Rooney and Tyson: Shared tenacity and lessons learnt

Now in the twilight years of his career, Wayne Rooney can learn a lot from the mistakes of his sporting idol, Mike Tyson.

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In Mike Tyson’s last ever professional boxing match in 2005, he slumped on a stool in the corner of the ring, refusing to continue into the seventh round of the fight. It meant defeat against Irish journeyman and club fighter, Kevin McBride. Tyson sounded despondent, ”I don’t have the guts to be in this sport any more. I’d liked to have continued, but I saw that I was getting beat on… I’m not going to disrespect the sport by losing to this calibre of fighter.”

His words could be taken as arrogant, but they were undeniably true. As Tyson laboured through each round that night in Washington D.C., his punches lacked power and his timing was off. It was a sad end to a glittering career, and a far cry from the heady days of being crowned the youngest ever undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

In a similar vein to Tyson, boxing-fanatic Wayne Rooney has struggled with a sharp decline in performance over the past few seasons, relative to the supreme talent and grit shown since bursting onto the scene in 2002. In their prime, both men combined aggressive dominance with beguiling technique and grace; a reliance on antagonism and hostility to intimidate their opponents. Of course, outside of their respective sports, they have both also been guilty of some unforgivable misdemeanours.

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Rooney’s trademark animosity and vigour have been on the decline and, as the clichés predicted, a large chunk of his effectiveness has been lost as a result. As Tyson candidly admitted in the ring after his final fight: “I’m just fighting to take care of my bills basically. I don’t have that ferocity, I’m not an animal anymore.” Before the fight, the commentator wisely prophesied, “So… has Iron Mike turned into Mellow Mike?” A diminishing hunger is a weakness which Rooney knows all too well, even much earlier in his career. In the aftermath of a disappointing World Cup campaign in 2010, he lamented a lack of ferociousness, telling the BBC, “Maybe that aggressive streak has gone too much out of me. I’ll be trying to get that back in the next games I play in.”

Following a summer move back to Goodison Park, there’s still hope for the Evertonian. Now firmly in the twilight years of his career, Rooney can learn a lot from the mistakes of his sporting hero, Iron Mike, a man he calls his “favourite sportsman of all time.” A successful return to his former club would add satisfying closure to a trophy-laden career. Rooney would do well to spare himself the indignity and ignominy seen in the culmination of Tyson’s boxing career, unravelled for all to see.

An early interest in boxing and advice from his idol

Back in 2002, Rooney exploded onto the scene at Goodison Park, with a now infamous last-minute winning goal against Arsenal. Beating England’s number one at the time, David Seaman, from the edge of the box added extra gravitas to the moment. It ended the Gunners’ 30-match unbeaten run, quite a special moment for a player just five days shy of his 17th birthday. In Alex Ferguson’s self-titled autobiography, he told of scouting reports which pinpointed a special talent playing beyond his years, ‘It was clear…this was a man playing in under-age football’.

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Alongside his love of football and Everton, he had shown a keen interest in boxing from an early age, sparring with friends in his uncle’s gym. He told Box Nation, “My cousins would go in and open the gym up and just train, do the pads, bags, sparring, it was great fun.” He would emulate his idol’s fighting style, “I remember the nights Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis were on in America and it wasn’t until three in the morning. I would be staying up with my dad and brothers to watch the fight. There were a lot of times I would try to stay up and then fall asleep and then miss it! They are memories you never forget. Boxing was in my family and something I love to do.” In 2008, he even revealed he could have made it as a professional boxer, “I was doing both boxing and football training at one stage when I was about 15. But Everton said I had to concentrate on one of them and I opted for football.”

At the age of 15, Rooney was forced to give up boxing in a bid to concentrate solely on a professional football career. Obviously, his decision proved to be the correct one – after announcing himself to the world against Arsenal, 14 goals for the Toffees followed over two seasons. This haul included match-winning goals against Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Birmingham City and Portsmouth.

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In December 2002, after a series of displays which betrayed his young age, Rooney was criticised for chewing gum as he accepted BBC’s Young Sports Personality of the Year award. Oh, the indignity. It was this sort of naivety, coupled with a bullishness on the pitch, which first caught Tyson’s eye back in 2005, when on a speaking tour of the UK. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tyson liked the cut of young Rooney’s jib, urging the young striker to continue in a similar vein of high intensity, but with a focus on harnessing it sufficiently.

Following a stunning performance in a friendly match, a 3-2 victory over Argentina, Tyson offered his view of the young footballer, “It’s almost like he is living everybody’s dream. A lawless life, living on the edge. I like the way he acts.” He continued, somewhat ominously, “What they do with him is they take a kid and they tell him ‘be a kid but act grown up.’ Sport is all about immaturity. That’s why guys stay in it too long because they want to stay as children.”

