The oddest thing about HBO’s new documentary series on the life of boxing trainer Freddie Roach is how little it tells you about its subject, especially at first.
Boxing fans will know Roach as the trainer for superstar boxers Manny Pacquiao, Oscar de La Hoya and loads of other champions. One of the best-known trainers in the sport, he’s also legendary for another reason: he succeeds despite struggling with the effects of Parkinson’s disease, likely brought on from his own time in the ring.
HBO’s “On Freddie Roach” takes its name seriously, following the 51-year-old trainer with cameras so closely, we watch him brush his teeth and take a shower in one revealing sequence. The goal, it seems, is to plunge us into Roach’s world completely; kicking off with his work preparing light welterweight champion Amir Khan for a bout with Zab Judah.
But the series, directed by “Friday Night Lights” auteur Peter Berg, wastes no time with narration or exposition, on-screen graphics impart what little contextual information Berg deigns to dole out. (We learn, for example, that Roach’s detail-oriented personal assistant is also his ex-girlfriend; a necessary detail when they have a squabble over her attention to a BlackBerry during dinner.)
For knowledgeable fans, this approach is no problem. They don’t need to be told yet again about Roach’s remarkable story – ending a mediocre boxing career at age 26 only to find his real talent in observing and training fighters, helping star Mickey Rourke start his abbreviated boxing career before opening his popular Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles.
Still, this also makes the documentary difficult for novices to access. As someone who doesn’t follow boxing, I had a tough time with the first episode, which documents the days leading to Khan’s fight against Judah without really explaining its importance or the meaning of Roach’s training tips.
Thankfully, Berg’s series also skips the typical contrivances of modern-day “reality TV” shows. No funny music to tell you how to feel about a scene or contrived “confessional” segments manipulated by producers; just Roach’s ragged voice guiding you through his activities, as if you were perched inside his head looking out.
The series’ second episode, featuring Roach talking about an abusive father who was also a fighter, felt more like a proper start; showing Roach’s brother Pepper explaining how their father insisted the boys learn to fight and disregard school. He admits repeating the fourth grade several times before quitting school, with a laugh.
This second episode reveals much more about Roach and his unique story, starting with the beginning of his day in a nice home, giving his beautiful blonde girlfriend her morning coffee before sliding into a black Mercedes for the drive to his gym.
Once there, Roach enters a different world, moving a stack of old water bottles to park his car and entering a gym filled with aspiring champs and never-will-make-it fighters, each grasping for a shot at whatever success might be possible with Roach’s help.
The most telling moment comes when Pepper has an episode, slurring his speech and acting erratically in ways that indicate he might be having a stroke. Roach doesn’t rush to his brother’s side; instead, he sends an assistant, who immediately calls 911.
Family members fret and Pepper is carted off in an ambulance. Roach cries a little in his office and then pulls on his training gloves, stepping into the ring to school another fighter on the details of the sweet science.
As Berg’s cameras hover, we see Roach heads home that day late at night, seemingly alone, popping a DVD into his laptop at the day’s end to look over the workout he led hours earlier.
Did he check on his brother’s progress? Did he think about visiting him in hospital? Has his brother suffered any lasting damage following what seemed like a stroke?
(Viewers never even find out for sure if that is the final diagnosis, but boxing fans will know that Pepper did indeed have a stroke last July.)
All those questions go unanswered, as viewers are left to assume the events Berg reveals leave out nothing important.
More importantly, the audience is left to make its own conclusions about a man who seems more devoted to dissecting fighters than anything – including his own brother’s health.
And, perhaps, that’s the fairest portrait for which anyone could ask.
“On Freddie Roach” debuts at 9:30 p.m. Friday on HBO.
Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduatYe of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.