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Strength Coaches

On the morning of a fight, Manny Pacquiao is prohibited from running. On March 15, 2008, however, he woke up as a lightweight. This posed a sizable problem for his agenda that evening, when he hoped to defeat Juan Manuel Marquez for a super featherweight title. He had to lose weight. The boxer then did what most humans do in times of crisis: He ran.

On the morning of a fight, Manny Pacquiao is prohibited from running. On March 15, 2008, however, he woke up as a lightweight. This posed a sizable problem for his agenda that evening, when he hoped to defeat Juan Manuel Marquez for a super featherweight title. He had to lose weight. The boxer then did what most humans do in times of crisis: He ran.

That day, Pacquiao's newly hired strength coach Alex Ariza arrived at the UNLV campus to find his fighter on the track, wasting legs that he needed to conserve for the ring. "I stopped him," Ariza recalls, "Instead of running, I told him we could burn the weight off him another way." With the help of Pacquiao's assistant trainer Buboy Fernandez, they wrapped Pacquiao in towels, baking him in the sun like a Filipino pastry. He lost the weight and won the title.

Supervising a fighter's weight is the supreme task of the strength coach. It is largely thankless. If a coach's charge weighs in for a bout without incident, nothing is of note. Should the athlete fail to make weight, however, the responsibility falls back on the man who oversaw it. "The most stressful part of this job is the weigh-in," says Miguel Cotto's strength coach, Phil Landman, a surfing enthusiast who looks as though he were born impeccably tan. "If that weigh-in is off," he shakes his head, "you know everyone's looking at you."

At the outset of a fighter's career, he often cannot afford a certified strength coach, so his least delinquent relative fills the role. A fighter's manager and trainer can only hope for a family large enough to provide a suitable option. This rarely happens.

If a trainer is like a boxer's father, a strength coach is like his mother (albeit one to whom he can tell dirty jokes without it being awkward). The job is a 24-hour preoccupation, monitoring a fighter's diet, curfew, recovery time, and overall health. "I do everything with him," says Landman, who began working with Cotto in 2006, and has since refrained from coaching anyone else to devote himself fully to his fighter.

A strength coach's dedication is absolute. By 5:15 a.m. six days a week, these men have already vanquished the snooze button, en route to picking up their trainees for roadwork. Today, long flat surfaces are deemed less beneficial to a fighter than inclines and explosive drills done on a track known as plyometrics, practiced by both Cotto and Pacquiao.

The Colombian-born Ariza, 36, and South African Landman, 37, each came to their profession after a string of odd jobs. "Twenty years ago," Landman says, "I was basically on the streets, trying to live on a day to day basis." After emigrating from Johannesburg by way of Seattle, Landman first worked in Los Angeles as a strip mall security guard, "I had no weapon, just a radio…and I couldn't drive, so I just rode my bike around."

"I'd love to take Pacquiao to a research center," says strength coach Alex Ariza. "What he does is so contrary to what's in the books and what you're taught."

Landman eventually got his license and was hired as a test driver for BMW, trading in the bike for a Z8 prototype, one of three in the world at the time. When the job failed to evolve into the European racing life he envisioned, he became a certified personal trainer, eventually being tapped by Cotto's promotional company, Top Rank, to assist with the fighter's upcoming bout against Carlos Quintana. While security guard and test driver both have useful parallels to his role as strength coach, not all of Landman's past translates to his current post: "I was Brad Pitt's body double, too, for the Wax Museum in Vegas…You have to stand still for three hours and they make a full mold of you."

In Los Angeles, a wind storm had caused a power outage at Nat's Thai Restaurant, where Alex Ariza prepared a plate of food for Pacquiao in the dark and explained his favorite job perk, "Not to sound trite, but it's Freddie Roach…it's like standing next to Joe Torre in the Yankee dugout." Sacrifices inevitably must be made, as Ariza concedes, "I don't see my friends anymore. I don't see anyone. You don't do it on purpose."

For Ariza, this is a second chance. Years prior, he had worked with the Sacramento State Athletic Department, when he received a call from the bodyguard of then-super featherweight champion Diego Corrales. "He needed a strength coach. It paid $1500 a week, a lot of money for me. I quit my job on the spot." The partnership would last until Corrales went to prison in 2001 after he fought Floyd Mayweather. Corrales had the flu before the fight and had trouble making weight; both factors led to an enervated Corrales getting knocked out in 10 rounds. It proved a learning experience for Ariza: "If I continued to cut weight, I'd make him weaker. If I fed him, I could get him stronger then try to deal with the weight issue — and it backfired."

Ariza worked with a few other fighters, including Erik Morales and Angel Manfredi. Soon, though, he turned to other pursuits. Just prior to Roach giving him work at the Wild Card Gym, he was selling vending machines to hotels in Las Vegas. His days in boxing became a centerpiece to small-talk until one day, someone made an obvious statement that rekindled his passion: "If you're as good as you say you are, you wouldn't be here selling vending machines."

Freddie Roach is not the type to extend job offers to men who call asking for jobs or send in their resumes. Understanding this, Ariza moved into the Vagabond Inn, next door to Wild Card, and waited in the gym for weeks before Roach gave him a chance to work with MMA Heavyweight Andre Arlovski. Since 2008, Roach has entrusted Ariza with some of his brightest pupils: Amir Khan, Vanes Matirosyan, and—above all—Manny Pacquiao.

Since joining Pacquiao's team, Ariza has aided the careful metamorphosis of a super featherweight to welterweight. "I'd love to take him to a research center," says Ariza in awe of Pacquiao's dietary habits, which are known to include gratuitous infusions of Kentucky Fried Chicken, "What he does is so contrary to what's in the books and what you're taught."

Ultimately, strength coaches—like trainers—are teachers. Across all disciplines and arts, great instructors have a similar ability to see the boundary between what their students are capable of and what those students believe they can accomplish. Whether Ariza or Landman does a better job of closing that gap won't be decided until Saturday night.

"The most stressful part of this job is the weigh-in," says Miguel Cotto's strength coach, Phil Landman. "If that weigh-in is off," he shakes his head, "you know everyone's looking at you."

Posted 12:00 AM | Nov 12, 2009

Manny Pacquiao vs Miguel Cotto

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