Trainer Rooney hardly down for the count

Boxing: After fighting through years of adversity, Mike Tyson's former handler is hoping to develop another champion.


July 21, 2005|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

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 fighters.

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.

Well-known 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.

"Boxing's been 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.

"I 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 with them."

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 anymore."

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 do."

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