Peter Berg & Freddie Roach

The Emmy-nominated director and legendary boxing trainer discuss the HBO docu-series On Freddie Roach, Roach’s battle with Parkinson’s disease and why people are addicted to sports.

In addition to his performances on TV and in features, Peter Berg has made a name for himself working behind the camera. He got his start as a writer-director on the medical drama Chicago Hope—in which he also starred—and has gone on to direct numerous films, including Hancock, The Kingdom and Friday Night Lights, as well as a number of episodes of the acclaimed FNL television series, which he exec-produced. The New York native is also developing projects under his Film 44 company banner.

A former professional boxer, Freddie Roach turned to training and became not only world famous, but also one of the most popular trainers in the sport. He's worked with more than 20 world champions, including Manny Pacquiao, Amir Khan, Oscar de la Hoya, Mike Tyson and one of the best women boxers and former two-time world champ Lucia Rijker. He's also been honored five times as Trainer of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America and inducted into the World and International Boxing Halls of Fame.

Berg is an executive producer of the HBO cinéma-vérité series, On Freddie Roach, which chronicles the daily life of the revered trainer, who's also battling Parkinson's disease.


Tavis: Freddie Roach has been a force in boxing for many years now, serving as a revered trainer for a number of champions, including, of course, Manny Pacquiao.

He has teamed up with producer and director Peter Berg on a new series for HBO called “On Freddie Roach.” From the six-part project, here now, some scenes from “On Freddie Roach.”


Tavis: Let’s talk about the clients first, Freddie, and then we’ll talk about you and your work. So Julio looked awfully good the other night.

Freddie Roach: Julio (unintelligible) great fighter. He’s the best he’s looked at in (unintelligible) which is one of the biggest fights in the world.

Tavis: Yeah, I thought he looked amazing. So that’s Julio, and with regard to Manny, I don’t know what your sense is, but – nothing against Bradley, but Manny got robbed. (Laughter) That’s my sense of it. I’m not the trainer, though. What’s your sense of it?

Roach: Yes, I’m happy with his performance, though. He fought a good fight, he fought a disciplined fight, and definitely something is wrong. I think there should be an investigation somehow about how these judges came up with those scores.

Even the judge that gave it to us by two rounds, it was crazy. I had, like, 11 rounds to one. But that’s, I guess, part of life, and Manny, he’s doing well. He handles it better than most. He’s a very nice kid and he says that’s part of life.

Tavis: He was a class act. For those who saw the fight, he was a class act in the ring after he lost the fight. But what’s your sense of – and I guess it’s possible the more I think about it, and I try to be open-minded about this. Again, I think Manny got robbed.

But I try to be open-minded about the fact, because there’s nothing else in life that people can’t see from disparate points of view. So there’s nothing that we look at that we all have to see the same way, even when the facts are on the table.

But how is it in boxing that those referees could see this fight so differently than I think the rest of us are?

Roach: The criteria of boxing is to score points by landing punches. Defense is great, of course, but it doesn’t win fights, and Manny definitely out-gunned Bradley by a huge margin. The punch stats were overwhelmingly on our side.

But it’s just some people say that some judges like different things, some like defense, some like offense, some like making punches (unintelligible) and so forth.

But I really, because those who judged or voted for the guy, they’re, like, both in their seventies, they’re older men, and I thought retirement age was 65. (Laughter)

Tavis: Maybe inside the ring. (Laughter) But obviously not outside, yeah.

Roach: Because I just, I’m just amazed. What were they watching? Because from one angle to the other, from one side of the ring to the other, does it really change that much?

I’ve been boxing a long time, and the answer is no, it doesn’t. It was clearly Pacquiao who won the fight, but we have to live with it, and like Manny said, life goes on and we’ll take it like a man.

Manny did tell me for the first time ever, he said, “Next time, I’ll knock him out,” and that’s the first time he’s ever predicted a fight to me, ever.

Tavis: I saw a number of people commenting about this online. Of course, as soon as the fight was over everybody had something to say about it. But there are people who feel that you don’t have this debate. Yes?

