The Boxer Behind Hollywood
You can hear the Wild Card Boxing Club before you see it -- the thwap-thwap of gloves hitting heavy bags, the guttural grunts and the rhythmic whoosh of jump-ropes behind a row of second-floor windows. The cramped, stuffy gym is tucked above a Laundromat on Vine Street, as anonymous as the rest of the businesses in this dingy Hollywood strip mall -- the Thai restaurant, the massage parlor whose venetian blinds are always closed, the Alcoholics Anonymous outpost.
This is just how Wild Card owner Freddie Roach, 51, likes it. On a Wednesday morning in early November, the diminutive trainer stands at the edge of the ring, his left hand trembling, a symptom of his Parkinson's disease, as it flutters toward his chin. He gives quiet instructions to British boxing star Amir Khan, who is pummeling one sparring partner after another.
Outside the boxing world, Roach might not be a household name, but inside the ropes he is a legend, the trainer who led Filipino welterweight Manny Pacquiao to No. 1 (earning Roach more than $1 million each time Pacquiao -- who was guaranteed $22 million for his most recent bout in November against Juan Manuel Marquez -- fights). He has coached other ring headliners, too -- including Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson and Georges St-Pierre -- and has been an influential behind-the-scenes player in Hollywood. Mark Wahlberg calls Roach "one of the best trainers ever," and during filming of 2010's The Fighter, he brought co-star Christian Bale to Wild Card just to watch Roach in action. Bale went on to win an Oscar for his portrayal of fighter-turned-trainer Dicky Eklund. Roach also was Mickey Rourke's longtime trainer and more recently worked with Boardwalk Empire's Michael Pitt.
"I spend 12 hours a day in the gym, and my biggest hobby is that I go to movies on Sunday," shrugs Roach, whose mop of sandy gray hair, black-framed glasses and boyish manner earned him the nickname The Choir Boy. "I just don't see myself as that interesting a person."
HBO is betting he's wrong. On Freddie Roach, a six-part weekly unscripted series, debuts at 9:30 p.m. Jan. 20. The network is banking that Roach's story, executive produced and directed by fellow gym owner Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights), will resonate beyond the tightknit boxing community.
"It is a moving look at a man who happens to be a public figure in boxing," says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. "He's struggling with a disease; he's struggling with his past. It transcends a boxing show."
Two years ago, Roach was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder that impedes movement. "It was hard," he says. But it wasn't entirely a surprise: As far back as 1986, the former fighter was cautioned by his trainer that he'd taken too many blows to the head. The Parkinson's causes Roach's left arm to shake, and he sometimes slurs his speech. He also suffers from dystonia, a condition that causes painful muscle spasms, which he treats with Botox injections. But when working the mitts with his fighters, Roach's tremors subside.
"Being close to the sport and still being in the sport helps me a lot," he says. "The shaking stops [in the ring]. I tried to be the world champion as best I could, but I came up short. So I was a little disappointed. But then I found something that I do better than boxing, and that's training."
"The sports world," says Lombardo, "tends to non-dimensionalize its heroes. Unless there's a harrowing story like [the] Penn State [sexual-abuse scandal], they're not interested in exploring the personalities as much as what they do professionally. Pete sees that as an area worth exploring."
Berg wants the Roach project to be the first in a franchise of verite series for HBO and already is talking with the network about potential subjects, among them outspoken college football coach Mike Leach, who had a messy parting with Texas Tech in December 2009 and recently signed a rich $11 million deal with Washington State. (He also had a cameo on Friday Night Lights.)
The series isn't Roach's first brush with television: In addition to numerous interviews he has given on Pacquiao, winner of 26 title fights in the 10 years he has been with the trainer, he has been featured on HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel and the network's documentary series 24/7.
But On Freddie Roach is something of a departure for the premium cable channel, whose annual pay-per-view boxing budget of $35 million is a far cry from the $5 Roach charges for celebrities and laymen alike to work out in his gym.
The series, according to Jim Lampley, HBO's play-by-play boxing commentator who co-executive produces with Berg, is "an atmospheric, organic look at Freddie's life from the inside." Its cinema verite style is Berg's homage to documentary master Frederick Wiseman, who has trained his unflinching camera on subcultures ranging from a hospital for the criminally insane (Titicut Follies) to a Texas fight club (Boxing Gym).
But this project has a key difference: Roach had right of approval. Before the five-month shoot began in the spring, Berg offered his star one guarantee: "I said he would have final say. If there was something he didn't like, we would respect that. He never once asked for something to be taken out."
Sitting in a coffee shop a few blocks from Wild Card, dressed in his customary uniform of long, baggy shorts, T-shirt and sneakers, Roach recalls growing up with four brothers and two sisters in subsidized housing in Dedham, Mass., a working-class community outside Boston.
His father, Paul, was the 1947 New England featherweight champion (Roach would win the same title in 1979) and didn't limit his punches to the ring. "He was tough on all of us," says Roach.
In the series, he remembers an afternoon when his mother, Barbara, came downstairs with two black eyes. "I looked at her and laughed and said, 'You're pretty tough,' " says Roach. "I think she hated me for a long time because of that. I'm trying to make up for it. And that's why I take care of her. She can have anything she wants."