Sporting mentors and dubious advice

Tyson’s words of advice came from his own tough experiences as a youngster. Throughout his childhood, the boy later dubbed Iron Mike also struggled with ‘living on the edge’. Having grown up in and around high-crime neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, his young adult life was littered with misdemeanours – by the age of 13, he had been arrested 38 times. Upon the death of his mother at 16 years of age, young Mike was left in the care of boxing trainer and future legal guardian, Cus D’Amato. An unbreakable bond ensued – in his self-titled 2008 docufilm, Tyson said proudly, “Nobody really knows Mike Tyson, except Cus D’Amato”.

It bears a strong resemblance to Rooney’s blossoming relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson following his £25.6million move to Old Trafford in the summer of 2004. While David Moyes carefully mentored Rooney while in the youth set-up at Everton, their relationship was not without its controversies. On 1 September 2006, Moyes sued Rooney for libel after the latter’s autobiography accused the manager of leaking Rooney’s reasons for leaving to the press. Rooney admitted to “false claims” and the matter was settled out of court for £500,000. Rooney’s relationship with Moyes improved as they were together once again at United. The pair even watched the first Carl Froch vs George Groves fight together in the team hotel in Cardiff, the striker proudly saying of his manager, ‘He is into his boxing too.’

Rooney’s relationship with Ferguson has also hit rocky patches, but, on the whole, the Scot has proved to be a key mentor and sounding board for Rooney, akin to Tyson’s surrogate father figure, D’Amato. As Tyson himself said, ‘It’s like a father and son relationship”. Rooney is still in a position to contact his mentors though, a luxury Tyson was deprived of early into his professional career. In November 1985, with Tyson on the cusp of stardom, Cus D’Amato died of pneumonia at 77 years of age, leaving a gaping hole in the life of young Mike – “I felt like my life was over when he died. I was very scared, I felt like a very vulnerable young boy.”

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Tyson decided to part company with one of the men credited with honing his skills, a man conveniently named Kevin Rooney. From this moment on Tyson would, for many years, play a part in some behind-the-scenes skulduggery, with particular focus on the mismanagement of his earnings. Tyson sued Don King for $100 million, alleging the boxing promoter cheated him out of millions over more than a decade. It was settled out of court for $14 million. Even though he blames himself for being reckless, Tyson would later describe King as “a wretched, slimy, reptilian mother-f**ker… He doesn’t know how to love anybody.”

As well as making his own mistakes, Rooney himself has also been ill-advised throughout his career, particularly during two lengthy and controversial contract sagas while at Old Trafford. Most famously, in October 2010, Rooney and his representatives released a statement of the player’s wishes to leave the club, stating it was based on ambition rather than money. After an ongoing dispute, the striker made a dramatic U-turn and signed a new lucrative five-year deal. With the club seemingly held to ransom, a feeling of unrest among the fans simmered away for the remaining duration of Rooney’s time at Old Trafford. As Ferguson himself put it, there continued to be a ‘residue of mistrust’.

KO in the kitchen

On 15 March 2015, on the same day as a crunch home encounter with Tottenham at Old Trafford, The Sun newspaper released an article and a video clip entitled, ‘Rooney KO’d in kitchen boxing bout’. The clip reveals amateur footage of Rooney and former United teammate and then-Stoke City defender Phil Bardsley sparring in Rooney’s home in Cheshire. The footage culminates in a left-handed jab by Bardsley knocking Rooney off his feet, who then appears to lie unconscious on his kitchen floor. The Sun claimed the incident ‘could have ended Rooney’s career’. For all the talk that he could have been a professional boxer, the leaked footage appears to show he made the right choice after all.

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The same day in which the boxing footage emerged, Rooney celebrated United’s third goal against Tottenham at Old Trafford by shadow boxing, then falling to the floor in a reference to the leaked video. The United man spoke of caution and surprise, telling Sky Sports: “It’s in my own home, it’s not public, it’s what friends do – they mess around in the house. It was a couple of mates in a private house, and somehow it’s managed to get on the front page of a national newspaper.” His manager at the time, Louis Van Gaal, was typically stoic, “In what a world we live that we are talking about such a thing – that a newspaper paid a lot for a video and I am answering questions about that. I don’t want to answer questions about such things.”

Taming the beast

On the kitchen incident, Rooney was spared a fine, the only damage done was to his ego and his alleged boxing prowess. He has continued to spar with his friends behind closed doors, the only difference now is that filming the action with smart phones is out of the question. He still visits the boxing gym to keep fit but primarily for ‘stress relief’. After the incident with Bardsley in 2015, like most champions of the ring, he has become a control freak – keen to meticulously regulate the conditions of the fight to gain himself any fragment of advantage, however miniscule.

