Freddie Roach was on track to marry his high school sweetheart and become an arborist caring for ornamental trees.
“I chose to become a prizefighter instead,” Roach said last week while standing in a ring corner of his Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood as a fighter sparred. “I got a plane ticket to Vegas instead, and here we are.”
Where he is now is the subject of a new reality series from director Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) that will debut Friday on HBO; titled, “On Freddie Roach,” it’s a six-part series co-produced by HBO boxing commentator Jim Lampley.
The series delves not only into Roach’s standing as the world’s top boxing trainer, but into his struggle with boxing-related Parkinson’s symptoms. Roach had 53 pro fights as a lightweight before retiring in 1986, though he ignored the advice of his legendary trainer, Eddie Futch, to retire and was pounded in his last six fights.
“It’s hard to watch,” Roach said of the series. “I truly let people into my life: good, bad, happy, lucky, sad. It’s a bit overwhelming. I always wanted to be famous, but be careful what you wish for.”
At a screening of Friday’s premiere episode in New York, Roach said he was struck “that I shake so much,” because of Parkinson’s.
“I still don’t think of it that much,” he said. “I used to get mad when [people] would stare. I don’t get mad anymore, because so many people have approached me and wanted to help, to recommend a doctor or get me one of those ‘magic cures.’
“This will show how difficult [Parkinson’s] is, but it still doesn’t affect what I do. I’m still working … I wrap hands better than anyone, work the mitts. You can overcome anything with hard work and desire, and that’s what I wanted to show.”
Roach, the 2010 trainer of the year, counts Manny Pacquiao, former junior-welterweight champion Amir Khan, world middleweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and prospect Jorge Linares in his stable. Each boxer is either coming back from a disappointing effort (Pacquiao) or a loss (Khan, Linares) or has something still to prove (Chavez).
No better reason to fight on than seeing Roach on a daily basis.
“This is one of those metaphors from boxing that applies to real life: If you get knocked down, get back up,” said Roach’s agent, Nick Khan.
Berg said he is working to expand the “On” brand to others “in the moment they are burning most brightly, looking at their moment of greatest success,” including his friend and new Washington State football Coach Mike Leach.
Filmmakers Brendan and Emmett Malloy followed Roach, 51, through medical appointments, a family tragedy and the morning shift at Wild Card. “He’s alone in here, working with a guy off the street who pays his five bucks,” Brendan Malloy said. “It’s like going to the YMCA, and Phil Jackson signs you in.”
Said Emmett Malloy: “He says it best when he says, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me.’ There’s an endearing spirit about this guy.”
Lampley said the project satisfied his quest to find “where the skill of a great communicator comes from.
“This provides a more complex understanding … about boxing’s effects on a life. The hard irony to this is that Freddie trains fighters to do the same thing that put him in this condition. It’s a fascinating inner conversation he has with himself.”