Why Manny Pacquiao isn't even the toughest guy on his training team

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Freddie Roach grumbled something about feeling fine and then proceeded to do what countless politicians do every day when they're asked a question they don't want to answer:

He talked about something else.

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Asked how he feels, the seven-time Trainer of the Year spoke of how well Manny Pacquiao's preparations are going for his May 2 mega-fight in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Garden against unbeaten Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Many close to Roach were seriously worried about him, but weren't willing to say anything publicly. In February, just as negotiations to make the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight were hitting the homestretch, Roach was beset by significant back pain.

Already afflicted with Parkinson's disease, Roach was scheduled to fly Feb. 27 to Macau, China – as Pacquiao was about to get to Los Angeles to begin preparations for Mayweather – to work the corner for Zou Shiming in a flyweight title fight March 7.

(From left) Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao and Justin Fortune pose after Pacman defeated Chris Algieri last year. (fortunegym.com)
(From left) Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao and Justin Fortune pose after Pacman defeated Chris Algieri last year. (fortunegym.com)

And Roach's back was killing him. Not that he'll really say much about it.

Push him and he will talk, because that's the kind of guy he is. He's a reporter's dream because he's accessible, quotable and a stand-up guy. And while he continually attempted to deflect questions about himself and turn them into a discussion about Pacquiao, he eventually relented, at least for a bit.

"I have a bulging disk and it caught the nerve and so the nerve is pinched between the bulge in my vertebrae," Roach said. "I'm used to it by now. People live with this all the time. It's a pain in the ass, and, of course, I have the worst [expletive] luck for this to come up just before this fight, but it is what it is, and you learn to deal with it."

His friends were urging him to skip the flight to China because Pacquiao would be in town and there was concern about how Roach would hold up during a 17-hour flight.

"He was on bed rest for about two weeks before he left to go to Macau," said Nick Khan, Roach's agent and close friend. "We weren't sure that going would be the best thing for him, but you know Freddie."

Roach, who has been treated at the Kerlan Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles, has made it a point of pride that no matter how bad the pain has gotten, he hasn't missed a day of work.

Given that Pacquiao, one of the hardest hitters in the welterweight division, is blasting him with punches during training, the pain can be excruciating at times. But Roach hardly mutters a word about it.

"I was having back pain and so forth, but never in all of that time I have missed hitting the mitts," Roach said. "I did 15 rounds with Manny a couple of days ago and I suspect we'll do 15 more today. He's been incredible and he wants to work, so I want to be there for him and give him what he wants."

It's been that way for many of the key figures in Pacquiao's camp. Pacquiao's strength and conditioning coach, former heavyweight fighter Justin Fortune, is battling throat cancer.

Like Roach, Fortune scoffed at the notion it might somehow limit him.

Fortune found out about the cancer just before Pacquiao defeated Timothy Bradley last year in Las Vegas, but kept quiet about it. After the bout, he underwent surgery and has a scar that begins below his left ear, goes down his neck and ends underneath his chin.

He underwent chemotherapy and radiation and said, "That [expletive] chemo is totally [expletive] brutal."

He's still undergoing treatment and said there was never a way in which he would let it limit him.

He had long worked with Roach, but the two had a falling out several years ago. They reunited last year and that brought him back to work with Pacquiao.

Fortune didn't say a word about his plight while Pacquiao was preparing for Bradley so as not to distract his fighter. And now in this camp, he's engaged full bore as he helps prepare the Filipino superstar for what will become the largest-grossing fight in the sport's history.

"Take it easy?" Fortune asked. "Are you [expletive] kidding me? What am I going to do, roll over and die? I'm a fighter. I got into the ring [to fight] Lennox Lewis. This is who I am. I did what I had to do and now I'm back.

Freddie Roach works with Manny Pacquiao. (AP)
Freddie Roach works with Manny Pacquiao. (AP)

"This is the fight we've looked forward to for so long. I wasn't going to let anything take me away from this. I'm good. I'm able to get out there and do what I need to do to help Manny. He is looking incredible, believe me when I tell you that. He's aware this fight will make a huge mark on his legacy and I haven't seen him this focused since the first fights with [Juan Manuel] Marquez and [Erik] Morales [in 2004] when he was first making a name for himself."

Both Fortune and Roach are legitimate tough guys, and neither is willing to be limited. Roach's doctors have urged him to train only Pacquiao in order to take care of his back, but he has Ruslan Provodnikov in camp and trains him, as well.

Provodnikov faces Lucas Matthysse in a hotly anticipated April 18 junior welterweight bout, and Roach has kept his usual pace with "The Siberian Rocky."

Boxing has done much for Roach, and he's done a lot to help the sport. And as the questions persist about his back and then on to his Parkinson's, Roach demurs.

He'd rather talk about Pacquiao, how well things are going in the sport now or just about anything other than himself.

"You get into this business, you know how it is and there are going to be a lot of days you don't feel great, but you deal with it and get things done," Roach said. "The interest in this fight has been incredible. I knew it would be huge because for the last five or six years, all I ever heard from people was, 'When are you guys going to fight Mayweather?' But this is what happens when you have the best fight the best. It's a great sport when you do that.

"I've never talked to more [expletive] reporters than I have in this training camp. I start at 9 in the morning, but I get here a lot earlier than that, and all day long, if I'm not in the ring [working], I am on the phone with some reporter or other. I got here at 7 [a.m., the other day] and my last interview was at 7:45 [p.m.]. This fight is so big and it's so important to Manny. It's great for boxing and there's no way I'd miss this."

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