by Tom Hamlin, MMAWeekly.com
There’s a slight sense of amusement coming from Freddie Roach when he breaks down student Andre Arlovski’s fight with Fedor Emelianenko. Roach is a man who’s has spent his entire life looking at the hands as weapons, along with the subtle and not-so-subtle elements that make boxing a science. But he’s been thrown into the world of MMA through Arlovski, and he’s doing his best to take it in stride. His vocabulary is limited; when he looks at Arlovski’s chances, it’s really just a best guess. When the topic of Emelianenko’s armbar comes up, a smile creeps onto his face.
“He looks pretty effective on the ground from what I can see,” Roach says. “He’s really good at the armbar, I guess it’s called. How he gets those guys in the position for an armbar is pretty clever.”
Still, Roach knows what his student is up against. Facing Emelianenko is as much about his legend as his fighting ability.
“If I saw him in the street, I wouldn’t be scared of him,” he says with another smile. “But I’d be wrong.”
Roach’s stock has skyrocketed in the past five years, due in no small part to his work with the boxing greats of today: Manny Pacquiao, Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, and a little further back, Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer, and James Toney. His Wild Card Gym is still frugal; there’s no expensive gym equipment, just a couple of rings, a few heavybags, speedbags, and a plywood plank for jumping rope. It’s cramped. The only thing that gives the room its expanse is the thousands of fight posters that cover every inch of available wall.
It’s still cheap to train there—50 bucks a month to come to the gym, five bucks a round for a trainer. If you get him, Roach’s brother, Dominic Pepper, will give you three rounds for ten bucks, and he’ll tell you his life story, too.
Still battling Parkinson’s disease brought on by a fight resume in the hundreds, Roach answers the phone when not tending to his students. It’s true what he and many others have said about him—when in the ring, the symptoms of his condition lessen.
Arlovski first paces when MMAWeekly talks to Roach, then starts filming the interview for his web series, Arlovski 360, that chronicles his journey to the Emelianenko fight at Jan. 24’s “Day of Reckoning.”
“I think Andre’s good at leglocks, from what I can understand,” Roach offers. “He’s a Sambo champion too, so he knows the ground game.”
The two met three years ago through a mutual friend named Billy. Roach recognized Arlovski’s talent, but couldn’t get a feel for him as a person.
“Good sense of humor when you get to know him,” says Roach. “When you don’t know him, you don’t know which way to go with him…he’s dry.”
Arlovski has made five trips to Los Angeles since 2005, working with Roach to refine his boxing skills. At Wild Card, he’s just another student, albeit one with an extra pair of trainers following him around. When other students cram the speed bag area, he has to dodge them to avoid a collision. They pay him little mind.
Pepper says the gym has seen an influx of MMA fighters looking to improve their standup skills. It’s not his cup of tea.
“I think it’s boring,” he says, looking unamused. “I saw one fight where the guy just laid on the other guy the whole fight and he won.”
Roach, on the other hand, is committed to solving the riddle of Emelianenko, even if his plan is built on the notion that the Russian stands up.
“As far as his stand up game, we’ll kill him,” says Roach. “If we can keep the fight standing up, if he chooses to fight us like a man, we’ll dominate him.”
In the ring, Roach drills Arlovksi on quick shifts of direction, using footwork to evade a rapidly advancing opponent. Roach lunges in, Arlovski cuts an angle, and returns fire with a right cross, left hook combination. Then he puts Arlovski against the ropes, using them to get out of danger when pressed. Arlovski’s focus is there; he seems to hang on Roach’s every word.
The way Roach sees Emelianenko, it’s not so much about staying away from his swarming attack as using his habits against him.
“Just be smart with it,” he says. “Use your angles when they’re necessary, but after you land a combination, because after you land a combination with Fedor, he’s going to throw back. That’s his instinct. He throws one punch after the other. He’s very predictable. He makes the same moves every time. He’s very common. His boxing game is weak.”
Through their years together, Roach says he sees a more focused Arlovski, particularly after the native Belarusian tested the free agency waters.
“His mental side of the game right now is much better than it was when he was with the other guys,” Roach says. “He seems comfortable with Affliction, and they pay him the money he’s supposed to be getting. He’s happier, he’s refocused. He was unhappy with the other people, and he was just kind of going through the motions.”
As Arlovski earlier told MMAWeekly, the timing of the bout feels right. He lost his UFC heavyweight belt, and served the rest of his contract fighting less-than-champions. While Dana White and the UFC want him back, he and his management don’t appear in a rush to re-sign. He’s an Affliction fighter, but his career is more on his own terms. By breaking from the Las Vegas-based organization, he gets to do what every heavyweight wants to do: face the world’s top ranked fighter.
Roach goes back to his desk after the interview, sitting on a stool behind a counter next to the front door. Arlovski throws his gear into a bag and tells Freddie he’ll be back in six hours for sparring, when UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva is supposed to show up. It’s another long day at the office.
While Roach’s viewpoint may be limited, he feels his student will triumph.
“From what I can see, I think Andre’s going to be sharper,” he says. “I think we’re going to knock him out.”