The 19-year-old man-child snorted in disgust and stepped back to compose himself. This was an unusual move for young Mike Tyson. Until Saturday's fight with James (Quick) Tillis at the Glens Falls (N.Y.) Civic Center, he had rarely taken a backward step in a boxing ring. Clearly, Tyson was nonplussed. He had moved up in fighting class, and it showed.
Tillis had befuddled Tyson by absorbing or tying up his insistent hammers for the better part of four rounds, and this moment of indecision appeared to offer Tillis his best chance to shake up the boxing world. "Now," thought Tillis. "Now's the time." He threw caution and balance to the wind and launched his best left hook, intending to circle Tyson's peek-a-boo defense. The hook missed. Tyson, presented at last with an unprotected target, fired a short left hook. It was not his best punch—not by a long shot—but it landed cleanly on Tillis's jaw.
Tillis's eyes rolled back as he went sprawling to the canvas with 13 seconds left in Round 4. Tillis was grateful for the bell. Once his head stopped ringing, he would get back where he belonged. He would show this ferocious kid how one survives in the ring. Let somebody else suffer the consequences of trading haymakers with Mike Tyson. "I've heard of baby-sitting," Tillis said later, "but this is ridiculous."
"It's tough to hit shadows," Tillis's manager, Beau Williford, had said just before the fight, and with that knockdown as a warning, Tillis went back to ducking Tyson's bombs while occasionally punching out smart combinations. At times Tillis made Tyson look awkward, but mainly Quick merely survived. The battered and bloodied Tillis lost in a 10-round unanimous decision, though he became the first fighter to go the distance with the man-child. That accomplishment just might be worth an asterisk one day.
Such is life for Tyson, who of late can't seem to win for winning. "He punches harder than Earnie Shavers," Tillis said as Tyson came into the interview room after the fight. "Boy, you punch harder than...."
Tyson received the compliment with a knitted brow. He was not in a particularly good mood, though he had just won his 20th-straight pro fight and had handled his 28-year-old opponent with relative ease. And he was still just 19 years old. The trouble with being Mike Tyson is that you can't become heavyweight champion soon enough to suit the world. The world takes one look at your sculpted 215 pounds, your ominous glower, your wrecking-ball punches and says, "That's my champion." It reads wondrous things about you in Rolling Stone and Advertising Age and thinks, "Well, come on now." But Tyson isn't the champ. Not yet.
"Some people want to rush Mike," says Jimmy Jacobs, his co-manager. "The object isn't for him to fight for the heavyweight championship. The object is for him to win the heavyweight championship." So everybody, including Tyson, will have to keep his shirt on for a while. That may be harder for Tyson than for anyone else.
After he had won his previous fight, a third-round knockout of a tomato can named Steve Zouski in Uniondale, N.Y. on March 10, he felt he had to apologize for not dispatching Zouski in a more expeditious fashion. "I'm having personal problems," Tyson said. He is still very much a 19-year-old. As such, he yearns quite understandably for the joys of youth, joys that are usually denied a working heavyweight contender. "Girlfriend problems" is co-manager Bill Cay-ton's succinct diagnosis.
It seems that Tyson sometimes goes a little stir-crazy up in the Catskills, with nobody but trainer Kevin Rooney, "stepmother" Camille Ewald, a few pet pigeons and some sparring partners to keep him company. "I was running around looking for girls," Tyson says. "Girls were looking real good to me. But I had to decide, did I want to hang out at night, did I want to be a playboy?
"I decided I didn't."
The best way to keep a man-child out of trouble is to keep him busy. But while training for the Zouski fight, Tyson suffered an injury to cartilage in his right ear when he fell trying to capture a rogue pigeon for his coop. After the fight his ear swelled to more than twice its normal size, and he was treated at Mount Sinai hospital in New York City. The injury caused the Tillis fight to be postponed from March 29 until last Saturday. Tyson went home again, but with a little time to kill while the ear healed, he headed back to New York without Rooney's knowledge. Rooney was frantic, though Cayton says Tyson went to New York to see his doctor and to visit his sister, who lives in Brooklyn, and that both he and Jacobs knew of the trip and Tyson's whereabouts.
An incident that occurred in March at the Crossgates Mall near Albany was not, alas, so easily explained. Tyson and a pal were asked to leave a clothing store after somebody—not Tyson—threw around some sweaters as well as some bad language. Later, Tyson was the one who read his name in the papers. Signs of trouble?
Not likely. Tyson may have spent time in reform school and may still have his coltish moments, but he seems genuinely anxious to reach out for maturity. He often speaks of becoming rich. He knows you can't do that while you are out on bail. He is deferential to his handlers and courteous to the media, "and he has never asked us when he is fighting for the title," says Jacobs. "He's just having to grow up in the spotlight—no easy job."
Tyson took out his frustrations on sparring partners before the Tillis fight. First, he hit Charlie Smith with what Rooney describes as "the perfect upper-cut," loosening four of Smith's lower teeth. Rooney gave Smith money to visit the dentist and sent him packing. Then 6'5" Wes Smith was knocked down by Tyson on each of his first two days on the job. "I told Mike to stop hittin' him after a while," Rooney says. "I ain't no butcher." A third sparring partner, Lamories Adams, foolishly looking to mix it up, was knocked silly. Tyson wore 18-ounce gloves during those sessions. Even veritable pillows can't muffle the kid's dynamite.
"Leon Spinks was destroyed by the heavyweight title," says Cayton. "When Mike matures, he can revel in it the way Ali or Joe Frazier reveled in it. Right now, he's just a kid."
The Tillis fight demonstrated that Tyson needs to mature inside the ring as well—not surprising when you consider he has had less than 111 minutes of ring experience as a pro. "This fight was perfect for Mike," said Jacobs. "Each fighter will take him up in class, in a different way. Each fighter will pose a different problem for him to solve, the way he solved Tillis today."
Tyson has signed for six bouts between now and next January. He has a three-fight contract with HBO and three fights remaining in his five-fight pact with ABC. He meets Mitchell Green, the WBC's No. 7 contender, on May 20 for HBO, and on June 13 he fights spoiler Reggie Gross. There is no question that Tyson will be busy.
"Sooner or later," said heavyweight James Broad before the fight, "somebody has to try hitting Mike on the chin." So Tillis tried it. His best rights bounced harmlessly off Tyson's jaw. Tyson's arms are powerful, but they are short. His approach to the inside, to maximum effective range, needs work. Tillis tied up Tyson's cudgels whenever he felt pressured. Rooney exhorted Tyson to use the jab more, but Tillis was too proficient in the jab-and-grab technique. Although Tyson landed heavy shots in nearly every round, he rarely put two or three together. "I was looking for the one shot to hurt him," he said.
Tyson may still be a bit green but, as Tillis discovered on Saturday, he's growing with every fight. "Tillis ran, just like we knew that he would. And anybody can look good running," said Tyson. "But nobody will beat me by running. Nobody."