Freddie Roach, Boxer Behind Hollywood, Steps Into the Ring With HBO Series
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.