by Tim Layden
The ride ended here, in a musty room adjacent to the second-floor boxing gym over the police station on Main Street. There were high ceilings and dark walls, dust gathered along the baseboards and prehistoric cobwebs stretched across the corners. A small, sand-filled balloon no bigger than a ping pong ball hung on a string from the exposed plumbing; fighters would swing it like a pendulum and dodge it with head movement to improve defensive skills. It was a primitive space, as if created for a 1930s boxing movie, which, in a sense, it was. Mike Tyson, the 21-year-old heavyweight champion of the world, sat naked on a metal folding chair, fuming, desperate and angry, choking back tears. There were three of us in the room: Tyson, trainer Kevin Rooney and me. “Everything in my life was too good to be true, wasn’t it?” said Tyson. You would recognize the voice, the same one that comically menaced Zach Galifianakis in the first Hangover movie, only with fewer miles on it. You can hear it. “It was just too good,” he said. “Now my life is so screwed up.”
There was a notebook in my right hand, a tape recorder beneath it, running. (Micro-cassette or mini-cassette, not sure). Tyson had stormed out of the ring after a desultory sparring session and hissed that he wasn’t talking today, but here he was, talking just the same. Rooney waved me into the room. I was a familiar face. Over the course of the previous 27 months, as a writer for the Albany Times Union, I had traveled frequently to Catskill, to Atlantic City and to Las Vegas as Tyson rose from Knockout Curiosity to heavyweight champion to the precipice of Full-blown Freak Show, and on most of those trips I had at some point sat and talked privately with Tyson. Uncertainty always hung in the air; Tyson could give you grunted single syllables or the history of boxing in the 1960s. You just never knew.
But even by those standards, this moment was different. Thirty-nine days later, Tyson would fight Michael Spinks to unify the heavyweight title, but here there was already a battle on for his soul and, more to the point, his growing fortune. Tyson’s co-manager, Jim Jacobs, had died two months earlier (Tyson’s mentor and legal guardian, trainer Cus D’Amato, had been gone since November of 1985), throwing open the door to all manner of takeover strategies. As Tyson sat unclothed and ranting, his first wife, actress Robin Givens, was staying in the Catskill Victorian home in which Tyson had lived with D’Amato and D’Amato’s longtime companion, Camille Ewald, since 1980. Rapacious fight promoter Don King was holed up in an Albany hotel. Bill Cayton, Jacobs’s longtime partner, was in New York City, ostracized, but scrapping. “Everybody is pulling at me, this way and that way,” said Tyson. “Everybody’s got their hands out, waiting for something from me. I don’t need them. I don’t need anybody. I could go fight you in the street, outside this building, and somebody would pay me a million dollars for it.” (This was probably true).
“Something drastic is going to happen soon,” Tyson said. “Screw the world.”
When the session ended, I walked down to the street and climbed into my ’83 Honda Civic. It was a dizzying time in my life. My wife was 36 weeks pregnant with our first child, and I was sitting on job offers from two New York City newspapers (the customary path to career advancement in 1988), either of which would mean leaving upstate friends and family behind while dragging my wife and baby to an unfamiliar new home. My work in covering Tyson had helped get me noticed by potential employers, yet here I sat by the curb with a tape full of his insecurities and pain to transcribe and regurgitate for anyone to read. I felt guilty, but not too guilty not to make sure the recorder had successfully captured the conversation. I raced four exits up the New York State Thruway and banged out a story that led the sports section the next morning and, even in the pre-Internet age, was quickly snatched up and disseminated around the world. Any Tyson news was big in those days.
But Tyson was also right. Things were going to change. His rise to greatness had been a wild, exhilarating sprint that tapped into a primal bloodlust, and not just his, but the public’s, too. That was ending, right here and now, already fading into history before my paper’s press run began. And we may never see its kind again.
In the winter of 1985, small-time boxing promoters Bob and Lorraine Miller, a married couple from Troy, N.Y., were summoned to a meeting at D’Amato’s home in Catskill. Bob Miller, then 39, had been a boxing lifer, an amateur fighter at age 12, a weekend brawler in the Army and throughout his adult life, a trainer to dozens of amateur and professional fighters, while working a full-time job as a monitor at a local high school. Lorraine Miller, then 38 and the mother of five small children, had become licensed as a promoter to help run the shows they carded, because Bob often represented participating fighters. The Millers weren’t getting rich from boxing, but they were keeping the sport vibrant in their small corner of the world. They had a reputation among locals for honesty and professionalism.
