|Q & A with Kevin Rooney – Chosen to Fulfill Cus D'Amato's Prophecy!
By Ken Hissner, Doghouse Boxing (April 7, 2011) Doghouse Boxing
When Floyd Patterson came out of the 1952 Olympics Cus D’Amato proclaimed “he will be the next heavyweight champion of the world”. Since Patterson was the 165 Olympic Gold medal winner it seemed to make this prophecy on his part a long shot. On November 30, 1956 the prophecy of D’Amato was fulfilled. Patterson won the vacant heavyweight title stopping the light heavyweight champion Archie Moore to become the youngest boxer at 21 to ever win the heavyweight championship.
A teenager named Mike Tyson was brought to D’Amato by Bobby Stewart, one of his former fighters from a reform school. After watching him spar with Stewart and hitting the heavy bag D’Amato once again predicted Tyson to be “the next heavyweight champion”. Tyson would win the heavyweight title at 20 to become the youngest boxer of all times erasing the record set by Patterson.
With the passing of D’Amato less than a dozen fights into Tyson’s career co-manager Jimmy Jacobs had been told by D’Amato “don’t let Kevin fight anymore. Have him take over the training of Mike after I’m gone”. Rooney was “chosen” by the “master” trainer which is a name D’Amato loved putting on boxers he took a shining to. If you were a Capricorn he would take a look no matter what to see what you had.
It was 1984 when this writer was in Scranton, PA, that I met Cus D’Amato and Kevin Rooney. I wasn’t writing then and Kevin was still an active boxer. I didn’t care for the way D’Amato had handled the heavyweight champion because I felt he kept his Floyd Patterson from fighting some of the top ten contenders like Eddie Machen, Zora Folley and Cleveland Williams. Little did I know the genius behind it!
I invited myself up to Catskill after meeting the two. There was something about D’Amato that interested me. He sure didn’t seem like the “gangster type” that the boxing writers portrayed him to be.
After my first visit he asked me to put Rooney back in with his last opponent Terry Crawley. Rooney suffered his first loss in 10 bouts in Scranton to Crawley in his last fight. I was helping Bob Connelly the promoter at the time. Of course getting Rooney would be a big plus since it was like his second home in Scranton. “I want to measure how far back he is by putting him back in with Crawley,” said D’Amato.
The first Crawley-Rooney fight was stopped on a bad gash over Rooney’s eye in 6 rounds. He had just come off a loss to the legendary Alexis Arguello. “He (Arguello) was the only time I couldn’t beat the count but I wasn’t knocked out. In the rematch with Crawley I felt Rooney should have gotten the decision but the judges saw it as a draw.
It wouldn’t be but a little over a year that Rooney would retire with a 21-4-1 (7), record. D’Amato had asked me to put Tyson’s debut on a show I was promoting in Easton. Finding an opponent on short notice was difficult. I sure wish I would have tried a little harder to do that.
On my first visit to Catskill I met Rooney, Tyson, Teddy Atlas and the 3 Hilton brothers from Montreal along with their father. The father always wanted D’Amato to train him. As it turned out 2 of those sons became world champions.
Tyson had 15 fights when I got a call from him about David Jaco who he was to fight in 1986. “Ken Hissner, do you know who this is?” It was hard not to know that unique voice. “Mike Tyson”? He replied “how’d you guess”? “Lucky guess”, I said. D’Amato had passed away just 2 months prior to that.
I had already met Jim Jacobs, Tyson’s co-manager the year before I met D’Amato and Rooney. Tyson was surround by good people in Jacobs, D’Amato, Rooney and yes, Camile Ewald. She ran the house and as tough as she could be she was a sweetheart.
Rooney had to fill a void that must have been enormous with D’Amato’s passing. Tyson was only 11-0 at the time. Rooney was now in charge at the ripe old age of 30 training the fighter D’Amato felt was destined to be the world champion someday.
Jacobs worked wonders putting Tyson in 11 fights in 8 months before D’Amato passed away. Even more amazing was in the next 10 months Tyson won 15 more fights. He then signed for a WBC title Trevor Berbick held in November of 1986 just 20 months after turning professional.
I wouldn’t see Tyson or Rooney again until October of 1987 in a title defense against Tyrell Biggs. Biggs was the name I took to Jacob’s when Tyson was 15 to take a look at. “We already have a heavyweight,” said Jacobs. What was my genius reply? “I never heard of him!” Oh boy.
I went to the press conference before the fight and the first person I noticed was Rooney. He was sitting at a table waiting for Tyson and was so friendly in greeting me. Through him I got to see Tyson again later that day. I knew long before this that Tyson was in good hands with Rooney but this confirmed it.
I’ve read many stories of Rooney and Tyson. I knew when Jacob’s passed if Don King was calling the shots there may be a new corner. Rooney was not someone you could buy and was looking out for Tyson and not in it for a buck. Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright took over the corner while along with Rooney went cut-man Matt Baranski.
King took away the trainer (Rooney) that guided Tyson to a 35-0 record with 7 defenses. Tyson was 15-6 with 2 no contests without Rooney and 2 defenses. Does that tell you the major mistake King made?
