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Undisputed Truth: Mike Tyson’s Break With Kevin Rooney

Why did former Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson part ways with his excellent trainer Kevin Rooney–and how did that affect his boxing career? It seems that Tyson suffered from Rooney’s absence and hired unskilled hangers-on in Rooney’s place.

From there, he also replaced his business manager Bill Cayton with the unstabilizing force known as Don King. But don’t blame Don King; Tyson was self-destructive enough in his own right.

Kevin Rooney And The Old Guard

Cus D’Amato, Tyson’s late mentor and guardian, left a legacy which was continued in the form of Kevin Rooney, Tyson’s scrappy trainer. Rooney, himself a former middleweight boxer, continued to give Tyson good advice in the ring consistent with Cus’s teaching. When you watch old Tyson fights from the late ’80s, you see Rooney in Tyson’s corner telling Tyson to jab more, encouraging him. In those old fights, with Rooney exhorting him, as Tyson stoically waits for the next round to begin, one cannot help but feel that Rooney was in no small part of Tyson’s success. (SEE ALSO: Mike Tyson: The Bad Boy Image)

In fact, they seem to have great personal chemistry as far as one can see, despite the fact that they were obviously from different races and backgrounds. 

Kevin Rooney in an interview with Larry Merchant, 1988 (YouTube/screenshot)

Parting with Rooney was surely an unwise decision by Tyson (one of many). Tyson gave Rooney credit, at least at the time he worked with him, as having helped him be successful, even giving him a shoutout in ringside interviews. You can see that Rooney delighted and basked in Tyson’s image of invulnerability, and Rooney himself also seemed like a tough guy with a working class New York accent. In this sense, Rooney was a stabilizing force in Tyson’s life, after the death of Cus; especially considering that Tyson was leery of his then manager Bill Cayton.  

Many attributed Tyson’s subsequent decline to a lack of Kevin Rooney in his corner. Rooney kept Tyson’s feet on the ground, and with Tyson under the wiles of Don King, it became all about ego and hedonism.  Even before he was hired as Tyson’s manager, King was latching onto the Tyson train. He was present at his fights, presumably as he was involved in the promotion. One can see him with his salesman smile climbing into the ring after the conclusion of another victorious Tyson fight; meanwhile, Cayton’s presence was more subdued.

One also suspects that racial solidarity (or just plain racism) had something to do with Tyson departing from Rooney. In the post-Rooney era, no one could tell Tyson what to do. 

In Undisputed Truth, Tyson doesn’t discuss Rooney too much, and gives a curt explanation as to his firing. Tyson explains that he was displeased with some of Rooney’s comments to the press, some of which were critical of Don King:

"He was very anti-Don, always pro-Cayton. I think that his hatred for Don was blinding him. Keven really fired himself." (202)

Cayton, Tyson’s ex-manager, would go on to sue Don King. In that trial, Tyson testified that he had no idea whether he’d been paid the 12 million he was owed from the Spinks fight, so it’s not like he had any idea what was going on with his finances.

But hasn’t Tyson already realized that Don King was a parasite on his career and finances? It would seem that events have vindicated Rooney’s skepticism of King; meanwhile, Tyson does not accuse Rooney of any misdeeds or mismanagement, besides maybe having a bad temper. Meanwhile, Tyson didn’t have any major accusations against Cayton either; rather, it seems Tyson just didn’t have a friendly feeling towards him, and based on that, was disposed to part ways with his first manager.

New Trainers and New Disasters

In this light, one would have hoped Tyson could have been a little more introspective about his relationship with Rooney and admitted that he made a mistake. Quite the contrary, he recalls his next trainer, Jay Bright, whose qualifications were that he was Tyson’s former roommate in Catskill. Not a smart choice, and Tyson’s declining boxing performance bears this out.

His main trainer now was Aaron Snowell, an African American friend of Tyson whom Tyson seemed to kind of ignore during the fights, despite Snowell pressing his face against Tyson and whispering to him in the corner in a somewhat bizarre fashion. To hire an unqualified trainer such as Snowell and then for Tyson to act as though a trainer were not necessary was an act of hubris. Sure, he could skate by on natural ability, as he did against Frank Bruno in 1989 with a brutal TKO in the 5th round. But eventually, Tyson’s lack of discipline and guidance would catch up with him.

At a press conference after the Bruno fight, Tyson said:

"I basically know what to do...When someone's in there throwing punches at you, it doesn't matter who's in your corner. You just know you have to defend yourself." 

So long as Tyson was teamed up with Rooney, one could not find fault with his boxing performance. In fact, one could see a pretty direct line between Rooney being let go and the Douglas disaster which followed. Perhaps Tyson finally missed his old trainer Kevin Rooney once it dawned on him that he was losing to Buster Douglas.

Not only did Tyson display his lack of discipline in training, now without adult supervision, his new trainers didn’t even have the right gear to treat Tyson’s worryingly swollen eye in the middle rounds of the fight. Instead, they used something that Tyson describes as looking like “an extra-large condom with ice water” to treat his eye, as Tyson sat in his corner incredulously.

As Tyson saw his career slipping through his fingers in the Douglas fight, his new trainer gave him such wise advice as:

"Get back to what you know...Do it. Just let go" (218). 

The lack of training and the reckless choice of trainer were about to pay their toll. But this was the bed that Tyson had set, and now had to sleep in.

(Self) Promoter: Don King

As for Don King, in his autobiography Tyson displays nothing but contempt for his former manager, portraying King as insufferable and disingenuous. Tyson even claims to have kicked King in the head on various occasions, though it is not clear how this would have even been possible. At any rate, Tyson himself admits to being verbally and physically abusive towards King. King, to his credit, got Tyson to see a psychologist, whom Tyson proceeded to scare out of his house on the first visit.

Don King (Screenshot/ YouTube)

Tyson unloads on King:

"When I think about all the horrific things that Don has done to me over the years, I still feel like killing him.  He's such a liar and betrayer." (213) 

This just begs the question: Why did Tyson put his career in King’s hands then for so long? One can only speculate that Tyson felt lost enough that he rather liked the idea of someone taking the reins of his career and finances.

A comment from King to the press in the late ’80s hints at a type of father-son dynamic (however false):

"It's a family affair, where togetherness, solidarity, and unity prevail. Mike understand he has to be better than he is. My job is to be honest with allow him to make his own mistakes. He has to grow up like everyone else, it's all about Mike growing up and I can't wait to make him independent of me." (208)

Perhaps based on their shared cultural background, Tyson was led to a false sense of security working with the notorious bullshit artist Don King.

In the promotion for the Alex Stewart fight in 1990, you can see that King really played up the black solidarity angle in order to ingratiate himself towards Tyson, despite the fact that Tyson was already aware that he was not receiving the money owed to him from his bouts. In this off the wall “Spike Lee Presentation.” King said,

"They always change the rules when black men come into success. Black success is unacceptable."

While King stoked this sense of black grievance, Tyson was getting fleeced by his “brother,” and probably would have been better served by his old trainer Kevin Rooney and certainly different management.

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