Roach: Yes. The thing is I love fights that end in a knockout, because there’s no questions asked. Even Chavez the other night, when he knocked Andy Lee out, he was actually down by two points on each scorecard, which was – I thought the fight was close, but I thought we had the edge.

But if you leave it in the judges’ hands you always have controversy or a chance of controversy.

Tavis: Yeah. That’s what Emanuel Steward said. I agree with Emanuel on that – you knock them out, there’s no controversy. So, Peter, as you can see, obviously, so Freddie Roach shows up and you get Freddie in a room and you immediately start talking about the game, about the sweet science, which raises the question for me how it is that you have gone about, then, taking this inside boxing stuff and turn it into a series that everybody seems to get into.

Not that women can’t get into boxing, obviously; I work out at a gym and there are women there, and they’re boxing every day. But how do you take this story and open it up, open up the humanity of Freddie Roach so that people tune in even if they’re not necessarily fans of boxing?

Peter Berg: Yeah, I think the key to opening it up for me and for all of us involved was to try and focus primarily on this human being right here, and try and bring up as many facets of his life and his personality and the dynamics that he has, with the really kind of eclectic and fascinating Shakespearean crew that surround him, and to let – obviously we knew we weren’t going to be able to divorce him from the sport.

But what we found so interesting and kind of what I thought was a way of separating us from things like 24/7 was to just really focus on a very complex and open human being, and let that be the entry point. I’ve enjoyed so much having women say, I don’t really care about boxing, it’s a sport I don’t understand, but there’s something about the soul of this guy that is quite unique, and that’s what we’ve chosen to focus on.

Tavis: When you say “the Shakespearean crew around him,” by that you mean what, Peter?

Berg: Well, he’s got – have you ever been to the Wildcard Boxing Gym?

Tavis: I know exactly where it is. Been by there two or three times.

Berg: One of the things that’s so unique about Freddie, and I’ve known him a long time, going back to the days when he was living at Mickey Rourke’s gym in Hollywood, teaching anyone that walked in how to throw a hook, and I was one of those people.

He treats everybody absolutely the same, and there’s no difference between Manny Pacquiao and a guy like Shane, who although he may frustrate Freddie very much is a welcome part of that world, or usually is. I don’t know where he is today.

But he’s (laughter) put this incredibly unique and eclectic group of people around him and everyone gets treated with respect as long as they treat him with respect. As a result, for anyone that’s gone into that gym and had a chance to experience that dynamic, it’s quite fascinating and I think very unique.

So the dramas can be Shakespearean. At any given moment there’s four guys on the verge of getting their (blank) whupped by him, four guys getting fired, three women about to demolish him for some emotional love injustice that he’s committed. (Laughter) And his mom just running rule over the entire situation.

Tavis: Freddie, is that a fair description of your life? Are you that complex?

Roach: I didn’t think so until the show came out and I watched it. (Laughter) But my life was interesting. Being in a boxing gym, you have the biggest characters in the world. There’s so many stories there and so much going on.

Like someone said, “How can you spend 12 hours a day in the boxing gym six days a week?” I said, “It’s fun, it’s great. You never know what’s going to arise or what’s going to happen because there’s something different every day.” From the boxers to the boxing fans, they just love being there.

It’s funny, because when I go away and I have to go to training camp somewhere, the gym’s really not as busy, but then somehow they know when I’m coming back, though, because when I come back, the parking lot’s full.

Tavis: Yeah, because they watch HBO, that’s how they know. (Laughter) They watch pay-per-view. They know exactly where you are, like all the rest of us. People look at you, or they could look at Ali, and in one individual, Freddie Roach, Muhammad Ali, see what’s great about the sport and also make their own judgments about what’s not so great about the sport.

Obviously, I’m talking about the Parkinson’s. When people look at this and say, “Freddie, no matter how well you train Manny or Julio or anybody else in your stable, this is, these shakes that you have right now are the best example of why boxing is such a violent sport, and you should have gotten out sooner.”

Roach: Yeah, I should have, probably. But the thing is it was my choice. I love that we live in a country where we have freedom of choice. No one held a gun to my head. My trainer told me to retire and I told him I wasn’t ready to yet. I’ve told seven guys in my crew to retire over the years and six of them told me where to go and one retired.

