The first time Bobby Stewart saw Mike Tyson, two staff members of the Tryon School for Boys, a center for juvenile delinquents in upstate New York, were leading Tyson across the grounds toward Elmwood Cottage, the living quarters where Stewart was a counselor. It was 1979, and Tyson was only 13 years old, but he was already built like a tugboat—5'8", 210 pounds—and he was in handcuffs.
"Even though he was 13, he could beat up most men," recalls Stewart, a former professional prizefighter. It had just taken two men to subdue Tyson after he had bullied and slapped around another boy at the school, and his confinement at Elmwood—known as the Bad Cottage because only the most incorrigible boys lived there—was punishment for that. Based on his third-grade reading level and a violent and sullen personality—"I had nothing to say to anyone," Tyson says—the youngster was thought to be mentally retarded, according to one school source.
Walking to Elmwood that day, Tyson found the fork in the road that would alter the direction of his life and lead him to where he is today. Where he is, at 19, is precisely 15 fights into a pro boxing career in which he has knocked out all his opponents, 11 of them in the first round, and has been in the ring a total of only 40 minutes and 25 seconds, or 2:42 per fight, including Friday night when he stopped Mark Young of Charlotte, N.C. at 50 seconds of the first round in Latham, N.Y. He 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 victims of these assaults may have been mostly nameless stiffs looking for a payday, but Tyson gave them more than that. Upon regaining their legs, they spoke with a remarkable unanimity about the experience of fighting him.
January 6, 1986
Eddie Richardson, counted out at 1:17 of the first round after Tyson dropped him with a right and then flattened him with a slashing left hook, was asked if he had ever been hit so hard. Richardson reflected a moment and said, "Yeah, about a year ago I was hit by a truck." And there is Sterling Benjamin, the Jamaican who sagged under a furious body attack after 58 seconds of Round 1: "He has a sledgehammer, mon."
And let's not forget Sammy Scaff, the 250-pound Kentuckian who buckled under a barrage of punches, finally succumbing to a left hook after 1:19 of the first: "I sparred with Greg Page, and I went four rounds with Tim Wither-spoon," said Scaff, whose nose was still bleeding half an hour after the fight, "but I've never been hit that hard in my life."
Tyson turned pro just 10 months ago, and co-managers Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton have been understandably cautious in bringing him along, especially because he had but 26 fights as an amateur. "Mike is only 19 years old," says Jacobs. "Look up the ring records of Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano and see who they were fighting after 10 months. You won't recognize any of the names."
Regardless of the competition, ABC-TV found such appeal in Tyson's slashing style that the network has signed him to an exclusive four-fight contract for the coming year worth $850,000.
It's a wonder to Tyson, as he looks back on his childhood, that he ever got to where he is after being who and where he was. By the time he took that march in manacles to the Bad Cottage, Tyson was so utterly caught in the cycle of crime leading to the stone-gray world of institutional living that he winces today when he thinks of it. "Six years have gone by, and it seems like yesterday," he says. "Six years! Now I'm here. Imagine if I'd kept screwing around those six years. I'd have been in the same place I was. In jail. Or dead. One of those."
Tyson was born in the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the youngest of three children. He was raised by his mother, Lorna, from whom he acquired an essentially timid and gentle nature. "I never knew my father," he says. "My mother didn't believe in violence," he says. "She detested it. Being that way, I was very shy, almost effeminate shy. My brother was five years older, so I had only my sister to play with. I guess I picked up some habits talking. When I was younger, they used to call me 'little fairy boy.' I was always gentle, really gentle."
All that changed when Lorna Tyson moved her family to the even rougher Brownsville section of Brooklyn when Mike was 10. The boy discovered a different world there, one in which he routinely found himself the victim of neighborhood toughs. "They used to take my sneakers, my clothes, my money," he says. "Beat me up and smack me around."
Tyson finally struck back when an older boy tried to steal one of the pigeons he was raising. "I don't know what possessed me to fight, but it was my first fight and I kicked the living crap out of him," Tyson says. "When I started hitting him, I was loving it. I let so much frustration out."
