It was 2006 when I met Mickey Rourke. I had friends in the professional wrestling industry and I would occasionally hang out with them at their shows. This particular time, we were in South Philadelphia, and I remember smoking a cigarette in the rear parking lot when a black, stretch limo pulled up. Limousines never pulled up to these kind of underground wrestling events, so I paid close attention to the person emerging from one of the passenger doors, figuring it would be some kind of wrestling star.
I was surprised when a man of medium build and height sauntered out of the vehicle. No entourage. No bodyguards. Not even someone to open his door. As this person came closer to the back entrance of the building, I suddenly realized who it was: Mickey F*cking Rourke. No one else around me even knew who he was, so I quietly held my glee inside.
When I took my seat backstage for the show, as I usually did, I looked to my left: there he was, quietly studying the action. I tried my best not to scream out like a teenage girl at a One Direction concert. I waited for a lull in the action during the main event to lean over to him and say, “Mickey, I’m a huge fan. I love your work.”
“Thanks, brother,” he said. It was perfect.
Immediately, I began thinking. What in the hell was he doing here? Where was he going? How did he end up in the slums of South Philadelphia after winning the hearts of every woman in the world during the 80s? Also, what happened to his face?
The Storm Before The Storm
In the latter half of the 70s, after spending much of his youth boxing in Miami, Rourke surprised his peers when he auditioned for the prestigious Actors Studio in New York, where Elia Kazan was purported to have said “it was the best audition in 30 years.” He would study at the studio with the likes of Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel.
First gaining notoriety in Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, Rourke continued to string together a succession of mighty performances in films like Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Rumble Fish, Angel Heart and Barfly.
Even though Rourke was gaining recognition, he was also known as a “loose cannon.” He did things “his way” on the set, and there were no two ways about it. It was during the filming of Angel Heart that director Alan Parker revealed just how insane Mickey was.
Working with Mickey is a nightmare. He is very dangerous on the set because you never know what he is going to do.
Mickey was steadily losing control. He was drinking excessively. He was fighting on the streets. He had alleged ties to mobsters and biker gangs. He threatened film magnate Sam Goldwyn Jr. And, he was spending his Hollywood fortune faster than he could make it.
I bought six Cadillacs with cash and gave them away. In 1986 I paid $97,000 for a car that had belonged to the Shah of Iran. It had been his desert car and was bulletproof, so it was really heavy and couldn’t even make it up to my house in the Hollywood Hills. Then one day the hydraulic windows stopped working, so I sold it for $20,000. I owned it for two months and drove it five times. That’s about $20,000 a drive.
Rourke began turning down million-dollar paydays, as well. He vetoed the Eliot Ness role in The Untouchables, Tom Cruise’s role in Rain Man, a role in Silence of the Lambs, the lead in Beverly Hills Cop, and later on, John Travolta’s role in Pulp Fiction.
I didn’t think the party was going to end. The motorcycles, the nightlife, the women – it’s all… blinding. You can have anything you want. You don’t think that it’s going to end, and when it does it’s really scary. I surrounded myself with a bunch of retards and idiots – guys from the street, goofballs and villains, and they brought me down.
Towards the end of the 80s and early 90s, Rourke was making films just for a payday. Films like Wild Orchid, and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, were universally panned. The status he had attained, linking him to such greats as James Dean and Marlon Brando, was disintegrating. He was quickly becoming a man undone, and there was only one way he knew how to put himself back together: get back into the boxing ring.
Back In The Ring
Before he had become a silver-screen icon, Rourke was an amateur boxer, amassing an official 27-3 record in Miami between 1964 and 1973. But, 142 amateur fights and several concussions later, Rourke had decided to move to New York to try his hand at acting.
By 1991, his Hollywood career had crumbled and he had self-destructed. He was such a phenom on the screen, and it had come so easy to him, that Rourke had grown tired of the film business.
It was something that I loved to do and that I enjoyed; that was very therapeutic for me. It’s very pure, there’s no grey. I was able to just let out and get away from that acting crap. Because I had lost the passion and the desire and the respect for the acting and it really maybe wasn’t the acting, it was that I really lost all of those things from myself.
Rourke went back to Miami to train for his pro debut. He was determined, even training with the legendary Freddie Roach. On May 23, 1991, at the age of 39, he had his first professional fight against an auto-mechanic by the name of Steve Powell. Rourke ended up winning the fight on the scorecards, but the four-round fight wasn’t exactly electrifying.
