A fighter whose Tyranny became commonplace, whose ring victories became ritual and uneventful, at least ought to become interesting in defeat. If the rules of melodrama hold, and daytime television tells us they do, Mike Tyson must be wandering around the Catskills wearing Floyd Patterson's fake beard, a hand-me-down that passes from one humbled heavyweight to another. As far as we know, given his free-fall, Tyson may even be contemplating....
"Mike," a man shouts during a rare sighting—actually, a Don King press conference in Los Angeles—"the tabloids at one point had you as suicidal." There have been, in fact, reports of heavy drinking and of dropping down to Manhattan from the Catskills to buy luxury automobiles off showroom floors, of impulsive and unrestrained behavior unrelieved by any public explanation. "Suicidal," the man shouts. "Those were the headlines."
For all the secrecy that has shrouded Tyson since Buster Douglas unseated him as heavyweight champion of the world on Feb. 10, evidence of turmoil, if not despair, has nonetheless persisted. King recently airlifted Tyson out of the Catskills, installed him in King's new Las Vegas home and coaxed him into workouts in the garage. Just over a week ago, even as Tyson was proclaiming his confidence in the corner work of Jay Bright and Aaron Snowell, two parties to the biggest upset in boxing history, veteran trainer Richie Giachetti was added to the entourage. Friends from the original Team Tyson speak of the former champion as "being in a mental hole," unhinged by defeat and notions of vulnerability. Bill Cayton, his estranged manager, looks at the entourage—"King's henchmen," he calls them—and sees the fighter "pretty well surrounded" yet "all by himself, and he doesn't even know it." Gloomy stuff.
Says the man at the press conference, "Those were the headlines, Mike. Didn't want to go on with your life."
May 20, 1990
Earlier that day, a white limo pulled up to Caesars Palace's corporate Gulfstream at the Las Vegas airport, and the startling hulk of Tyson emerged, wearing white leather bib overalls and no shirt. He later would say he weighed about 226 pounds, eight more than fighting trim. He did not seem fat, as he certainly was in the weeks before the Douglas bout, and the naked arms and shoulders did not belong to a man gone soft.
Aboard the jet, Tyson sat at a folding table. Training-camp coordinator John Home, whose principal function is to look stern and prevent interviews, was seated across from him, and Rory Holloway, who obliges Tyson as a toil—thus the title of assistant manager—sat beside him. King was across the aisle, examining Las Vegas newspapers for coverage of the previous day's press conference, at which he had announced that he and bitter rival Bob Arum, now partners in Tyson's June 16 comeback fight against Henry Tillman, "were doubly rededicated in the unity capacity."
"This," King shouted to Arum, seated behind him, "is a good one."
Horne and Holloway are much like Tyson; they are kids, childhood buddies of his. The entourage, at least for this brief flight to a Los Angeles press conference, seemed to function as little more than an organized childhood for Tyson. Airborne, Tyson broke out a deck of cards and distributed chips. "You know the game pitty-pat?" Tyson asked Holloway, who nodded. They played that, although Holloway played it very badly. Tyson wondered what in the world Holloway was doing, discarding a 6 on his own queen. Realizing his error, Holloway slapped his forehead and said, "I'm playing tong!"
Tyson examined the dark circles under his friend's eyes and decided not to blacken them further for his foolishness. "You already got two black eyes," he said. "You're like a raccoon." Holloway looked sheepish.
Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali's trainer for the famous George Foreman bout in Zaire but now Adilson Rodrigues's handler for the somewhat less significant Foreman fight on the same card on which Tyson will be fighting, wandered by and suggested bringing in an old witch doctor for a subsequent press conference. This remark introduced the topic of Africa, and Tyson suddenly became wide-eyed. "There are places in the bush that are unexplored," he told Home. "I'm going to go there and visit some tribes."
King spoke of his time in Zaire. "I've got film of a pygmy wedding," he told Tyson. This was improbable news. Now Tyson was doubly intrigued. The notion of marriage, even though he suffered an upset there as well, obviously has a hold on him. "What's that like?" he asked King. "A pygmy wedding? Do they walk on coals or on spikes?"
"That's only in America, Mike," somebody said.
As the plane continued its passage over the Nevada desert, it occurred to Tyson and his troupe that their destination was not far from Rodeo Drive, the Beverly Hills shopping mecca. He and Holloway began chanting "Ro-de-o, Ro-de-o." Tyson asked King if they could go there after the press conference. King squinted at the prospect and then said yes.