So it’s an addicting game, it’s very hard to give up. We’re having problems in all contact events now – hockey, football. Trauma’s obviously not the greatest thing in the world for us, but the thing is, with my fighters, the first time I see signs of them slowing down or their coordination and so forth is off a little bit, I do see these signs because I’ve grown through them and I have them, and I will tell them to retire, and hopefully they would take my advice. But most, they’ll only retire when they’re ready to do so.

Tavis: So you tell seven guys to retire. Six of them say screw you; only one of them does. For those six who decide to stay in the game, even though you know that they should really get out, as a trainer, given that you’ve endured this yourself, what do you do? Do you keep training these guys?

Roach: No, I can’t.

Tavis: You can’t train them anymore.

Roach: I can’t.

Tavis: Okay.

Roach: It’s just – it wouldn’t be right. If I know they have problems and I could be – no, it’d just be, it would be wrong.

Tavis: So they just leave Wildcard and go find somebody else to train them?

Roach: Yes. Like one of my best friends, James Tony.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Roach: James is a great buddy and I just told him it was time for him to retire, and he told me where to go, and every time I see him, he says, “Why won’t you train me?” and I say, “Just because I want to be your friend.” Because if I took that job I couldn’t be friends with him, and it just wouldn’t work.

Tavis: So Freddie may be complex, Peter, but this story here is so antithetical, so not what you think when you think boxing. People only care about making money, they don’t care what condition you’re in. if they can make money off of you, they’re in it. Who tells somebody to get out of the game, and even though there’s money left to be made off you, I’m not going to do it?

Berg: Not Manny. There’s very few and I think that’s part of what makes Freddie so unique and so interesting, in that here’s a guy who’s made, as you pointed out, boxing’s clearly taken a toll on Freddie Roach today, and if he had gotten out there would be a different story to him physically, and yet he understands that better than anyone. He’s able to, I think, communicate with fighters with a level of honesty that no other trainer that I’ve ever encountered does.

He understands what works for the sport, what doesn’t, and speaks very honestly about it, and despite it all can sit here and tell you that he doesn’t have any regrets, he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He loves the sport of boxing. It speaks to, I think, the confusion that we all have over contact sports today, that we’re all now so aware of the damages that these sports are doing to our brains and what concussions mean and what brain injuries are.

Yet we’re still watching football, we’re still watching boxing, we’re still letting our kids play these sports. I think Freddie’s a very interesting kind of in to these discussions.

Tavis: To your point about the confusion that so many of us have about these contact sports, Peter, what’s your sense of why we are still so addicted to it?

Berg: It goes back to just primal gladiator, human instinct that we love watching human beings compete, we love watching human beings dominate each other physically, strategically.

It’s in our DNA. We’re competitive animals. Boxing speaks to that, football speaks to that, ice hockey speaks to that. Girls’ soccer now speaks to that. We’re seeing more concussions and brain damage and brain injuries in girls’ soccer than in football.

I think it speaks to ignorance. Adults don’t really want to take the time to understand what we’re putting our kids through and how we’re teaching them to play and how we’re teaching them to fight and when they should stop.

So to have someone like Freddie, who’s actually in a position to tell a fighter, “You know what? You should stop,” that, I think, is what makes him so special. If more adults would start assuming more responsibility over how young children are taught to box, they’re taught to tackle, they’re taught to check, and were sensitive to these kinds of injuries and the long-term effects, I think the sports would probably start getting safer.

Tavis: Let me ask a sort of inside baseball, inside Hollywood question, which is how you go about filming this particular series, and I don’t mean filming in terms of how many cameras. I mean in terms of storyline.

There are so many reality TV shows today, and what you think is reality television is really being set up, and they have meetings about the storyline, and you’re going to walk in and you’re going to say this and you’re going to do that. It really ain’t reality television. How is this different?

Berg: Honestly, it’s kind of like your show. None of us have ever met. Sometimes we go and do talk shows and producers will come in and coach you. Okay, Tavis is going to ask you this and this and this, then you’ll laugh about this, and then he’s going to artfully change the subject to that, and we sort of all play along. That’s the way, if you go on the Jay Leno show or Letterman.

