A Boston homecoming for ‘Irish’ Freddie Roach

He’s prepping Cork’s Callum ‘King’ Walsh for 10-rounder vs. Spain’s Ruiz on March 16  

When legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach first stepped into the ring to fight professionally, he was known as “Irish” Freddie Roach and wore green trunks that his mother had sewed. Close to 40 years later, the storied cornerman returns to Boston after a long absence for an Irish homecoming with a young undefeated boxer – from Ireland, of course – looking for his sixth  victory as a super welterweight.

Between the pandemic, running his Wild Card gym in California, and global travel with his stable of boxers and mixed martial arts champions, the Massachusetts-born and bred Hall of Fame trainer is looking forward to reuniting with friends and families along the River Charles over the week of St. Patrick’s Day.

“I’m very excited to be going home – it’s been five years,” said Roach, 62, from his boxing gym at Hollywood and Vine. But, he added, he’s more excited for his latest prospect,  Callum “King” Walsh.

The 21-year-old Cork youngster, 5-0 so far with four knockouts under Freddie’s tutelage, is facing Leonardo DiStefano Ruiz from Spain (10-1, with 9 KO’s) in a 10-round main event March 16 at Boston University’s Agganis Arena.

“Callum told me it’s the dream of all Irish fighters to fight in Boston,” said Roach, “the Irish capital of the United States. I’m just glad Callum’s event is on the night before St. Patrick’s Day. There will be enough fights in Boston on the day itself!”

Roach’s experience with Irish boxers includes working with Dublin’s Stevie “Celtic Warrior” Collins, who won the World Boxing Organization middleweight and super-middleweight titles; and bantamweight Wayne McCullough from Belfast, the first Northern Ireland boxer to win a World Boxing Council title.

Current world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, the son of Irish Traveler parents from Galway and Belfast, also trained in Roach’s gym. Roach has coached 27 world champions so far, most notably eight-division titlist Manny Pacquiao, five-time champ Miguel Cotto, light welterweight champion Amir Khan, and MMA title-holder George St-Pierre.

Collins and McCullough “worked hard and were great students,” said Roach. “Even though they were veterans when they started working with me, they were eager to learn new things and they worked on those things diligently. I have to think that their success inspired Irish kids to go to the gyms and give boxing a try.”

Roach’s own style as a boxer was first forged in brawls as a kid growing up in Dedham – the tough east side of town, not the Charles River estates due west – after moving from leafier Hanson to the veterans projects up against the Boston line. His older brothers, who had their own careers as professional boxers, pulled him into some 300 street fights, by his own estimate. 

“Once we moved to Dedham, I seemed to see a lot more Irish families in the neighborhood,” he said. “My brothers and I were naturally competitive with each other so of course we were always mixing it up and making trouble with each other. We fought with each other and in the streets against the kids. In the streets, we always had each other’s back.”

But once the ring replaced the streets, Roach left brawling – most of it, anyway – behind. “The more time I spent in the gym, the less time I had to get in trouble. The harder I worked, the more I achieved. It felt good.”

Roach’s father Paul, who started the family in Dorchester, after marrying Barbara Ann Morrison from Roxbury, trained three of their seven children – Freddie, Joey, and Pepper – in the ring while working as an arborist, a profession Freddie took up as well after graduating from the Norfolk County Agricultural School. He first fight came at age six and first tournament at eight. Freddie dominated opponents in amateur bouts in New England as a lightweight and turned pro at age 18.

“My father lived through us,” Freddie told one interviewer. “He was a fighter. He wanted us to be fighters. It was part of life in the Roach household.”

Barbara was not just a ringside rooter. From a tough Dublin family who passed through St. Peter’s Bay in Prince Edward’s Island before landing in Boston, she was the first woman boxing judge in New England and, like her son, was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

After Freddie turned pro, Eddie Futch, who trained four of the five boxers who defeated Muhammad Ali, became his trainer. Freddie went 26-1 before appearing in Boston Garden on a 1982 card that included all three of the “Fighting Roach Brothers.” Joey and Pepper won, but Freddie lost a unanimous decision in the main event to Rafael Lopez.

A crowd-pleasing fighter who would take one punch to give two, Freddie fought for four more years – against Futch’s advice – and retired at age 26 after losing five of his last six fights. His largest purse never exceeded $8,000.

So he went back to climbing trees full-time. But the fight game still drew him in. With $250 in cash from felling a Dedham oak, he bought a ticket to Las Vegas, where he worked as a telemarketer and busboy before landing an unpaid gig as an assistant to Eddie Futch. 

It was a match made in fisticuffs heaven.

“Mr. Futch was a complete trainer. He knew how to develop a strategy for a fight, he kept an eye on every fighter, even when they weren’t in the gym. He knew who was doing his roadwork and staying in at night. He was just good at all aspects of training a fighter,” said Roach.

Though he hadn’t taken Futch’s advice to retire from the ring earlier, Freddie listened to everything Eddie imparted about being an elite cornerman. “He taught me to fight like a professional, transforming me from a fighter to a boxer. He taught me skills,” said Roach.

“The one thing I noticed early and picked up on was that in the ring corner or on the gym floor, Mr. Futch always spoke in a low tone. He never yelled. It forced you to focus on what he was saying and listen hard because everything he said was important and you didn’t want to miss it. The other thing I learned from Mr. Futch was to be spare in the instructions you give in the corner between rounds. You only have one minute so make on or two points to the fighter and drill it in.”

Boston has produced a number of Irish champions – John L. Sullivan’s reign as the bare-knuckle titlist topping them all – but Roach doesn’t hesitate in naming the greatest he’s seen.

“Boston has a great Irish boxing heritage, but I’m going to go with the one I saw fight in person, and that’s Micky Ward,” he said, naming the Lowell champion whose story was featured in the Oscar-winning film “The Fighter.”

“I know he’s best known for his terrific trilogy with Arturo Gatti, but I’m also thinking about his knockout victories of Shea Neary, Steve Quinonez, Genato Andujar, Carlos Brandi, and Alfonso Sanchez. Micky was a helluva fighter.”

Looking back on his own zig-zag journey to the top of the fighting game – and his courageous battle with Parkinson’s Disease – Roach said he owns his mistakes and hopes he has learned from them, and that his own example can teach others.

“Life is a great teacher. Yes, we all make mistakes, but it’s what you do with that experience that makes or breaks you,” he said. “For me, boxing gave me a lot of life-learning lessons. Work hard, listen to your trainer, and follow the rules and you will naturally improve. The results will be obvious. A loss would not be the worst thing if you did your best in preparation.

“Boxing taught me discipline and respect – respect for the sport, my opponent, and my trainers. Find something you love to do and do your best at it and nine times out of ten you will develop self-respect and be happier.

“Focus on that and it’s easier to ignore the elements and people you should avoid.”