D’Amato sat with the Millers in the living room, praised their work in hosting small-time shows and asked if they would like to promote Mike Tyson’s professional debut. Tyson was not famous yet, but he was known, and known better in upstate New York than in most places. The Millers were versed in the basic story that would later explode into a boxing version of Pygmalion meets Godzilla: Tyson was a troubled kid from Brooklyn whose behavior had landed him in a juvenile detention facility called the Tryon School, in Amsterdam, N.Y. Bobby Stewart, a Tryon School staff member who had been a professional fighter (and whom I knew only as a quiet guy who ran local 10K and 5K road races while wearing giant headphones, like he was landing airplanes), taught Tyson to box and brought him to D’Amato, an eccentric, quasi-mystical trainer who had guided Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres to world titles a couple of decades before and had moved to Catskill in the late 1960s. D’Amato became Tyson’s legal guardian in 1981 and guided him to several significant amateur titles. Tyson had lost to Henry Tillman at the ’84 Olympic Trials, but there was already buzz in the boxing world that Tyson would be a much better professional than amateur, with stunning hand speed and punching power.
Lorraine Miller, 68, recalls an intoxicating pitch from D’Amato. “Cus said, ‘One day Mike will be heavyweight champion of the world, and I’m not saying you will be his only promoter, but you will be involved.’ Now think about that. Everybody thinks they have the golden gem, right? We thought to ourselves, We’ll just go along with Mike.” The Millers recall that D’Amato didn’t promise that they would get rich, only that they would be protected against losses by Tyson’s backers, Jacobs and Cayton, wealthy co-owners of a New York-based production company that specialized in vintage boxing films.
For Tyson’s first fight, the Millers chose the Empire State Plaza convention center, a subterranean display hall beneath marble office towers with an egg-shaped theater called, wait for it, The Egg, in downtown Albany. They had previously hosted amateur and professional shows at the Plaza and Bob liked the way the facility floor dropped out hydraulically, enabling easy transport of the ring.
D’Amato, who was 77 and in failing health, entrusted Bob Miller to find an opponent, and Miller dug up Hector Mercedes, 19, a native of Puerto Rico fighting out of Lowell, Mass. Mercedes’s record at the time of the fight was billed as 0-2-1, and he was typical of Tyson’s early opponents. “Mike got to where he got because he was handled properly,” says Bob Miller. “He was 18. He had lost to Tillman. There was a lot of pressure on him to win. It was understood that me and Lorraine were supposed to put Mike in with guys that he could handle.” (Steve Lott says that Jacobs and D’Amato picked the early opponents; Miller says he picked the fighters and that Jacobs and D’Amato signed off.) Did Mercedes know what he was getting into? “I doubt it,” says Bob Miller. “That was the first fight. There was no Internet.”
The Millers arranged to have 500 promotional posters printed, with Rooney, who was not only working Tyson’s corner but also fighting the main event, displayed most prominently, and Tyson in a secondary position. D’Amato rejected the posters and instructed the Millers to print bigger posters with Tyson in the middle. “Cus said, ‘I want people walking on the other side of the street to be able to see Mike Tyson’s face,”’ says Lorraine Miller. She burned some of the original 500 posters in her wood stove at home and let her kids doodle with crayons on the backs of others, decisions she would later regret.
The new poster featured Tyson: professional debut/sensational area uncrowned olympic champion.
Hector Mercedes’s name was nowhere on the poster. Tickets sold for $10, $12 and $15.
A preview of the fight was played on the fifth page—D-5—of the Times Union sports section. “Michael Jackson’s a thriller, I’m a killer,” Tyson said, according to the story, written by Gene Levy, a veteran Albany sportswriter who wrote extensively about Tyson’s early career.
Paul Antonelli of the tiny Catskill Daily Mail, who would go on to cover 47 of Tyson’s first 48 fights, was also there. The Millers couldn’t entice local sportscaster Bob McNamara, the dominant voice in the market. “He told me, ‘Lorraine, I think the world of you, but I am not interested,’ ” said Lorraine Miller. “Call me when Tyson does something big.’ ” Meanwhile, I was a half-mile up State Street, covering a Continental Basketball Association game between the Albany Patroons and the Albuquerque Silvers for The Schenectady Gazette, six-plus years into my first writing gig out of college and very much in a rut. But the Patroons were a solid beat; Phil Jackson was the coach. He gave his players books to read and conducted daily classes in weird basketball psychology for beat writers. (He also once heaved a bunch of chairs down a staircase after a spat with referee Steve Javie, but that’s another story). The Gazette didn’t staff Tyson’s fight.