Tyson began to fight all the time. He was already big for his age, with enormous natural power, and his prowess as a ruffian eventually led him into a circle of older friends who led him into crime. He picked pockets and snatched jewelry, mugged people on the street and stuck up stores. "Like the check-cashing place and the supermarket," he says. "They held the guns. I would just put everything in a bag. I was 11."
And already trapped. "I can't say that I was sucked in," he says. "I wanted to be sucked in. I knew what was at the end of the rainbow—trouble and jail—but I wanted to be accepted. So we did those things." Lorna Tyson used to cry to him, "How can you steal? I never stole anything in my life." Her pleading did no good. "I know she was embarrassed, because she had a lot of pride," Tyson says. "I was haunted and just didn't care. I became so obnoxious." In and out of detention facilities, he was ultimately sent to the Tryon School.
Tyson knew that Stewart had been a boxer, and not a bad one at that. As an amateur, Stewart had won the National Golden Gloves light heavyweight championship in 1974 by beating the eventual WBA heavyweight champion, Michael Dokes. Tyson got the idea that he wanted to become a boxer, too, and he asked Stewart to work with him. Stewart resisted. Tyson persisted. "Teach me how to box. I really want to learn how to fight," he said. Stewart gave in, but only on condition that Tyson work harder in school. He told Tyson, "I don't care if you flunk every subject, as long as your behavior is good and you're putting in some effort."
Not long after the man started teaching the boy how to fight, teachers were calling Stewart to ask, "What the hell has happened to this kid? He's paying attention, not acting up in class." Within a few months Tyson had raised his reading level from third to seventh grade. And he was learning so quickly in the ring that Stewart decided he had better go into training himself. "I'd have gotten killed," Stewart says. "I had to train if I was to survive."
Tyson became so adept, in fact, that Stewart finally decided to call for help. He phoned a friend, the legendary old fight trainer Cus D'Amato, who ran a boxing school out of a small gym above the police station in the town of Catskill, some 80 miles southeast of Tryon. This was no ordinary boxing school, and D'Amato no ordinary professor of the sweet science. He had taken Floyd Patterson to the heavyweight championship of the world and Jose Torres to the light heavyweight title, and he imbued all his fighters with the D'Amato creed, which holds, in part: In the last analysis, mind triumphs over matter, and the will to win is more crucial than the skill to win.
D'Amato's fighters came from all over the country to Catskill, like acolytes in search of a guru, and they lived with D'Amato and his friend Camille Ewald—the sister of the wife of Cus's brother Rocco—in Ewald's 14-room house on 9½ acres of land overlooking the Hudson River. Camille figures that some 200 fighters came and went through that house and trained in that gym in the 15 years D'Amato ran the school.
"I got a kid up here and I want you to take a look at him," Stewart said.
"Bring him down," said D'Amato.
Stewart and Tyson sparred for Cus in that gym, and the boy tore relentlessly after the older man. No one could believe the kid was only 13. When the session was over, D'Amato told Tyson, "If you want to stay here, and if you want to listen, you could be the world heavyweight champion someday."
D'Amato had seen all he needed to see, and the boy had heard all he needed to hear. A few weeks later, with D'Amato agreeing to take custody of him, Tyson moved into the big house on the hill in Catskill. For nearly six years, until D'Amato died of pneumonia at age 77 on Nov. 4, Tyson lived and learned in a relationship that became more father-son than teacher-student, especially after D'Amato became his legal guardian in 1981. Outside the ring, under D'Amato's influence, the 5'11½" Tyson became more like the gentle-natured kid he had been back in Bed-Stuy.
In the ring he became a model of the D'Amato style of boxing. Hands up in a modified peekaboo, chin down, he moved aggressively forward in an elusive bobbing motion, exploding punches in flurries at the targets D'Amato thought vital: the liver on the right side, the floating rib on the left, the jawbone below the ear lobe, the point of the chin.
Like most of D'Amato's fighters, Tyson became a long-playing record of the man's philosophical and psychological beliefs, and today there are moments when, in talking to the fighter, it is as if you were talking to the teacher himself. The old themes recur: fear, discipline, will, character, determination. They were drilled into Tyson hour after hour, every night. "He talked about the same things over and over again," says Tyson.
