IT wouldn’t be an overstatement to call the Wild Card Boxing Club one of the most famous gyms in boxing history. You’ve had places like the 5th Street Gym in Miami, Stillman’s in New York and Detroit’s Kronk Recreational Center in the past. But this facility, located in the heart of Hollywood, California, has had as much talent walk through its doors in the past decade as any gym in the world – most notably Manny Pacquiao.
It’s not only defined by the fighters who work there, but the man who runs it – Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, who came from humble beginnings to turn the Wild Card into an iconic setting in the boxing world.
FROM AN OUTLAW TO A WILD CARD
Early on during his training career Roach worked at the Outlaw Gym that was owned by actor Mickey Rourke.
“Then his advisers told him that he couldn’t afford it anymore, so we had to get rid of the gym and he gave me the equipment and told me to find a new location,” recalled the trainer. “So I did, I went to the Hollywood/Highland area and I was there for like nine months. But it was really a high-profile area with the big windows, a lot of street kids coming in, skinheads, punks. We fought every night in that gym – and not boxing, either, fist-fights.”
Roach laughs as he recalls the unsanctioned bouts.“It was a bad neighborhood. So I decided I wanted to open another gym,” he continued. “I remember I didn’t have a lot of money, $10,000 and that’s what it cost me when I found this gym, to build a new gym. I was sleeping on my hairdresser’s couch at the time and I thank her for that.”
Virgil Hill and Marlon Starling, his first two big clients were no longer under his auspices. “I was just training Mickey Rourke,” said Roach, who literally had to build the original ring at the Wild Card himself. “I couldn’t afford to buy a ring so I built that one by hand. It cost me $2,000 worth of material and that was the beginning.”
That was in the mid-90s and by that time boxers like Michael Moorer, Steve Collins and James Toney were working with Roach. Back then, it was just another struggling boxing gym fighting to make the monthly rent. Now, on a daily basis it’s a live and bustling scene that is filled with world champions, white-collar clients and a cast of characters that you couldn’t make up.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
One reason why the Wild Card is so popular, is that in a city where many boxing gyms charge up to $20 a day to work out in, Roach has insisted that his gym dues have stayed at $5 for one day and $50 for one month.
He explained, “I’m not looking for that high-end audience. I want to make it affordable for everyone. I don’t like going out of town and paying $20 to use the gym. Five bucks I think is a fair price.” And despite being pushed to raise his rates, he resists that notion. “I want to create a place where everyone can have fun and get in a workout.”
The secret to making a gym profitable – or at least able to keep its doors open – is to have non-fighters coming through and using the facilities with the likes of in-house trainers Sammy Stewart, Ernie Zavala, Pepe Reilly, Marcus Harvey, Marvin Somodio, Paul Mayorquin and Freddie Norwood. Roach says, “The white-collar people love it, they can work beside a world champion and just be in the same building. But the white-collar people pay the bills and that’s why we’re able to expand because they’re paying well.”
During normal regular gym hours you will see world-class pugilists training for fights right alongside regular civilians looking to burn a few calories. It’s not unusual to see a modern-day gladiator and a regular person hitting the opposite sides of a heavy bag during its busiest times.
Some of the Wild Card trainers will alternate through the day in working with their boxers and their hourly clients.
THE FIGHT CLUB
All that said, this gym is still where real prizefighters can come in and get the best work possible. There is perhaps no other gym where you can get quality sparring for flyweights all the way to heavyweights like the Wild Card. Eric Brown, a rising trainer, who works with the likes of Peter Quillin and Paulie Malignaggi, states, “This is the best place to be because of the quality of fighters that come through here. You get great fighters coming from all over the place. So we get a lot of good work in here. The atmosphere is conducive to getting good sparring and the fighters are up; fighters who come here, they’re energised because of the vibe.”
This gym has as deep a roster of talent as any in the world. Roach opens the doors at 7am and won’t close them till 8pm. In between, it’s a constant and steady stream of action, which has its two rings being used consistently throughout the day for floor work and sparring. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are the regular sparring days.
“Now, for the bigger fights, we’ll do Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and on Saturday we try and replicate what they’ll go through on fight days, even down to how they eat and so forth,” explained Roach.
Even fighters who don’t come here on a daily basis, will stop by to get in work. It’s not unusual for boxers to get in six-to-eight rounds of sparring, but do so having to rotate in and out of the ring.
Yes, it can get crowded in here. But the great thing about this gym is that we have all sorts of styles: runners, boxers, punchers, big guys, small guys. If you need work, you’ll eventually find it here,” said Roach.
The lower portion of the gym, which for years was a laundromat that went out of business in 2012, was recently renovated and furnished for the likes of Miguel Cotto (who just recently hired Roach) to be able to work in solitude. “It used to be for washing my clothes,” Roach, said laughing, “But now it’s for the fighters that need privacy and need exclusive things like working on strategy and so forth. Miguel’s the first fighter to work in the gym and of course, Manny Pacquiao looks forward to seeing the gym and I’ve been bragging about it because it came out so well.
“So it’s going to be for one fighter at a time. We’re going to separate everyone unless they can help each other with sparring and if that happens, they’ll work together.”
HOME, SWEET HOME
Roach is one of the most coveted trainers in the sport. In addition to that, he has other commitments (such as doing colour commentary on fights) that keep him on the road for weeks and months at a time. Have spit bucket, will travel, but it’s this place located on the corner of Santa Monica and Vine that is his sanctuary.
“Without a doubt,” he confirmed. “The thing is I have bad days and good days with my Parkinson’s [disease] but once I’m here and I have a cup of coffee, everything’s okay. Because it’s time to get back to work and I don’t have time to dwell on my problems. I have bigger problems with my fighters with big fights coming up. I’ve got to get them 100 per cent ready for the fights.
“That’s what I love to do and I’ll probably die here.”