by David P. Greisman
The fighting stopped for Freddie Roach, but the battling continued.
He retired at 26, none the richer from a sport that had given him enough punishment to literally last his lifetime. He stayed in the sweet science, moving from the center of the ring to the corner, a young trainer who had never challenged for a title now trying to guide his peers to the prize. He became a man behind champions, a teacher sought out by fighters from around the globe.
He has done all of this despite the very visible effects of Parkinson’s disease. This has been said often. There is much more to the story.
Freddie Roach’s struggles have been covered many times before, mentioned in Cliff’s Notes form during the various “24/7” documentary/commercial series featuring his star fighter, Manny Pacquiao, and covered in more depth on “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” HBO is well familiar with Roach, but his story has never been told like this.
No narration. No script. Just a camera that cannot help but capture a man and his battles.
“On Freddie Roach,” a six-episode HBO documentary series premiering at 9:30 p.m. this Friday, follows the trainer from a morning in Las Vegas looking on as one of his star students, Amir Khan, runs on a track just days away from a bout — to another evening, when he’s left the boxing gym he owns in Los Angeles and has returned home to watch footage on his computer, studying in advance of yet another fight for yet another fighter.
Boxing, like life, is a battle between chaos and control. It is fitting, then, that Roach’s gym is called the Wild Card. He has no choice but to take what life has dealt him. He has taken that, though, and turned it into a winning hand, thanks in large part to what he can do with others’ gloved fists.
He retired early after too many beatings, which gave him the same disease that felled the great Muhammad Ali. He will enter the Hall of Fame as a trainer, not as a fighter.
“If you knew then what you know now about the game,” Roach is asked early on in the first of two episodes sent out for review, “could you have made it all the way?”
Roach waits several moments before answering: “I think so.”
A fighter never truly leaves the ring. This is why Roach became a trainer at 27, working with his first world champion, Virgil Hill. This is why Roach tells his fighters to sprint in the last leg around a track and then joins them in the final stretch.
He is no longer a fighter, however, gasping for breath by the end. He is still battling, though.
He has riches and respect because of what training has brought him. He still faces questions about his health.
In one scene, we see Roach teaching Khan angles, working on adding technique to take Khan’s superlative speed and give him even greater advantages in the ring. The footage, by now six months old, is the kind rarely shown on television, not with fighters and their camps so careful about giving away any inside knowledge to the opposition. The footage also shows why Roach is so often praised for the work he does preparing his fighters.
In another scene, we see a press conference before Khan’s fight with Zab Judah. We hear Richard Schaefer of Golden Boy Promotions talking about the Cleveland Clinic and its study into the effect of punches on a boxer’s head. We note that Roach is the only person looking up and listening to what is being said.
With no narration, and with a spare soundtrack, the quiet moments speak volumes.
In an arena, Roach tells a woman to bet on Khan to defeat Judah by knockout. “Come on, Freddie. Really?” she says. “Of course,” Freddie responds. He is not only confident, but correct.
In a locker room, Roach prepares the tape that he will use to wrap Khan’s hands. His breathing is audible. His shaking becomes even more visible. Khan soon sends out punches. Everything is fluid and fast for him. Nothing is easy anymore for Roach.
At ringside, he is trembling while watching Khan fight Judah. His voice isn’t very strong, so he gives instructions via Khan’s strength and conditioning coach, Alex Ariza, who yells them out to their fighter in the ring. Khan wins by knockout. Ariza, not Roach, is the first to run into the ring and pick Khan up.
“When I can’t do mitts anymore, I’ll quit,” he says later. “Because I really won’t be able to get the fighter, inside his head, make him believe in himself — and in me also.”
Nothing is easy anymore for Roach, but he finds a way. The trainer has figures of the Popeye cartoon character in his home, a character with no grievances about the hand life dealt him: “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.”