Today, Barbara Roach, the first female boxing judge in Massachusetts, works at Wild Card. "She saw so many fights in her life, with all five of her boys boxing," says Freddie. "She thought she could do a better job than the other judges."
Barbara was among the judges for Eklund's 1978 match against Sugar Ray Leonard, a bout that plays a critical role in Fighter. When the judges unanimously awarded Leonard the fight, Roach maintains: "My mom thought she was gonna get beat up by one of [Eklund's] sisters. She's walking through the dressing room, and they're yelling at her. She saw a priest, and she went and sat beside him. That saved her." Now she lives next door to Roach in a duplex he moved them into two years ago.
Roach's boxing career spanned nearly 200 amateur and professional fights, many with his father in his corner. During the 1980s, he and his older siblings, Pepper and Joey, were known as The Fighting Roach Brothers. Several faded posters from those days hang above the door at Wild Card.
The family has been through its share of loss: Roach's father died in 1992, Joey in 2009. Pepper recently suffered a stroke after sparring at Wild Card -- a moment caught by Berg's cameras during episode two of the series. "It's sad," says Roach quietly. Pepper is recuperating at a rehabilitation facility in Las Vegas.
His own fighting career ended in 1986 with a 10-round loss to David Rivello at Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Lowell, Mass. He stumbled from that point on, working as a busboy and in telemarketing before joining his former trainer, Eddie Futch -- a boxing legend who trained Joe Frazier and the one who warned Roach about the accumulating dangers of head blows -- as an unpaid assistant.
It was five years later, when the Oscar-nominated Rourke's passion for boxing overtook his interest in acting, that he hired Roach as a trainer. The two briefly fell out: Roach quit because Rourke showed up only once during their first week of training. "I was in tears," recalls Rourke. "From that day on, I never dogged it in the gym, ever."
Rourke made up for his delinquency, later giving Roach $10,000 and the equipment he needed to set up Wild Card. The trainer, in turn, prepared Rourke for eight professional fights before short-term memory loss forced him from the ring for good in 1996. ("I'm never going to get the same satisfaction from acting," says Rourke.)
The actor recalls a ferociousness in Roach's coaching. "I was getting ready for a fight one time, and I had my right hand down," he says. "Freddie threw the mitt off and hit me with a short left hook right on the chin. I went, 'Freddie?!' He said, 'Get that hand up, or next time I'll knock you the f-- out.' "
Berg also witnessed the otherwise soft-spoken Roach's fury. He worked with Rourke and Roach on the 1994 film F.T.W. In a dive bar near the set in Bozeman, Mont., everyone was drinking except Roach, whose ongoing abstemiousness might be an effort to banish family ghosts -- Pepper "did drugs" with Eklund, he says.
When Roach and the bar owner had a difference of opinion, "suddenly, Freddie jumped up, knocked him out with a left hook and was sitting back down drinking his coffee by the time the guy's body hit the ground." Berg pauses. "That's when I realized: Don't mess with Freddie."
Roach has been the subject of endless speculation -- how much does he earn, should Pacquiao dump him for Michael Koncz, the fighter's financial adviser, what toll has his own 54 professional bouts extracted -- but he doesn't seem bothered by the noise. By his account, he is the third-best-known man in the Philippines, behind native son Pacquiao and the president. Single, he has received multiple marriage proposals there. (His ex-girlfriend, Marie Spivey, is Wild Card's manager.)
Roach concentrates on and revels in his work. "At first I didn't want to do the series because I didn't want to get caught up in the Hollywood thing," he admits. "I think people come to my gym to get away from Hollywood. Everyone's treated the same here. It doesn't matter who you are."
Actors, he adds, "are babies, like when they don't want to come out of their trailers. In boxing, you get ready and you go." For Roach, it's training, not the glamour it generates, that continues to be the appeal.
Before moving into his duplex, he lived in a makeshift apartment at the gym. (Rourke jokes that Roach has been known to throw a protective cover over his Mercedes in its reserved parking spot there.) He recently signed a three-year, $1 million endorsement deal with Nike, and his memoir, It May End Up Killing You: Hard Fought Lessons From a Life in the Ring, is due out in March. But don't expect significant lifestyle changes from HBO's new star.
"He's not flashy," says Rourke. "He's found his little corner of paradise. You're not going to see Freddie in St. Barts. You're not going to see him eating on Madison Avenue. I don't care how much money he's got -- Freddie is just one of those guys; he ain't gonna change. Freddie will be training people when he's f--in' 90. That's his life. He's going to die where he lives: in the gym."
PUNCHY: Recent boxing-themed shows haven't fared well
The Contender (2005): Produced by Mark Burnett, this NBC reality series featured Sugar Ray Leonard and Sylvester Stallone as hosts of a boxing competition. It ran for only 15 episodes on NBC before leaving for cable networks ESPN and Versus.
Lights Out (2011): This critically acclaimed -- but little-watched -- FX drama revolved around the trials of aging former heavyweight champion Patrick "Lights" Leary, for whom retirement brings a diagnosis of injury-induced dementia. The series lasted only one round and was canceled after a 13-episode season.
Taking on Tyson (2011): Boxing icon Mike Tyson was the subject of this bizarre and short-lived Animal Planet reality series that had the former heavyweight champ showcasing his skills as a professional, ahem, pigeon racer. It had a brief six-episode run in early 2011.