Rourke’s victory was not a popular one. He tried to wrestle Powell over the top rope of the ring twice, clowned around several times and hit Powell three times behind the head. With seconds remaining to the end of the third round, Rourke put his right hand out to show friendship to Powell and tried to hit him with his left. via Sun Sentinel
Rourke’s second fight wasn’t exactly the stuff of legends either. In Tokyo, Japan, he knocked out Darrell Miller within the first minute of the first round with a rather weak looking jab. He engaged in two more fights in 1992, winning both of them against Francisco Harris in Miami, and Tony Jesmer in Spain. Something else also happened in 1992: Rourke married Carré Otis with whom he co-starred alongside in Wild Orchid.
Rourke wasn’t exactly fighting the cream of the crop in the pugilistic world, as you can see from some of his fight videos, and at the age of 40 and having stayed out of the ring for over a decade, he wasn’t in the best of shape either. The marriage to Otis compounded things.
He was an abusive alcoholic and she had fallen into the depths of a severe heroin addiction. But, Rourke continued to fight on in the ring, hoping somewhere along the way he would find himself, because as Rourke said in a 2008 interview with the New York Times, “I’d be less of a man if I didn’t react violently to the war in my head.”
Rourke’s next two fights in Missouri, just four months apart from each other, were both victories. Although he was winning, his once handsome features had begun morphing. Sure, he was getting punched in the face in the ring during his bouts, but as he puts it, the most damage he was getting was from training for the fights with the likes of former world champions James Toney and Roberto Duran.
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…
During this time, Rourke had also admitted to visiting Carlos Monzón in prison. Monzón was the former undisputed world middleweight champion, but in 1988 he was imprisoned for murdering his wife. There are conflicting reports about what happened when he went to see Monzón, but some say the former world champion knocked Rourke unconscious during a sparring bout.
His next fight was against Thomas McCoy in Germany, and the bout had the athleticism and grace of a 4th grade schoolyard brawl, not to mention McCoy looked very outclassed even against an aged Rourke. He won with an underwhelming TKO.
Rourke’s last fight would be against Sean Gibbons in Florida. The two fought to a draw, and although he was told he was only three wins away from getting a crack at the WBO cruiserweight title, doctors said otherwise.
…my neurological scan was so bad that the doctor said ‘forget about three more fights you can’t even have one more.
Rourke had been forced into retirement.
After all was said and done, Mickey’s face was battered. It had turned to clay, mushed and pushed in different directions that disfigured his former leading man features. He had several operations just to put his face back together after four years of allowing it to become a punching bag.
I had my nose broken twice. I had five operations on my nose and one on a smashed cheekbone. I had to have cartilage taken from my ear to rebuild my nose and a couple of operations to scrape out the cartilage because the scar tissue wasn’t healing properly. That was one of the most painful operations, but the worst was hemorrhoids.
To make matters worse, Rourke admits he went to the “wrong guy” to fix his cosmetic issues, and his face became not only noticeable for its imperfections, but also for the surgery to fix said imperfections. In 1998, he and his wife divorced, and Rourke — the former leading man — would flounder in bit parts after deciding to return to acting. It seemed as though Hollywood wanted nothing to do with the bad boy whose face was no longer recognizable.
Mickey kept at it, though, and the ground started to swell. He attained some work in Man on Fire and then Once Upon A Time in Mexico. Through it all, though, Rourke was still talented, but it seemed like this would be the story of the rest of his career: 2nd string character roles.
Doing things differently this time around, understanding what it is to be a professional, be responsible, be consistent — those are things that weren’t in my vocabulary back then. Change didn’t come easy for me — until I lost everything, and then I realized, ‘You better change, or you’re gonna blow your fucking brains out. Either you change, or you’re just a piece of shit.
Rourke did change. Perhaps those demons he was battling were knocked out of his head after a James Toney right-hook.
In 2004, Robert Rodriguez called and told him about a part that wouldn’t require him to display the handsome looks that had once made women swoon over him during his heyday. Rourke knocked it out of the park in Sin City, and it wasn’t long after that that I would find out what Mickey was doing watching a third-tier wrestling show in the slums of South Philadelphia.
He was going back to fighting. But, this time, he was doing it at awards season.