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'On Freddie Roach' is real reality TV

HBO's "On Freddie Roach" isn't for everybody. It isn't "24/7," the network's flashy and highly produced boxing reality series that the famed trainer has co-starred in several times (mainly because he is Manny Pacquiao's trainer).

"On Freddie Roach" does not have Liev Schreiber narrating. In fact, there is no narrator at all, unless you count a couple of brief off-camera voiceovers by Roach. And there is no high-octane theme music or pulsating soundtrack, just some hauntingly low-key original music that is used only here and there.

But if you have time for a quiet yet compelling half-hour of viewing that is about more than just boxing -- although it is central to who the 51-year-old Roach is and, therefore, a heavy part of the show -- it will be worth your while.

Based on previewing the first two episodes of the six-episode cinéma vérité-shot series that debuts Friday night (HBO, 9:30 ET/PT), "On Freddie Roach" is an oddly engrossing show. It follows the daily life of the five-time trainer of the year (and newly elected International Boxing Hall of Famer) in his Hollywood, Calif., Wild Card Gym, on the road to Las Vegas for a big fight and at home, all while he battles Parkinson's disease, which many -- Roach included -- believe was caused by all of the blows to the head he took as a fighter.

The show is light on talk and exposition but filled with heart and interesting moments that are woven together to tell Roach's story. It's all captured by filmaker/executive producer Peter Berg, who has known Roach for years, back to the days when Roach used to train actor Mickey Rourke, a friend of Berg's. When I spoke with Roach last week, he said the show is as authentic as it could be. It's his life, raw and uncut, including shots of Roach's trembling arms that remind you his disease is always there.

Although it may sound morbid, including the part in one episode in which Roach pays a visit to his neurologist and has an MRI, it really isn't. What comes of it is ultimately uplifting because you see Roach, despite his frail look and dealing with a disease that is clearly taking its toll, thriving as one of the best in the world in his field -- despite the physicality of the job. The way this juxtaposition is presented is captivating.

As Roach says in the show, "I wouldn't trade my life for anybody's."

HBO broadcaster Jim Lampley, one of the executive producers who had the original idea for the series, and who sought out Berg, said he first conceived of it three or four years ago. He has known Roach for years because he has called so many fights involving Roach's fighters.

"I resolved in my mind that I wanted to know something about Parkinson's and his relationship to it, and I would go to him and ask him questions from time to time," Lampley said. "The way he answered me and shared information about it, I began to develop this understanding that he doesn't hide from anything and is an open person who will reveal himself to the world. My idea was just to watch him and see him as the amazingly human character he is. We're not here to make him look good. We're here to make him look like Freddie."

The series does just that. While Roach admits he enjoys being a bit of a celebrity, he also quickly pointed out that "sometimes it's hard to watch yourself on television," especially because what he sees is so real.

The first episode deals largely with Roach's preparing Amir Khan for his July fight with Zab Judah, but you also see Roach dealing with those around him, including assistant (and ex-girlfriend) Marie Spivey, who helps take care of Roach but finds herself on the wrong end of one of Roach's grouchy moods. Roach is a truly nice guy, but he has a dark side, like everybody, and we catch a glimpse of it at Spivey's expense.

"Freddie's story was complex and unusual, in that it would tell itself on camera if you shot it and covered it right, and that isn't something that happens in one episode," Lampley said. "That is something that happens over all six. I am hopeful people will take it all in and they will feel that it is like a movie that goes from one level to another level. Some things reverberate in such a way, you realize what is there. For instance, all the wiping and ordering and putting things in place that Freddie does. He surely isn't conscious of it in his mind -- how many times he is wiping the sink or putting the towels perfectly folded in the gym or the routine with the adhesive tape in the dressing room. In my view, he is applying the control he has in a universe that is beyond his control."

Given Roach's experience with "24/7" cameras following him around during training camps and his general good-natured attitude, he said he eventually stopped noticing that the cameras were always with him. (I believe him because, if you must know, we catch a glimpse of his bare rear end. Hey, it's HBO.)

"Freddie became so relaxed in our process that he fell asleep in front of the camera sometimes," Lampley said. "We were with him for a long time."

Lampley estimates his crew shot more than 1,500 hours, which was ultimately whittled down to what became three hours divided into six episodes.

"The editor is the hero of the story," Lampley said of Stephen Strout. "Any kudos that go to the show have to include the guy who viewed countless hours and found the nuances that illuminate Freddie's world."

In the second episode, we learn about the deep relationship between Roach and his older brother, Pepper Roach, and then see Freddie's almost clinical reaction to a serious medical issue involving Pepper, which is shockingly captured on film. It is unsettling, but this is real reality TV.

"I know our show is not for everybody," Lampley said. "This is a show that trusts the audience, and that is unusual, and a lot of viewers don't like that. But for viewers who want to watch and listen quietly and watch Freddie leak through the screen, by the end of six episodes you will say, 'That's a remarkable life."

It is. And it is one worth watching.