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Rooney still fighting!

Story by Kevin Rooney Jr.

Photos Courtesy of Boxing Hall of Champions, Inc., and Marty Rosengarten

No matter how tough things are in life, you can’t ever give up. Keep on fighting until you hear that final bell and if you give it everything you have, you will always come out on top. --Kevin Rooney, Sr.

On June 27th 1988, Kevin Rooney was in the corner of undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, “Iron” Mike Tyson. It was Tyson’s 35th fight as a professional, and all of them had Rooney in his corner.

Cus D’Amato had guided Tyson through the amateur ranks and his first 11 fights as a professional before dying from a rare case of pneumonia. Even though Cus was Tyson’s mentor, it was always Rooney who was seen working Tyson’s corner. Even for “the baddest man on the planet,” during his first few fights, when Cus was still alive, Rooney would coach Tyson in his corner, then hurry back into the dressing room to get ready to compete as one of the boxers in the main event of that evening’s show.

On this pivotal night, Tyson was taking on undefeated Michael Spinks (31-0, 21 KOs). Spinks was supposed to be Tyson’s toughest challenge to date, and many felt Spinks had the boxing ability to dethrone the king of the heavyweight division. Rooney and Tyson had other plans in mind. Just before Tyson was to start the first round, Rooney grabbed Tyson, giving him a hug and kiss, as he always did, before whispering in his ear, “You gotta knock him out in the first round.”

“I told Mike that I bet the entire purse – his and mine – on a first round knockout,” states Rooney. “Mike looked at me and said, ‘You are crazy, Kev.’ Of course, I didn’t actually do it, but I knew that would fire Mike up a little bit. Spinks had been running his mouth so much before the fight that he was going to do this and do that, but when I brought Mike to the center of the ring, I knew the fight was going to be over quick!

“You could see in Spinks’ eyes, he was scared to death.”

Ninety-one seconds later Tyson cashed in on his 25 million dollar payday. Rooney earned 2.5 million. The two were at the top of the world. Tyson was 35-0, 31 KOs, and widely considered as the greatest heavyweight champion ever, while Rooney was considered one of boxing’s top trainers, winning the 1988 Trainer of the Year award.

As a team, Rooney and Tyson seemed to be unstoppable. Under Rooney’s guidance, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion ever, knocking out Trevor Berbick to claim the belt when he was only 20 years old. Rooney himself was only 30 – the youngest trainer ever to have a heavyweight world champion. Rooney was also the first, and only trainer in boxing history to take his first fighter to a world championship.

“When Cus got sick, he asked me to put my boxing career on hold, and just concentrate on training Mike,” says Rooney. “I was still in fighting shape at the time. To be honest, I was in the prime of my career, but Tyson started making some noise early, and Cus asked if I would just concentrate on training Tyson for the time being. I didn’t see it really as a permanent move from fighter to trainer, especially at such a young age, but then Cus died soon after.

“After Cus’ funeral, Tyson grabbed me and Jimmy Jacobs and said ‘Let’s finish the job Cus started.’ I never officially retired though. I still think about making a comeback every once in awhile,” says Rooney with a chuckle.

Despite their overwhelming success, the Spinks fight was the last for Tyson and Rooney. Rooney was fired a short time later and the two never worked together again.

“After the fight we were in the dressing room. Mike comes over to me, hugs me, and says, ‘Here, take these,’ handing me his WBA, WBC and IBF championship belts.

“I said, ‘What, you want me to bring these back for you?’ But he says, ‘No, I want you to have them. I didn’t earn them – you did.’

“It took me some time for me to realize, but I think it was, like, his going away present. Mike was really confused during this time. He had Don King, Robin Givens and her mother brainwashing him. He didn’t know what he was doing. People forget he was just a baby still. He wasn’t even 22 yet.”

Three days later, Tyson turned 22. Three fights later, Tyson was knocked out by 50-1 underdog Buster Douglas in one of sports’ all-time greatest upsets.

Rooney sat watching from his TV at home.

“It was sad seeing that,” he recalled. “See, people think because of what happened, I hated Mike. Yeah, of course I was pissed off, but, more, I was upset. But I never wished anything bad upon Mike. I was always in his corner. Mike was like a brother to me.”

After the split Tyson was never the same, and, many argue, neither was Rooney. Rooney began gambling and drinking, a lot.

“I liked to have a good time. See, at that time, money was not an issue for me. I would go out and get drunk, and then gamble, and that doesn’t make for a good equation.”

Rooney went on to work with the likes of former heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman, guiding Rahman throughout his amateur career; super middleweight contender and former world title challenger Omar Sheika; former heavyweight contender Jeremy Williams; former WBO heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison; and five-time world champion Vinny Pazienza (now, “Paz”), among others.

