Roach, like Ali, bravely battles disease

Roach, like Ali, bravely battles disease

Published Jan. 18, 2012 12:00 a.m. ET

On the occasion of Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday, I recalled my first time seeing him in the flesh. It was 1991, at Macy’s department store on New York City’s 34th Street. He was appearing for a new line of haberdashery that bore his name.

Ali was given a marker and seated at a table, where an endless line of fans, not to mention the autograph mercenaries, presented him with their souvenirs. He signed them dutifully, courageously trying to remain oblivious to the palsied rhythms and tremors running through his torso and arms. Finally, however, even the relentless procession of signature seekers found it impossible to ignore his condition. The 20th century’s most graceful athlete had begun to drool.

It’s long been my theory that fighters, unlike most people, fear violence less than humiliation. That’s what makes them fighters. But it also what makes Parkinson’s disease an especially cruel fate for ex-boxers.

“It was really more embarrassing than anything,” recalls Freddie Roach, the subject of “On Freddie Roach,” a brave experiment that debuts Friday night on HBO. “People looking at you, like: ‘What’s wrong with that kid?’ ”


As former fighters, Roach and Ali seem antithetical. One was tall dark and handsome. The other was a pale featherweight from Dedham, Mass., – not much of a puncher, and never a champion. Roach, boxing’s greatest living trainer, found fame as a teacher. Ali was a master of what couldn’t be taught. But they were each cursed with courage, and almost certainly because of it, now find themselves afflicted with Parkinson’s.

Still, even after all these years, Ali remains an abstraction, not merely beloved as America’s first rapper, but its first black prince. Perhaps that’s what most horrified me about his appearance at Macy’s. One didn’t expect to see The Greatest like that up close, in such a state of disrepair.

Freddie Roach is a different story. If he and Ali seem exactly unlike, then so do “On Freddie Roach” and most of what passes for non-scripted television. Reality television habitually mocks reality, training a camera on pretty people to perpetrate lies. This is the opposite. It uses fight people, many of them physically broken, to tell the truth. This production values nothing so much as verisimilitude. “On Freddie Roach” aspires to be reality, which is to say: mundane, grieving, occasionally triumphant, and not for everybody.

This isn’t another episode of “24/7.” Actually, I don’t think the series could’ve been realized under the previous regime at HBO Sports, as it refuses the dreadfully familiar trappings of the network’s sports docs. “On Freddie Roach” passes on the easy stuff: the Floyd Mayweather rants and Liev Schreiber voice-overs.

Rather, this requires some patience. The producers -- the most prominent of them being director Pete Berg and HBO Boxing's Jim Lampley -- like to call it cinema verite. But it seems almost painterly to me.

You want the truth? Really? It’s in the strips of adhesive tape Freddie tears from the roll while waiting to wrap his fighter’s hands. It’s in the sound of pills rattling around the bottom of a prescription bottle. It’s Freddie being injected, going under the anesthetic’s spell. It’s his brother, Pepper, once the best fighter in the Roach clan, waiting for an ambulance in a laundromat, worrying that the EMS workers will see him with boogers in his nose.

Hey, at least he wasn’t drooling.

In violation of all the non-scripted conventions, talk is sparse.

A doctor informed Freddie he had Parkinson’s, as a result of his many fights, 200 or so in the ring and countless others on the street.

“What are we going to do about it?” he asked.

There was nothing to be done, he was told.

The Roach family genes seem as fatalistic as they are pugilistic. Apparently, that owes to the patriarch. “We were taught how to fight from day one,” Freddie says. “My dad was a very physical person. He was really, really mean and he could fight …

“Nobody in my house was really strong enough to stand up to him. He was really bad to my mother.

“She took more beatings than all of us. She took beatings for us at times, sticking up for us. She came downstairs with two black eyes one day and I looked at her, and I laughed and I said, ‘You’re pretty tough.’ I think she hated me for a long time for that.

“I’m trying to make up for it…

“That’s why I take care of her. She can have whatever she wants.”

This isn’t a portrait of an ideal man, so much as a real one. You see him bickering with his ex-girlfriend/assistant, Marie. You see him weeping. You see him at his gym in Hollywood, Calif. -- the Wild Card -- working the mitts with his fighters. The rhythm is hypnotic, almost poetic, the violent clap of leather on leather. Freddie wants to die working the mitts.

He’s a friend. He’s 51. I pray he lives to 70.