Anyone meeting Mike Tyson for the first time is likely to be slightly numbed by the sight of that great wide cliff of a back merging into the monolithic slab of neck and skull and by recalled images of the comic-book devastation he has wreaked on a long list of resigned victims, flattening some abruptly at his feet and causing others to levitate briefly before sprawling in dishevelment yards across the ring. But the most lasting impression may well be left by something else—by the high seriousness, the almost religious solemnity, that envelops Tyson during working hours.
It is the distancing severity of his concentration at training, as much as the mature and calculating intensity of the poker-faced violence he brings to his fights, that makes one wonder with a mild shiver of awe what manner of 20-year-old stands before one.
Of course part of the answer is that he is a lad laden with philosophical freight from another, longer life and, apparently, nourished by the surviving force of a dead man's nature. But, as the source of that nourishment, the late Cus D'Amato, surely would have acknowledged, a fighter needs more than strength and wisdom from beyond the grave when he steps onto the bright, cramped plateau of a prizefight ring.
Tyson himself has no illusions about the availability of ghostly assistance this Saturday night at the Las Vegas Hilton, where he means to punch the World Boxing Council heavyweight title away from Trevor Berbick and thus fulfill D'Amato's prediction that he will become the youngest-ever heavyweight champion. "I believe when someone dies, he dies—that's it," the challenger said in his quiet, light voice a few days ago. No, Cus will not be with him when he goes in against Berbick. "But I'll take everything he taught me in there, all the lessons, all the principles," Tyson says.
That rational appreciation of his inheritance would have pleased D'Amato. It may also go some way toward diluting the concern of those who have been asking if Tyson's boxing career (and indeed his life) could be distorted by its being seen as essentially a tribute to the extraordinary mentor, who died of pneumonia at the age of 77 in a Manhattan hospital a year ago this month.
The critics are jolted when the vigorous men now guiding Tyson's career concede happily that Cus is still calling the shots. There can be no question about the power of D'Amato's personality and no doubt that it found the perfect raw material for its molding influence in Tyson, who was snatched as a fatherless 13-year-old from a downward spiral of delinquency in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and guided toward the vastly different school of hard knocks run by the old guru in the village of Catskill in upstate New York.
"I look at Mike now, and I don't see the influence of Cus—I see Cus," says Jose Torres, former light heavyweight champion, current commissioner of boxing for New York State and himself a distinguished graduate of the D'Amato academy. "Forget about the difference in color and size, and how very young Mike is. When I see him, I feel as if I'm looking at Cus right there in front of me."
The first sight of Tyson on television produced the same eerie echoes of recognition in Mort Sharnik, boxing consultant for CBS. "Cus had been calling me, telling me about this kid, and then when I saw him, I couldn't believe it," Sharnik says. "He really did look and sound like Cus, from that high-sidewalls haircut to the way he smiled and how he expressed himself, carefully spacing out his words. It was uncanny."
Maybe there should have been less astonishment. D'Amato's mind and spirit were as original and compelling as any that ever sought expression in the strange milieu of the fight game. He left an indelible imprint on lives he touched far less intimately than Tyson's, to whom he became far more than a legal guardian and boxing coach in the years before he died. Conversations with those who knew D'Amato tend to develop into small exercises in canonization, and because some of the eulogizing voices belong to men who fought under his management, the testimony carries unique conviction in a world where exploitation is a cherished tradition.
"When I quit boxing in 1969, I counted up how much money I had made, and it was close to one million dollars," Torres remembers. "Then I checked how much Cus had taken for his cut, and it came to zero. He never took one cent. In fact he doubled the purse for my first couple of fights out of his own pocket." Yet Torres insists that financial integrity was by no means the most significant justification for the profound gratitude with which he, Mike Tyson and so many others honor D'Amato's memory.
Jimmy Jacobs, who lived for a long time under the same roof as the legend and now shares the management of Tyson with Bill Cayton (Jacobs's business partner), is always eager to take up that theme. "It is no coincidence that Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres both became world champions with Cus and each, in turn, became commissioner of boxing in New York," Jacobs said in Manhattan before joining Tyson and trainer Kevin Rooney at their training camp in Las Vegas. "This incredible man, this great scholar and definitive teacher, did far more than educate those he worked with in how to box and how to manage. He prepared his people for life. They became champions out in the world as well as in that 20-foot-square ring."
Jacobs is an articulate man whose soft voice, slightly pedantic mode of delivery and fondness for employing the word "dear" in references to those he warmly approves of do nothing to blunt the cutting edge he always keeps handy for commentators who have tried to tell him how to manage. He is particularly scathing of the experts who have condemned as dangerous folly the policy of sending Tyson in to fight no fewer than 27 times in the 21 months since he turned professional on March 6, 1985. "We have had some vitriolic press," he says with a sigh that is wearily contemptuous. "We were going to burn him out by fighting every two or three weeks. None of these 'geniuses' bothered to look up the records of the great fighters of the '40s and '50s, the Gavilans, LaMottas, Robinsons and Basilios, who fought more frequently than Tyson. Nor did those critics think of how exhilarating that sort of schedule is for a superbly conditioned and talented man like Tyson."
Commissioner Torres agrees about the fighter's need for regular crescendos. He adds that, in any case, most fighters are at greater risk of injury in the gym than they are when they fight, which is why he is pressing New York to give him jurisdiction over gymnasiums and to make it law that they be licensed.
