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01 AUGUST 2014

 

My First Wild Card Experience


Roach (left) with Manny Pacquiao
Roach (left) with Manny Pacquiao

By Derek Gionta: If you ask any boxer what they enjoy most about boxing, many of them will give the standard response of, “Walking down the aisle to the ring.” Knowing the fierce rigors of battle soon awaits them while their preferred entrance music blasts in the background provides an adrenaline rush that only a small, select group can explain. Recently I had the unique opportunity to take a walk of my own. This was a different type of walk that caused a similar feeling of adrenaline to walking down the aisle to the ring. It was a gradual walk up the steps to the famed Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club.

This visit was unplanned up until the day before I decided to stop by. While visiting my brother, who currently resides in Las Vegas, with a couple of my close friends for the New Year’s holiday, we decided to drive to Los Angeles and visit for a couple days. With the Rose Bowl approaching in just a few days, and various other famous sites in the area that would prompt a visit from any tourist, the first thought that came to my mind was, “I’m going to the Wild Card Gym!”

On Thursday, December 30th at roughly 1:00pm we approached the 1123 Vine St. address in Hollywood, California. With the Hollywood sign on the hills in the background behind us, my brother shouted out as if one of the Paparazzi’s leaped in front of my car holding a camera, “Stop! There it is, the Wild Card Gym!” Then the blood started to flow. In my veins that is.
We pulled in to the plaza where the gym is located. It sits on the upper level above a Laundromat business. Parking for the gym was in the back lot where the gym’s entrance is also located. No spots were available so we decided to park across the street. I assume the black Mercedes belonged to Freddie Roach. I reluctantly decided not to double-park behind him. I thought it would make a few people laugh, or maybe spark a few of his fighters to drag me in to the intense live sparring sessions that take place frequently which thunders the entire plaza and surrounding neighborhood like an earthquake.

As I walked up the steps in the rear of the building towards the entrance, I paused, then I entered a room full of fighters, mostly professional, and there was Freddie Roach to my left, wrapping the hands of undefeated cruiserweight knockout artist, Lateef Kayode. I’ve watched Lateef a couple times on TV. His nickname, “Power,” is fitting as he carries great power alongside his muscular frame. Only his pro debut, a four round unanimous decision victory over a guy 50+ lbs heavier than him, has gone the distance. The rest are all KO’s. As Freddie finished wrapping his hands, Lateef began shadow boxing, hitting the mitts and then the heavy bag.
Minutes after my arrival a guy by the name of Miguel approached me and said, “How can I help you?” I then responded, I’m in town for couple days and wanted to visit the gym. I write for secondsout.com.” He replied, “No problem, go ahead and take a look around.”


Shortly thereafter a guy by the name of Paul (he goes by Paulie) Mayorquin, a former pro of 14 fights, approached me and made some conversation asking who I was and where I was from. I asked him if he trains fighters. He said, “I’m Freddie’s chief assistant.” We began talking about Kayode, his upcoming fight, and how he has progressed as fighter.
Moments later, as Freddie finished up talking with a few fighters and staff members, he and I began conversing. We have met a couple times in the past, most recently at one of Vanes Martirosyan’s fights and at a fight years ago when he used to train Bernard Dunne, a retired former champion. I re-introduced myself to him. He said, “Where are you from?” My response was, “Pittsburgh.” He replied, “Oh yeah, my girlfriend is from Pittsburgh.” We small talked a little more. Freddie is a very friendly and approachable guy, as most people that know him are already aware of, and not to mention a true figure of emulation for anyone aspiring to make a positive, successful impact in this ruthless sport.

Next I said to Freddie, “So Paulie is your chief assistant?” He smirked and chuckled a bit and replied, “He’s one of my assistants.” Miguel and a few of us standing near the front desk began laughing. Paulie probably tells all the new visitors his role at the Wild Card is chief assistant to Freddie.
Freddie’s brother, Pepper, then walked out of the back room and put his fist in the air towards to me to give me a “pound.” I gave him a “pound” and began speaking with him as he is just as approachable as Freddie. He’s more on the outspoken side than his brother, and hilarious too.

Pepper began talking with me, showing me around the gym, and sharing a few funny stories about his past. He showed me a few pictures of his three lovely daughters and began talking a little bit about them. After a brief tour and few jokes, Pepper asked me where I’m from and what brings me here. I replied, “I am from Pittsburgh and write for secondsout.com.” He replied, “It’s too cold in Pittsburgh.” Freddie then added, “I’ve been watching that 24/7 on HBO about the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh.” I then replied, “Yeah, it’s a great show (he should know because he’s usually one of the featured stars on 24/7 when it relates to boxing). They are moving the Pens game to the night time since the weather is actually mild out there right now (Pepper must not have checked the weather forecast in Pittsburgh when he said it’s too cold, but he’s right, it does get way too cold) with some rain in the forecast.”

I told Pepper that my brother Doug lives in Vegas and we decided to take a drive and I had to stop by the gym before I went back there for a few more days. He said, “I lived in Vegas for years (professional boxing career and work). I made a lot of money but I don’t know where the hell it is now.” More laughter flowed throughout this portion of the gym. I replied, “Was it fun living out there?” He said, “A lot of fun. It was hard to stay out of trouble out there.”

I noticed there were a couple different types of tee-shirts hanging up behind the desk. I had to purchase a couple. I asked Miguel, “How much are the shirts and can I have a couple of them?” He said, “Sure, follow me.” We walked to the back of the gym past another boxing ring, not the same ring Manny Pacquiao trains in on 24/7 but another ring towards the back of the gym. We then approached a locked closet. Miguel unlocked it and we began looking to see which kind would fit me the best. We grabbed the shirts and walked back to the front of the gym. I did not pay Miguel yet. Miguel said to me as we were walking back, “That was pretty funny about Mayorquin earlier (chuckling).”

