The Born Scrapper
The question was: “Can a chin be taught?” Mickey Rourke heard it alright, and he says a little something about self-esteem and willpower, about an inner-strength that only some guys possess . . . but pretty soon we are voyaging from the chin to other body parts.
“You know that old rule about not having sex before a fight?” he steers the matter. “I was reading this book a decade or so ago, and it said they invented that story. When I was an amateur boxer—and even when I was a pro—I never had sex before a fight.” The 58-year-old laughs a little, perhaps thinking of long suffering supermodel Carré Otis (Wild Orchid), whom he was married to during the pro portion of that abstinence in the mid-’90s. “But it wasn’t about shooting your load and having sex, it was about where you had to go to get it, you see. It was about keeping fighters out of bars and clubs, and it became this whole superstition about how if you had sex before a fight that you’d lose your legs.”
These are the lessons of wiser men.
Rourke is a classic fight game personality who has taken a few on the chin and says what’s on his mind. Why not? He started boxing in 1964 at Angelo Dundee’s famous 5th Street Gym in Miami, where he picked up a few things from guys like Muhammad Ali, Gomeo Brennan, and Florentino “The Ox” Fernández. He has eaten punches from James Toney and Roberto Durán, and dished them out too. He has partnered and trained with Freddie Roach. Mention Bill Slayton, he’ll tell you stories. Ditto Jimmy Ellis or the old Broadway Gym or the Quarry brothers, Mike and Jerry, who both died with dementia pugilistica but are alive and well in Rourke’s storied past. As for Tommy “Hitman” Hearns? “I did a sparring session with him once—he hit me at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I couldn’t talk on the phone at midnight,” he says almost fondly. “Tommy had the fastest and hardest left jab that you ever got hit by.”
For the Oscar-nominated actor, Hollywood is his sustenance, but fighting is his life. With five step brothers who spent time in and out of jail and growing up as a white kid in the “predominantly black” Miami neighborhood of Liberty City, Rourke started up with the sweet science as a means of self-preservation at 12 years old.
“Some of the toughest fights I ever had were in my own house,” he says. “My step brothers were pretty wild. Two of them were pretty successful amateurs before they went on the other side of the law. We always had a speed bag on the front lawn. By the time we were 12 or 13 years old, we were all good on the speed bag, and the kids in the neighborhood fought all the time. This is when people used to settle things with fists instead of guns.”
Rourke settled plenty with those hands. He had 27 amateur fights before he was 17 years old, and he lost only two of them. “I had a couple of concussions that were really bad as an amateur,” he says. “I was in middle school the first time I had a concussion.It was like a delayed concussion I got at the 5th Street Gym. The second one I’d had and they told me I couldn’t have any contact for six months to a year. So I kind of got out of it, and by accident I got into acting.”
At 32 years old, after moving into acting and starring in films like 9½ Weeks and Barfly, the enigmatic actor/fighter got back in the ring officially. “But boxing was the thing that I always loved the most,” he says. “So I stayed in the gyms for a decade and I was doing real good with some pros and I thought—fuck it, I want to turn pro. I was only going to do it for one fight, and it lasted six years.”
People thought Rourke was taking an unnecessary gamble to jump from being a successful actor to the ring, but just as fellow iconoclastic boxing man Norman Mailer said, “gambling has its own libido.” In that time, he won six fights and had two draws over eight bouts before the news came down that he would need to stop if he wanted to avoid permanent brain damage.
“After several years of sparring 30 to 40 rounds a week, it takes its toll,” he says. “You don’t remember where you parked your car exactly. You don’t remember what you had for breakfast. I was three fights away from a title fight, three wins away, but the doctor said to me, ‘How much are they going to pay you?’ And I told him, and he said, ‘You’re not going to be able to count the money.’ And he said my neuros were really bad. You have to stop now. I remember it was really hard for me. I wasn’t able to go into a boxing gym for five years after that.”
Now he wears the scars of his first love on his features, the transmogrification of a once-suave Casanova-type to a battle scarred former boxer who was perfectly suited to the role of a down-and-out pro wrestler in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Along the way, he also got turned onto mixed martial arts, watching guys like Frank Shamrock beat bigger, stronger, and younger opponents like Tito Ortiz. He got interested in Muay Thai and different forms of karate. Eventually, he befriended Chuck Liddell (“There was just something I liked about him—he was just unpredictable and he was another guy who imposes his will,” he says.) and would later develop a relationship with Roger Huerta, both as an actor(working together on Tekken) and as a fighter (Rourke has coached him in boxing a little, as well as mental toughness).
That’s why, on the eve of the nationwide release of his new movie Iron Man 2, Rourke is in Montreal for UFC 113 in a hotel room talking about fighting. His favorite mixed martial artist to watch right now is Jose Aldo. He talks about the Oregon wrestlers and Pat Miletich and Royce Gracie, about strong southpaw Vitor Belfort evolving his BJJ and Kenny Florian’s smarts. He’s happy to leave the fictional villain Ivan Vanko to the silver screen for a few minutes and focus on something completely literal—fighting.
In fact, he is trying to find a website streaming the Roger Huerta/Pat Curran fight live, a pirating site, anything. It’s not airing on television in Quebec until the following night, 24 hours after the actual fact, and he needs to know how his guy is doing. “It’s on something called The Score out here,” he says of Bellator’s mysterious cable presence, “which sounds like a porno channel.” After a while he starts texting around for info—“What do I log into to see it?” followed by “I heard he got robbed” followed by, somewhat somberly, “Where does Roger go from here?”
Huerta lost a close decision to Curran, and that’s what’s on his mind. Fighting, in general, is always on Rourke’s mind. He’s been through enough battles and has seen enough of the best practitioners to develop a real appreciation of all its forms. He knows Huerta will be back, stronger than ever. Huerta is a fighter. But so is Rourke.
(And the answer seems to be no. No, a chin can’t be taught.)