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

 Dan Monick

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.

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"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."

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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."

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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."

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