Bright knew little about training a fighter. Baranski was an assistant to Cus who was made cut-man. I think he thought he should be the next trainer. He even testified against Rooney at Tyson’s trail.
After just 3 fights including the loss to Douglas, Richie Giachetti was brought in from Cleveland. I wrote Tyson when he was in prison suggesting Jesse Reid be his trainer when he got out. I also named fighters Buster Mathis, Jr., Bert Cooper and Tim Witherspoon as possible future opponents. D’Amato had trained the father of Mathis. They chose Mathis in their second fight and not Reid until later.
“I was called in to work with Tyson. After the first workout I asked Mike what he liked to do when he wasn’t fighting,” said Reid. “Sex and drugs,” said Tyson. Reid immediately went back to his hotel room and started packing. Tyson called and said “come on Jess, come along for the ride like everyone else does.” Reid replied “I can’t put up with that and I don’t need the ride.”
I have a problem “listening” to ESPN fights. Teddy Atlas makes it seem like he is the second coming of Cus D’Amato. He uses so man of D’Amato’s phrases and then too many of his own. Outside of the amateurs when was he with Tyson? He wasn’t his trainer than. D’Amato was.
I made about 3 visits to Catskill before Tyson turned professional and only remember seeing Atlas on the first visit. Having D’Amato train you and assist him as trainer is what Rooney did. Reid would have been the closest thing to Rooney in discipline and knowledge for Tyson. Neither would put up with the nonsense and both knew their trade.
At the end of last year I contacted Kevin Rooney, Jr., who is Director of Media Relations for Joe DeGuardia’s Star Boxing out of New York. You couldn’t ask for a more likeable young man if you were hunting for a husband for your daughter. No one is more accommodating to the writers then he is.
On top of that Rooney knows his business. He spent years around his dad and boxing and got many more years of experience than most do in a lifetime. I gave him a picture of D’Amato, his dad and me at the Scranton, PA, commissioner’s office back in the 80’s. I would later have the pleasure of doing a story on him. I asked if he thought his dad would be interested in doing a story and he got back to me and said yes.
Kevin Rooney, Sr. and I had 3 phone conversations. We reminisced mostly on the first call and covered his fights and when he trained Tyson on the next one. We went over things over the phone for hours with each call. The last call was shorter in wrapping things up. He was most accommodating in doing a Q&A with me.
KH: I don’t think you had to spend much time around Cus before you realized what a genius he was. You were 19 went you went to live with him. How long did it take you to leave your job and the city?
KR: I put in for a leave of absence for a year and was denied. Eventually I thought I didn’t want to someday be sitting in a bar wondering if I should have tried it. When I met Cus at the train station I thought I wouldn’t want to mess with this guy. I knew I made the right decision.
KH: My first trip up I kept Cus up from 9pm to 3am because everything he said was new and interesting. The next morning Camile made it clear not to keep him up so that late again. She was absolutely right.
KR: Cus and Camile were very close. She was also like a mother to Mike. He even called her Mom.
KH: I thought Jim Jacobs whom I met a year before you and Cus had a brilliant mind and was a very caring person. I was hoping all his films were still in his walk-in vault but they were in a bank vault. How close were you to him?
KR: Jimmy and I really didn’t have much alone time together. When it was rumored I might be out as trainer for Mike Jimmy looked me right in the eyes and asked if I wanted a contract. I told him his hand shake would be good enough. That conversation was taped.
KH: Cus asked me to send a fighter up to spar with Mike. I sent Jimmy Young up to spar with Mike. I have seen Jimmy get the best of Joe Frazier in the gym. I got a call 4 days later after Jimmy’s arrival with him saying “what the hell are you doing to me?” Being a kidder I thought he was putting me on. I told him “the kids a 16 year old amateur”. Jimmy replied, “I don’t care what he is but he is beating the shit out of me.” Jimmy left after 4 days. I then sent him to Canada with their Olympian Willie DeWitt.
KR: We couldn’t keep sparring partners. One took a couple of punches and just walked out of the ring and we never saw him again.
KH: I met Bill Cayton the day I met Jimmy and was introduced to him. How did Cayton fit in?
KR: Cayton was the brains behind so much of the dealings.
KH: How was the relationship between Don King and Jim Jacobs?
KR: They respected each other. Though you knew King was a street hustler. I believe Jimmy had power over him and when he passed Cayton took over.
KH: You had said Cus wanted to get Jimmy to fight light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. (D’Amato was quoted saying he believed only Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson carried the same aura of a champion that Jacobs possessed)
KR: Jimmy was a six-time National Handball champion and National Doubles champion traveling the world. Moore considered it but felt he had too much to lose if he lost. I believe he was offered a quarter of a million.
KH: Since you told me that I looked up Moore’s record and he had a match just prior to fighting Floyd Patterson for the vacant heavyweight title with a famed wrestler named Professor Roy Shire in September of 1956. I guess losing to a wrestler instead of a handball champion might not be so bad. He stopped Shire on a cut in 3 rounds.
KR: That’s interesting.
KH: I understand your son Kevin is turning pro. Did you work with Kevin in his amateur bouts?
