LOS ANGELES – Without Manny Pacquiao, things will never be the same at the Wild Card gym.
Still, life goes on at this famous training club along Vine St. whose popularity skyrocketed during the phenomenal rise of its most famous boxer.
Freddie Roach, who owns the gym that has expanded to become a two-storey building during the 15 years that Pacquiao trained there, will remain involved in maintaining and operating Wild Card, which still has a lot of prominent fighters under its stable even in Pacquiao’s absence.
Unlike the Filipino eight-time world division champion, Roach, 56, said he’s far from retiring from boxing.
“No, I’m not retiring yet,” he stressed with a smile. “This is what I do.”
Unlike Pacquiao, “I don’t have hobbies to fall back on,” added the celebrated trainer with a smile.
Roach put up the gym in 1995 using equipment given by actor Mickey Rourke, who Freddie used to train when he decided to box again early in the 90s.
Six years later, an unpolished southpaw with a promising potential walked inside the gym accompanied by his manager, the late Rod Nazario.
The longtime Filipino boxing manager was looking for a trainer for Pacquiao, a first timer in the US, and had heard a lot about the Wild Card boxing club and Roach, a disciple of the late great trainer Eddie Futch.
Roach tried out the then 23-year-old Pacquiao by doing the mitts with him. He was blown away with how hard a puncher this newbie was.
“I told my people at the gym, ‘'Wow. This kid can fight.'” Pacquiao meanwhile, went over to Nazario and said, 'We have a new trainer.'"
Right there, the two hit it off.
The partnership would be put to a test just weeks later when Pacquiao was tapped as a last-minute replacement for Enrique Sanchez to fight reigning champion Lehlo Ledwaba for the International Boxing Federation (IBF) super-bantamweight title in the undercard of the Oscar De La Hoya-Javier Castillejo junior middleweight crown.
A 6-1 underdog, Pacquiao would defy the odds by stopping Ledwaba in the sixth round to become the new 122-lbs IBF champion.
“It was just timing. Everything worked out perfectly,” Roach recalled.
As Pacquiao’s stardom grew, so did Roach’s training gym.
From just a single room on the second floor of the sprawling compound, it added the space just below it to erect another gym specifically for the use of the Filipino boxing superstar.
“Because of Manny we get to expand a little bit and we’re all over the place and on the map without Manny,” said the seven-time Trainer of the Year.
Without Pacquiao, Roach now banks on four-time world division champion Miguel Cotto and Jose Ramirez, among others.
“I’m looking forward to winning world titles with them,” said the veteran trainer.
Still, the Wild Card gym will never be the same without the Pacman.
“He’s the best ever to happen to the Wild Card gym and to me in my life,” he pointed out.