We then approached Freddie as Miguel said to me while pointing at Freddie, “Pay my assistant.” We all started laughing. I then paid Freddie and thanked him.

Freddie and I began talking about some fighters of his that I had the pleasure to watch live or cover for secondsout.com.

Bernard Dunne, a retired former champion, fought in the co-feature on a card promoted by Sugar Ray Leonard years ago in West Virginia. Freddie was his trainer at the time. Freddie said, “Yeah I remember that fight. What was his opponents name again?” I replied quickly, “Mario Lacey from Mobile, Alabama.” Freddie responded, “Bernard was a good kid. He made a lot of money for himself. He’s set for life. He was smart by retiring.”
I also mentioned a fight that I covered for secondsout last December when he was with Vanes Martirosyan. He fought Willie Lee on the Kelly Pavlik-Miguel Espino card. He said, “Yeah, Vanes did well that night. He’s looking really good. He’s ready to fight for a title.” That means a lot coming from a man who has trained and refined a long list of world champions.

Bernard and Vanes both scored early knockouts in those fights.
A few moments later Pepper walked over to me and pointed out a poster with him, Freddie, and the late Joey Roach (their brother) on the same fight promotion, which took place June 11, 1982 at the Boston Garden. Joey won by knockout, Pepper won by decision, and Freddie lost a split decision in the 10 round main event. Red Auerbach and Larry Bird’s heydays weren’t the only memorable moments in the Garden’s history.

I then gave Pepper my condolences on Joey’s passing, which was August of 2009. Joey’s death was unexpected and sudden. He graciously accepted and shook my hand. You can tell they are a very close family.
A few minutes later, I then acknowledged his mother Barbara’s accomplishments as a professional boxing judge. He smiled and replied, “She was the first female judge in Massachusetts.”

I’m sure she had good practice watching her boys fight as well as her husband Paul (deceased), who was a 30+ fight veteran during the 40’s and 50’s.
Once they all got back to their intense, regimented work schedule I looked at a small sign on the wall near the front desk. It read, “Everyone Here Seems Normal Until You Get To Know Them.”

We all know Manny Pacquiao’s place at the Wild Card. He’s viewed at the King of boxing right now. Pictures and posters of him are all over the gym forming a collage with pictures of other fighters and famous people that have some relation to Freddie, his family, and the Wild Card Gym.

A list of recent Pacquiao victims is posted on the wall near the bench where I sat for a portion of this visit. Some of the names on this list: Ricky Hatton, Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto, Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito, Erik Morales, and Juan Marquez were all on this list and were crossed out. The one name remaining on the list is Floyd Mayweather. In parentheses next to his name it says the fight will never happen.

I sat and thought about that for a while and envisioned what that fight would be like. Obviously, it would be a great fight. I also pictured how entertaining that series of 24/7 would be.

I spotted another sign posted to the front desk.
This one read:
Michael Koncz Fan Club Meeting Canceled Tonight

President/By: Alex Ariza

I chuckled at that one. A serious group when it comes to training has quite the humorous side to them as well.

For those of you who are not familiar with Michael Koncz, he is Pacquiao’s advisor, whom is not the most welcomed person at the Wild Card.
Alex Ariza is the strength and conditioning coach and a corner assistant for many of Freddie’s fighters. A fight once broke out between Alex and Koncz when Koncz began causing problems in the camp with Alex and Freddie (he thought Freddie was paid too much). Well, Ariza threw some punches. Koncz took the punches, with no counter.

When relaying this information to a couple friends, I sent a text message to one of my good friends, and an avid fight fan himself, who we call Woz, telling him I was at the Wild Card and his reply was, “Wow! No Sh*t! Freddie’s a legend. He’s one of my top five all-time favorite people in boxing. He’s a great guy.”

When speaking with my other good friend and training partner, Craig, he responded with similar enthusiasm. “You went to the Wild Card?” That’s awesome! I’ll have come out there next time you go. I wonder what it would be like to hit the hand mitts in that ring?”

If I told everyone I know what this visit was like I would lose my breath after the third or fourth person. So I figured why not write about it. I knew the two friends mentioned above would appreciate it more than most people I associate with.

As my visit came to a close, my brother texted me, “Are you still in there?” I responded, “OK, I’ll hurry up.”

Most people would ask me if I got a prediction from Freddie on the Pacquiao-Mosley fight or asked him, “What’s next for Amir Khan?” Those answers can be found on many websites, newspaper articles, etc. However, the experience of talking with these guys in their backyard on a personal level takes the cake when it comes to true boxing memories.

By the way, I’m sure we all know what Freddie’s prediction is for the Pacquiao-Mosley fight, and it looks as if Amir Khan will soon land a fight against Devon Alexander, Timothy Bradley, or one of the other top guys in the 140 lb. division.

For an unplanned trip, all went very well at the Wild Card.
Just a day or two prior to visiting the gym I was reading my friend and fellow secondsout writer Jason Pribila’s article acknowledging Freddie Roach as the 2010 Secondsout.com trainer of the year at a slot machine in Las Vegas, and here I was a day or two later at the man’s gym, his home away from home, mingling with him and some of the others at the famed Wild Card Boxing Club.

As I shook Freddie’s hand and thanked him for his time and the tee-shirts I looked back at the sign that read, “Everyone Here Seems Normal Until You Get To Know Them.”

They all did seem normal, and the more I got to know them I thought of something else. They are better than normal. They are all champions.

January 7, 2011


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