Mike Tyson's career was the equivalent of a held breath. A sense of urgency attended every aspect of it: twice-a-month bouts after he exploded onto the boxing scene in 1985, a hastily won heavyweight championship by the age of 20, a quick consolidation of the crown by 21. It was a flurry of ferocity never before seen. So rushed was the entire concussive enterprise that when his manager, Jimmy Jacobs, put together a video of Tyson's knockouts as a promotional tool, the resulting montage of helpless fighters slipping along the ropes onto the canvas, one right after another, seemed to play out in real time.
Was this precocity? You might have thought so as you watched Tyson's brutal talents so quickly overwhelm his sport. But knowing what the rest of us know now, it more likely was desperation at work, a reflection of the unspoken knowledge of those close to the young Tyson that here was a single-purpose organism, bred for bad intentions and well maintained for its unique ability to enact violent public spectacle but entirely unsuited for real life. There was so much aberrant behavior beyond the ring, so much 'history. There were so many "incidents." Former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, himself a victim in one of Tyson's choreographed catastrophes, observed Tyson careen through the civilian world and spoke the unspoken. Tyson, he said, would soon be dead or in jail. Actually, this was not a contrary view within boxing. The inordinate hurry that was applied to Tyson's young boxing life gave off the whiff of anxiety. The breathless career was suspicious. He was the fight game's brief opportunity—a fleeting moment of perverse charisma.
Now, with Tyson convicted of rape—an "incident" gone very bad and well beyond the control of his nervous caretakers—the game is over, the gifted career is done, the turbulence of his famous and agitated life is abruptly calmed. We breathe out.
You ask now, who would have thought that this would end otherwise? When Tyson arrived in rural upstate New York in a youth-prison van and soon landed, at the age of 13, in the care of Cus D'Amato, there was a certain spin put on his story that might have allowed you to hope otherwise. Despite his past as a fatherless street thug out of the Brooklyn ghetto, there was always a future for a boy who would fall under the sway of a man like D'Amato. D'Amato was so unyielding in his principles, had so much integrity, that he was virtually useless to boxing and was, in fact, something of an outcast, by then a kind of Boys Town figure in his dotage. This was the one man who might shape this vicious urchin.
February 17, 1992
And yet. looking back, it is clear that even D'Amato became shaken by ambition. Tyson's raw physical promise and—this was even more important—his devotion to any authority that also showed him affection made him the perfect prospect. And D'Amato, whose legacy to that point had been two world champions of the 1960s, Floyd Patterson and Josè Torres, but very little else, must have thought he had again, for one last time, been presented with the real goods.
After only two months working with Tyson, D'Amato told the teenager that he could be a world champion. Torres, for one, well aware of the master's insistence on total self-control and high moral value, was skeptical. "He's a pickpocket, a liar and a cheat," Torres protested. "But don't you understand," D'Amato said. "That's exactly what a boxer is when he's in the ring—a pickpocket, a liar and a cheat."
This preparation for greatness, cynical or not, took the outward guise of rehabilitation, and there is no doubt that D'Amato shaped Tyson's life for the better. Tyson flourished under D'Amato's affectionate touch and found in D'Amato's companion, Camille Ewald, a loving stepmother. In later years this would be presented as a sort of My Three Sons outfit—not an entirely normal family but more mainstream than not.
Teddy Atlas, another of D'Amato's found boys and later a Tyson trainer, watched this take place and was troubled by this strange family unit. Tyson was the perfect son, all right. "He'd mold to you," says Atlas. "He didn't have his own identity." Of course, Tyson was adopting the old man's, and as time went on he would shock people who had known D'Amato. Tyson would speak in the same strange rhetoric that D'Amato used and carry himself the same way. This part was satisfying to someone like Atlas. But to Atlas, D'Amato was disturbing the order of his own home. When Atlas ordered Tyson out of the gym as a punishment for misbehaving, D'Amato reinstated the youngster. "This boy," he explained to Atlas, "is a special case." This rehabilitation, it seemed to Atlas, involved a lot more compromise than D'Amato had ever offered before, and Atlas was dubious. "Put up a house too fast," Atlas says, "it can come back to haunt you when a strong wind comes along."
If it was rehabilitation, it obviously wasn't complete. Noting that D'Amato died in 1985, when Tyson was just 19, Torres said, "He never finished the job. He worked too hard on making him a champion first." It was like Edward Scissorhands's creator dying before he could outfit his creation with real hands. But it also wasn't like that. Tyson wasn't missing merely one last element of instruction or a piece of equipment. He was missing a childhood, or rather the correct childhood. His pattern of Brooklyn behavior was never entirely broken. He would sometimes bolt the Catskill camp, and D'Amato would ask Torres to locate him and bring him back. "I'd find him in the old places," Torres says, "doing the old bad things," reenacting his dangerous youth.
Even in Catskill, even under D'Amato, Tyson had a series of escapades that went beyond wholesome fun. Atlas has said that there were "incidents" with girls in school. There was a confrontation in which Atlas allegedly pulled a gun on Tyson over the young fighter's advances on Atlas's teenage sister-in-law.
Anything could be overlooked. Tyson's remarkable talent, developed by D'Amato and marketed by Jacobs, another D'Amato disciple, could not be denied. In his first 16 professional fights, Tyson dispatched his opponent within one round 12 times. He was compelling drama inside the ring and not only because of his enormous capacity for destruction. He also demonstrated workmanlike qualities: He was a no-frills gladiator, the kind of fighter who used a torn towel for a ring robe. This garnered him even more respect at a time when other young heavyweights seemed to be less devoted to the craft than he. Among them were drug users and big eaters—men of huge appetites and equal dissolution. Only Tyson returned to his camp after fights to study films of the great ones.