Of course, these guys can go off-script. Nobody said a word to us. We were sitting in the room talking, and we came in here, we have no idea –

Tavis: We like it that way around here, yeah.

Berg: Yeah, well, so do we. That was our approach to “On Freddie Roach,” and there’s a style of documentary filmmaking called cinéma-vérité. A great, famous filmmaker named Wiseman started it. He did a great film called “The Titicut Follies,” which was about a mental institution in Boston in the late ’50s that I recommend everyone see.

But basically it’s, okay, when I said to Freddie, “We’re gonna just come in and we’re not going to say anything, we’re going to have our guys in your apartment at 5:30. What time do you wake up?” Freddie says, “I wake up at 5:30.” “We’ll have our guys in your house at 5:20. We need a key.”

Freddie’s like, “Really?” We follow him, and we allow it all to happen. If Freddie gets in a fight with his girlfriend, he gets in a fight with his girlfriend. If Freddie’s brother, Pepper, has a stroke, his brother has a stroke. If Manny wins, he wins. If he loses, we loses. We just record it.

Roach: That’s the best part about the show, is I was never asked to do anything. I just was myself. I just ignored the cameras and so forth. I actually miss that crew a little bit, though, because when I had a trivia question, I usually just asked the air and got an answer. (Laughter)

Berg: It was like Siri, but it worked. But it actually worked.

Tavis: The cool thing about this series, Freddie, for those of us who watch it, the cool thing about it, as Peter said, it’s just real, it’s authentic, it’s just you doing what you do, and the cameras catch you in the act. But it takes a level of – I’m trying to find the right word here – courage.

You’ve got to be willing to be open enough to let that camera catch what it catches. Why would you do that to yourself?

Roach: People want to see my life. They thought it was interesting, and I was very open to it because I have a great life and the thing is I was used to having cameras around me from 24/7 and so forth.

So I just go about my day. I remember someone said, “I never saw that dark side of you before.” I said, “Well, what are you talking about?” He said, “Well, when you were yelling at Marie.” I said, “When you get mad, what do you do?” (Laughter) If something goes wrong, I want it fixed.

If someone’s – I’m going to address somebody, and she’s like the closest one to me, so she usually gets it and I expect it to get results if there is a problem and so forth. So it’s just like I completely forgot that they were even with me, and I just was myself.

They wanted to see my life and what I do every day, and I think I’m a pretty boring person, and they thought I was a little interesting.

Tavis: How do you interact with – and Peter hit on this a little bit earlier in the conversation, Freddie – but how do you interact with people in the gym who are just paying their monthly membership and they come to the gym to work out, to get in good shape.

They’re not trying to be boxers or stars, they’re just everyday people. How do you engage them in the gym every day?

Roach: If I have time, I help them out. I assign trainers to – different personalities to different trainers. I have 12 trainers who work for me now. But when my pros are in the gym, that’s when I go to work, and that’s when I don’t have time, really, for anyone else.

Tavis: You’ve discussed this many times before and I want to get your take on it and I want to get Peter’s take on it as the guy managing the operation of the cameras watching this take place. So Freddie can sit here now, and his meds notwithstanding, he’s going to shake a little bit here and there in the conversation.

He puts these pads on and it all goes away. I don’t get this to this day, Freddie.

Roach: It’s funny, it’s just like that’s at home, it’s just like that’s my comfort zone. About eight years ago, a guy named Muhammad Ali walked through my doors and he asked me if he could work out, and, “Yeah, of course.” (Laughter)

So I had him and his daughter working out at my gym. As soon as he started hitting the heavy bag, his tremors went away. He stopped shaking. As soon as he stopped, the tremors came back. But it was the greatest day we ever had in the gym.

I started to call some people and tell them, “Guess who’s in my gym,” but I just wanted to let it, I said, “You know what? Whoever shows up is going to enjoy this. Let’s just be natural. I’m not going to call anyone.” It was probably the greatest day of the Wildcard’s life.