Mike quoting D'Amato on discipline: "Without discipline, no matter how good you are, you are nothing! One day, and I might not be around, you're going to meet a tough guy who takes your best shot. He'll keep coming because he's tough. Don't get discouraged. That's when the discipline comes in."
On fear: "Fear is your best friend or your worst enemy. It's like fire. If you can control it, it can cook for you; it can heat your house. If you can't control it, it will burn everything around you and destroy you. If you can control your fear, it makes you more alert, like a deer coming across the lawn."
On finishing an opponent: "When you're a great finisher, you'll become popular. Joe Louis was a great finisher. So was Ray Robinson. Ray Leonard. They got a man in trouble and they threw everything they had at him. Bring him down."
Influenced by both co-manager Jacobs and D'Amato, Tyson also became a student of boxing history and an avid viewer of fight films. Jacobs and Cayton own the world's largest collection of such films, about 26,000, and Tyson began borrowing from it regularly.
"I've learned a lot watching films," he says. "I watch them almost every night. Robinson-La Motta, Robinson-Maxim, Sharkey-Carnera, Dempsey-Tunney. I also have Battling Nelson and Ad Wolgast, 1910. Forty rounds of nonstop action. I love watching Panama Al Brown [the bantamweight champion of the late '20s and early '30s]. He was 116 pounds but 5'11" tall. The things he did! A guy nearly six foot moving in and out, side to side, punching to the body, bobbing and weaving. I also liked Marciano's style. He broke fighters' wills. It shows great character for a man to do that."
Will and character. That's the teacher speaking through the student again. Just how much will and character the young man has remains, of course, to be seen. The talent is indisputable. Torres, now the commissioner of boxing for New York State, says, "Mike Tyson is so fast and so powerful that it is almost impossible to resist the guy's punching power. Wherever he hits you, you're going to feel it. He reminds me maybe of George Foreman, but Tyson's much faster than Foreman. He reminds me in style of Rocky Marciano, but he's much faster than Marciano, and he's much bigger, 217 pounds. And he's faster and much more powerful than Joe Frazier, with a better hook. I really have no one to compare him with in terms of punching power."
Can Tyson withstand pressure himself? Can he take a bang? His handlers are sanguine. "I've seen him take a shot," says his trainer, Kevin Rooney. "When he was 15, he sparred with Carl [The Truth] Williams in the gym and got nailed right on the button. He walked right through it, like it was nothing." In this regard, Rooney is not the only observer to point out that Tyson's head is bolted to a 19¾-inch neck.
Despite Tyson's growing celebrity and the promise that tomorrow holds, there exists an unshakable sadness in his life. His mother died of cancer in 1982. "I never saw my mother happy with me and proud of me for doing something: That's my boy, my youngest son! She only knew me as being a wild kid running the streets, coming home with new clothes that she knew I didn't pay for. I never got a chance to talk to her or know about her. Professionally, it has no effect, but it's crushing emotionally and personally."
And then there's D'Amato and the void left in Tyson's life. "I miss him terribly," Tyson says. "The many years we worked over things, and worked over things. He was my backbone. All the things we worked on, they're starting to come out so well. If he was just here to see them, he'd be so happy.
"When I'd get up in the morning, he'd make me breakfast. Now he's not around anymore. God, I'm going to do well, but when I come down to it, who really cares? I like doing my job, but I'm not happy being victorious. I fight my heart out and give it my best, but when it's over, there's no Cus to tell me how I did, no mother to show my clippings to."
At home in Catskill, Tyson keeps pigeons in a coop in the backyard. He feeds them and sets them free and watches them soar in high, quick circles. "They're my brothers and babies," he says. He eats dinner, watches fight films, goes to bed early and is up at dawn to run the roads. "Cus told me, 'Patterson was the youngest world heavyweight champion ever, 21 years and 11 months when he won the title. You'll be younger.' Cus and me, we started out with a job. I just want to finish it."