Ariza integral part of Pacquiao’s formula for success
Alex Ariza's new-school nutritional and conditioning methods have meshed well with Freddie Roach's old-school boxing training philosophy. Manny Pacquiao's amazing rise from junior lightweight to welterweight over the past two years is proof of Ariza and Roach's successful teamwork. Photo / Ted Lerner
BAGUIO CITY, Philippines — Old school, old school and new school.
When the history of the great Manny Pacquiao is finally written in stone decades down the road, those three ingredients must surely make up the foundation of any narrative when trying to explain the hows and whys of this once in a many generation fighting machine.
It’s the first two ingredients in this explosive mix, though, that are the most obvious. The third is not, and is, in fact, relatively unknown, and, lately quite often misunderstood.
The first old school is Pacquiao himself. Pacquiao’s willingness to always fight the best out there, his insatiable training habits, his all action style, and his fearlessness against all challengers make him a boxing purist’s dream come true.
Then there’s the second old school, Pacquiao’s trainer of nine years, Freddie Roach. Roach didn’t have a spectacular career as a fighter, but he did ply his craft under the ultimate old-school boxing trainer, the legendary Eddie Futch. As a trainer himself, Roach has become to boxing what Phil Jackson has to basketball, a sort of Zen Master, quietly imparting his down to earth knowledge and psychology of the sweet science to mold raw talents into consistent winners.
Ironically, it’s the third ingredient on the list, Pacquiao’s strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza, who has in the last two years helped to turn much of boxing, which is decidedly an old-school sport, on its head, and challenged nearly every notion of how to approach the sport. In clear complicity with these two old-school legends, Ariza, who joined Roach three years ago and helped Pacquiao for his fight with David Diaz, has been responsible for taking what was already an incredible fighter and doing things with him that were never thought possible; Pacquiao’s almost unheard of ability to move up in weight and still maintain (perhaps even increase) his already awesome speed and power.
It’s an unusual phenomenon that has people everywhere shaking their heads in wonderment, with some claiming that nobody can so easily go up in weight and do the things that Pacquiao has done. Legitimately, anyway. It’s led to accusations that surely Pacquiao must be on steroids or other illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
“It’s a compliment,” said Ariza of the lingering PED claims, while watching Pacquiao shadow box on the second day of camp at the Shape Up Gym in Baguio. “We’re doing such a good job, people just can’t understand it. They think it has to be something else. It HAS to be. People think overnight he (Pacquiao) turned into this relentless monster. But it took him two years to get to this point. The truth is that it’s just hard work, and we have a great team.”
Hard work it is, indeed, with a punishing training regime that leaves any and all onlookers in awe. But behind the seemingly endless hours of old school physical toil that are hallmarks of Pacquiao’s workouts, lies a modern and very scientific program designed to develop and maximize Pacman’s unique gifts. But the question still remains: how do you take a guy who as a fighter is a natural 140 pounder, and whose walking around weight is 146-148 pounds, and turn him into a perfectly tuned fighting machine ready to do battle with much bigger men such as Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto, Joshua Clottey, and now Antonio Margarito? The way not to do it, Ariza says, is to go old school.
“We saw with Kelly Pavlik when he tried to move up in weight,” he said. “He lost everything. He went flat, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t get up. Science has to play a role in a sport that has an old-school mentality. That’s why Freddie Roach is such an exceptional trainer. Even though he’s got old-school teachings, he pulls in the outside-the-box stuff, the more scientific comprehensive ways of training. He knows that just running five miles a day is not going to cut it, especially being such an offensive trainer that he is. You have to have that high intensity, that high level of efficiency to be able to carry out his kind of game plan.
“We’re building a body that normally doesn’t carry that kind of muscle on it. Putting on six pounds on a guy like Manny Pacquiao is like putting on 20 pounds on a normal person. That’s why when he takes his shirt off at the weigh in and he looks so ripped, people think he’s on steroids.”
Forget about the intrigues of what may or may not be inside Pacquiao’s water bottle. Ariza says; “It’s just a mixture of over the counter herbal supplements that will serve Pacquiao without any side effects such as crashing or jitters or upsetting his stomach, because he has a very sensitive stomach.
“My job is to take him where he’s never been before. Where am I going to be able to build muscles that he’s never used before, and it doesn’t hold us back? It’s going to be functional, it’s going to compliment everything else that we’re doing. We have to start building muscles that he’s never used before. Functional muscles of course. “
The regime created by Ariza to build that muscle and maintain the speed and power involves two parts. The first is what he refers to as “core training,” a phrase which has become a bit of buzzword in the last few years in the world of exercise and nutritional training, but is seldom heard in boxing. The “core” may sound like it means just abdominals, but it goes much deeper than that. The “core” is the whole area between the shoulders and the pelvis. The idea behind strengthening the “core” is that this area provides the foundation for all other areas of the body to function at its highest levels. Core training thus builds the muscles to produce explosive, powerful movements with mean and lean efficiency, and less likelihood of injury.