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Despite being warned of the potential injuries associated with part-time boxing, to this day Rooney continues his interest in boxing, often through his Instagram account. He has posted images of himself with some of British boxing’s best known names from the past twenty years, including Lennox Lewis, Ricky Hatton and Amir Khan. He even posted a photo of himself via his Facebook account wearing boxing gloves as part of an advertising campaign for Samsung Galaxy. A series of close friends, including Paul Smith and Martin Murray, who both continued to fight after Rooney chose football as his vocation, have had several world title fights between them. Rooney has grown up surrounded by the inspirations and influences of boxing – the discipline has served him well.

Today, Rooney’s demeanour is a far cry from the ‘lawless life’ which Tyson described back in 2005. ‘I live quite a boring life to be honest’ Rooney said in 2015. ‘You do mellow as you get a bit older.’ This, from a man who Cristiano Ronaldo famously nicknamed ‘The Pitball’. He claims he has matured now, ‘Early on in my career I had a lot of bad press about my temperament, but I was only a young lad then. You go slow or you are pushed to go faster, otherwise you get left behind. For me, there would be trouble in stopping learning.’

Physicality and a change of position

Over the past few seasons, in an attempt to emulate his football role model, Paul Scholes, a move to a defensive midfield role was trialled for both club and country. Ferguson himself said that this shift of position into a deeper lying role was part of the strategy behind his contract extension at Manchester United ‘I developed an expectation in October 2010 that he might end up as a midfielder’. Such is Ferguson’s way though – the desire to be in control – he caveated that with a warning for later in his career, ‘With the kind of physique he had it was always hard to imagine him playing into his mid-thirties, like Scholes or Giggs.’

The move into a deep-lying midfield role never truly clicked, at least not for United. Like Tyson in his last bout, his timing was off, matches would pass him by. He struggled, with the Premier League now being played at an ever-increasing pace and intensity with twists on old methods such as the gegenpress. This basically consists of various forms of high intensity counter-pressing when the opposition has possession in an attempt to disrupt the flow of their play. Tough tackling and kilometres covered are key, neither of which are Rooney’s strong points, particularly not now, as Ferguson warned, he is into his thirties – ‘I felt he struggled more and more to do it for 90 minutes, and he seemed to tire in games’.

A promising start at Goodison Park

Rooney has made an encouraging start to life back at Everton so far this summer. In his first pre-season match against Kenyan side Gor Mahia, he opened the scoring with a 30-yard curling effort in the 35th minute of the match. Rooney was allowed the time to turn roughly ten yards outside the area in the centre of the pitch. With the goalkeeper in no man’s land, he to pick his spot. While defences in the Premier League won’t be as forgiving, it was a positive start to his return to the Toffees. Before scoring, Rooney was embraced by a fan wearing a Manchester United shirt who had raced onto the pitch, an early reminder of the legacy left behind at Old Trafford.

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In the opening match of the season, at home to Stoke City, Rooney scored the only goal of the match – a close-range header. His new manager, Ronald Koeman, was impressed, “Wayne showed he is still one of the best in his position. He was very comfortable on the ball, made good decisions and scored a great goal.” Stoke boss Mark Hughes lamented his team’s loss, “The one man you don’t want in those situations is Wayne.” A goal on his derby is promising, although the fixture list over the coming weeks looks very unkind indeed, with the next four league matches coming against teams from last season’s top six (Manchester City (A), Chelsea (A), Tottenham (H), Manchester United (A)).

Fight in the dog

As Tyson refused to come out for the seventh round in his bout against McBride, it was an embarrassing end to an illustrious career. Iron Mike admitted that, since exiting prison, he had only continued to fight to pay his bills, a situation which had become increasingly precarious due to a negligent mismanagement of his earnings. In 2003, Tyson declared bankruptcy despite earning over $300 million during his career. He continued to fight long after his fighting courage had gone. It was a sad end, but one in which he eventually finished with some dignity intact by calling it a day on his terms. The feeling resonated that it was ‘better late than never’, before he sank to even further levels of indignity in a pursuit to cash further fight-night pay cheques.

Wayne Rooney, although the early signs are positive at Everton, would do well to show caution in playing far beyond his use-by-date. His wife, Coleen, recently revealed that Rooney was banned from watching their son, Kai, play football as it causes too much of a stir in public. After the match, and countless autographs and selfies later, his son’s assessment was clear, ‘You never even saw me play!’ It’s a level of pragmatism which will serve Rooney well in the long-run – guidance and encouragement which was plainly missing from Tyson’s career following the death of his father figure, Cus D’Amato. Like all of us, Rooney is fallible. He does, however, appear to be surrounded by steadying influences as he heads towards retirement in the latter stages of a sublime career.

Having signed a two-year contract at Everton, a successful swansong at his boyhood club would be the perfect end to a record-breaking career. There’s plenty of fight still left in Wayne Rooney.

Chris Henderson – follow me on Twitter here

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