The Millers assigned Lorraine’s brother, Mike Grzyboski, to film Tyson’s debut, using a clunky VHS recorder like dad might use to film Christmas morning. There was no prescience in this. “Mike filmed all our shows,” says Bob Miller. But this decision, too, would have further implications for the Millers, for Tyson and for his management team.
That first fight lasted one minute, 47 seconds. Tyson, wearing white shorts and blue shoes (not the black-on-black combination for which he would later be known), staggered his overmatched opponent with a clubbing right hand to the temple, drilled him into the corner with a hellacious straight left and dropped him to a knee with a body shot. Ballgame. “Gave the people what they wanted to see,” says Antonelli. D’Amato sat ringside with co-managers Jacobs and Cayton. He would never work Tyson’s corner. Steve Lott, who worked for Jacobs and Cayton and later not only helped out in Tyson’s corner, but also became responsible for keeping Tyson relatively trouble-free between fights, says, “Cus told Mike from the very beginning, ‘I’m never going to work your corner, because if I die, I don’t want you to look up and see my face missing.’ ” Lott didn’t see the first fight; he was in his New York apartment awaiting a call from Jacobs.
The Times Union game story, on page D-3, claimed an estimated attendance of 2,000. The space could accommodate more than 3,000. Bob Miller says, “I just know it wasn’t a sellout.” The earth did not shake.
What was Tyson thinking? The original conceit for this story was that I would call upon my recollections of Tyson’s rise from teenager to champion, beginning in 1985 and concluding with my departure from the Tyson beat—and from Albany—in 1988, because I witnessed and documented much of it. I would make an effort to confirm my own memories and supplement them with research and interviews. The piece was conceived in my head as portraying what it was like to be around Tyson during his rise (because so much bandwidth has been devoted to his fall), not what it was like to be Tyson. There was nothing wrong with that plan, but the absence of Tyson’s adult voice left a gaping hole in the work. I hadn’t spoken with him privately since that that May afternoon in Catskill 27 years ago. In those years Tyson had deteriorated quickly to the point where he was beaten up by Buster Douglas, served three years in an Indiana prison after a rape conviction, regained two titles and then chomped off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear; threatened to eat Lennox Lewis’s children, got drunk, stoned and sober multiple times, assumed the world’s most famous face tattoo, lost every penny of the more than $300 million he earned and more, married three times, fathered eight children and lost one of them at age four, and then emerged in the last half-decade as a pop-culture figure with movie appearances, a best-selling biography and a one-man Broadway show arranged by Spike Lee. Tyson went one way, famously (and notoriously); I went another way, vastly more anonymously. Nevertheless, I did need to speak with him.
There was little journalistic sleuthing involved in setting up an interview. Tyson is soon to begin publicity for the movie, Champs, director Bert Marcus’s attempt to study the sociology of boxing as a path from the inner city through the careers of Tyson, Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins. A phone interview was arranged from Tyson’s home in Las Vegas. We talked for an hour. This you should know about Tyson: He remembers things. Not everything, but who does? He remembers more than seems plausible for a 48-year-old man whose brain and body have taken such beatings. Tyson was engaged to talk about the old days with somebody who was there, an “upstate homeboy,” in his words. “You know the characters,” he says. “You met the people.”
He remembers that first fight, 30 years ago. “March 6, 1985,” he says. “Mercedes, right?” He remembers pieces of the day and night. “I drove up with Kevin and Cus, maybe a couple other people from the house,” Tyson says. “It was always just a few people and we’d take on the world. But I got up there to Albany and I was scared to death. And then the fight, it was magnificent. They were all magnificent. It was all great at the beginning.”
Thirty-five days after Tyson starched Mercedes, Miller lined him up with Trent Singleton, who halted in the center of the ring until Tyson beat him to the canvas in 52 seconds. Forty-three days later, on May 23 of ’85, Tyson knocked out Don Halpin 64 seconds into the fourth round, and afterward told reporters that he could have gone 30 rounds. He surely could have gone more than four. “Back then,” says Tyson, “It was sparring and training, sparring and training, and watching old fight films. I had way more training and sparring time than fight time. We were driving to New York and all over the place for sparring.”
Yet neither Tyson’s second nor third fights sold out the same underground arena in Albany. Seeking better exposure, Jacobs and Cayton took Tyson on the road. He fought seven times in the next five months, through the summer of 1985 (as America watched Pete Rose chase down Ty Cobb), six times at three different Atlantic City Casinos and once at a civic arena in Poughkeepsie. Those seven fights lasted a total of 18 minutes and 32 seconds, all ending by knockout or TKO. Several of the fights were broadcast on ESPN, at the time a six-year-old network still struggling for traction against the three-letter networks.