To accomplish this, twice a week, Ariza has Pacquiao doing punishing isometrics, where he has to hold a certain position for an extended period of time. In addition he has Pacquaio performing plyometrics, grueling drills involving quick bursts of energy, such as sprints on the track, high intensity cone and ladder drills, even swimming.
“We’re focusing on faster-twitch muscle fibers,” Ariza says, “getting them to fire, feet complimenting the hands, hands complimenting the feet, balance, coordination. “
The exercises are often mind numbingly repetitious and painful beyond imagination. Ever the warrior, Pacquaio says he doesn’t mind core training, but Ariza said that in reality, he actually hates them.
“You see this is something that Manny has been doing since he was five years old,” Ariza said referring to traditional boxing drills such as hitting the mitts, sparring and running. “His muscles are accustomed to being able to push and drive and drive and drive. What I would like to see is that kind of determination and intensity when we’re doing the hard stuff, things that he’s never done before; the track, the swimming pool, the speed drills, the foot drills, things that aren’t easy, things that he hasn’t been doing since he’s five years old. It’s one thing when you say, ‘Oh I did 17 rounds on the mitts.’ Well you should be able to do that. You’ve been doing that since you were five, asking for another round. I want to see him ask me for another drill, ask me for another lap, ask for me another sprint, ask me for something.”
The second part of Ariza’s training module involves extremely high caloric intake. He has Pacquiao consuming over 7000 calories of food per day, alternating between high protein solid foods and then liquid protein shakes. Pacquiao is forced to eat at least every two hours, whether he’s hungry or not. Contrary to the myth that Pacquiao enjoys fighting at higher weights because he can eat all he wants, Ariza says the constant consumption of food actually gets to the fighter, even if he’s eating his favorite Filipino dishes.
“Manny tells me, ‘You know when I grew up, I never ate. Now I’m eating all the time and I’m miserable.'”
However, Ariza says Pacquiao soldiers on through the pain and tears, especially when the stakes are huge.
“Our best camp ever I believe was the Cotto fight because I honestly believe that Manny had a little bit of fear of Miguel. His height, his strength, his power. Manny took him a lot more serious. He was up at five o’clock in the morning. He was listening to me when it came to the drills and the speed work and the swimming. He didn’t want to leave any rock unturned. He wanted every advantage he could get. And his conditioning showed in the Cotto fight. He took Cotto’s best beating and then when we got past the sixth round, well now we’re gonna see who really, really did the work. Manny just never stopped. “
Ariza, 35, was born in Colombia and migrated to New York at 13 years old with his single mom and two older siblings. After a few years in New York the family headed to Southern California. Ariza eventually graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in Exercise and Nutritional Science. Although he had never boxed, Ariza felt his future lay in boxing, a sport where modern training techniques are often looked at with suspicion.
“Boxing offered me a forum,” he said, “a niche, where I could apply my own theories, my own concepts, my own way of what I thought was more important, recovery vs. muscle failure. I thought boxing was that place where I could have that opportunity. It’s the hardest sport in the world and they didn’t have science and conditioning coaches. On the flip side of that, if you don’t have a trainer, if Freddie wasn’t here, this thing would have never worked. “
Indeed Ariza originally ran into this traditional stubbornness to try new things in his first forays into boxing. He worked with Diego Corales and Erik Morales in the late 1990’s, and then with Angel Manfredy in the early 2000’s. However, he clashed with several trainers and others in the camps, who resented the outsider with the new ideas.
The bad vibes led Ariza to take some time off from the sport in 2003. He had a friend who was a stunt man in Hollywood, and he got into doing stunt driving in the movies. Ariza appeared in several movies as a stunt double, one time substituting as the never-can-die masked murderer in the not so noteworthy film, “Slaughterhouse Massacre.” He then moved to Vegas where he operated a vending machine business. Then, in 2007, came the fortuitous call from his stunt man friend, who just so happened to train at Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Calif. He told Ariza that Roach was looking for a new strength and conditioning coach.
Ariza called up Roach and introduced himself. Roach initially said he wasn’t sure if he was going to hire another conditioning coach, and that he should call back in a couple of weeks. Ariza followed up a few weeks later and Roach invited him out to L.A. to put a name to the face. Roach picks up the story.
“Justin Fortune (Roach’s previous conditioning coach) left my organization and opened up his own place. I didn’t have a strength coach. I got about a hundred resumes from people from all over the world that wanted to work for me. He showed up at my door and said, ‘I want the job.’ I said, ‘What’s your background?’ He told me. I checked him out a little bit. OK, I says, ‘Manny Pacquiao is not going to fight for another eight months to a year. I want you to work with all my other fighters for free and see what kind of job you do.’ Well, he showed up every day.”