Whether or not it would qualify automatically for the kind of license Torres has in mind, Johnny Tocco's gym in Las Vegas suits Tyson's taste for training quarters that are sweat-soiled and as shabbily traditional as the tattered promoters' posters on its walls. After two rounds of working with James Broad, Tyson's second sparring partner of the day is Mike Jameson. Having been the victim of Tyson's 17th straight knockout back on Jan. 24, Jameson was probably to be commended for now suffering six more minutes of punishment. Somehow the tall, technically unimpressive Jameson lasted into the fifth round of that January fight. That the new rage of the heavyweight division had not flattened Jameson in the first round—as he had 12 of his previous opponents—was enough to stir murmurs of doubt, which grew to a minor clamor when bouts 20 and 21 saw Tyson forced to box through 10 rounds for decisions over James (Quick) Tillis and Mitch (Blood) Green. The fact that the Tillis fight had been postponed while Tyson spent a week in Mount Sinai hospital in Manhattan with an ear problem did little to ease the doubt. "The truth is," says Jacobs, "that by finishing strong after 10 rounds, Mike simply eliminated another anxiety for us."
Some inconvenient residue of the ear trouble has caused a precautionary deviation from the D'Amato principle that headguards give the wearer a false sense of security. But, predictably, the specially designed, snugly fitting guard worn by Tyson late in his preparation for Berbick has not diminished the combative urgency of his work.
He advances in a bobbing, weaving crouch (a habit that helps to explain why so many ask for repeated assurances that he is truly 5'11½") and demonstrates the too often neglected truism that genuine boxing skills mean most when the dangers and the opportunities are greatest. Tyson's aim is to slip punches at a range that enables him to exploit his opponent's misses viciously. He patterns much of his attacking around a hurtful jab, and when he erupts out of his crouch with blurring sequences of hooks and uppercuts to those especially vulnerable target areas D'Amato taught his fighters to ravage, the recipient of his attentions is likely to feel that he is donating liver, hanging rib or jaw to medical science. Tyson's upper body and arms are so huge as to make his hand speed nearly miraculous, and his legs, with their thick thighs, have so far provided him with balance and leverage.
Quite a number of perceptive judges consider that the Trevor Berbick who reached a new level of tough and awkward effectiveness in taking the WBC heavyweight title from Pinklon Thomas on March 22 could be the first to unbalance Tyson. Berbick, who has a 31-4-1 record, including a defeat of Muhammad Ali and a tough loss to Larry Holmes interspersed with uninspired showings against the likes of Renaldo Snipes and S.T. Gordon, was trained for the Thomas fight by 75-year-old Eddie Futch, the former tutor of Joe Frazier and Holmes and possibly the shrewdest strategist now available to heavyweights. That is not to be the case against Tyson. Berbick would not guarantee the money Futch wanted and although he has brought in Angelo Dundee as a replacement, the fact that Dundee joined the training team less than three weeks before the fight may limit the value of his intervention.
It is not surprising that Futch and Dundee have similar views of what Berbick must do to beat Tyson. Where they differ is in their assessment of how special the young challenger is. "Tyson has wonderful attacking abilities," says Futch. "His hands are tremendously fast for a man with that kind of upper body and he can really punch with either hand. God, he can punch. His right uppercut especially will take your head off. But so far he has had a big psychological edge. He has intimidated his opponents, made them freeze and wait to be slaughtered.
"I think you have to go to him, back him up, never let him take you into the corners or onto the ropes, keep him in the middle of the ring where you can use mobility against him. I believe Berbick has the nerve and the equipment to make a good attempt at all that, to have a real chance of pulling it off. But Trevor is never sure to be the same fighter twice in a row. You never know how he will be."
Dundee briefly salutes Tyson as the hottest property in boxing but then enumerates the weaknesses he believes his new client can exploit. "This is a helluva commodity but he's only a kid and fighting the biggest fight of his life against the first heavyweight of substance he has met," Dundee says. "Berbick has the style to do a number on him—call it awkward with good balance. He hasn't been licked since September '83, so talk of him being an in-and-out, unpredictable performer won't wash now.
"Tyson won't find Berbick running, like all those guys he's been knocking over. Against Tyson, running is fatal. You have to slide one side or the other, take his momentum away, or move back and hit him with a good counter. He has to get you in clinches or on the ropes to operate on you.
"Berbick has had terrific sparring. He's been working with cruiserweights Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Bernard Benton. He's licking his chops at the thought that for once he won't have to chase, that Tyson will be right there in his face. Trevor is a good body puncher and has 23 KOs to his credit. He's confident and so am I. I think he will stop Tyson in a late round."
Such a possibility did not weigh on Mike Tyson as the fight approached. Surfacing from the enveloping depths of concentration mentioned earlier, he talked quietly in Las Vegas of the inordinately long road he has traveled to this Saturday night in Nevada. He recalled that even in his timid childhood days in New York he had probably been basically aggressive "because I always liked wrestling and karate but never had the confidence to try anything like that."
Then he recalled, in a voice close to a whisper, the precise nature of the experience that had changed him. Some accounts have it that an older boy tried to steal one of the pigeons Tyson still adores as pets. Well...yes, but it was much worse. The older boy grabbed the bird and ripped its head off in front of Tyson, releasing a flood of belligerence in him that only D'Amato had been able to check and channel. Still more wistfully, Tyson thought back to the friends he had known in his street-running days in Brownsville. "Some of those fellas had real talent. They could have made something if they had stuck it out, but they're not around anymore. They're gone, some dead, others in jail. I know how easily I could have joined them."
The narrowness of his escape causes Tyson to shun distractions while in training. "What bothers me most is being around people who are having a lot of fun, with parties and stuff like that. It makes you soft. People who are only interested in having fun cannot accomplish anything."
Jacobs is convinced that Mike Tyson will accomplish a great deal, that he has been destined for the fight game's version of immortality since the day that his "extremely high intelligence and physical gifts" were first exposed to the genius of Cus D'Amato. "I have zero trepidation," says Jacobs. "This is the best heavyweight in the world, and he is about to prove it."