This dedication to sport and history suggested he was in it for the long run. But there were more "incidents." As he became more and more a public figure—especially after HBO became a $26.5 million, seven-fight showcase for him in 1987—these episodes were harder to hide. Two months before he unified the heavyweight title with a 12-round decision over Tony Tucker in August 1987, Tyson forced some small attention on a female parking lot attendant in Los Angeles. One of her co-workers interceded, and Tyson responded with a heavy slap to his face. Jacobs and co-manager Bill Cayton settled that one for $105,000, when it was still possible to settle such things.
Money could not solve all the bad publicity. The next year Tyson "suaved," as he put it, and married actress Robin Givens, a disastrous and humiliating union for both, in which, for the first and perhaps last time, Tyson was a woman's victim. In a bizarre public campaign, Givens and her mother, Ruth Roper, claimed that Tyson was manic-depressive—though no doctor had diagnosed him as such—and, after an auto accident in Ewald's yard, suicidal as well. Although he reached his peak in the ring in June 1988, with his one-round knockout of Michael Spinks, the public unraveling of Tyson dates from that time, beginning with Givens's inevitable decision that October to file for divorce. As the marriage was crumbling, there were strange adventures: Tyson's trying to give away his Bentley convertible to two police officers after he had dinged it, a set-to in a Harlem clothing store at 4:30 a.m. with an old ring opponent, Mitch Green. Tyson was also said to be drinking heavily. He was unhinged, a walking tabloid headline.
By then, not only was D'Amato dead, but so was Jacobs. Cayton had quietly presided over the fighter's finances, but he was unable to assume the father role, and Tyson was adrift. Don King came forward that year, becoming Tyson's promoter and succeeding D'Amato and Jacobs as his keeper. King recognized Tyson's volatility and did what he could to contain it. You will hear two interpretations of King's conduct. Hither he did the best he could by Tyson, as veteran fight manager Emanuel Steward believes, or he was coddling his meal ticket, as nearly everyone else believes. Steward credits King with rescuing Tyson from the city life, moving him to a 66-acre estate near King's own in Ohio farm country. Yet others say that King surrounded Tyson with minions whose function was to fetch whatever the fighter desired and report back to King immediately whenever another "incident" occurred. These attendants moved Tyson around in what Torres calls a "portable jail." He seemed shackled by his growing wealth. Nine luxury cars in the driveway. What was he to complain about?
Just loneliness. Steward remembers the Tyson who would drive back to Catskill—"Right back to Camille, and jump in that same little bed. That child is still there."
But that child, as far as the rest of us could tell, was operating full bore in a man's world. And coming up short. The Buster Douglas fight in Tokyo two years ago was a curious affair. Tyson was not simply beaten in 10 rounds by a journeyman fighter—he was knocked out! The jolt of that upset seemed to rejuvenate his challengers and critics alike. Some quick revisionist history discovered that he was not the greatest fighter of all time. He was merely a phenomenon, a comet. "I never saw him being successful past 26," says Steward.
Tyson resisted that characterization and plunged himself into a comeback. He dispatched Henry Tillman and Alex Stewart, both in the first round, and then defeated Razor Ruddock twice in bouts primarily distinguished by Tyson's bizarre jailhouse talk in press conferences. "I'm going to make you my girlfriend," he told Ruddock. The nation was puzzled. It was becoming possible to trace Tyson's career in such public and disquieting events as this. He was not moving from opponent to opponent but from one disturbing episode to the next, and where would it lead next?
There was desperation all around. King's hold on the sport's most important division—he had turned heavyweight boxing into his personal cash register from the time he promoted the Ali-Foreman extravaganza in Zaire in 1974—was weakening. Without a champion under his control, he lacked the leverage to sign contenders to options. With Tyson's conviction, his stable of heavyweights is bare; all the other big guns have resisted his blandishments. The leading contender, Riddick Bowe, has remained independent of any promoter, and champion Evander Holyfield is comfortably nestled in the stable of King's current nemesis, Dan Duva. Even Holmes, who was virtually enslaved by King during his seven-year championship reign, has chosen to mount his comeback with Bob Arum. King is left with the ageless Julio Cèsar Chàvez, fighting in a division no one can recall and difficult to promote because of Chàvez's faltering command of the English language. Without Tyson, King will have to start over.
Tyson was guaranteed box office. Even—perhaps especially—when he could ensure no more than three minutes of entertainment, he was sport's most exciting performer. It was hard to say that he was popular; you could not reconcile his activity in the ring with any accepted definition of charm, like Ali's or Sugar Ray Leonard's. But he was riveting. What Tyson did in the ring did not even demand a suitable opponent, and the quality of contention soon became unimportant. Can you imagine boxing without him? Millions of dollars were paid to witness his chilling performance art, and an entire sport was rejuvenated.
Had he been able to meet Holyfield, who became heavyweight champion by destroying Douglas, and regain his title in that violent fashion that is so well rewarded in boxing, we might have continued to accommodate his lesser flagrancies as part of the package. He was celebrated, after all, for what is intrinsically a dangerous life. Men such as Tyson are ordinarily forgiven their excesses; face it, they are built and employed for their excesses. But he never met Holyfield. Instead, in an attack that escalated well beyond incident, he committed rape. And a six-year career that will forever leave its mark on boxing is done. It happened so fast. Nine cars in a driveway, $60 million in earnings, the promise of countless millions more. All those men littered across the canvas. The sullen glare of a man pacing a ring, waiting to take a torn towel from over his head. All gone. We remember to take a deep breath.