He stayed for four hours (unintelligible) flirted with the girls. It was just a great thing. But for him, it’s like as soon as he started hitting the bag, the tremors went away. Once I get in the ring and start catching the mitts, it’s just like home, it’s my comfort zone.

I don’t shake, I still can catch. I told my mother, I said, “Hey, Ma,” I said, “When I’m a charity case and I can’t catch anymore and people just kind of pacify me, will you tell me?” She said, “Of course I’ll tell you.” (Laughter) So my mother keeps an eye on me and she –

Tavis: She lives next door to you.

Roach: She lives next door to me, and I got home from New York last week and she told me I’m getting fat. (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s a mother for you. Peter, what’s it like when you’re watching this?

Berg: Well, here’s what – the first time I noticed it, I immediately thought of remember “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” remember Redford, Sundance Kid, was trying to shoot something by staring straight at it, and he couldn’t hit anything.

Then he finally asked the guy – he was trying to get a job and he said, “Can I move?” He says, “I’m better when I move.” Once he started moving, he could hit anything.

I just remember thinking about that as a kid, and I just remember thinking about that as a kid, and I used to talk about that with my dad. My dad would be like, “You’ve got to find your comfort zone. You’ve got to find a way of distracting yourself. If you feel tight, if you feel stressed, you feel nervous,” which obviously, Freddie suffers from a physical situation that maybe you or I don’t, but I have seen him when he gets in his comfort zone.

When he moves, it almost feels like he’s tricking his brain into not being able to take control. He’s taking control over his mind and over his body by doing something that he really loves. It’s remarkable. He’s lightning quick.

I’ve seen these fighters – Amir Khan punches him really hard. You want to sometimes get in the ring and be like, “Dude, why you hitting Freddie?” (Laughter) But Freddie does it, he gets the flash of anger in his eyes, Freddie does, like he wants to hit Amir back. Sometimes I think he is going to hit Amir back, and I think he should, actually, at some point, if he keeps hitting you like that. (Laughter)

But he completely snaps out of it and I think it’s kind of like behavioral psychology. You can go to a shrink and lay down on the couch and talk about the mean stuff your mom or dad did to you forever, or you can just get up and go do something.

Go read a book or go for a run and behave. I think it’s a great example of how just behaving can really change the way you’re living.

Tavis: Before I let you go, Freddie, Olympic boxing, I know they were after you to be the coach, and you can’t do that with all the other stuff you have going on. You’ve been helping out – we picked up on that, of course, watching the series. But what’s your sense of what’s going to happen to our team?

Roach: Well, we have some talent and we have some good kids. They want to work hard. I was up in Colorado Springs for a month with the team, training with them, and we do have some talented kids and some real nice kids, and I think we have some definitely potential medal winners.

So after the Amir Khan fight, I’m going to go back to Colorado Springs and then they’re going to have a couple of training camps. They’re going to bring them down to my gym and just get them to work (unintelligible).

Tavis: Oh, cool, here in L.A.?

Roach: Yes.

Tavis: Oh, cool.

Roach: And work alongside my pros, just to get that atmosphere.

Tavis: Let me know when they’re coming.

Roach: I will.

Tavis: I’ll slide in there and watch that.

Roach: Working around good fighters, that’s one thing about my gym, why it’s so successful, because when you’re in a gym with world champions and so forth, and you’re working out beside world champions, they actually rub off on people. I think that’s why back in the ’40s and ’50s you had so many great role models back then.

I don’t think we have as many role models nowadays, but my gym is full of them right now, and we have four world champions that work out there. It kind of sets the pace for everyone else.

Tavis: I’ve got 20 seconds to go and I know it won’t even take 20 seconds to answer this question, but since I don’t want to get cussed out for not asking it just in case the answer changed overnight, will the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight ever happen?

Roach: Maybe if they give them bottled water. I’m not sure. (Laughter)

Tavis: I’ll take that. Freddie Roach, Peter Berg have teamed up for a wonderful series on HBO called “On Freddie Roach.” Freddie, good to have you here. Peter, good to have you here. Thanks for your time as well.

Berg: Pleasure.

Tavis: Thank you, sir. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: June 29, 2012 at 1:27 pm