On Nov. 1, 1985, Tyson came back to the Albany area to fight Sterling Benjamin, 31, a police officer from Trinidad, at the Colonie Coliseum, a theater in the round with a capacity of 3,400, located in the suburb of Latham, five miles north of the city. “Sellout,” says Bob Miller. It was the first Tyson fight I covered, for The Schenectady Gazette. The scene was chaotic, a packed house, well-lubricated during a four-bout undercard. A left hook knocked down Benjamin 27 seconds into the fight and a body shot finished him less than half a minute later. I quoted Benjamin saying, “The body shot, it was like a sledgehammer.” That became a popular quote in the Tyson canon, often with “mon,” attached to the end, to lend the appropriate Caribbean air to the sentence, even though I’m certain Benjamin did not say it (because there’s no way I would have resisted using it).
Tyson was surrounded by local media and provided with Benjamin’s quote. “That’s because he’s never been hit by Mike Tyson,” he said. “I went out there with the idea of doing a disastrous job on him.” The fight was contested while D’Amato lay critically ill in a New York City hospital. “If anything should happen to Cus, God forbid, we’ll continue,” said Tyson. “I have a goal in mind.” That goal was to be the youngest heavyweight champion in history.
That night was my first live dose of the intoxicating, primal anticipation that I would experience for much of the next two and a half years. I had known nothing like it in sports before and have experienced nothing like it since, a full-body paralysis of expectation. From the moment Tyson stepped between the ropes, you could not look away, you could not speak, you could not move, for fear of missing not just news, but history. If life unfolded at 55 miles an hour, Tyson fights took place at 90. I banged out 800 words on deadline that night and drove home, 10 minutes away, hooked. (This February, I drove to the site of the Coliseum, which closed in 1998. It is a vacant lot between a car dealership and a warehouse, ghostly in this context). D’Amato died three days after the Benjamin bout, but Tyson fought 12 days later at a hotel in Houston and then on Nov. 22 back in Latham. Both were knockouts; Tyson had been a professional for 262 days and fought 13 times, an average of one bout every 20 days. Only one had reached the fourth round.
In the years and decades that followed, those first 13 fights would make their way first onto compilation videotapes called Mike Tyson’s Greatest Hits, (Vols. 1 and 2) and later become YouTube staples. They gave the impression that Tyson was a nationwide sensation from the start. He wasn’t. Time has clouded the lens of history, as it often does. Those of us living and working in Tyson’s adopted home had begun to understand his gifts, but the kid had not gone national and certainly not international. Jacobs changed that with a simple stroke of promotional genius that now seems both obvious and quaint. Sometime in November, Jacobs strung together Tyson’s knockouts onto a single videocassette tape and sent it to boxing writers around the country, and most pointedly to those in New York City. (To make this tape, according to Bob and Lorraine Miller, Jacobs needed the primitive reels that Mike Grzyboski shot in Albany. Bob Miller says Cayton asked if he could please send the tapes to New York and also to sign a letter that Cayton sent to Troy. Miller signed the letter and sent the tapes. “Of course,” he says now, “that paper meant we were signing away the rights to the tapes of those first three fights.” Lorraine Miller says, “We just never realized Mike would get so big and those tapes would be worth so much.” Steve Lott, however, says he is certain that video of those first three fights was available almost immediately afterward).
Jacobs’s strategy to make Tyson a star was plausible. Boxing still had a pulse in late 1985; Sugar Ray Leonard was still a major presence and Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran were in their primes, give or take. Hector (Macho) Camacho and Donald Curry were viable drawing cards. Holyfield was among more than a half dozen members of the ’84 U.S. Olympic team with nascent careers, including Mark Breland, Pernell Whitaker and Tyrell Biggs. But the heavyweight division needed help. The fading Larry Holmes had lost his title to Michael Spinks in September of ’85 and onetime Great White Hope Gerry Cooney had little hope left. George Foreman had retired in 1977 and wouldn’t launch his unlikely comeback until ’87. There was an opening for Tyson. To give his promotion a further hook, Jacobs scheduled Tyson for a fight at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum against Sammy Scaff on Dec. 6, 1985, on the undercard of a middleweight title fight.
Writers leaped at the bait. The New York Times’s Phil Berger was first, making the trip to Catskill and writing a piece that was published on Dec. 2. Berger, an erudite, streetwise writer who in 1970 at age 27 had published Miracle on 33rd Street, chronicling the New York Knicks’ NBA championship, wrote, “Tyson punches so hard that opponents take the kind of half-gainers to the canvas that leave a usually rational observer with only a comic book vocabulary of wow-geez and ohmygod. . . .” Newsday’s Wallace Matthews, another highly respected boxing scribe, covered Tyson’s 79-second knockout of Scaff and in January made the trip to Catskill.
