When I interviewed Mickey Rourke in January 2009, his chances of disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald’s theory regarding second acts in American lives still hung in the balance. Critical acclaim from preview screenings of The Wrestler was only just beginning to filter through, the Golden Globe and Bafta awards for best actor had yet to be presented and the Oscar nomination was a month away. But none of that helped my nerves. I’ve been a fan of his since I watched Barfly aged 13, and I just hoped he wasn’t a wanker. I was also nervous because I wasn’t going to ask anything other than perfunctory questions about The Wrestler. I wanted to talk to him about boxing.
Walking into his gothic hotel room in Chelsea that day it took about thirty seconds for my nerves to disappear. Dressed in a wife-beater and blue jeans, covered in faded tattoos and wearing those ridiculous spectacles, the Mickey Rourke who greeted me was a different animal to the cocksure movie star you see stalking the red carpet today. I’d taken him a used copy of Four Kings by George Kimball as a present, and as I gave it to him his hands shook uncontrollably. His vulnerability weighed heavily on his gait and it is clear to me now that he had no idea of how quickly he would again become A-list. I felt like giving him a hug.
Thanking me for the book, he whispered “you got any fucking cigarettes, man?” smiled at the affirmative answer, pulled over a couple of armchairs and poured me the first of several vodkas with fresh orange. He also gave me his belt, but that’s another story…
Do you get to talk about boxing very often?
Only occasionally. Funnily enough I worked the mitts yesterday with one of the trainers here in the room, we moved the table out of the way and did our work. I did four rounds of three-minute sessions. I’m not allowed to have contact any more because I got diagnosed with short-term memory loss. They said if I went three more fights I could go up two weight classes and fight for a WBO Cruiserweight title.
Why did you need to go up in weight?
Because there was no way I was getting a title shot at middle or super-middle. But my neurological scan was so bad that the doctor said ‘forget about three more fights you can’t even have one more.’ I took the advice because I’ve seen all of the guys over the years who don’t stop when they’re supposed to, and I was pretty close with Jerry Quarry and Mike Quarry and both of those guys passed on from pugilistica dementia, and you know I remember Johnny Owen the Welsh guy who died in the fight with Lupe Pintor…
"I’m not allowed to have contact any more because I got diagnosed with short-term memory loss. They said if I went three more fights I could go up two weight classes and fight for a WBO Cruiserweight title."
Did you fight as a boy?
You know it’s funny because I had moved from Schenectady, New York, where things were very calm and normal into neighbourhood that was really quite violent in Miami, and of all the boys I grew up with I was the last one to want to fight.
You must remember your first fight though, most men do…
There was a guy who was in the sixth grade, I think he must have failed three times because he was the only kid who shaved, and he was kicking me in the legs in the schoolyard for no reason. I don’t know what happened but I snapped and got up and kicked the piss out of him and it’s been on ever since. It’s funny because my first pro fight I was at my weigh in and a guy comes over to me and says ‘do you remember me?’ I confessed that I didn’t and he said ‘you kicked the shit out of me in the sixth grade’. We’re very good friends now, he calls me and was in my corner a couple of times.
Do you miss boxing more than you missed acting?
To be honest with you yeah, I do. The first time I walked into a gym in 13 years was a couple of months ago, because it is still so hard and I don’t trust myself. You know if I’d start training for, let’s say, a month with sparring, I would absolutely say to someone, ‘get me a fight in Kansas City’ because I got a promoter there, the same guy who handled Tommy Morrison. About six months ago I got offered a good deal of money to go to Russia and fight, I thought about it real serious, but the problem is I went through a couple of years going, ‘gee, I can’t remember what I did this morning or yesterday…’
I’ve seen a few of your fights and you weren’t scared to take three punches to get one in…
Yeah that’s fair, but where you get real damage is not in the ring but in the gym, because you become desensitised to the pain. And it’s not so much the pain, because the only time you feel pain is if someone hits you in the liver, or an uppercut or straight shot in the mouth. All this stuff over here (taps his left cheekbone) you become desensitised to, and it’s almost like you let guys hit you there three or four times and go, ‘come on, bring it.’ It’s just by nature, ‘come on, I can take it, do it again, and I’m going to put something on your ass.’ I was sparring an average of 35 rounds a week for about a year with James Toney, which was no walk in the park, and then about a year with Roberto Duran…
You sparred with Toney and Duran?
I was Duran’s third sparring partner for a year towards the end of his career. I learnt an awful lot from him, little things like taking the palm of our hand on the break and tapping the guy in the solar plexus, just a little pop, but if you’re not ready that little thing there is gonna take the wind out of you. I was a lot taller that Roberto so I’d be like this (sticks arm out) and I was measuring him and he was ‘Mickey no, Mickey no,’ and I’m thinking why? (at this point he pulls my arm to his face to show how his arm was, grabs me close and jabs my elbow three times) so he cuffs me like this and shows me that he could’ve broken my fucking arm, but instead I learnt from him. He was very gracious that way, but with James Toney it was just war.
"But my neurological scan was so bad that the doctor said ‘forget about three more fights you can’t even have one more.’ I took the advice because I’ve seen all of the guys over the years who don’t stop when they’re supposed to."
And was it James Toney in his pomp or after he began to blow up?
Oh he was the real deal. James was one of the greatest fighters with angles that I ever saw, ever. The way he pivoted, and he would come under and over. Even though I never won one single round in two years with James, it helps to get you ass kicked every day by better fighters.
Who are your favourite boxers?
I went over and fought in Argentina, and they said to me after the fight, ‘what would you like to do? We can give you a racehorse or take you to a whorehouse or buy you a diamond ring,’ and I said, ‘ I wanna go visit Monzon,’ so they flew me in a helicopter to Santa Fe, outside Buenos Aries, and I got to spend the whole day with Carlos Monzon in prison (Monzon, regarded as the third best Middleweight of all-time, was inside for murdering his common-law wife). The guard even took his machine gun off so we could all take pictures…
And what about guys who are around now?
Freddie Roach was my trainer and I went to see him and Pacquiao and they’d just done sparring 16 rounds. And to see how Freddie has taken someone who was very wild and naturally gifted and refined him to a place where he is nearly unbeatable is unbelievable. Any fighter needs direction and Manny and Freddie are a great team. People might say that Oscar (de la Hoya) was getting on but the result woulda’ been the same ten years ago. He’s super-strong, he gives you angles, and he also did something that very few people, Mayweather included, did and took Oscar’s body away. Hopkins did it with one shot, but Manny was consistent with taking his body away and I think that if Freddie Roach has the right student who listens, he will teach them how to break the other fighter down, whether you have physical advantages or not. You know Freddie Roach is the greatest living trainer of this era…”
Who would you have loved to fight or spar with? Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson?
I’ve been asked that before, and I can’t give you an honest answer, but probably some of the guys from the early years who weren’t that good whose ass I coulda kicked! You know the fighters who’ve come up since Sugar Ray Leonard are all about speed and conditioning. People think fighters are stupid, you know Mike Tyson is a very bright guy, like me he might do foolish things out of the ring but he’s smart. Same with Sugar Ray. It’s a thinking man’s sport and I understand why every fighter wants just one more fight, and that can cost you, I mean it can cost you a lot. Boxers explain to me when you cross that line there’s no coming back. And a lot of guys haven’t got the opportunity. I had another career to fall back on and I was able to walk away. Not willingly though, I miss that shit every day.
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