Driving north on Vine Street in Hollywood, just above Santa Monica Boulevard, it’d be easy to miss the home gym of the world’s best boxer, Manny Pacquiao, and his equally respected trainer, Freddie Roach.
It’s across from a Taco Bell and just south of a Vagabond Inn and an Armenian Church, tucked in a nondescript strip mall with Nat’s Thai Food, Nirvana Massage, Susie’s Designs, a laundromat, a beer/wine market and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting room.
The gym, Wild Card Boxing Club, is in the rear of the second floor, upstairs from the laundromat.
Go up the concrete stairs and through a metal screen door and it leads into a room with two boxing rings, the distinct odors of sweat and freshly rolled hand tape, with walls decorated by two decades of fight posters. Dozens of fighters, pros and amateurs, are at various workout stations where heavy bags are swaying and speed bags are thumped.
It’s here where workout fiend Pacquiao was transformed from a Filipino boxing sensation into the world’s top pound-for-pound fighter under the direction of Roach, who has owned and operated Wild Card since 1994.
Back then, Roach was working in Las Vegas, but actor Mickey Rourke was exploring a boxing career and urged the former journeyman boxer to train him here. So Roach opened the club in this small Hollywood location.
Boxing gyms are by nature gritty, and Wild Card is no different with its worn carpet and small changing room that barely allows Pacquiao to stretch his legs while sitting. A few fights ago, Roach tried to train Pacquiao at a beachside facility in the Philippines, but the local fans created “a lot of invitations and distractions,” Pacquiao said, and it was decided Wild Card was the best home base for his fighter.
In December, the 30-year-old Pacquiao (48-3-2, 36 knockouts) clinched 2008 fighter and trainer of the year recognition for himself and Roach, respectively, when he destroyed boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya and made the now-retired “Golden Boy” quit before the ninth round of their bout.
Junior Pineda, of Filipino descent and a Pacquiao fan visiting Wild Card from Cerritos, said, “Manny had already achieved God-like status before that with us.”
But during Pacquiao’s eight-week-long return to the U.S., after beating De La Hoya and in preparation for his Saturday night junior-welterweight fight in Las Vegas against England’s Ricky Hatton, swarms of visitors descended upon Wild Card -- celebrities, new gym members and fans.
Roach said that since January he has signed up more than 300 new customers who pay him $5 a day or $50 a month to train. He has also hired a new assistant trainer, former heavyweight world champion Michael Moorer. “It’s crazy,” Roach said. “Who’d ever thought they’d all be coming to this place? I’m thinking about knocking a wall out to expand, or I might even have to move to a new place.”
Wild Card stands firmly as a Hollywood hangout.
After winning his Golden Globe for best actor and before the Oscars were handed out, nominee Rourke (“The Wrestler”) returned to sign movie posters for Wild Card members and visit his longtime friend Roach.
Wild Card member and singer Aimee Mann and her husband, singer Michael Penn, once played an impromptu concert during an amateur fight night “smoker” at the gym, Roach said. And during a recent Pacquiao workout, longtime Roach friend and boxing student/actor Mark Wahlberg came by to watch with actor friend Christian Bale.
Roach is so close to Wahlberg that he casually notes that he “knows the real ‘Johnny Drama,’ ” who inspired the character in the HBO series “Entourage” that counts Wahlberg as a co-executive producer.
During the Wahlberg-Bale visit in late March, Roach saw Pacquiao was losing his concentration. So the trainer decided to close gym access during the fighter’s 1-4 p.m. workouts and stop Saturday afternoon autograph sessions to keep Pacquiao’s distractions at a minimum. Asked whether he enjoyed showing off for the famous, Pacquiao grinned widely and said, “Sometimes.”
Enforcing the autograph ban falls to Rob Peters, an imposing bald man who serves as Pacquiao’s bodyguard and an informal property manager continually barking for loitering car owners to park elsewhere.
“There’s families with babies waiting outside for Manny for hours and hours. I tell them to leave,” Peters said.
“The other day, I caught a guy with a load of dirty towels in his car so he could hang out in the laundromat. Then, he signs his kid up for a membership at the gym so he can stay longer. Then he goes over to the [Thai] restaurant when Manny’s there, and, sure enough, he’s sticking two boxing gloves in Manny’s face hoping to get ‘em signed.”
Although the strip mall’s Thai restaurant has a “B” health department grade card in its window, Pacquiao made a post-training meal there with his entourage part of his daily Wild Card routine, along with his training runs up to the Hollywood sign and the battering of his sparring partners.
Tina Srdakun, owner of Nat’s Thai Food, says Pacquiao’s party spends a minimum $500 on each weekday meal and more on Saturday feasts, with Pacquiao occasionally strumming a guitar and singing inside. The support has allowed the seven-table restaurant to survive lean times, Srdakun said.
“He’s made it very busy,” Srdakun said. “He just likes my food, and he’s become like family. I know he’s a very popular guy, the best boxer there is. But he’s the best person too.”
Next door at Nirvana Massage, a pitch black-tinted glass door opens into a dark room divided into draped-off quarters, where jars of body oils are set next to burning candles. An attractive Asian woman waves her arm for the visitor to enter, and another woman offers a hospitable smile.
“You want?” the woman asks, pointing to one of the massage tables.
No, says the visitor, who asks how the activity at the boxing club is affecting their business.
“No comment,” the woman says, closing the door.
Johnny Drama wouldn’t let the scene end that way, of course, but maybe Roach can pass it along to his Hollywood friends for a rewrite.