Ariza first worked with some MMA fighters who trained with Roach, including Adrei Arlovski, Tito Ortiz and George St. Pierre.
“Everyone one of them showed improvement,” Roach said. “Not everyone made it of course. Sometimes he didn’t get along with a certain personality, that happens in life. He wasn’t 100% with everybody, but that’s natural too.”
In the spring of 2008, Roach was satisfied to the point where he now felt comfortable handing off his prized ward to Ariza. Ariza recalls that the first thing Freddie said to him before he began working with Pacquiao was a bit of old-school advice.
“Freddie told me, ‘Don’t f___ up his speed,'” Ariza said laughing. The rest, as the saying goes, is boxing history.
“Alex makes sure Manny’s on weight all the time,” Roach said. “He keeps the weight on him during camps. Because Manny does get a little too light. Manny is naturally a 140 pounder. It’s just that the competition is at higher weight classes. One thing about Alex is that he doesn’t do any other sport. He does boxing and boxing only. He doesn’t do football. He doesn’t cross train with the football programs with the weights like most strength coaches want to do. I mean why would you want to lift weights when the main asset of your guy is speed? Why would you want to slow him down? We have a good program. It’s worked. It’s proven with Manny Pacquiao, now with Amir Kahn, (Julio) Chavez Jr. They’re all in the same exact program. Of course everyone has different needs. Whatever the points they need worked, we push that particular point harder.”
This begs the question: Could Pacquiao have done what he has done, going up in weight, maintaining his speed and power, without the services of Ariza?
“I don’t think so,” Roach said. “If the weight gain was just eating more food with no one directing him, it would be counterproductive. We’d have a little heavier guy, but maybe not as solid. Manny’s naturally 140 pounds, but he’ll come in for the fight at 150 pounds ripped. The diet that they’re on, and the foods that they eat, of course there’s a little give and take also. Alex has a few problems with Manny because Manny has a Philippine diet, and he’s used to that. And that’s what he’s been working with his whole life. If you take rice away from Manny Pacquiao he can’t work out. There’s probably better foods out there for energy but his staple food is rice. So there’s always give and take. Alex has been a big part of it. Between my top guys, well, I can’t do my job without him.”
Ariza doesn’t oversee his program alone. He gets regular advice and assistance on administering Pacquiao’s regime from Teri Tom, a dietician at UCLA, and Aundrea Macias, a kinesiology expert at San Diego State.
“Aundrea does all my research analysis. We analyze all the exercises, risk vs. reward. I run it by her and she tells me what’s best. Manny’s not in his twenties anymore, and we have to be careful what we do. The margin of error that we have at this level is zero. It’s got to be perfect. At the end of the day, I’m going to have to answer for it. I’m the one who takes care of the weight, I’m the one who takes care of the conditioning, and that’s why Freddie has me here. I can’t be a quarter of a pound off. When they step on that scale at that certain day, at that certain time, they need to be that certain weight or you’re fired. ”
Although Ariza clearly eschews old-style training techniques, including even jogging in the morning, Roach has taught him that the best mix is to grab a bit of the old and a bit of the new, if mainly for the fact that much of the old-school techniques are ingrained in the psychology of most fighters and, thus, have value in their familiarity.
“My trainer Eddie Futch wouldn’t let anyone do that,” Roach said of modern training science. “And I still believe that nothing takes the place of pounding that pavement. But I’m open minded. When you see guys flipping tires and doing these crazy exercises that hurt their backs, you know, we live in a world with a lot of technology that perfectly do those exercises for you. I’m old school in training, like we work our ass off in here, but to the new stuff I’m a little bit acceptable because I find that if you do too much of the old school stuff you have a tendency to burn out. I’m very open to suggestion, but only if it makes sense to me. If it doesn’t make sense to me, I’m not going to do it.”
Says Ariza; “Freddie likes to say, ‘Just because it’s the right thing to do, it might not be the best.’
So for now, six weeks out from fighting the biggest man Pacquiao has ever fought, Ariza continues the never ending balancing act, mixing his new school, with Roach’s and Pacquiao’s old school. As it all unfolds he never fails to realize just how fortunate he is to be able to ply his unique trade for the best in the business.
“Sometimes it’s surreal,” Ariza said. “Sometimes I’ll be standing up there at the Wild Card and I’m standing next to Freddie Roach. It’s like a struggling actor coming to Hollywood and next thing you know you’re working for Martin Scorcese. He gave me a shot and I made it. Fortunately when I got Manny he wasn’t as big as he is now. We had time to develop a relationship without there being so much distraction. It just so happened that it exploded after a year, then we started getting so busy.
“Freddie’s probably the only trainer out there who would let somebody in like me and have that level of responsibility. He knows and trusts me. He knows what I do, he knows whatever I argue for is the best thing for Manny. I don’t think I’d get as far if I didn’t have his support.”