Paz enlisted Rooney as his trainer before his third bout with Greg Haugen, and the two worked together for the remainder of Paz’s career. Under Rooney’s guidance, Paz upset undefeated WBA jr. middleweight champion Gilbert Dele on October 1, 1991. Shortly after, Paz broke his neck in a tragic car accident. Even though doctors told Paz, he might never walk again, and would certainly never fight again, Paz didn’t want to hear it.

“Vinny called me after and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Kevin, I am going to fight again.’ I could hear in his voice that he was dead serious. I knew there was going to be nothing that stopped him from getting back into that ring.”

Sure enough, Paz was back in the ring, training with a halo on his neck that was held in place by screws that were drilled into his head.

“The doctors had no clue,” says Rooney. “Vinny would sneak out of his room at any chance he could and go train. He would train in the middle of the night if that was the only time that he could get away.”

Paz went on to fight 24 more times, compiling a record of 19-5, winning the IBO and IBC super middleweight championships, as well as challenging for the WBC and IBF super middleweight belts. Paz is the only athlete in sports history to come back from a broken neck and win a championship.

“I couldn’t have done it without Kevin,” stated Paz. “He was not only my trainer but he was like a brother to me. I don’t know where my career would have been without Kev, and I can never thank him enough for that.”

All along though, while training and preparing his pupils for upcoming fights in the ring, Rooney was in a fight of his own against alcoholism. Rooney has battled the disease for the last 25 years or so.

“There would be periods I would drink all the time,” he says. “There would be times I wouldn’t drink at all. When I trained my fighters, I wouldn’t drink. But there is only so much training done throughout the year, so, sometimes, I got myself into trouble.”

The trouble Rooney refers to lead him to serving a six-month stint in county jail in 2004, and, more recently, going into an in-patient rehabilitation center in 2007.

Since his time spent in the rehabilitation center, where Rooney spent over a year, things have been on the upswing.

“I have been clean for almost two years now and I feel great. I was not looking forward to going into the rehab center, but then, all of these things started happening to me that I viewed as signs from God, almost. Maybe it was Cus looking down on me saying, ‘Pull it together, Kev.’”

A good example of one of those “signs” Rooney talks about was that the rehab center was located just two blocks away from a local boxing gym.

“They let me go out every day for a few hours to go over there and work with kids who were in the gym. It was nice. It got me outside the center for awhile, and it allowed me to do what I love – train fighters.”

Now that he is done with rehab, and on the mend, Rooney is currently working with a number of amateur and professional boxers. He has also assisted in the training of a few different MMA fighters, who have wanted to hone their boxing skills.

“I go out to Baltimore and help Jake Smith out with some of his fighters, from time to time,” he says. “I was in Chicago for a few weeks working with the captain of the Notre Dame Boxing team. He wants to turn pro after he graduates so we will see what happens. He showed a lot of potential, so I am looking forward to seeing how that pans out.

“Since I got out of the program, I have had tons of calls about people wanting me to work with them. I got a call from China with an offer to go there and be the boxing trainer for their MMA fighters. I got a call from some officials in Switzerland to come and look at a bunch of their heavyweights. I get calls from guys in California, Ohio, Hawaii – everywhere!

“I really want these guys to come to my gym in Catskill though. I love it here. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, it’s a great place for someone to train if they really want to be a fighter. Things are really moving in the right direction for me right now, only time will tell what will happen. It’s just a matter of the right offer coming along. Most importantly, I am happy and know that no matter what, I am still one of the top trainers in the industry.”

Rooney, who turned 53 in May, compares his ups and downs in life to that of a championship fight.

“I was at the top, and then I got knocked down. But I am a fighter, getting up when I am down is what I am trained to do. And I view this as my championship round. The score is even in my eyes right now. This is my last round, my last chance to come out on top.

“Life isn’t easy – no one ever said it would be – but it’s the way you deal with adversity that shows your true colors. Cus would always say anyone can look good in the ring when they are blasting away on someone. It’s when the person is taking your best shot and throwing back, that’s when you get to see what someone is truly made of. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.’ No matter how tough things are in life, you can’t ever give up. Keep on fighting until you hear that final bell. And if you give it everything you have, you will always come out on top.”

. . . .

About the author: Kevin Rooney Jr. has boxing in his blood. Along with being the son of world renowned trainer Kevin Rooney Sr., he is also the godson of six-time world champion Vinny Pazienza. Kevin Jr. is a 2006 graduate of Fordham University and he has been the Director of Media Relations for Joe DeGuardia’s Star Boxing since June 2008.

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