Says Roach: “Outside of the gym, I’m just an average person. I’m not going to change the world. I don’t think about Parkinson’s. I just go one day, day by day, and live through it.”
Trainers are seen only in the minute segments between rounds. For those like Roach who work with the most famous fighters, there are the moments and vignettes featured before fights and on shows such as “24/7.” Roach has become famous in the Philippines thanks to the stardom of his prized pupil, Manny Pacquiao. That success has brought him even more work, more fighters coming to the Wild Card for his wisdom and perhaps a better shot at the top.
All of the work wears on him. With commitments to the American amateur boxing team and to Pacquiao’s coming training camp looming, he turns to an assistant, an ex-girlfriend of his, to help schedule his life. In-between doctor’s appointments, he takes a nap. She admits to needing one, too. Their relationship is still somewhere between business and personal. At a group dinner, he chides her for being on the phone. She soon cries.
He rises early on another morning to go to the Wild Card. Other loved ones are also working with him, spreading his success to his mother and Pepper, both employed at the gym. Pepper points to old family photos on the walls, relics from the time when the Roach men were all fighters. His pugilistic past, too, has been harsh for his health. While Freddie looks fit at 51, life has been rougher for Pepper, who is a year older. He’d suffered strokes in the past, and has another one during filming.
Roach, trainer to stars and prospects, owner of a gym that has become a Hollywood attraction, tends to his brother, contacts his sister-in-law, then moves off camera, where his voice cracks and some tears presumably flow.
He comes back out. The quiet is telling, and then the rhythm of the gym begins again, the hands striking pads and bags, Roach returning to work.
The work is never over. He drives home, puts a DVD into the computer and watches a fight. His left hand shakes until he brings it to his chin, intently studying. His life — for good and bad — is consumed by boxing.
Freddie Roach has triumphed through 24 years as a trainer and battled through two decades with his disease. This documentary series details how he does it. “On Freddie Roach,” like its namesake, is a winner.
The 10 Count
1. Maybe after all these years I’m just too far removed from my days as boxing fan, but I truly stopped caring a long, long time ago about whether Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. ever fight. The protracted negotiations and back-and-forth bickering and excuse making have made this feel like an extended political campaign that will never, ever end with an election day.
Clearly there are still many who care — hence why every single boxing website known to man has an abundance of articles on Pacquiao and Mayweather. There are the fans of each fighter, and there are also those who just want to see two of the best boxers in the sport share the same ring.
I no longer care — at least not until the fight is signed and the opening bell has sounded.
At a certain point, this fight became the girl/boy of your dreams who just isn’t going to get with you. Stop thinking about it. Stop worrying about it. It’s just going to let you down.
2. I’m so glad we can finally put to rest all this talk about lightweight contender Robert Guerrero potentially taking on welterweight great Floyd Mayweather Jr.
This was a publicist- and promoter-induced trial balloon that the media fell for — hook, line and sinker. In turn, Robert Guerrero has gotten plenty of publicity even though he probably was never seriously being considered as a Mayweather foe.
It began two months ago — two months of this! — with Guerrero giving a series of interviews with media members in which he called out Mayweather. It continued with a poll of boxing writers, fighters, managers, promoters and others, in which six people actually picked Guerrero, who looked real good in his last outing but hasn’t even cemented himself as among the best at 135, never mind 140 or 147. Others who didn’t pick Guerrero nevertheless gave him a chance.
More interviews followed — journalists love access, even if these journalists are essentially being used by the fighter and his team for PR purposes, putting up articles that, at a certain point, lack in news value.
Then came articles listing Guerrero as being on the short list to face Mayweather — never mind that Guerrero is coming off shoulder surgery. There were no indications whether these suggestions were largely coming from Guerrero’s camp, or if there was also the tacit approval of Golden Boy Promotions, which has Guerrero in its stable and wouldn’t mind the artificial inflation of one of its fighters.
Then one reporter, who not coincidentally is based about 90 miles from where Guerrero lives, had a scoop that Mayweather-Guerrero was close to being signed.
