“On Freddie Roach,” Debuting Friday On HBO, Finds Drama In Reality — Inside And Outside The Ring

For the first half of the first episode of “On Freddie Roach,” the new HBO series documenting the life of the famed trainer that debuts this Friday night, the tone is contemplative, almost meditative, even. As a boxing fan, I could watch trainers and fighters interacting all day. But maybe that’s not your scene.

Stick around.

The second half of the episode picks up when, right before fight night for the Amir Khan-Zab Judah match-up, Roach barks at his assistant (and, in a dynamic sure to create drama for the life of the series, the assistant is also his ex-girlfriend) and makes her cry. In the public sphere, Roach comes off like a “good guy,” and he probably is, but if you know anything about Roach, you know he also has a temper that flares up at times. From then on, the show gets you far more emotionally invested — you see the nervous tension of fight night, the celebratory harvest (including boobies!) of a winning performance, and a moving sequence at the end where Roach talks about the origins of his Parkinson’s disease and all the resulting medical treatment he needs.

And the second episode is even more riveting.

HBO provided TQBR with a review copy of the first two episodes of “On Freddie Roach,” co-executive produced by HBO’s own boxing commentator Jim Lampley and Peter Berg of “Friday Night Lights” fame. It is not without problems, besides the slow start; one technical problem, in particular, was immensely distracting. But it’s a promising opening two stanzas to the series.

That technical problem is this: I watched the show with two other people, and despite having the volume turned up pretty high, we kept having to rewind to catch what people were saying. Some of that is due to the fact that, over the din of a loud restaurant or pap-pap-pap of a boxing gym’s speed bags, the things people said were far too difficult to make out. Some of it — and this is awkward to say, but it’s the truth — is that Roach, due to his illness, sometimes slurs his words. Maybe the footage I was provided has a lower sound quality than what will air.

At times, the show makes up for this problem with subtitles. At other times, Roach’s words are carried as voiceovers, and that solves the problem, too. But if you can’t hear what people are saying, it’s hard to follow.

That aside, and the slow start aside, there’s nothing not to like. Roach, as THE trainer of his time, as someone with a back story like his, as someone so thoughtful and well-spoken, makes a worthy subject. Roach is spare in his words, but there’s a wisdom in them, despite the brevity.

I won’t get too much into what happens in each episode, because I don’t want to spoil things. But in the second episode, which revolves more around Roach’s family and gym than a solitary fight, his brother Pepper deals with a health emergency. Watching Roach’s sequence of reactions unfold is at first confusing, then touching.

Throughout the first two episodes, it’s hard to ignore one thing both share: Boxing takes its toll on those who are involved in it. From Roach’s Parkinson’s to some remarks at a press conference to Pepper’s issue to Shane Langford’s permanently closed left eye, it’s a theme that kept surfacing and will probably surface again and again. Roach, for his part, thinks it’s all worth it. The viewers? They might think differently. I know it caused me some heartburn.

For those expecting an 24/7 style narration, similar to those for HBO’s documentary series about upcoming fights, don’t. It’s one of the things that lends to an occasionally quiet program, an effect that sometimes maximizes the drama and sometimes just feels like nothing is happening.

My recommendation, for both boxing fans and non-boxing fans: Check it out. The stories inside the ring and outside the ring translate as very real drama. Just be prepared for that slow start and put on your hearing aids. Both episodes are very much worth the half-hour each you’ll spend on them. And that’s before we even get to the bigger fights that no doubt will be covered over the course of the series, like Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez III.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.