But it was a sports illustrated cover story by the great William Nack in the Jan. 6, 1986 issue of the magazine that put rockets on the Tyson phenomenon. Nack meticulously laid out the story of Tyson’s incarceration and rescue by Stewart and D’Amato, gleefully described his most punishing knockouts (surely from Jacobs’s tape) and concluded, “[Tyson] is the most electrifying young heavyweight prospect in years. Tyson may be the most devastating puncher in boxing today, a remorseless attacker who bobs and weaves inside and throws swarms of left hooks and right hands to the body and the head.”
The narrative was established: the 19-year-old Tyson, unbeaten and untested, was a can’t-miss destroyer molded by an elderly boxing Yoda in his final days on earth. ABC paid $850,000 to put four of Tyson’s upcoming bouts on Wide World of Sports, then a significant vehicle. Alex Wallau, the network’s boxing analyst at the time and later its president, had met and interviewed Tyson as a 17-year-old amateur and had been kept apprised of Tyson’s progress by Jacobs. “I didn’t know what was going to happen with Mike,” says Wallau. “He wasn’t really a great fighter. But his power was so exceptional and so electric. It was one of those things where you knew it was going to be an exciting ride and you wanted a ticket.”
Three decades later, Tyson looks back in wonder at the young man loosed on America. The story of Bobby Stewart’s discovery and Cus D’Amato’s reclamation was not just a fairy tale that America swallowed whole, it was Tyson’s life. And it was all real; the media got it mostly right (though none more right than SI’s Gary Smith in 1988). But that life was very different seen from the inside than it appeared on the pages of a newspaper or magazine or in the frames of a movie. “I met Cus in December of 1979, Bobby Stewart brought me to him,” says Tyson. “I didn’t want to be a fighter, but I figured I could hustle and con these white guys.”
This would be the dance. Tyson had been a juvenile street hustler and mugger in Brooklyn, first bullied and then the bully, cannonballing toward a short life spent in the justice system. But D’Amato was a hustler, too. In his earlier years, he had fought the mob and survived; as a trainer, he built boxers by seizing on their weakest qualities and turning their insecurity outward to fight the world. Tyson was a cornucopia of fear and desperation that D’Amato both salved and fed. It’s an essential part of the Tyson Legend—and most likely an accurate part—that upon watching the 13-year-old Tyson spar with Stewart, D’Amato told Tyson that he would someday win the heavyweight championship. Three decades later, even with the tsunami of a life he’s lived, Tyson marvels at this. “It’s the most bizarre thing in my life and I can’t put it together,” says Tyson. “That day I’m sparring with Bobby Stewart and I’m getting shellacked. I’m getting the crap kicked out of me by Bobby Stewart. And Cus says I’m going to be heavyweight champion of the world. How the f— did he know that? How did he know? I’ve thought about it for years. I loved Cus. I loved the man, but he was a really weird dude.”
D’Amato force-fed Tyson old fight films from Jacobs’s library, turning Tyson into a teenager who could prattle on for hours about Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson. Together they would watch live fights, too, like the first Roberto Duran&en;Sugar Ray Leonard fight (not the no mas rematch) on June 20, 1980. Tyson was 10 days short of his 14th birthday, sitting on the couch in Catskill. “It was a brutal fight,” says Tyson. “Every punch Duran threw was an explosion. Pop! Pop! Pop! And Leonard said he was intimidated? I wish I could fight like that when I was intimidated. I was jumping up and down and screaming. I wanted to go to the gym that night.”
But just as D’Amato would pointedly seek to inspire Tyson, he would also prod the kid’s weak spots, and Tyson had plenty of them. “Here I am, the most insecure, scared guy in the world,” says Tyson. “And in the ring, I become this juggernaut. And that’s what Cus wanted, that transformation. One day I was talking to Cus, and he says to me, ‘I wish you were bigger. You’re small. I wish you had shoulders like Mike Weaver or Ken Norton. I said, ‘You wait, Cus, one day the whole world will be afraid of me. You wait.’ Then I would start crying. He did a number on me. He really did a number on me.” Over the phone, in 2015, Tyson sobs.
There’s no doubt D’Amato’s strategy was effective. In those early years, Tyson remained mostly soft-spoken and deferential outside the ring (this would change, dramatically) and historically violent inside it. “The guy in that ring, I was not that guy,” says Tyson. “But he got me to believe I was this super powerful guy. I was emotionally insecure in my life and supremely confident inside the ring.”
