Director Peter Berg gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Freddie Roach in the new HBO Series "On Freddie Roach". (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Anyone who follows boxing knows who Freddie Roach is, and anyone who knows who Freddie Roach is knows he's ill with Parkinson's disease. But that's usually where the fan's mind stops. We see him tremor, we hear his affected voice, and we move on. What Peter Berg's HBO Series "On Freddie Roach" does, and did so successfully in Episode 1, is paint a crystal clear picture that Roach deals with the rigors of the disease every second of every day. The show doesn't exist to simply make us feel bad for Roach; it's not an underdog story meant to inspire us to get over our petty problems and persevere. It's simply Freddie Roach's very interesting life as a man dealing with Parkinson's who happens to be the world's best boxing trainer.
Right off the bat we're shown an image of Roach's arm shaking as he does road work with Amir Khan, who's in camp for his June fight in Las Vegas against Zab Judah. But had you known nothing about Roach and flipped on your TV right as the next scene came on, you very well might think he was a totally healthy man. We're brought inside Roach's Wild Card Gym, where he's working the mitts with Khan. It's master and student; Roach calling out commands, Khan following, one man doing what he does best, the other working on his craft. There is no voiceover, no music, it's perfect cinema-verite. All we hear is what you'd hear if you were at the gym that day. The sounds.
And the entire episode is very heavy on sounds. Later we see Roach back on the track during road work, getting a little running in himself. We hear Roach's heavy breathing as he slows down and recovers. As the night of the Khan-Judah fight approaches, Roach is setting up Khan's dressing room. Roach is meticulous in his preparation. He rips off numerous pieces of tape for Khan's hand wraps and sticks them on a ledge so they hang, each one seemingly the perfect length. As Roach tapes a towel to the back of a chair, we see him struggling a bit as he pulls the tape and wraps it up and around. Once again, the scene is heavy on what we hear. The tape screeches with every rip, and it's loud. On the night of the fight, we see (and hear) him wrapping Khan's hands, obviously fighting off tremors as he does so.
During the fight, Roach's voice doesn't allow him to shout loud enough for Khan to hear him, so he says his commands to Khan's strength trainer Alex Ariza who relays the message to Khan in the ring. Roach's face doesn't usually show tons of emotion, but during the fight it's clear that we're seeing a man doing what he loves to do. His face tells us so. As Ariza yells out the orders from Roach, "Sharp jab!", we cut to Khan in the ring executing. Roach is pleased, as the makings of a smile develop. When Khan smashes Judah with a body blow that puts him down for good, Roach excitedly taps Ariza on the shoulder and is visibly elated. He's a man proud that the hard work has all come together.
After the fight, we get a chance to see Freddie Roach the rock star. He walks through the hotel on his way out, and is swarmed by fans looking to snap a picture, get an autograph or shake his hand. Memorably, Roach stops to take a picture with a group, and two girls enter the shot and flash their breasts to the camera. You know how we just mentioned that Roach doesn't show tons of emotion? It was his brightest smile of the whole episode.
Roach is a man clearly burdened by his condition. And as we see him accept an award as the U.S. Boxing Writer's Awards dinner, he makes it obvious that he feels he's been just as big a burden on others. It's not certain whether he's talking about his condition, his sometimes-edgy personality (as evidenced by a dinner scene with ex-girlfriend Marie Spivey, in which he urges her "don't piss me off", during a squabble) or a combination of both. At the awards dinner, he thanks his mother, his ex-girlfriend and his current girlfriend -- each separately -- for "putting up with my bullshit."
We close with Roach getting treatment, and we're shown highlights of Roach's career as a fighter himself. Berg's making it perfectly clear that one thing has led to the other. We're left off with one of the only voiceovers in the entire episode as Roach talks about the disease. He says that he was given two different diagnoses. One says he won't deteriorate, another says he certainly will. But most of all, this is a man who loves his work, and wants to do it until his body no longer allows him to. He goes as far as saying that he's had it coming. It's a bit of a bleak outlook for sure, but Roach hasn't let it stop him yet.
One day it might, and he knows it. But not yet.