For movies' Rourke, boxing is more than just act--it's therapy 7/8


MIAMI -- Mickey Rourke, the actor, grew up angry in Miami's Liberty City, in a scorched-earth housing development generously named Larchmont Gardens.

Somebody must have swiped the garden; the flower beds and lush hedges were not there. It was not pretty, this place. Rourke got beat up a lot inside this place. Most of the fists were driven by his stepfather.

"I never talked about this before, but there might be some kid out there going through the same thing, some kid looking for a little hope," he says. "I guess because I grew up with a stepfather who was very physical, this thing never went away from me. I got something inside of me I'm looking to come to terms with. There's something inside of me I'm still hitting back at. Even though it's a ghost . . . "

Mickey Rourke is trying to explain what matters: That he is serious about this. That he is not playing at being a boxer. That this is not method-acting. Somebody yells "Cut!" on this set, it means blood.

A sort of lovably greasy, funky decadence swirls about Rourke like the dirt storm around Pigpen. He is a hellish antonym for clean-cut. He slips 20s to the homeless along the beach. He is a friend of convicted crime boss John Gotti. He curses as if paid by the word. He attends Mass on Sundays.

"I've never been one to raise hell on a movie set, but yet I have that reputation," Rourke said. "I'm all about truth. I offend the vTC whole Hollywood system, because it's built on bull."

Hiding truth in a roped ring doesn't work as easily. It is this essence that draws him to boxing. This and whatever therapy is derived. This and whatever ghost of a dead stepfather from Larchmont Gardens still drags chains across his psyche.

"This is what gives me more satisfaction," Rourke says with a nod around the Fifth Street Gym, where he revels in near-anonymity among the pugs hitting heavy bags, skipping rope, jabbing hopelessly for a big fight that will never be there. "It's a good discipline for me. Better than a shrink's couch. It lets me know who I am and how I am on a mental and health level. It's the law of the jungle, and we've all got a bit of that in us. Some more than others."

He sits on the ripped Naugahyde of a table inside Miami Beach's storied Fifth Street Gym, the dilapidated shrine whose worshipers included Muhammad Ali. The place is steadfast in its squalor, proud of it. It says "Ladys" above a women's restroom. So what? A sign mentions rental of "equipment." Who cares?

Rourke pays his $25 per month to train in the ring under the naked bulb. To be in this little sweat-church on the second floor of a relic building just west of where South Beach is happening, a few miles from where he grew up. He hasn't lived here in years. He has been in Miami Beach several weeks, training. Warm nostalgia does not wash over him. This ain't no fairy tale.

"I never thought I'd come back again," he says. "It wasn't that great."

Right now, Rourke has finished an hour's work. Shadow boxing. Ring work with a trainer wearing hit-me mitts. Speed bag. Medicine ball. Sit-ups. Six days a week he does this, after running four miles on beach sand.

His legs have taken on a fighter's muscled definition; his torso is getting there. To focus on an April 25

Miami Beach Convention Center card that will feature him, Rourke minds a midnight curfew. He likely will fight at 173 pounds against also-inexperienced Francisco Harris.

Rourke is serious, believe it or not, about a 2- or 3-year career in professional boxing, between films. One month after this bout, he will fight in Buffalo. Rourke must be 38 or 39; his publicist claims 35. In any case, his abundant baggage finds Age standing right over there, between Inexperience and Extreme Skepticism.

He is in the Fifth Street ring this day inside purple trunks and a black windbreaker, underneath a black wool cap yanked down to eyebrow level. It says on the cap: Outlaw. His hair is long and stringy. He wears a remarkably unchic Fu Manchu mustache (watch them begin to grow into fashion again on South Beach). Tattoos? But of course. The gold tooth does not show now, because he is at work; he wears a sweaty grimace.

Rourke drives fists into mitts worn by the trainer, Freddie Roach, a winning lightweight in the early '80s. The sound thuds and slaps in the echoey dive, percussion for Guns N' Roses, whose "Sweet Child O' Mine" sails from a boom box at ringside. Rourke looks like a boxer; the look is hard to fake.

A visitor arriving to watch Rourke train is apt to carry preconceptions up the hollow wood steps of the gym, and apt to later regard them as misconceptions.

Mickey Rourke, Hollywood bad boy, a boxer. What whim's next? Auto racing? Bullfighting? Cubist painting? Everybody boxes, right? Mark Gastineau. Too Tall Jones. Sneer, snicker and groan.

"There is still the skepticism," allows Roach. "Until Mick gets in the ring and proves it, there always will be."

Mick didn't prove it last spring, in his professional debut at Fort Lauderdale's War Memorial Auditorium. The experience of long-past amateur bouts (and a supposed 23-3 record) did not show. Rourke went four rounds with a local nobody named Steve Powell, and Rourke was a clowning, profane, brawling, arm-swinging pro wrestler vigorously booed.

He won the fight. He lost what little credibility he may have carried in.

He knows it.

He was hurting, he says. The rotator cuff in his right shoulder rendered Rourke one-armed that night. For three days he took long-needled pain shots. To avoid surgery, the injury took months to heal, the reason it has been almost a year between fights.

"The clowning was the only defense I had," Rourke said. "Even when I saw an opening, I couldn't take it."

So he went out injured, distracted, and fought like some living charade. The boos were serious, like an audible review of his worst movie.

Two months ago, a healthy and resolute Rourke hired Roach to train him, but Roach at first saw the same sham of a wanna-be boxer.

"I almost quit right away, because this game is serious business -- people get hurt -- and Mick was going through the motions, not listening," Roach says. "He wouldn't run. Wouldn't realize 90 percent of it is conditioning. He didn't want to do it the right way."

He began to, at last. Began to run. Began to behave like a demonic gym rat. Began to look less like a man acting like a boxer and more like boxer who acts.

Rourke began to retrieve the foundation of his amateur career, pulling it up like a bucket from a deep well. His skills remain raw, but Roach knows this: "I tell you, he can punch. Hard. Power is his game."

Of course, Rourke's prolific list of films in a 12-year career make it impossible to forget how he pays his rent. He gets about $3 million for most films. He has made little gems such as "Diner" and "The Pope of Greenwich Village," and he has made a like number of certified failures, such as last year's "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man."

But this isn't about money or movies.

This is about the beatings and the background that drive him into the ring.

Rourke has a T-shirt that declares: White Trash. Question him about it and you get a question back.

"Where'm I from?" he says, looking you straight in the eye. "Remember where you're from. . . . "

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