At last, Richard Schaefer of Golden Boy said that Mayweather wouldn’t be facing Guerrero. At last, the charade was over — a charade in which we in the media were complicit.
Though his name was mentioned as a possibility, it’s easy to wonder whether Guerrero was ever seriously being considered, or whether this was a a case of a publicist and a promoter who were just doing a great job and a case of members of the media doing a poor one.
One wonders if — in articles where Schaefer was paraphrased as saying Guerrero was a possible opponent — the reporter, spurred on by all this coverage, had asked Schaefer about it and gotten a noncommittal “Possibly. We’re looking at a number of opponents.”
3. To be fair, this site has had more than its fair share of Guerrero articles of late — more than 30 in the past two months.
That’s not a typo.
4. This won’t just be another year of hearing why Pacquiao-Mayweather won’t happen.
We might not get a rematch this year between Lamont Peterson and Amir Khan.
We might not get a super-middleweight super-fight this year between Andre Ward and Lucian Bute.
And we’ll pray and plead for Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson not to face each other again.
5. Jan. 11, 2012, part one: Victor Ortiz appears before the Nevada State Athletic Commission regarding his intentional head butt last year against Floyd Mayweather Jr. and his comments in subsequent months about just how intentional it was. He is granted a one-bout license by the state, allowed to fight in Las Vegas this February in a rematch against Andre Berto.
Jan. 11, 2012, part two: Joel Casamayor does not show up before the commission regarding him testing positive for marijuana a couple of months ago. He has his license revoked and is fined.
Lessons learned: You can fight here if you illegally plant one on the kisser … but you can’t fight here if you kiss an illegal plant.
6. Joe Cortez was the referee on last week’s opening bout on ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.” And to no one’s surprise, he started the fight off by looking at the timekeeper…
7. Just eight days before boxing was to return to the NBC Sports Network — formerly Versus — one of the headliners, Eddie Chambers, announced he had an injury and pulled out of his heavyweight fight against Sergei Liakhovich.
No replacement’s been named yet, but logic dictates that one man should be brought in to save the broadcast.
- This is a heavyweight fight.
- This is a heavyweight fight on what used to be Versus.
For nostalgia’s sake, why not have Sergei Liakhovich vs… Tye Fields.
8. Boxers Behaving Badly, part one: A British super middleweight named Luke Allon has been sentenced to 150 hours of community service after pleading guilty to threatening behavior in a case that saw him and another defendant accused of breaking a man’s jaw in a nightclub, according to the Hull Daily Mail.
Allon, 25, fought five times between October 2008 and February 2010 — sanctioned fights not taking place in night clubs, that is — going 4-1 with 1 knockout.
9. Boxers Behaving Badly, part two: Richard Tutaki, a heavyweight journeyman from New Zealand — and if you’re going to be a journeyman, that’s not a bad place to be — was arrested last week after failing to appear in court in 10 charges relating to drug possession, violating bail conditions, having stolen property, driving violations and giving police false information, according to the New Zealand Herald.
Poor timing for Tutaki. The designated opponent had a fight coming up against a New Zealand headliner, and the money from that bout could’ve helped him pay legal bills.
Tutaki, 33, is 19-21-1 with 9 knockouts, with many of those defeats coming against a “Who’s that?” of big men.
10. Boxing ain’t quite fine wine. The longer fights ferment, the more of a bad taste is left in your mouth. Things don’t necessarily become better with age and anticipation.
May 22, 1993: Roy Jones Jr. faces Bernard Hopkins.
April 3, 2010, nearly 17 years later: Hopkins and Jones have their horrible rematch.
May 25, 1983: The first Star Wars trilogy ends with “Return of the Jedi.”
May 19, 1999, nearly 16 years later: The second Star Wars trilogy begins with the horrible “Phantom Menace.”
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His weekly column, “Fighting Words,” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com.
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