive punches that seem like one big blur to the blind eye.

Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-ba-boom-boom.

"Good," Roach said. "Again."

Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-ba-boom-boom.

"The relationship between a boxer and trainer is really important," Pacquiao said. "It's like when you're married. You have to take care of your relationship and that's what I have with Freddie. Ten years ago, when we met here in his gym and did a couple of rounds of mitts, he knew me right away and I knew him right away."

Manny Pacquiao
"Freddie is not only a trainer to me," Pacquiao said, "he's like my father and he's like my brother."

Pacquiao smiles when he drives past the Vagabond Inn, an aging hotel next to the Wild Card gym on Vine Street. When Pacquiao was first training with Roach, he would stay at the hotel for weeks. If he didn't get to the gym on time for training, Roach would have someone walk over to his room and bang on his door until he woke him up.

"I always think about that," Pacquiao said. "It's hard to imagine 2001 compared to right now. I've come a long way. I've achieved a lot more than my dreams. It's amazing. My dream was to be a champion and win a belt, but I never expected it would be like this. It's hard to imagine what I have done in boxing."

What Pacquiao has done in boxing since meeting Roach is put together one of the most impressive resumes in recent memory on the way to becoming arguably the sport's best pound-for-pound fighter. He has compiled a 21-1-2 record under Roach's watchful eye, winning his past 14 fights, and has captured world titles in seven weight classes.

These days Roach doesn't send anyone over to the Palazzo East, a high-end Mediterranean-inspired apartment complex in Los Angeles, where Pacquiao and his entourage now stay when he's training for a fight. Roach is content to wait as long as it takes until Pacquiao arrives.

"I allow him to be late," Roach said. "I know when he sleeps and I don't want anyone to wake him up. I tell them to let him wake up naturally because if his body needs the sleep. Sometimes I'll wait four hours for him. If a guy wins eight world titles, I'll wait for him, but before I would never wait for anybody."

Roach's refusal to wait for fighters almost prompted him to leave Los Angeles as soon as he arrived. He came to the city in 1991 to train actor-turned-boxer Mickey Rourke, but Rourke only showed up to one training session over a week. Roach said he left and returned only after Rourke called him every day for 30 days, begging him to comeback, often in tears.

The two would open and close two Outlaw Boxing Clubs before Roach opened Wild Card, using much of the equipment Rourke had bought.

The change in Roach's attitude toward Pacquiao not only reflects Pacquiao's success in the ring but his growing popularity out of it. When Pacquiao arrives at the gym, driving a black Ferrari 458 Italia into the parking lot of the strip mall, the car is surrounded by fans wanting him to sign autographs or take a picture. On most days he tries to accommodate as many as he can, staying around the complex even after he's done training.

He has essentially become the mayor of the nondescript strip mall underneath Wild Card. Last year, he opened up his own merchandise store and tattoo parlor next to the laundromat below the gym. He still gets his haircut in the mall's modest hair salon, which is next to the Thai food restaurant he has frequented for the past decade. The walls of Nat's Thai Food are littered with his pictures through the years, and a flat-screen television plays his old fights on a constant loop. The hand-written sign on the door of the restaurant reads, "We will be closed Nov. 11 to Nov. 13 in support of Manny Pacquiao."

Not only does Pacquiao spend about $500 on his weekday meals and more on the weekends when he plays his guitar and sings for friends over endless plates of pad thai and lard na, but he pays for Tina Srdakun, the restaurant owner, and her staff to fly to Las Vegas to watch his fights in person.

"I love to train in L.A.," Pacquiao said. "Los Angeles is my second home. I've been training here since 2001 and I feel like I'm an American citizen now."

Manny Pacquiao
With a photo of Juan Manuel Marquez posted on the wall behind it, Pacquiao pummels a speed bag.

Roach doesn't remember the last time he took a vacation, only that his girlfriend, Wendy, whom he met at the gym more than a year ago, would like to take one soon. The only time he allows himself to get away from boxing is on Sunday nights, when he goes to the movies. His memory of film history is almost as photographic as his encyclopedic knowledge of boxing.

"My favorite movie is 'The Natural,'" Roach said. "I've seen it a hundred times."

Change the sports, and the Bernard Malamud classic of an average athlete coming out of nowhere to become a legend with seemingly divine talent could easily describe Pacquiao's Hollywood story.

What makes the bond between Pacquiao and Roach so special is they each gave each other something they were missing before they met.

Roach was a frustrated ex-fighter and struggling gym owner when he met Pacquiao. After his fighting career he was a telemarketer before working with Futch and training Virgil Hill to a world title. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1990, a debilitating illness that has slurred his speech and causes him to twitch often but doesn't affect him in the ring.

Pacquiao was a skinny, erratic, undeveloped fighter when the two first met. His feared right hand was virtually nonexistent and despite his gaudy record in the Philippines, he had proven nothing in the States.

They complemented each other in a way rarely seen in boxing where fighters often go through trainers as often as they do opponents.

"Freddie is not only a trainer to me," Pacquiao said, "he's like my father and he's like my brother."

"I think the relationship between Freddie and Manny is very, very unique," said Bob Arum, the chief executive of Top Rank. "I know there have been other duos, like Ali and Dundee, but I think Freddie and Manny's relationship is more of equals. At a particular point in time Ali became so big he overwhelmed even Angelo as a trainer, and Ali told Angelo when he wanted to train and what he wanted to train towards the end of his career. With Freddie and Manny, their relationship is different."

Perhaps one of the things keeping both of them grounded, despite the constant attention they both get and the camera crews that follow their every motion, is the unassuming gym they have called home since they met. Roach must now close the gym to the public when Pacquiao trains and open the door only when Pacquiao is done. The crossover in time, however, often results in Pacquiao doing his post-training stretches next to the crowded ring Roach and a friend built with plywood back in 1994.

"I'm too lazy to replace it," Roach said. "I was smart enough to build it but I'm not smart enough to take it down."

While the phone rings constantly at his desk, Roach gets up and laughs as he walks around the floor of the gym to ease his mind before Saturday's fight, taking in the amateurs pounding the punching bags like he had 10 years ago before he first met Pacquiao.

"This used to be a telemarketing room," Roach said. "Maybe if Manny didn't walk through that door I could have gotten my old job back."

Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.