Freddie Roach has done it all as a boxing trainer. He has taken young fighters and turned them into stars. He’s squeezed every last ounce out of veterans whose best days were seemingly behind them.
He’s won when he was supposed to win and won when he wasn’t.
If Roach isn’t the greatest trainer in boxing, it’s a very short list ahead of him.
But on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York, Roach will find himself in the center of a spotlight he may not be equipped to handle. In many ways, it’s his biggest professional challenge.
Roach will be in Georges St-Pierre’s corner when the former welterweight champion returns to mixed martial arts after a four-year retirement to challenge Michael Bisping for the middleweight title in the main event of UFC 217.
The card is a fascinating one headlined by three title fights, but one of the most intriguing stories is what Roach is doing in St-Pierre’s corner.
On the surface, it seems like it’s bringing in Bill Belichick to manage the Red Sox or Butch Harmon to fine-tune Roger Federer’s backhand.
St-Pierre is one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport, and the primary reason for his success has been his ability to pinpoint an opponent’s weakness and exploit it.
When he fought elite grapplers, St-Pierre used good takedown defense to keep the fight standing and win with solid MMA striking. When he faced lethal strikers, St-Pierre repeatedly took his opponents down and worked them over on the mat.
The bout with Bisping, though, might be his most difficult test. Bisping is the UFC’s all-time leader in wins, and while he doesn’t get the kind of respect his record suggests he deserves, even St-Pierre knows it won’t be an easy night as he bids to become just the fourth man in UFC history to hold titles in two different weight classes.
B.J. Penn (welterweight and lightweight), Randy Couture (light heavyweight and heavyweight) and Conor McGregor (featherweight and lightweight) are the others.
Bisping is also bigger than St-Pierre and correctly notes that St-Pierre will be by far the smallest man he’s ever faced. While St-Pierre is confident he’ll make history, he is not among those underestimating Bisping.
“People who say he’s overrated don’t really understand what this guy can do,” St-Pierre said. “I respect him and I’ve trained so hard because I know how good he is.”
One of the things that St-Pierre did in order to make sure he had all of his boxes checked was to bring Roach into his corner on more of a full-time basis.
St-Pierre is among the more prominent of a steady stream of MMA stars who over the years have made the pilgrimage to Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, California, to get pointers on punching from the master. In addition to St-Pierre, Roach has tutored a slew of big-name MMA stars, including ex-middleweight champion Anderson Silva, ex-featherweight champion Jose Aldo, ex-light heavyweight champion Shogun Rua and Penn, among many others.
But as was proven in Floyd Mayweather’s 10th-round stoppage of Conor McGregor in a boxer vs. MMA fighter battle on Aug. 26, boxing and MMA are different sports and different techniques are required to be successful in each.
Can a boxing coach, even one as undeniably great as Roach, help St-Pierre pull this off against a high-level mixed martial arts champion?
It’s a tall challenge with plenty of nuance, but Roach insists it’s not impossible.
“They’re both combat sports, of course, and I’m a big fan of both of them,” said Roach, who is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and was named Trainer of the Year a record seven times. “With Georges, we work on a lot of technique, but it’s a little different training him than [boxer] Manny Pacquiao. When you bring the legs into play and so forth, you have to be a little bit more square. You have to be a bigger target [than would be preferable in boxing], but you don’t want to take away the elements of the ground game or kicking.
“I’ve learned MMA and I’ve gotten some real good lessons along the way. I’ve trained a lot of the guys. Georges has taught me a lot and we’ve been together for a long time now.”
This is no lark for Roach, who flew back and forth between Los Angeles, where he lives and works, and Montreal, where St-Pierre is based. He did this while also preparing other boxers for their fights, notably ex-middleweight champion Miguel Cotto’s upcoming retirement bout.
And so, while he tutored St-Pierre and others on the art of boxing, he paid attention to what they had to say about MMA and learned how to incorporate his boxing techniques into what they were training to accomplish in the cage.
Roach doesn’t feel out of place despite never having worked an MMA fight anywhere near this magnitude.
“No, not at all,” Roach said, quickly.
Bisping heaped praise upon Roach but he spoke for many outside of St-Pierre’s camp when he questioned how much of an impact Roach could make.
He said several times that he hopes St-Pierre stands and trades punches with him, because he believes that would favor him as the bigger man. But he said Roach’s impact will be minimal because of the differences in the sport.
“Freddie Roach is an amazing boxing coach and I have a ton of respect for what he’s done,” Bisping said. “I jokingly said he probably can’t spell UFC, which is true. They’re different. Boxing for MMA and boxing for boxing, there are slight, subtle changes you need to make.
“I hope he turns Georges into a boxer where he feels confident enough to stand. That’s what I want. I want to fight him on the feet. I don’t want to wrestle him, so great, work on your boxing. That’s beautiful. Secondly, it takes time. There are pad men … but to be a coach, it’s a very different thing. There are pad men and there are coaches and they’re very different things. The relationship between a coach and a student is something that has to build over time. … Him bringing in some fancy boxing coach for one training camp, who is flying to Montreal three days a week, I don’t give any credit to that.”
Bisping said he’d be more impressed if St-Pierre was going to Wild Card and working with Roach’s stable of boxers.
But St-Pierre is convinced Roach will make a difference and sometimes in a fight, if one believes, that’s all that matters.
“There are a lot of things boxers generally do much better than MMA fighters,” St-Pierre said. “They’re specialists in fighting [with their hands]. There is specialized footwork, distance control, hands. … Freddie’s making sure I’ll be sharp [in all those areas].”
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