From somewhere deep, he remembers moments from the early fights that landed on Jacobs’s tape. “Conroy Nelson, the Canadian champion, guy with big, broad shoulders” says Tyson. That was Nov. 22, 1985, in Latham. Nelson was Canadian, but had been beaten in a bout for the national title. He did have big shoulders. “I went to the body that fight more than any fight in my life, then I got him with a left hook to the head.” Exactly right. Tyson savaged Nelson’s ribcage to the point that he was warned for low blows and then took him out with a thunderous left hook thrown from his waist. Why didn’t Tyson keep working the body as his career unfolded? “Bad influences,” he says. “Bad coaching. Bad people around me. I just didn’t work like that anymore.”
Another memory bubbles up. “Mark Young,” says Tyson. “I hit him with a right uppercut and he flew across the ring. I was like, What the f— was that. I mean, holy s—.” That was Dec. 27, 1985, and again Tyson has it right. Young went down 50 seconds into the first round from a punch that looked like it whistled past the point of Young’s chin, but in fact caught enough tissue to turn out the lights.
Tyson’s first ABC network fight was on Feb. 16, 1986 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Houston Field House, a cacophonous hockey barn and home to the reigning NCAA champion Engineers. Tyson’s opponent was Jesse Ferguson, a 28-year-old with a 14–1 record and a win over Buster Douglas. Tyson stopped him in six rounds and said in a post-fight interview that had had tried to uppercut Ferguson so violently that he would drive his nose bone into his brain. “Cus told me that,” Tyson says now. “We talked all the time about hurting fighters. Cus wanted me to hurt people, he wanted me to destroy them. Bust up their liver, break their spleen. Push their nose up into their brain.” Tyson pauses. He falls back into the language easily and catches himself. “It’s a hurt business,” he says. “And I was the king of the business.”
It remains clear that D’Amato, even in illness and three decades of death, has never given up residence in Tyson’s head, leading to a lifetime of fame and tragedy, but also of confusion and anguish. So is it a plus or a minus that Tyson met this unusual man? “A major plus,” says Tyson. “Where was I going? If Bobby Stewart doesn’t meet me and introduce me to this old Italian guy, where was I going? I was already locked up. I was thinking about how to get the guy that told on me. So where I was I going? I’d be in prison for murder.”
Around the time that Tyson was talking about pushing Jesse Ferguson’s nose into his brain, I was hired away from The Schenectady Gazette, to work at the Albany Times Union. Geographically, it was an inconsequential move; I stayed in the same house. Professionally, it was huge. The Gazette was a successful, family-owned paper that made its money covering local news and local sports. The TU was no more successful, but more ambitious, and had just hired an aggressive, young sports editor. His name was Al Vieira, and he was energetic and feisty, with a bushy mustache. We affectionately called him Lieutenant Castillo, after the intense squad room boss from Miami Vice. Vieira essentially handed me the front page of his sports section and told me to fill it with good stories. He sent me to big events, gave me a column and free reign to chase features. It was an incredible break, for which I am indebted for life. He also put me on the Tyson beat, replacing Gene Levy. I felt bad about this, because Gene was a good writer and he had been there nearly from the start. But I was the new guy and now that I am much older, I have learned that in sports, in business and in journalism, the new guy gets the reps. Always has, always will.
That winter I started making trips to Catskill, maybe once every two or three weeks. Watching Tyson spar was breathtaking. The elusiveness and boxing skills that he came to abandon while headhunting on fight night were often in evidence in the gym. Because there was no deadline, a writer could lean against the wall and soak it in. The hand speed, the efficiency. Sometimes Tyson talked, sometimes he brooded. I took what I was given and pushed when appropriate. There was always a sense that I was in the presence of a significant historical figure of some sort, and that he was changing, shifting, evolving—or devolving—before my eyes. In the spring of that year, James (Quick) Tillis and Mitch (Blood) Green each took Tyson 10 rounds and finished upright, setting off alarms. On my 30th birthday I sat ringside at Madison Square Garden as Tyson took out Baltimore journeyman Reggie Gross with a compact left than Gross never saw. Ali was sitting nearby, watching Tyson for the first time. A little over a month later Marvis Frazier fell in 30 violent seconds; I wrote a column ripping Smokin’ Joe for putting his son in against a guy like Tyson. By then Tyson was on a collision course with Canadian Trevor Berbick, who owned one-third of the fractured heavyweight title.
