Published: July 21, 2005
By Lem Satterfield
Boxing: After fighting through years of adversity, Mike Tyson’s former handler is hoping to develop another champion.
Kevin Rooney acknowledges that when he was growing up, trouble always seemed to be right around the corner.
Rooney said he considered himself a ringleader during those days in
Staten Island, N.Y. – his fists earning him the respect of teenage
peers on the streets as well as an occasional night in jail.
Rooney later turned to fighting as a career, first as a boxer and then
as the trainer who guided Mike Tyson to the heavyweight championship.
That relationship ended in acrimony, but Rooney, 49, is still training
This week, Rooney is in town for tonight’s card at
Martin’s West in Woodlawn, where he will work the corner of Dundalk
heavyweight Mike Dietrich (5-0, one knockout) as he takes on Glen
Williams (2-0-1, two KOs) of St. Petersburg, Fla.
Boxing proved therapeutic for the young Rooney.
“I started going to the gym to work out my anger,” said Rooney, who
developed into a promising amateur, winning a 143.5-pound national
Golden Gloves crown in 1975 at the age of 18.
trainer Cus D’Amato took notice, inviting Rooney to his upstate New
York boxing school for wayward boys in the Catskills. There, Rooney met
Tyson, later became his lead trainer and helped to make him the sport’s
youngest heavyweight champ at the age of 20.
good to me. It straightened me out, got me out of trouble, more or less
got me off the streets,” said Rooney, who, since being fired by Tyson
in 1988, has had to overcome alcohol abuse and bankruptcy.
never ran around saying I was the guy who made Mike Tyson – Cus did
that,” he said. “I was just along for the ride. But like anything, you
have your ups and downs. There were great times, happy times – but
things come and go. I have no regrets.”
Rooney still runs the
Catskills boxing facility, now named for D’Amato, and has trained
big-name fighters such as Vinny Pazienza.
“He still knows the
game better than anyone I know,” said promoter Jake Smith, whose
Baltimore Boxing is handling tonight’s card. “He’ll yell at a fighter
to get him going – more than most guys yell at fighters. But one thing
he doesn’t do is lie to them. That’s why they trust him. He’s honest
Rooney’s main focus these days is Jay Krupp (6-1,
three KOs) of New Orleans and a small stable of fighters that includes
heavyweight Thomas Hayes (22-1, 15 KOs) of Chicago and middleweight
Leonard Pierre (16-1, 11 KOs) of New York.
“I’m doing fine,
feel good about these guys, and I feel good about the future,” Rooney
said. “Hopefully, I can develop one of these guys into a champion, just
like I did with Mike Tyson.”
A native of the Brooklyn, N.Y.,
slums, Tyson related to the childhood of Rooney, who was nine years
older and had been in the Catskills for five years before Tyson’s
arrival. Tyson admired Rooney’s skills and work ethic during the early,
unbeaten portion of Rooney’s professional career. They became
stablemates and friends.
“Mike was focused back then, and he
respected the way I did things in the gym,” Rooney said. “I could get
him up in the morning, get him to run, make him work on his head
movement, defense, his conditioning – all the things he doesn’t do
And when Rooney retired in 1985 at 21-4-1 with seven
knockouts in fights ranging from junior welterweight to junior
middleweight, D’Amato, who died later that year, made him the primary
trainer for Tyson, then 11-0.
“Cus always said Mike was going
to be the youngest heavyweight champion, I said, ‘Mike, it’s not over.
Let’s make Cus’ prediction come true,’ ” said Rooney, who was in
Tyson’s corner when he became boxing’s youngest heavyweight champ with
his knockout of Trevor Berbick in 1986, and in 1988, when it took Tyson
91 seconds to flatten Michael Spinks.
“Kevin was the
motivation for Tyson because he knew how to bring out he best in Mike
as a fighter,” said boxing historian Thomas Hauser, who spent a weekend
with D’Amato at the Catskills when Tyson was 17. “He understood the Cus
D’Amato method as it applied to Mike. Mike appreciated that Kevin was a
very real link to Cus.”
Last month, Tyson (50-6, 44 KOs) was
at MCI Center in Washington, where he quit on his stool after the sixth
round of a loss to unheralded Irishman Kevin McBride (33-4-1, 28 KOs)
of Brockton, Mass.
Tyson spoke to The Sun about Rooney four days before that fight.
“Kevin went by the Cus D’Amato method. I respected Kevin … [but Kevin
went from being like a trainer to almost like an owner at the time,”
said Tyson, who has had a revolving door of trainers and is now with
former world champion Jeff Fenech in a relationship whose chemistry he
compares favorably with the one he shared with Rooney. “Cus D’Amato
could do that with me, but no one else can. Your father can do things
to you that your big brother can’t, that you won’t let your big brother
Tyson fired Rooney soon after the Spinks fight, removing
the final barrier separating the fighter from the influence of promoter
Don King. King had been wooing the fighter “for a long time,” Rooney
said. “It all comes down to King. He was trying to muscle in on Mike
and he felt threatened by me. Mike was being brainwashed by King and
his buddies. My downfall was that I didn’t agree with him taking over.”
King “intervened, I got married to Robin Givens and her mother
– we didn’t stand a chance, Tyson said. Then one of the people
becomes influenced by the stardom. In the explosion of becoming famous,
[Tyson and Rooney] got caught up in thinking we’re better than what we
are, thinking we’re more than what we are. Maybe that happened to Kevin
– it surely happened to me.”
Rooney’s life then took a
downward spin. He spent the next few years battling Tyson in court, his
breach of contract suit asking for $49 million. Rooney won a $4.4
million judgment against Tyson; however, all but “about $9,000 of it
went to the IRS for back taxes,” Rooney said.
Rooney filed for
bankruptcy in 1990. His alcohol abuse caused scrapes with the law – one
of which resulted in last year’s public intoxication charge that earned
him a six-month stay in the Green County Jail in upstate New York.
But since his release from jail in September, Rooney said he has
persevered. He said he holds no grudges against Tyson, and, in fact,
was cheering for the ex-champion when he lost to McBride.
“I’ve never rooted against Mike, but Mike Tyson quit on the stool. The
corner let him quit. I wouldn’t have let him quit. I would have told
him to get back out there,” Rooney said.
“McBride is a pretty
big guy, but if Mike doesn’t show the desire to finish a fight against
a guy like that … if he’s going to take that kind of punishment and
doesn’t have the desire anymore, then he needs to get out of the game,”
Rooney said. “But I’ll tell you what – that’s not the Mike Tyson that I