Of the dozen trainers Iron Mike Tyson has employed during his 18-year career, few have lasted long and none have left happily. They wind up getting either dumped, banished, marginalized, verbally battered or all of the above. Only Trainer No. 1, Cus D'Amato, bowed out with dignity intact, and he had to die to gain that distinction.
It isn't easy trying to harness the power of an entity only slightly less stable than nitroglycerin. And yet last week in Las Vegas, Freddie Roach, Trainer No. 12, said he was thankful for the chance to be preparing the faded 36-year-old ex-champ for a scheduled Feb. 22 bout with Clifford Etienne in Memphis. "The challenge is to bring Mike back to something like what he once was," said Roach, who'd spent seven weeks trying to iron out Mike's kinks. "The challenge is to get inside his head."
Even as he spoke, though, Roach was realizing that Tyson's head is not a place that's easily broached. Last Wednesday, Tyson showed up to train with a tattoo etched over the left side of his face and complained about back pain. (Asked if the tattoo hurt, Tyson, an authority in these matters, said, "No, there's not too many nerves in your face.") On Thursday and Friday, Tyson didn't show up at all. Nor did he respond to a dozen phone messages from Roach. As rumors that Tyson was on a partying binge and suffering a "mental meltdown" circulated, Roach sat in the dark "Mike went from being a great guy to somebody who withdrew into a shell," Roach said on Friday. "I'd heard all the horror stories, but this is just crazy."
In some ways it was just business as usual. It's not that Tyson's trainers aren't credible; it's that to get to him they must wade though a sea of flunkies. "If, by chance, a trainer reaches Mike," says one veteran cornerman, "he's faced with a guy who's not a model of rationality."
Roach was supposed to be different, a mild, gritty ex-pug who has trained 16 world champions and would go toe-to-toe for what he believed. "Freddie was a world-class fighter who put his whole heart into the game," says trainer Joe Goossen. "If you don't, he lets you know."
Roach, 42, joined Team Tyson on Dec. 26 after agreeing to a $150,000 fee—a substandard 5% of Tyson's $3 million purse. If there was no fight, there would be no pay. He left the stable of 19 pros he trains at his L.A. gym, moved in with his mother in Vegas and set to work. Tyson had been out of the ring since June, when he was knocked out by Lennox Lewis in eight rounds. "Mike boxed for the first three minutes," Roach says. "Then he gave up."
Roach hoped that that humiliation would make Tyson train diligently. And for a while the fighter did, meeting Roach for roadwork at 5:30 a.m., showing up for every workout, scrapping his entourage. He even reperfected the left jab-pivot-left hook, a combination he used in the late 1980s when he was training with Kevin Rooney. "I was getting through to Mike," Roach insists. "He obeyed my orders."
A moment of truth came one day during a sparring session. In the final round, Tyson suddenly bent over and vomited. "After Mike was done puking, I told him to finish the round," recalls Roach. "He glared at me and said, 'F—- you.' I said, 'No, f—- you, Mike. Let's finish.' " Tyson did. "If you let Mike be the bully, he will," Roach says. "Don't give Mike control, and he'll give you respect."
For a while, maybe. On Sunday and Monday, while promoters debated whether to cancel the fight, Roach knew less about Tyson's status than a fan browsing the Web. Finally, Roach reached Tyson, who told him he had the flu and planned to pull out. The fight was dead. Roach would receive nothing. Then Tyson mumbled a few words of thanks and hung up.