In that summer of ’86, I watched filmmaker Michael Marton’s 1983 documentary, Watch Me Now, which highlighted the amateur Tyson’s close relationship with trainer Teddy Atlas. Three years later, Atlas was long gone, so I set out to learn why. Over a long afternoon in a bar near Gleason’s Gym on West 38th Street in Manhattan, Atlas told me everything and nothing. He hinted that D’Amato had become too permissive with Tyson, but insisted that there was nothing specific.
Camille Ewald told me, “There was one thing that happened that I cannot tell.”
Atlas said, “I would have to really think to remember one thing.”
After a press conference at an Albany hotel, I approached Rooney and Tyson to ask about Atlas. Rooney and Atlas had been close friends on Staten Island before coming to Catskill, but Rooney went ballistic with anger. Tyson just shook his head. As I left the hotel, Tyson caught up to me. “Don’t worry about Kevin,” he said. “He gets excited.” I asked Tyson if he wanted to talk about Atlas. He shook his head again. Subsequently, I wrote a story about the split, but I didn’t get the story of the split. Not long after that piece ran, a guy from Catskill told me his version of the real story in confidence and years later, Atlas said that he had held a gun to Tyson’s head after Tyson had allegedly made sexual advances towards Atlas’s underage niece. So yeah, there was one thing, but it’s hard to blame Atlas, who would go on to successful careers in training and television, for not coming clean to some random sportswriter from Albany in the middle of Tyson-mania.
Four days before Tyson fought Berbick, I was with a group of writers watching Tyson spar at Johnny Tocco’s Gym in Las Vegas. The session was abruptly halted when Tyson developed a welt over one eye, very nearly a cut. As writers huddled around Rooney and Jacobs, Tyson climbed on a stationary bike. He wiped his hand over the welt and mouthed at me: “I’m fine.” Those two words became the lede of another story. On fight night I sat hunched over my Radio Shack computer, uncertain if I would see 12 rounds or 12 seconds of action. As Tyson overwhelmed Berbick, my mind absorbed the tableau. This is just like all those other fights. Berbick was stopped in the second round, robbed of his equilibrium by a sonic left to the forehead.
History likes to hold that Tyson peaked in the 1988 demolition of Michael Spinks. Tyson says no. “The Berbick fight,” he says. “That was my best. I remember in the press conference, Berbick was talking all this nasty stuff. And then boom. Two rounds.” Long after the fight was over, Tyson went to the bar at the Landmark Hotel with Canadian middleweight Matthew Hilton, who had fought on the undercard, and Jay Bright. Both men had lived in Catskill. “We drank and we drank and we talked about Cus and we were happy, but we were depressed, too,” says Tyson. “Matthew passed out and Jay passed out and I went to some girl’s house and talked about Cus all night.”
Tyson defended his title six times in the next 19 months. The pace never slowed. In the fall of 1987, before Tyson pummeled former amateur nemesis Tyrell Biggs, I went to Atlantic City to watch a sparring session and conduct an interview. We talked in a dressing room reserved for entertainers, with a makeup table and bright, round lights above the mirrors. Givens, whom Tyson had begun dating, was sitting nearby. Tyson talked, starry-eyed, about his great good fortune in meeting such a cultured woman. Later Tyson excused himself to shower; the water went on, and then quickly off. Givens shouted, “Michael Tyson. That shower was much too short.” The water came on again.
The fights were exhilarating, even when they were lousy. There was as much theater in watching a giant man like James (Bonecrusher) Smith cling to Tyson in abject fear as there was in watching Tyson carry Biggs for seven rounds just to inflict as much punishment as possible, payback for the verbal abuse Biggs had once heaped on a young, insecure Tyson. As victories were laid end-to-end, it was easy to overlook that Tyson was increasingly ignoring the overlooked skills of his teen years: Head movement, body shots, combinations thrown with such swiftness and fury that, as Tyson says now, “Three punches sounded like one punch.” It was easy to cast aside the reality that, absent those fundamentals, Tyson struggled with tall men who could box. That, over time, he was becoming a lesser fighter who would someday meet his reckoning. Far in Tyson’s future, James (Buster) Douglas awaited, and would ruthlessly collect the rent.
We missed Tyson’s steady decline because the character of Tyson had become a cultural torrent. Tyson was not just a boxer, not just an athlete, not just a showman; he was a cartoon destroyer in a cutout towel and black shoes, trotted out regularly for our basest entertainment. For me, a mid-major sportswriter, it was a backstage pass to history, but also to the the Damon Runyon school of scribe nightlife, where Pat Putnam of SI, Ed Schuyler of the AP, Michael Katz (New York Daily News) George Kimball (Boston Herald) and many others welcomed me into their boozy storytelling circle at watering holes like the Irish Pub in Atlantic City and the Flame in Las Vegas. Just so that I could hear all the tales, I would sneak off to the men’s room and pour full pints of beer down the toilet, because it was impossible to keep up with the pace.