The jet continued on to Los Angeles, to the press conference where a man will ask Tyson about his suicidal tendencies, where his apparent self-destruction will be the topic of the day. Can he come back, recover that aura of invincibility that entertained a world for nearly four years? Can he at least beat Douglas?
In a quiet moment, as the jet bore down on Los Angeles, Tyson wondered aloud about that visit to Africa, all those different tribes in the bush. He would like to go there and find his true heritage. "I just know I'm from a warrior tribe," he said.
The strange truth of the matter is this: While mightily embarrassed, Tyson is not especially subdued by defeat. He has had some awkward moments, starting with his trip back from Tokyo, when he discovered he was booked into first class alongside Evander Holyfield, the man Tyson would have fought in a battle of unbeatens. Then there was the time he was introduced to a New York nightclub audience as the heavyweight champion of the world—"ex, ex, ex," Tyson kept muttering during the intro. Mostly, though, it has been business as usual: hanging out, fooling with his pigeons, seeing a variety of women (one of whom bore him a son earlier this month) and now, finally, getting ready for another fight.
At the press conference in L.A. he says, "Sooner or later you lose. You get out of line and you get your head handed to you. It's embarrassing. But I'm going to tell you, these things happen."
For Tyson, the only insufferable aspect of his defeat is the pity. "People feel sorry for me," he says, "but I hate anything weak around me." The champ—"ex, ex, ex"—pauses. "I've been five years in boxing, and in that small increment of time, I put a mark on boxing. I beat 37 guys. I'll probably come back and beat 40 more."
Some people, his former handlers being chief among them, do not believe that will happen. Cayton, who is still Tyson's manager of record, proclaims King's stewardship "an unmitigated disaster." He sees Tyson turning in increasingly desultory performances for diminished purses, and enjoying an enviable nightlife all the while. Of Tyson's drinking and womanizing, Cayton says, "I hear things. I get five calls a week from people who spot him at discos, about Mike just letting himself go." Cayton says that Tyson has distanced himself from the legacy of Cus D'Amato, the man who found him and made him into the youngest heavyweight champion ever.
The distancing continues. Cayton, who has called Bright and Snowell "inept," was not surprised when King brought in a veteran boxing man. "King would have a black eye if he let Bright and Snowell continue," says Cayton. Yet he is astonished by the choice of Giachetti: "Cus had the lowest regard for Giachetti. He hated him more than King and Arum—of whom he once said, 'God couldn't make the same mistake twice.' Giachetti, I must tell you, made fun of Cus. Mike must know this. I am sure Cus communicated his dislike to Mike. To me, this shows you the stranglehold King has on him."
The people who believe in this struggle for Tyson's soul are the ones who will swell his purses during his comeback. Even the fighter, who has rebuffed all contact with his old friends, can appreciate the pessimism that now surrounds his career. "I intend to win the title back," he says. "Then again, I'm skeptical. I'm making more money now than as a champion."
Still, few believe that Iron Mike's mettle will be tested by Tillman, a former Olympian whose career has been anything but golden. Tillman has lost to Bert Cooper, Holyfield, Dwain Bonds and Willie de Wit. These are not the credentials of a contender. He has fought just three times in the last two years and has earned this bout with Tyson on the thinnest of story lines: He beat Tyson out of a spot on the Olympic team six years ago.
In fact, the promotion seems to be carried more by Foreman, who is boxing's equivalent of an automobile crash—you know you shouldn't look, but it's impossible to avert your eyes. Now 41, and as huge as ever, Foreman has become the star of these press conferences, cheerfully posing with whatever platter of food the host can provide. At the Las Vegas press conference, where Dundee identified a fighter he had on the undercard, a 6'7" spirit called Holken Brock, Foreman perked up noticeably. "He thought you said H‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üagen Dazs," Arum later told Dundee.
At the Los Angeles press conference, Tyson has to deal with that question of suicide. Kill himself? He is taken aback. With a white limo at his disposal and Rodeo Drive only a few minutes away? "I have a lot of money to spend, before I kill myself," he tells the questioner. The place erupts in laughter. Team Tyson—the two childhood chums—put their heads down and pound the table with their fists. The gold in Tyson's mouth glitters.
Of Tyson's future, of course, nothing is certain. He's just a kid, after all. Given the chaos that attends the heavyweight boxing champion—"ex, ex, ex"—you would not want to predict where Tyson will find himself even a year from now. About all you can say for sure, as you watch the happy gang peel out for Beverly Hills, is that they'll be wearing new duds tonight.