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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

ED GRANEY: Father's fury left imprint on Roach

The tough part was watching his mother move slowly down the stairs with two newly shined black eyes. The confusing part was watching his father laugh in her face shortly after his fists inflicted the damage.

It's a lot to take in when you're 5 years old.

They say boys look to fathers as a way to shape an identity, that while communication often lacks between a son and his dad, bonds are built through the accompanying silence.

Freddie Roach built his through the hush of fear.

At 49 he is one of the world's best boxing trainers by choice and tireless work, a predictable profession for a man who had 150 amateur fights before turning pro and surviving 53 more. He again will direct the corner of Manny Pacquiao when the latest pound-for-pound king meets Ricky Hatton on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden.

The fighting part wasn't an option for Roach, because there was a ring out back of the house and God help any son of Paul Roach who didn't climb in and begin sparring by age 6.

God help the son who didn't rise before 6 a.m. five days a week and have his road work done before breakfast, who didn't take the train from Dedham, Mass., into south Boston four nights a week for training, who didn't listen to every syllable of boxing instruction from the old man when the weekend arrived.

Oh, yeah: If you were a second late for dinner, one tick on the kitchen clock, the dogs got your food.

"We weren't the best of kids and we got into a lot of trouble and Dad was a physical guy," Roach said. "He talked with his fists. Sometimes we got what we deserved. But the one thing he demanded was loyalty. If you fought one Roach, you fought us all.

"I remember one time I got caught stealing and the store manager called Dad. He came down and started whaling on me right there in front of everyone. But when we got home, my older brother got the real beating for not having backed me up at the store.

"I know. It was twisted."

Meanwhile, a mother stayed for her five sons and two daughters. She stayed for Allen and Cindy and Pepper and Freddie and Joe and Julie and little Paul. She stayed and prayed of the moment she could escape.

Have you heard this story before?

Barbara Roach was a tough cookie herself, having grown up dirt poor and marrying Paul Roach, a New England featherweight champion in 1947 whose post-boxing career was spent as a tree surgeon.

She served as a boxing judge throughout the New England states because the more she watched her sons' amateur cards, the more she felt it was a job she could handle. She did it for more than 30 years. The fights weren't the tough part. Going home was.

"Paul was hard on all of us," said Barbara, who moved to Las Vegas 10 years ago and still works as a nurse at age 73. "But a lot of who the kids are today is because of Paul. If they wanted something, they had to work for it. In a way, they all have those hard-working, tough personalities.

"I would dream of the day I could pack my things and go. I wanted to save myself. But I also waited until all the children were old enough."

What was the best part about Paul Roach?

"He was very protective of his family -- if one of them was in a fight outside, he sent every one of them out, girls included."

What was the worst part?

"He was very protective of his family."

It's weird and it's not. She remembers leaving, but can't recall the exact day and how she felt. She knows Paul died some time ago, but is sketchy on the exact number of years. Maybe 15. Maybe longer.

It's sort of like the idea that for a tree to grow tall, it must grow tough roots among the rocks. Barbara Roach grew them among boulders with a fuming arborist for a husband, and time has a way of hardening those memories we would just as soon forget.

Her son Freddie knew enough to realize this: When you proved yourself the best boxer in the house, Dad tended to go easier on you. Freddie was 16 when he assumed that top spot on the family ladder. He too would win a New England featherweight crown, 32 years after his father.

Freddie Roach was known to have taken as many punches as he delivered, which created the link many feel connects his career to the Parkinson's he suffers from. Others within the family tree had the disease and Barbara is convinced Freddie was genetically coded for it. She is also certain so many blows to the head accelerated the onset.

She won't be at the fight Saturday. She will watch with family at another of her son's homes. They will sit and laugh and talk and pay attention when Freddie's fighter lands a good punch or gets in trouble.

There has been too much fighting in all their lives to ever again consider it a life-and-death matter.

"I love my Mom more than anything and would do anything for her," Freddie said. "She went through hell. She always stuck up for us when Dad got real physical and that meant she got it too and it was bad. It was unbelievable what she went through. My older brother tried stopping him from hitting her one time and it almost got him killed.

"You know, when you're a little kid, you love your dad and want to be like him. Then you grow up and don't want to be like him. But I'm not sure I held much against him. He was a working stiff with seven kids who put three meals on the table for us each day. People thought he drank. He never drank. Alcohol wasn't allowed in our house. He was just bitter.

"But the only time I ever saw him smile was when we would win our fights. The last time I spoke to him was after my last fight as a pro. I lost a 10-round decision. He walked in and asked how someone once so good could end up so bad. I told him to go (bleep) himself and never saw him again.

"I'm sure he did the best he could."

The son is grown and successful and prospering like never before. He is the best at what he does.

He is his father's son. Tough and determined.

He is his father's son, and in so many good ways, he isn't.


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