As former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson backed Corey Sanders into the ropes of the ring in Central Boxing Club during a workout last month, trainer Jeff Fenech stood in the corner, yelling: "Beautiful, Mike! Beautiful!"
Fenech, an Australian and former champion in three weight classes, is training Tyson for the first time in preparation for Saturday night's fight against Kevin McBride at MCI Center. Tyson, who turns 39 on June 30, spent the past two months training in Phoenix before arriving in the District on Friday night.
"We know what we have to do for this fight and we know what we have to do after this fight," Fenech said. "We've done more than enough for this fight. We'll have no excuses at all. What people will see is how much more patient and smarter Mike Tyson is now."
Tyson, once the most feared fighter in the world because of his power and ultra-fast hands, has lost two of his last three bouts. Tyson (50-5, 44 knockouts) was knocked out in the eighth round by heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis on June 8, 2002, his last opportunity to win a title. Tyson knocked out lightly regarded Clifford "Black Rhino" Etienne in 49 seconds on Feb. 22, 2003, but then was stunned by Danny Williams, who six months earlier had lost the British heavyweight title to Michael Sprott. Tyson tore ligaments in his left knee during the first round of his loss to Williams and underwent surgery shortly after the fight.
"He didn't beat me," Tyson said. "I broke my leg."
Fenech, 41, who earned the moniker "Marrickville Mauler" during his 12-year pro boxing career, has spent as much time restoring Tyson's confidence as improving the fighter's conditioning and footwork.
"My first goal was to make Mike happy and make Mike enjoy coming back here," Fenech said. "I wanted to make Mike want to come to the gym with us. Once I did that, everything fell into place. He has worked hard. Mike's enjoying what he's doing. He has lost nothing physically. He just lost a little bit of the invincibility and confidence factor."
Fenech is the latest in a long line of Tyson's trainers. Freddie Roach, who trained Tyson for his previous two bouts, said he often struggled to communicate with his fighter. After Tyson was bruised and battered by Williams during much of the four rounds in his last fight, Roach reluctantly said he didn't believe Tyson could compete for a heavyweight championship again. "What good is all the money in the world if you can't count it?" Roach said after that fight.
But Fenech said Tyson can still compete in a heavyweight division that lacks firepower and star power. Four of the top heavyweights -- Americans Chris Byrd, John Ruiz and James Toney and Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko -- are at least 33 years old.
"I don't think Mike realizes how fit he could get if he did the work," Fenech said. "He hasn't done the work for a long time. I think he's surprised himself with what he's doing. I've been really happy with him."
Fenech wants Tyson to fight again this year, if his comeback plans aren't again derailed by a journeyman fighter. McBride (32-4-1, 27 knockouts) has knocked out his last seven opponents, but the Irishman hasn't faced a fighter as menacing as Tyson. McBride, 6 feet 6, is seven inches taller than Tyson and has an 11-inch advantage in reach. He weighed 264 pounds in his last fight, a fifth-round technical knockout of Kevin Montiy on March 18; Tyson weighed 233 when he was knocked out by Williams last year.
Tyson spent much of the two months in Phoenix sparring against Shane Cameron, a former shepherd and boxer sponsored by an Australian rugby club, and Sanders, a former football player at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the District. Sanders, 30, is as tall as McBride, although he is probably closer to 320 pounds. Sanders, who also sparred with Riddick Bowe, has lost his last four fights and 10 of his 33 pro bouts.
"I think the biggest difference with Mike now when I watch him box is that he's a little more patient," Fenech said. "He's thorough, and he thinks about what he has to do. He's not rushing it, not trying to catch, kill and destroy straight away. If it takes him three or four rounds, he can do it now. He's not 21 anymore and there's a method to the madness now. I think you'll see a much more patient Mike."