Rumors of Tyson behaving badly flowed through the newspaper’s phone lines like spring snowmelt. There was a disturbance in a local mall that the paper’s news-side reporters nailed down. But so much of it was untouchable, with rumors that Jacobs and Cayton paid to make problems go away (also unsubstantiated but perfectly logical). Lott was charged with minding Tyson in the increasingly longer intervals between fights. It was such nerve-wracking work that he has few fond memories. “So much pressure,” Lott says. “That pressure overpowered everything else.” Ever so gradually, the Tyson story turned more ominous. A few days before knocking out Holmes in January of ’88, Tyson told Antonelli that he had put on a ski mask and gone begging for money in the street, to embrace a mind-set of desperation and anger.
Shortly after Jacobs died, there was a press event for the upcoming Spinks fight at the Plaza Hotel in New York. I arrived early, in hopes of snagging some private time with Tyson, and soon spotted Rooney and Tyson walking down an otherwise empty hallway. As I approached, Rooney shook his head vigorously. Undeterred, I fell in alongside Tyson. “Not today, Tim,” he said. I continued to make small talk. Abruptly Tyson pivoted toward me and swung his right fist toward my midsection, stopping just as it made contact, but before it did any damage. I froze like Spinks would freeze a few weeks later. Tyson rose up, smacked me on the cheek with an open hand, smiled and then walked away. So yeah, not today.
Tyson would never be more praised than the late June night in 1988 when he demolished Spinks, a blown-up light heavyweight who was so frightened that he met Tyson in the center of the ring and traded blows, the one strategy that categorically would not succeed. But that night on the Atlantic City boardwalk was the end of the climb, and the rest of his career was a long, slow plunge to the bottom. Tyson knows that now. He probably knew it then.
When he railed at the world and into my tape recorder that May afternoon in 1988, his fall was well underway. “By then,” says Tyson. “I didn’t care anymore. The flesh-eaters had already grabbed me and taken advantage of me and they were already cutting me into pieces for their own self-aggrandizement. So I was being a prima donna. I was being a brat. Cus was gone. There was nobody to control me. At that point, I had already taken the poison and I was just waiting to die.”
Some remnants of that remarkable 39-month run remain, though many are gone. D’Amato, Jacobs and Cayton have long passed; Rooney, at age 58, is suffering from the early stages of dementia. Lott lives in Las Vegas and runs his version of the Boxing Hall of Fame while also doing occasional publicity for Tyson. Lorraine and Bob Miller, the early promoters who had been promised insulation against losses, were hit in 1989 with a $29,000 tax bill that Lorraine Miller says was tied mostly to Tyson promotions. Twenty-six years later that bill has swelled to $248,000 and Miller says the IRS extracts $110 from her monthly $511 Social Security check. She remembers that when Tyson went to prison in 1991, she was flooded with calls from memorabilia collectors. She sold Tyson’s first contract for $7,500 and dozens of posters for less. If only she hadn’t burned so many in the wood stove. If only they hadn’t signed away the rights to those early fights.
Tyson lives with his third wife, Kiki, and two of his daughters, in Las Vegas. He says he helps get the girls to tennis workouts and piano practice and fights to stay sober and, frankly, it’s all pretty dull. “It’s my Siberia,” says Tyson, “because of the life I’ve lived. But can I tell you something,”—Tyson has always punctuated his speech with Can I tell you something?—“I wouldn’t give this up for anything.” His daughter Exodus died in 2009, at the age of four, when she became entangled in the electrical cord to a treadmill. Tyson says he keeps her ashes in his bedroom and will have them transferred to his casket when he dies. He says his own IRS bill, once north of $20 million, will be history by the end of 2015. His Mike Tyson Mysteries animated series has been renewed for a second season on the Adult Swim network. He is a survivor, which is the very last thing I would have expected when I knew him a lifetime ago.
Me? I spent most of a lifetime writing about other things. The baby born 16 days after my last talk with Tyson is 26 years old now. (“Ain’t that some stuff?” said Tyson.) That day in 1988, as I punched the stop button on my recorder and left Tyson, I said, “Take care of yourself.” I know this only because I used it as the kicker—the last line—in my newspaper story that night. I don’t remember saying it and I don’t know why I said it. It’s not something a journalist says to a subject. Maybe I feared what lay ahead for Tyson and probably for myself, as well, though in different ways. Maybe I was trying to say thanks for giving me the ringside seat. But I definitely said it. And then I went down the staircase, into the street and on to a different life.
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