Published: July 25, 2004
PHOENIX His comeback fight is looming, but Mike Tyson doesn’t want to spar on this diabolically hot desert afternoon. Doesn’t even want to wrap his hands and lace his gloves.
He had sparred the day before, busting open his partner’s forehead. He got up and ran sprints this morning. Now he’s in an airless Central Boxing Gym on a 106-degree day, distinctly unenthusiastic.
But Iron Mike’s recalcitrance is about to melt away in contact with Freddie Roach’s velvety authority.
Tyson’s trainer for his Freedom Hall fight with Danny Williams next Friday benignly acquiesces on the sparring, sending the day’s partner home bruise-free. But that’s the only concession. Roach quietly ends up getting more than he gives to the volatile former heavyweight champ.
Roach coaxes Tyson into the workout. He wraps his hands, then puts him through some timing and agility drills. Then Roach puts on a pair of circular black mitts and gets in the ring with Tyson for several rounds of work on fundamentals, combinations and fight strategy rounds that become progressively sharper and more productive. Finally, Tyson contentedly tattoos the speed bag for a while.
By the time it’s over, the listlessness has evaporated into the baked air. There is bounce in Tyson’s step, light in his eyes, thunder in his gloves. Everyone in the gym is glowing over the day’s work.
“Now he’s happy I made him work out,” Roach said. “He’s that type of cat. If you stand up to him and make him work, he’ll respect you and he’ll work.”
Freddie Roach manipulated the scariest man on the planet with a series of murmurs. You’ll hear louder instructions and admonishments at a chess camp than you heard from Roach in the ring with Tyson on this day. In a sport rife with rage, he teaches strategic violence in an antithetical manner, almost like a horse whisperer subduing a wild mustang.
Standing ringside and watching the workout, just about the only audible words from Roach come when Tyson is leaving the ring: “Good job.” Boxing reeks of scam, but Roach teaches something that still could be called the sweet science. He paradoxically exudes an understated purity.
Physically, the 44-year-old Massachusetts native is bereft of machismo and hardly could appear any less commanding. The wispy former featherweight has the goatee, horn-rimmed glasses and high-rise hair of a domesticated skate punk, and none of the muscles of an ex-pugilist. (If you were to guess which sporting venue Roach will visit here next week, you’d think Extreme Park before Freedom Hall.)
His left hand trembles when he puts it on his hip, a hint of the Parkinson’s disease that has assailed him for 16 years. His speech is slightly slurred. He’s a born boxer: His father, a former New England featherweight champion, put the gloves on Freddie when he was 6 years old, and he fought relentlessly over the next two decades as an amateur and a pro.
Roach eventually slid from contender to tomato can, and he had a hard time giving it up and moving on. But he eventually rediscovered himself as a trainer. When he murmurs these days, even if the words occasionally are fuzzy, some of the most mercurial boxers on the planet come to heel.
He’s considered among the best in the business, running his Wild Card Gym out of a Hollywood strip mall. His clients range from businessmen to an elite stable of pros, with Tyson’s name currently on the marquee.
“He brings out the best in me,” Tyson said. “He’s got me consistently working hard.”
The former Eddie Futch disciple has done quite well with a wide spectrum of fighters, including leading North Dakotan Virgil Hill to a world light-heavyweight title. But the hard cases seem to bring out the best in Roach.
He helped resurrect the seemingly dead career of heavyweight James Toney. He endured the eccentricities of actor Mickey Rourke to make him an undefeated club fighter. And now he’s trying to repair the career of mythic misanthrope Mike Tyson.
“They always send problem guys to me,” Roach said with a smile. “I don’t have a problem with those guys.”
Tyson manager Shelly Finkel first sent his client to Roach in December 2002. Roach was in Osaka, Japan, with another fighter when he got the call asking him to train Tyson.
“I thought somebody was playing a joke on me at first,” he said. “But I always thought I could help him.”
Roach wound up flying to visit Tyson in Las Vegas on Christmas Day 2002. He signed on to train him for his fight against Clifford Etienne.
He discovered that Tyson had shockingly rusty fundamentals. After the legendary trainer of his youth, Cus D’Amato, Tyson had been coached by a parade of sycophants seduced by punching power. His boxing skills had atrophied.
“I know you learned this stuff from Cus D’Amato,” Roach once told him. “Why don’t you do it?”
“Because those other don’t make me,” Tyson replied.
Roach makes him. Quietly but insistently, Freddie Roach makes even the hard cases even Mike Tyson on a lazy day do what he wants.
Tyson fight card
Fight night is next Friday in Freedom Hall.
Bout 1 (heavyweights): Timur Ibragimov (13-0-1, 7 KOs), Ukraine, vs. Earl Ladson (5-4, 2 KOs), Winston-Salem, N.C.
Bout 2 (welterweights): Devon Alexander (2-0, 1 KO), St. Louis, vs. Lance Leggett (0-1), Lake Charles, La.
Bout 3 (welterweights): Nick Casal (1-0, 1 KO), Niagara Falls, N.Y., vs. John Rudolph (1-2, 1 KO), Cincinnati
Bout 4 (super-middleweights): Willie Stewart (21-1, 12 KOs), Las Vegas, vs. Vitaliy Kopytko (24-6, 9 KOs), Chicago.
Bout 5 (heavyweights): Russell Chasteen (21-6, 13 KOs), Louisville, vs. George Lineberger (27-8-1, 24 KOs), Akron, Ohio.
Bout 6 (middleweights, NABO title fight): Randy “The Gentleman” Griffin (18-1-1, 10 KOs), Louisville, vs. Julio “The Cuban Lover” Garcia (25-3-2, 11 KOs), Las Vegas.
Bout 7 (flyweights, WBO title fight): Nelson “Fueguete” Dieppa (20-1-2, 12 KOs), Puerto Rico, vs. Ulises “Archie” Solis (18-0-1, 13 KOs), Guadalajara, Mexico.
Bout 8 (light-heavyweights, WIBA title fight): Laila Ali (17-0, 14 KOs), Las Vegas, vs. Monica Nunez (9-1, 5 KOs), Irvington, N.J.
Bout 9 (heavyweights): “Iron” Mike Tyson (50-4, 44 KOs), Brooklyn, N.Y., vs. Danny Williams (31-3, 26 KOs), London.
By Pat Forde