Roach gambles on Tyson revival


AMERICA AT LARGE/George Kimball: The first time Freddie Roach worked him a full 10 rounds with the pads, Mike Tyson made it through nine-and-a-half of them. Midway through the 10th, Iron Mike stopped throwing punches, bent forward, and threw up in the ring.

"I let him finish puking and then I told him he had to finish the round," said Roach. "He looked at me and said 'Bleep you' - but he finished the round."

Roach, the former New England featherweight champion from Massachusetts who guided Steve Collins through the most productive stage of his career, is the latest to accept the thankless task of training Tyson, who will make his return to the sport against a fellow ex-con named Clifford ("The Black Rhino") Etienne three weeks from Saturday.

Rehabilitating Tyson will be no easy task. Thoroughly unmasked by Lennox Lewis last June, the one-time "baddest man on the planet" will return to the same ring at the Memphis Pyramid to fight Etienne on February 22nd. The hope of all concerned is that his performance will be impressive enough to make the boxing public forget what happened last June. Towards that end, a Lewis-Tyson rematch has already been pencilled in for June 21st - probably in Las Vegas, if Tyson can get a Nevada boxing licence this time around.

Not only is Roach taking on an enormous challenge, but one fraught with career risks as well. By shifting his base of operations to Las Vegas, where Tyson is training for the Memphis fight, he has been forced to temporarily abandon the promising stable of boxers he had assembled at his Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles.

Roach is also the trainer of record for former middleweight champion James Toney; Filipinos Manny Pacquaio and Gerry Penalosa; Lucia Rijker of the Netherlands; the world's best female boxer; unbeaten Hawaiian flyweight Brian Viloria; and promising Irish featherweight Bernard Dunne, along with, until his recent hospitalisation, the talented but troubled former bantam-and- featherweight champion Johnny Tapia. When he moved back to Las Vegas the day after Christmas, Roach entrusted their care to his assistant trainer, Justin Fortune.

In an earlier incarnation, Fortune was an Australian heavyweight of modest skills, and Roach brought him to Ireland eight years ago to fight Lennox Lewis. Fortune got himself dusted in four rounds and Freddie's father died while he was in Dublin, but the trip was not without its high points: a couple of nights before Fortune fought Lewis at The Point, Freddie and I had dinner at the Shalimar on Exchequer Street, and Steve Collins came along. A few months later, Collins found himself looking for a trainer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

ROACH retired at 26 after a gruelling ring career that included fights against world champions Hector Camacho, Bobby Chacon and Greg Haugen. A one-time disciple of the late, legendary Eddie Futch, he has carved out a name for himself as one of the world's most esteemed trainers. Despite a decade-long battle with Parkinson's Disease, Freddie remains a hands-on cornerman who regularly climbs into the ring to work the pads himself.

Roach moved from Las Vegas to Los Angeles a decade ago at the behest of one of his better known but least talented pupils, the actor and sometime boxer Mickey Rourke, who helped Freddie build his Hollywood gym.

Roach kept his house in Vegas, and eventually gave it to his mother, retired Massachusetts boxing judge Barbara Roach. Now, at 42 and about to be married to American triple-jump record-holder Sheila Hudson, Freddie finds himself living with Mom again. Roach confers with Fortune via daily telephone calls, monitoring the progress of his charges in the gym.

"It's awkward but it isn't that unusual," he explained. "I used to do the same thing when I went off to camp in Europe with Stevie."

Tyson's corner has been essentially rudderless for the 15 years since he parted company with Kevin Rooney, the Cus D'Amato disciple who guided his brilliant early career. Richie Giachetti, Ronnie Shields and Tommy Brooks all found themselves regularly undermined by a preponderance of conflicting advice Tyson was getting from the coterie of sycophants who made up Iron Mike's substantial entourage.

Before taking the job, Roach insisted on clearing the decks, which wasn't as hard as it might seem. Many of the Tyson parasites had already deserted the ship in the wake of last June's embarrassment, and when he got himself socked with a $6.5 million divorce judgment earlier this month was forced to trim his payroll further.

The only member of Tyson's entourage of hangers-on remaining from last June's fight against Lewis is the enigmatic boxing pariah Carlos "Panama" Lewis. Banned from the sport for the past two decades after his role in a gloves-tampering scandal at Madison Square Garden that resulted in severe injuries to the late Billy Collins, Lewis brings a blend of voodoo, mysticism and boxing trickery to the corner. Since Tyson seems more comfortable in his presence, Roach reluctantly agreed to allow him to remain, with the proviso that he is proscribed from offering advice to the boxer.

"Panama is just . . . there," said Roach. "He doesn't say anything. I'm the trainer, and I'm the only one who's allowed to speak to Mike while we're in the gym."

Tyson, already in hock to the Showtime television network (for prior advances) and the US Internal Revenue Service (for back taxes), was saddled with another substantial liability with the $6.5 million divorce settlement, and he isn't shelling out a lot of dough on trainers: Freddie agreed to work the fight for a flat fee of $150,000, which is probably less than 2002 Trainer of the Year Buddy McGirt is getting for training The Black Rhino. So far, said Roach, Tyson has been a model pupil.

"I get up in the morning and meet him to run at 5.45 a.m., and he's there waiting for me, every day," reported Roach when we spoke by telephone a week or so ago. "I've been pushing him, and so far he's responded."