Commentary

Behind The Story: The Manny Pacquiao feature

A look inside Freddie Roach's Wild Card Gym

Originally Published: April 27, 2009
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

Here's why boxing's different: The Wild Card Gym, near the intersection of Santa Monica and Vine in Hollywood, is the kind of place no self-respecting professional athlete would willingly enter. It's a couple of big rooms with one ring, a bunch of hanging bags and a bathroom you'd have to be a super-featherweight to turn around in. On a hot day in Los Angeles, with 50 or so fighters and trainers crowded into the place, you don't even want to know about the smell. Trust me, these guys aren't addicted to hygiene.

The 25th guy on the worst baseball team in the big leagues wouldn't work out here on a bet. There's no cherry-wood locker or big-screen television or workout pool to be found. Wild Card, run by trainer Freddie Roach, is on the second floor of a U-shaped strip mall that could have been designed by a second-grader with an Etch-a-Sketch.

The parking lot is behind the gym, and to get there you drive through a tunnel on the ground floor of the building. There's a price sheet on the wall of the gym -- $5 a day, $50 a month. A licensed pro or amateur fighter can work out here for $25 a month. You can't keep track of the languages ricocheting off the walls. If you can stomach the smell, it's the best deal in fitness.

This is where Manny Pacquiao—one of the biggest names in sports, one of the richest fighters in boxing—trains in the weeks leading up to his big fights. Standing there watching him arrive with his entourage, barely earning a second look from most of the denizens of this boxing underworld, I had to laugh at the incongruity of the scene. A guy from Nike was there with boxes of Manny's signature line of clothing, and the first thing Pacman did was look through the boxes and give his guys the OK to run them out to the team van in the parking lot. "All sizes," the rep said, making the bigger-bellied members of Pacquiao's crew smile broadly. Something for everyone.

They close Wild Card for three hours when Manny trains, and the smell improves within seconds of the place clearing out. Most of the guys training in the Wild Card are young and dreaming, refugees from everywhere, coming to this place to chase a big payday. Most of the older guys—the trainers—look like cautionary tales. They give away their former profession with the way they hold their hands in front of them as they walk through the crowded room, bracing themselves in advance for a possible fall. They totter around like men twice their age, mumbling at kids who stand in front of the heavy bags nodding their agreement.

Mickey Rourke worked out here during his brief and ignominious career as a professional boxer, in between his two careers as an actor. Among the hundreds of newspaper clips and boxing posters on the walls, Rourke is well-represented. Roach, a friendly guy with his trademark black-framed Oakley prescription glasses, waves off the Rourke connection. "I like him, but I don't brag that I trained him."

Roach has to take a call inside the office, and at the front desk there's drama. A young Russian fighter is telling former heavyweight champion Michael Moorer, through broken English and pantomime, that he doesn't feel well and thinks he should forego today's workout.

Moorer is Roach's assistant, and he approaches his job with extreme seriousness. He tells the kid, who seems on the verge of tears, "You're a grown man. If you're sick, you're not doing yourself any good here."

The kid nods, but Moorer is just getting started.

Getty Images"It Ain't Easy" is the motto at Freddie Roach's Wild Card Gym.

"You've got to be mean, ignorant and rude," Moorer says. "You're not here to be a nice guy. You're here to knock mother------s out. You can be a nice guy when you leave here, but inside these doors, this is a business."

In response, the fighter reaches out and shakes Moorer's hand. He says nothing. It's unclear how much he has understood.

Moorer looks satisfied, though, and to celebrate he goes into the office—not much bigger than a closet—and comes out holding a fist-sized tarantula. He heads toward Alex Ariza, Pacquiao's strength coach and a noted arachnophobe. Within seconds, Ariza is on his back, kicking his legs at Moorer and screaming to be left alone. Moorer sadistically continues, jabbing the spider in Ariza's face and threatening to drop it on him. The rest of the gym hums along without taking notice.

Roach himself is a remarkable guy. He worked as a telemarketer when he retired from boxing and only got into the training business because of his connection with Rourke, who gave him the Wild Card Gym after he bought it as a place for his own training.

Roach, 49, suffers from Parkinson's Disease, but on this day he will go 15 rounds on the mitts with Pacquiao without a break. His words come a little slower than they used to, but he doesn't miss much. Known as "The Choir Boy" coming out of Denham, Mass., he fought 150 amateur bouts and 52 as a pro. Here's a cruel fact of the business: The 182 bouts and nonstop training undoubtedly caused the Parkinson's, and now Roach fights its debilitating effects by staying active as a trainer in the ring. The cause is the therapy.

Here's all you need to know about Freddie: There's a one-eyed guy in his late-20s, Shane Langford, who lives in the gym and takes care of the place. Langford is a former Canadian amateur fighter who made his way to California before losing his way entirely. As Roach puts it, Shane was "living outside" when he first starting showing up at the gym. Outside, in this case, means using the space between the dumpsters in the parking lot as a bedroom.

Shane started hanging out at the gym, and Freddie started putting him to work. Cleaning up here and there, running a few errands. Freddie watched him to see if he'd keep coming back, and when he did he offered him a bed and a job looking out for the place.

Freddie still has to watch out for Shane—he tried to stop him when he launched into a story about a transvestite who took an involuntary flight from an apartment balcony one building over—but he's clearly proud of the kid. "He's been living inside six years now," Freddie says, "and now he thinks he runs the place."

Freddie winks and laughs. Shane doesn't run the place; in fact, it's hard to tell who or what does. Far as I could tell, Wild Card runs on hopes, dreams and boxing's unique ability to give the down-and-out a reason to keep moving. After a while, you come to a realization: that smell is desperation.

Tim Keown is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com