“WOULD Don King, one of the wisest men boxing has ever seen, put me in the corner of the most valuable brand that not only boxing, not only sport, but entertainment had to offer if I didn’t know what I was doing? Would he?”
There’s an authoritative tone to Aaron Snowell’s growl as strives to convince me of his qualifications to handle the meticulous training responsibilities of a peak Mike Tyson. His defensive riposte seems somewhat rehearsed, perhaps because it’s a rebuttal he’s forced out many times before, maybe even to himself, since February 11, 1990 and a morning in Japan that changed so many lives forever.
Snowell’s apprenticeship in boxing was served observing “The Greatest.” Born in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, Snowell was raised in close proximity to several Muhammad Ali training camps and it was there that his passion for boxing grew. An eager student of famed trainer, “Slim” Jim Robinson, Snowell absorbed the expertise of the veteran cornerman and soon became his assistant. The expected promotion duly came and with fighters like the explosive Julian Jackson and underrated heavyweight Tim Witherspoon under his tutelage, Snowell soon attained not only honours as a coach but a blossoming relationship with the powerful and commanding King.
The eccentric promoter’s unyielding grip on the heavyweight division spanned several eras but was perhaps at its strongest when Tyson was approaching the top of a ladder he had scaled with brutal ease. Armed with HBO’s finances, a roster of champions and contenders, and a persuasive charm, King claimed Tyson and in no time delivered glorious prizes and unprecedented purses. Snowell, his long-time ally, was soon installed as trainer – in January 1989 – and the early results were positive. That run of form came to a shuddering halt, however, on a day that Snowell recalls with military precision.
What was it that John L. Sullivan said about the women and the drink catching up with him?” Snowell ponders, rhetorically. “That’s exactly what happened to Mike the day he fought Buster Douglas. Mike’s weight was at around 300lbs when he was out of camp, he had so much going on with [his ex-wife, actress] Robin [Givens] and there was so many court cases from people in his past too. These people like ex-managers and ex-trainers were ex-managers and ex-trainers for a reason, telling every single person who stuck a microphone in front of their faces that they loved Mike and that they cared for Mike, yet at the same time they were taking him to court and trying to sue him for everything that he had given his life for. Everyone who was close to Mike or who had been close to Mike was hurting him and here he is in a foreign country preparing to defend his world titles against a guy who to this day is still not given the credit he deserves for what he had done before this fight.”
Given Snowell’s efforts to describe Douglas as a threat before the fight, it’s easy to presume the trainer knew the writing of the most famous upset in history was already on the wall long before they entered the ring.
“Of course not, it was Mike Tyson and believe me when I tell you that he trained hard for this fight because there’s no way he could’ve took the beating that he took for 10 rounds if he wasn’t in shape,” Snowell vows. “There was a lot to come after the fight, a huge fight with Evander Holyfield was building and to face Holyfield we had to do a real good job on Douglas. Myself and Mike were too experienced to cut any corners in training and he really put in the hard work but his head wasn’t right and you could see that from the first exchange.”
With each passing round, Douglas’ dominance increased in front of a hushed crowd who displayed little emotion despite the monumental drama that was unfolding before their eyes. Buster jabbed like his life depended on it – in a way, maybe it did – and each thudding blow peeled back a layer of Tyson’s decaying defence. Snowell, undeterred, spoke quietly in the corner and insists he was never tempted to scream at his charge even though it seemed a firm approach should have been administered.
“It wasn’t my style to shout,” he explains. “I knew Mike was the puncher in the fight and my idea was to tell him what he had to do to get close and land shots of his own. That had been the problem in the early stages because Mike just couldn’t get near the man so rather than just scream at him and maybe add to a bad situation, I wanted him relaxed so he could follow my instructions and do what I was asking him to do and that was to get close to his opponent and let the right shots go.”
Snowell’s defence of his well-mannered methods are offered with passion. There’s a self-righteousness about his tone, a confidence in his beliefs despite the result not going his way. But there’s no ignoring one particularly embarrassing blunder that rendered any chance of a Tyson turnaround almost impossible. With a grotesque swelling visible on his left eye, a stop-swell to reduce the damage was required. An essential tool for any corner, this instrument was inexplicably omitted and a pathetic substitute saw ice shoved into a rubber glove to press on Tyson’s aching eye. Snowell had to think quickly but he’s equally swift today to admit he was at fault for the catastrophic error.
“I’m the cornerman and everything that goes wrong in the corner is all down to me and I accept full responsibility for a huge mistake on my part,” he laments. “It wasn’t like we didn’t respect Buster or that we thought he couldn’t make a mess of Mike’s face, it was just a mistake and we were careless. It was the first and last time it happened to me as a trainer, but suggestions that we just didn’t think we needed one is crazy talk from jealous people. There was a lot of that at the time from people in the industry, guys who should know much better, but the fact I was Tyson’s trainer upset a lot of jealous and envious people because they wanted the gig. At that time, I was the most suited man to train Mike, and when he won it was cause of Mike and the one time he lost it’s because of me. That’s the type of stuff that I had to put up with.”
Snowell can talk. Lengthy pauses follow each sentence, a conversational style which makes it unclear if he’s finished what he wants to say. When the topic of Tyson’s brief success in the eighth session in Tokyo – which saw him score a knockdown – is discussed, it elicits a hint of anger from Snowell.
“It was a long count,” he affirms about Octavio Meyran’s count. “It was an awful piece of officiating but the referee’s word is final and we have to accept that. Boxing has always been a sport where the referee has the say and whoever gets his arm raised at the end is the man who’s the winner no matter what has gone down. When Mike hit him with that shot I was like, ‘It’s all over.’ Even when the bell went to end the round I thought it was just a matter of time because Mike was one of the best finishers boxing has ever seen and every person he had fought before Douglas was finished once they were hurt. So much effort had gone into finding that one shot and it became obvious that Mike really didn’t have much left. Even when I watched the fight back, you can see all the ambition drain from him when Douglas gets up. It was a big moment.”
The end for Tyson came in round 10 when a Douglas attack forced his battered opponent to the floor. Tyson fought to retrieve his fallen gumshield as though it were a diamond in the dirt, but it was to no avail as he was counted out. Snowell entered the ring and informed the now-former champion that he had just been beaten, as a mixture of King’s protestations and the celebrations of Douglas and his team dominated the congested ring. Minutes later, in the corner of Tyson’s Tokyo Dome dressing room, Snowell found himself alone with the tearful ex-ruler.
“I told him that all great fighters have that one night when they fail,” recalls Snowell. “It was important to me that we moved on and that Mike goes and shows the world that he’s a big man and he can accept his defeat and learn from it. I told him to go and congratulate Douglas in front of the media and then just get back to America and try to get a rematch. If that rematch would’ve happened a few months later then I’m convinced we get a different result and the size of the upset in the first meeting isn’t quite as big. [But] Douglas took the Holyfield fight while Mike just had to watch on.”
Snowell and Tyson continued to work together before the fighter’s incarceration led to him emerging from prison with a new team that had no position for a man who had guided him to wins over the likes of Frank Bruno, Carl Williams and Donovan “Razor” Ruddock (twice). Snowell, now enjoying some consultancy work within the sport, would go on to have successes with Tim Austin, Michael Nunn and Frankie Randall. He worked the stool for the latter when he was a 35-1 underdog against the unbeaten Julio Cesar Chavez in 1994. Randall collected a deserved split decision against the Mexican legend who endured his first loss in an astonishing 91 fights. But Snowell is rarely asked about that upset.