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'On Freddie Roach': New Angles on Boxing

As actual and consequential as fighting is in On Freddie Roach, it's also figurative and allusive, shaping self-images as it reshapes physical bodies.

On Freddie Roach

Airtime: Fridays, 9:30pm ET
Cast: Freddie Roach, Amir Khan, Pepper Roach, Marie Spivey
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: HBO
Director: Peter Berg
Air date: 2012-01-20
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It doesn't bother me having the cameras around. Sometimes it gets overwhelming and if it does, I tell them to go home.

-- Freddie Roach

"You're trying to create angles," Freddie Roach explains. "Get in front of me all the time... Work your way out with a jab." The camera is low and just outside the ring while Freddie works with a young boxer. The ropes sometimes obscure your view, but you can't miss his intensity. For Freddie Roach, boxing is work, but it's more, too.

Most viewers of On Freddie Roach, Peter Berg's extraordinary six-part HBO series, will know Roach as a Hall of Fame trainer. Since he started coaching in 1987, he's worked with some 28 champions, including James Toney, Mike Tyson, and Manny Pacquiao (and lately, he's been mouthing off about on the on-again-off-again fight between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, Jr.). This history has made him used to cameras, to telling stories, to convincing people to believe him, or maybe just go along with the show. On Freddie Roach appreciates these aspects of this larger than life personality, watches him performing at press conferences or in hotel lobbies, smiling as a pretty girl pose in his arms and exposes her breasts for photographers.

The series also looks at Roach from some other angles. For one, he's a former boxer, who grew up in a family of boxers: Freddie started fighting at age six, turning pro when he was 18. Nicknamed “La Cucaracha,” Freddie and his brothers Joey and Paul were something of a PR phenomenon, appearing on the same cards. Though he fought two world championships and 53 total fights (41 wins), Freddie never made more than $7500 for a fight.

His success and frustrations echo those of his father Paul, 1947's New England Featherweight Champion. Paul turned his rage on his family: "Nobody in my house was really strong enough to stand up to him, " says Freddie, "He was real bad to my mother, she took more beatings than all of us, she took beatings for us sometimes." She was a "tough lady," he says, after confessing he once made fun of her black eyes. Today, he looks after his mom, Barbara, who answers phones at his Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood. He can do that because he has money now.

He also has Parkinson's. On Freddie Roach doesn't dwell on the disease, but like Freddie's intensity, it's hard to miss. Even apart from tremors or the medications regimen, the effects on Roach's life are indelible. Diagnosed in 1990, he keeps to a busy schedule, shuttling between training camps and big-money bouts, hotel rooms and doctors' offices. The camera walks behind him, through training facilities to locker rooms, through hallways to examination rooms. He remembers when a doctor first told him he was sick. "He said I couldn't do anything about it," Roach says, admitting that the hardest part was feeling embarrassed when people started staring at him.

At first, he says he worried, "Why'd this happen to me? What the fuck did I do?" Now he works. He keeps at the game he loves, assisted by Marie Spivey, an ex-girlfriend now always on her cellphone, scheduling his days, his transportation, and appointments. If Freddie has made peace with the disease, if he's found his way through it ("I wouldn’t trade my life," he says "I do what I love and I love what I do"), the show reminds you of how he came to it. Repeatedly, during conversations or training sessions, the camera cuts to posters at the Wild Card, pictures of Paul and Pepper and little Freddie, who couldn't have imagined what he had coming.

These cuts are granted an explicit frame at the series' start, during a press conference before the Khan fight. A representative for the Cleveland Clinic tells the assembled journalists about a planned "study measuring the impact of blows to the head." Fighters, he goes on, "are at a higher risk of developing brain diseases, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and depression, and at an earlier age." The camera shows young fighters seated at the presenters' table, looking away, maybe bored, maybe willfully ignorant. "I encourage all of you fighters and those who work with fighters to work with us," he concludes, "So they can make a more informed decision about when to stop fighting."

As actual and consequential as fighting is in On Freddie Roach, it's also figurative and allusive, shaping self-images as it reshapes physical bodies. The second episode suggests a whole dimension of fighting, as it has produced Freddie, his family, and his future. Pepper, at work at the gym on what seems a regular day, is suddenly stricken, apparently suffering a stroke. Employees rush to help, to call 911, to keep Pepper still, as he keeps trying to stand even as his limbs fail him. The guys are at a loss, understandably. "I called Marie to call his wife," a trainer says.

The camera careens as the wife arrives, pavement and tires and legs flashing across the frame, the camera operator apparently as undone as everyone else. As Freddie responds, you hear him, but he's out of frame. Instead, the camera pans the gym, a trainer's face, a heavy bag swinging, a door open into sunlight. Freddie fights on, the costs extending beyond what's visible.

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