Legendary trainers collide in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS – Not only will two of the top fighters in the world compete in the main event Saturday, but they’ll be handled by arguably the two best trainers working today: Nacho Beristain and Freddie Roach.

And as different as they may be, the trainers agree that work will be over once Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao step into the ring. They’ll become little more than spectators.

“Everybody wants to make it Freddie Roach against me,” Beristain said. “But that is wrong. It is Manny Pacquiao against Juan Manuel Marquez. Once that bell rings, we have nothing to do it with it.”

Nacho Beristain has been so busy recently, he hasn't had the time to go running.
(Getty Images)

Beristain leaned back in his chair, patted his (relatively) flat midsection and all but sneered.

“I feel like [expletive],” the 72-year-old Hall of Fame boxing trainer growled.

For the past three months, Beristain hasn’t been able to do what he has done virtually every day for about a half century: run five miles.

Beristain has been preparing Marquez to face Pacquiao on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in a welterweight title bout that is one of the year’s most significant. And a half dozen of his other fighters are also competing in noteworthy bouts. He’s got precious little time to do anything but work in his gym and watch tapes. Much of his time has been spent getting Marquez ready to meet Pacquiao, boxing’s pound-for-pound champion.

[ Related: The Ring’s Pacquiao-Marquez preview ]

Marquez fought a pair of excruciatingly close bouts against Pacquiao, drawing in 2004 and dropping a split decision in 2008. Another loss to Pacquiao, close or otherwise, and Marquez will run out of chances.

And so Beristain, one of the game’s unheralded great trainers, the maker of 21 male world champions and two female champions, has thrown himself headlong into his work. Every waking moment, it seems, has been about finding a way to help Marquez defeat Pacquiao.

Daily run be damned.

Even when he gets to run these days, it isn’t as exhilarating, not since he was inducted last year into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Now, whenever he runs, his solitude is interrupted by well-wishers and glad-handers.

“I go running by and they all yell, ‘Hey, Hall of Famer! Beristain, way to go!’ ” Beristain said. “They want to talk, or shake hands, just be around you. But I’ve got a lot to do. This Hall of Fame isn’t exactly what I wanted.”

Across the ring Saturday, Beristain will peer at a much younger man who will almost certainly be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012. Freddie Roach, 51, has trained Pacquiao for more than 10 years and has developed him into perhaps the most fearsome fighting machine on the planet.

Roach is a humble sort, even though his handlers are trying desperately to make him a star. Cameras follow him everywhere, reporters hang on his every word and HBO is planning a series on Roach’s life beginning in January.

Roach has won the Trainer of the Year Award three years in a row, four times in the last five years and five times overall.

His mentor, Eddie Futch, won it in 1991 and 1992, when he was 80 and 81 years old. The Boxing Writers Association of America didn’t create the award until 1989. Had it been given out when Futch started training, he might have a few dozen.

“There’s never been a trainer like Eddie,” Roach said.

The statistics would say that there is no trainer like Roach. When fighters develop bad habits, their managers send them to Roach. When mixed martial arts fighters want to learn to box, they seek out Roach.

Bruce Trampler, a Hall of Famer himself and arguably the greatest matchmaker in boxing history, said if he has a young fighter he wants to be developed properly, he’ll send him to Roach.

Beristain comes from a well-to-do Mexican family. His father was solidly middle class and his mother came from a wealthy family. She was horrified when she learned that her teen-age son had turned to boxing.

She tried desperately to convince him to do something else with his life, but he was fascinated with the fight game and wouldn’t be swayed.

He was a flyweight who won some significant amateur tournaments in Mexico and then went 13-1-2 as a pro before retiring in 1959. His passion for boxing remained, however, and he became a trainer good enough to coach Mexico in the Olympics in 1968, 1976 and 1980.

In those days, the Cubans and the former Soviet Union were dominant teams and Beristain admired their styles. He studied intently and built his own philosophy around what he learned from them, adapting it for the professional game.

Three of his fighters, Ricardo “Finito” Lopez, Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez and Daniel Zaragoza, have been elected to the Hall of Fame.

His style relies upon three basic tenets: footwork, making the hands and feet work in unison and learning to throw combinations.

Marquez said Beristain is a perfectionist who isn’t pleased if a training session becomes sloppy or if Marquez isn’t paying close attention to his technique.

“He is always trying to make everything perfect and he gets very mad [if it’s not],” Marquez said. “That’s why I like to train with him.”

Roach, who as a fighter in the 1980s went 40-13 and was more tough than talented, has nearly perfected Pacquiao. When Pacquiao arrived by chance at Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Calif., in 2001, he was blazingly fast and generated extraordinary power because of his quickness.

But he was far from a complete fighter. He was left-hand dominant and rarely used his right hand. His footwork was a mess and he didn’t put his punches together particularly well.

They’d spend hours in the ring working on the most basic of concepts and pore over fight films, trying to discover and correct flaws.

“Freddie helped me to always keep working on my technique to get better,” Pacquiao said.

Their contributions to the outcome Saturday may lay in the plan they devised. Both Beristain and Roach watched video of the fighters for hours upon hours, rewinding and watching the same segments.

They’re looking for little tip-offs that they could make a difference. The result of the fight, and the balance of power within the sport, could hinge on what they noticed.

“Nacho has had great results with his fighters and obviously, he’s good at what he does,” Roach said. “The thing is, who will come up with the better game plan for this fight, me or him? I feel I got my guy 100 percent ready for whatever Marquez might bring.

“He’s been a counter puncher throughout his career, but he’s been more aggressive, more TV-friendly, in his last couple of fights. He’s put a lot of muscle on, too, and when you put muscle on, is it for counter punching and speed? No. It’s for exchanging and fighting toe-to-toe. I think I have a little bit of insight into what they’re thinking. I told Manny I think he’s going to come out quick. So we have a good sense of what they’ll do and of what we need to do.”

What they each need to do is win, Pacquiao to preserve the possibility of a super fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Marquez to hopefully get one more big payday before he’s through.

Beristain is the father of three girls and a boy, all of whom have college degrees. One of his daughters has a doctorate in economics and another is studying for her Ph.D in economics. His wife, he said, has three degrees “and thinks she’s the smartest one in the family.”

But he said it’s not going to be his smarts or Roach’s smarts that carry the day.

“Whoever wins, [the media] will try to say that I had something to do with it or that Freddie Roach had something to do with it,” Beristain said. “I disagree. When you have good fighters and they’re in good shape, you look like you’re a lot smarter than you really are.”

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Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Nov 11, 2011