KR: He would come up to Catskill the week before the fights. He got robbed in the Golden Gloves and has more of a professional style anyway. He decided he would turn pro on April 22nd in CT.
KH: When Mike knocked out Marvis Frazier and raised his hands in victory I noticed Jim Jacobs saying something in Mike’s ear and the arm’s dropped. Do you think Jim said something in order to get the arms down?
KR: No, it’s a natural instinct when you win.
KH: I did stories on some of Tyson’s former opponents like Henry Milligan (Olympic trials), Biggs and Tillman. They all said they knew Mike could punch but his hand speed surprised them
KR: The quickness was there and we worked on the head movement which was a key. He really got robbed by Tillman in the trials. He should have gone to the Olympics and would have won the Gold. There was another time Mike wanted to fight super heavyweight. His opponent kept holding him and eventually the referee “disqualified Mike”. When I told Cus this he said we should drop to heavyweight. We were told they wanted Biggs as their super heavyweight.
KH: When Mike destroyed trash talking Larry Holmes what pleasures did that bring the corner?
KR: He talked some trash but Mike never said a word. In the ring he did destroy him.
KH: In the Tubbs fight I believe Jacobs was ill.
KR: Jimmy didn’t make the trip. We didn’t realize how serious it was. He passed within a week after we got back. We knew King would move in with Jimmy’s death. (It was reported Jacob’s suffered from Lymphocytic Leukemia for around 9 years. He was only 58 at his death). I believe King would have been out if Jimmy lived longer.
KH: I thought Carl “The Truth” Williams got a quick count when he fought Tyson and was stopped after one knockdown. What were your thoughts on that?
KR: He should have tried harder to get up. Mike and he always had a thing going even in the amateurs.
KH: When Mike was on trial I couldn’t believe his lawyer telling everyone he was a bad person. J Russell Peltz told me in Indiana Tyson doesn’t stand a chance. I didn’t think he was right but he was. I heard the first KKK was in that state. Do you think Mike was being used as “an example”?
KR: King’s lawyer was so bad. I do believe they did it to set an example.
KH: What went through your mind when Mike was on the canvas trying to put his mouthpiece in after being dropped by Buster Douglas?
KR: Douglas was never in better shape and Mike was out of shape. When I trained Mike I ran with Mike. I watched it with my girl friend and she was rooting for Douglas and I told her not to root against Mike. I have never bad mouthed Mike at any time since we parted. There were too many distractions on our first visit to Japan. I’m sure going there without me he did a lot of partying before the fight.
KH: It’s none of my or anyone else’s business but were you compensated fairly by Mike after the break-up?
KR: We went to court and my lawyer brought up the tape with Jimmy saying I could train Mike. From the stand Mike said he told Jimmy to film it. The judge didn’t need to hear anymore.
KH: Most people have no concept when people say “money is not important”. Tell us how Cus really believed that because I knew it from my few meetings with him how sincere he seemed. (I also learned Jose Torres made over 1 million in the ring and Cus never took his manager or trainer cut. Not one penny per Torres. In fact, Cus paid for his wedding)
KR: Money was not important to Cus. When he lost Patterson he never sued him. He felt Patterson was mentally troubled at the time.
KH: What were your thoughts about retiring as a boxer?
KR: I didn’t want to stop at the time. Matter of fact Mike was on two of my undercards. I believe I was the only boxer to work the corner of a fight (always the first bout on the card) and later fight the main event. (This occurred on March and April of 1985 I Tyson’s first 2 bouts)
KH: You lost 4 times. Anything stick out about them?
KR: The Davey Moore fight was stopped for no reason. I beat him 3 out of 4 times in the amateurs. I had my back against the ropes and the ref jumped in. I couldn’t believe it. Making weight for Arguello was tough. I had never made 140 before as a pro. Arguello was WBC lightweight champ and was moving up to fight Aaron Pryor. I was still trying to get up when I was counted out.
KH: I know I’m jumping around with the questions but what stands out about your fights as trainer of Tyson?
KR: Winning the WBA title. It is the oldest title. The left hook that I helped Mike perfect took him down. Trevor Berbick stands out more than anything else in winning his first title.
KH: How was Teddy Atlas brought to Cus?
KR: He and I were friends in the neighborhood since the time we were 10 or 12. I was asked to bring him up with me. I really don’t have anything to add to that. (Seems Atlas did time on Riker’s Island.)
KH: Of all the former heavyweight champions who do you get asked most to match Mike with?
KR: Ali. Prime time to prime time Mike delivered punches a little harder and faster. Cus said Mike was even faster than Floyd Patterson, his fighter.
KH: What other fighter besides Tyson did you enjoy working with?
KR: Vinnie Paz. Who else came back from a broken neck to win a world title?
That’s the Q&A with Kevin Rooney. Rooney is someone who you know he has your back. Tyson has never manned up to the firing of Rooney which was a major factor in the boxers decline. Rooney will not go negative on the fighter he would lead into the ring and to the championship. He does know he fulfilled his role at the request of the genius of Cus D’Amato who was so prophetic in saying “there goes the next heavyweight champion of the world!”
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