Little big man

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

LAS VEGAS – Freddie Roach looks as intimidating as a Golden Retriever puppy. A librarian who took a look at him would have no fear of kicking sand in his face at the beach.

This timid-looking, quivering mite of a man, though, holds the key to the outcome of the biggest fight in years.

Roach is boxing's foremost trainer, guiding a stable filled with future Hall of Famers. Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao and James Toney, among others, call him coach.

You wouldn't know it by looking at him, though. He appears as if he hasn't spent a cent of the money he's made in this hardest of rackets on his wardrobe. He's the antithesis of bling.

De La Hoya hired Roach in January to prepare him for his showdown Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden with Floyd Mayweather Jr. They're fighting for De La Hoya's super welterweight belt and Mayweather's mythical pound-for-pound championship in a match expected to generate well over $100 million in gross revenue.

Roach's challenge would have been monumental even if he'd worked with De La Hoya for years. Mayweather owns nearly all of the physical advantages. He's younger, faster, more athletic, more instinctive and will be in better shape.

Roach was, in essence, hired to coach in the Super Bowl without working a regular-season game. It's perhaps the toughest assignment of a glittering career, but Roach doesn't see it.

"I've had plenty of time and Oscar's been great," Roach said. "He really wants it and he's been eager to learn. When you have an athlete as talented as he is as anxious to get better as he is and who wants to win as badly as he does, that's all as a coach you can ask for."

De La Hoya's actions, though, aren't those of a young and hungry fighter. He's 34, rich enough that he's planning to open his own bank and perfectly content to sip espresso and tinker with his golf swing. But when you can get $40 million for a night's work, you take it.

It was a no brainer, but taking the dough has forced him to find a way to beat a guy who has been boxing's best fighter for more than five years.

That's where Roach, a one-time journeyman fighter once described by matchmaker Bruce Trampler as "20 pounds of power and 100 pounds of heart," comes in.

The son of a Dedham, Mass., tree surgeon has paid a price for that courage, though. He suffers from induced Parkinson's, a reminder of his days as a brave if hardly gifted fighter.

Roach refuses to submit to the disease and works as if he were as hale and healthy as ever. It didn't take long for him to accomplish the difficult task of earning De La Hoya's respect.

"Freddie Roach is the best thing that's ever happened to me," said De La Hoya, who opted not to re-hire Mayweather's father as his trainer because he questioned whether father would really be committed to working against son.

Now, it's not like Roach has been asked to ride Mister Ed in the Kentucky Derby, but this challenge is about the biggest he's faced since he had to come up with a way to keep Toney out of the local In-N-Out Burger.

De La Hoya is a year removed from his last fight, a triumphant knockout of Ricardo Mayorga. But in reality, that was all but a setup, as Mayorga was a hand-picked opponent who posed little real threat.

The primary problem Mayorga presented was when he flaked out a couple of days before the fight and threatened to pull out. De La Hoya was none too happy when Mayorga's petulance put his eight-figure payday in peril.

But here's what Roach really has to work with: A guy who was knocked out in his last real fight, in 2004 against Bernard Hopkins. The scary part for Roach is not that Hopkins, as the bigger and stronger man, knocked De La Hoya out, but rather how thoroughly Hopkins was outboxing the Golden Boy.

In the fight before Hopkins, a badly out-of-shape De La Hoya got a gift decision from the judges against Felix Sturm. He lost his bout prior to that to Shane Mosley and was only ordinary in stopping the far over-the-hill Yory Boy Campas in 2003.

One would have to go back more than four years to find a bout when De La Hoya last faced a top-level opponent who was a threat to him and won.

Roach, though, knows that, despite his boasts, Mayweather is no Sugar Ray Robinson. And while his guy doesn't fight often enough these days to be anywhere near his peak form, Roach points out that De La Hoya isn't ready for the glue factory just yet.

"If Floyd were half the fighter he thinks he is, he might be the best ever," Roach said laughing. "But I'll take my chances."

Roach is a disciple of the late Eddie Futch, the Vince Lombardi of boxing trainers. Futch was the rare trainer who could take an inferior athlete and find a way to win. He did it with Montell Griffin against Roy Jones and Roach believes he'll do it Saturday with De La Hoya.

He's blunt and concedes he was shocked when he first began working with De La Hoya, an Olympic gold medalist and a world title-holder in six weight classes, and discovered De La Hoya didn't understand how to cut off the ring.

There is a long list of things De La Hoya will have to do to upset Mayweather, but cutting off the ring and forcing Mayweather to stand and fight tops it.

"I assumed that with all the time he's been around and everything he'd done, he'd have been good at that, but it's something we've had to work on," Roach said. "But Oscar has been great about it. One of the rewarding things in this camp is watching how he's picked things up.

"I come back the next day and I see him doing the things we worked on the day before."

It's going to be a long week for De La Hoya, who is going to have to endure a lot of taunts from a lot of Mayweathers before he finally gets a chance to lay hands on his nemesis.

He might wind up questioning whether taking the fight was worth the hassle.

One decision he won't question, though, is when he chose the bookish-looking Roach as his trainer. If De La Hoya manages to win, that's the decision that will have been the difference.