Requiem (almost) for a heavyweight

by Jon Pine

Jon Pine

Despite being indentured to one of the tiniest newspapers on the eastern seaboard, we DM Refugees occasionally got to play in the journalism big leagues. Perhaps the most exciting and rewarding of these experiences was covering the rise, during the mid-1980s, of a bona fide international sports superstar – heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson.

I was reminded of that heady time recently as I watched “Tyson,” James Toback’s extraordinary documentary, now out on DVD. So much more than a straightforward documentary, “Tyson” is the soul-weary pugilist’s attempt to bring some sort of closure to a turbulent life and career marred by bad decisions, chaos and tragedy – all of it played out in the public eye. More on the film later…

Like many African-American boys who grew up in the Brownsville projects of Brooklyn, N.Y., Mike Tyson barely knew his father and was drawn to an early life of hooliganism and petty crime. After more than 30 run-ins with the law, a 14-year-old Tyson found himself at the Tryon boys detention center in upstate New York.

As fate would have it, Tryon had a counselor named Bob Stewart, an ex-amateur boxing champion. Recognizing a diamond in the rough, and concerned that Tyson would fall back into a life of crime when released from Tryon, Stewart arranged for Tyson to live with legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato. The semi-retired D’Amato, whose accomplishments included title victories for Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, had moved from Brooklyn to Catskill, and opened a gym above the burg’s police department – directly across the street from The Daily Mail.

That’s where I first met Tyson, after watching him knock the stuffing out of yet another skittish sparring partner. Man, could he hit hard! A few insiders had begun calling him “The Hammer.” He was a quiet kid, almost shy then. But he clearly took the art of boxing very seriously. With D’Amato at his side, he talked enthusiastically about his dream to become the youngest heavyweight champion ever.

Among about 13 hats I wore at The Daily Mail was that of sports writer to its sister weekly, The Greene County News. Bob Costas I was not. But I did learn to fake my way through an interview, and I actually took a pretty good sports photo. I had saved up and bought a Minolta Maxxum, the first autofocus 35mm camera. Smart move, because Tyson soon earned a fierce reputation for knocking out his opponents in the first minute or two of the first round. Getting a usable shot with those kinds of odds was, to say the least, a challenge. In fact, while still an amateur, Tyson knocked out Don Cozad in a mere eight seconds – a record that stands today.

Tyson’s first dozen or so professional bouts were lined up against “tomato cans” – fighters of limited talent, has-beens and never-wases. D’Amato, wisely, wanted to bring him along little by little, gradually matching him with better and better fighters and increasing the number of rounds, to build an impressive record of wins, all of them by knockout.

Mike Tyson with fellow Cus D'Amato protege Jose Torres, who was the New York State Athletic Commissioner at the time this was taken. Trainer Kevin Rooney is in back at the far right. Photo by Jon Pine (Sorry, it's the only one I could put my hands on easily!)

Cus was the quintessential boxing trainer – one part Burgess Meredith’s Mickey from “Rocky” and three parts Yoda from “Star Wars.” Interviewing him was a trip; he was generous with his time and also with his Zen-like pearls of wisdom, which made for great copy. And with such short fights, I needed that copy to fill out a respectable story!

But D’Amato was more than Tyson’s Mr. Miyagi; he was the young fighter’s grounding rod, his connection to reality. Tyson said many times that D’Amato was the father he never had; indeed, D’Amato had taken legal custody of him when he left Tryon. Everyone who came close to them could see and feel that special connection.

Then, back-to-back tragedies struck in 1985. First, his mother died, which left Mike grieving that she never got to see him as anything but a troublesome kid. Then in November, D’Amato died rather suddenly from pneumonia. Mike’s world was turned upside down. Many of the bad decisions and most of the bizarre behavior Mike would later exhibit can be traced back to that tragic time.

We watched, mostly on TV and in other news accounts, as Tyson’s career continued its meteoric rise. The tiny Daily Mail did not have the budget to send its reporters around the world. After all – there were pressing matters of local importance to think about, like the Coxsackie Town Council meetings, barn fires, and other small-town doings.

Tyson finally got his title shot against Trevor Berbick in November, 1986. True to form, Mike knocked the champ out in the second round to earn the WBC belt. He was just 20 – the youngest fighter ever to win a heavyweight title. By August 1987 he won the WBA and IBF titles to unify the championship. He seemed unstoppable. The poor kid from the projects now had more money than he’d ever dreamed possible, and he was famous the world over.

But there were signs that all was not well in Mike’s head. There was the brief but tumultuous marriage to actress Robin Givens, who publicly accused Mike of infidelity, physical abuse and mental illness. In “Tyson,” he admits that he cheated on Givens and confesses that he was in agony during the Berbick fight. The reason? A raging case of gonorrhea that he was too embarrassed to have treated.

In a post-fight interview – I can’t recall which fight – he told reporters, “I tried to catch him right on the tip of his nose so I could punch the bone into his brain.” Whoa. Then, he broke his hand in a street brawl with boxer Mitch Green. The following month he crashed his BMW into a tree; Tyson told reporters it was a suicide attempt caused by “a chemical imbalance.”

Tyson’s frankness about these and other episodes is perhaps the most striking thing about “Tyson,” the film. Rather than falling back on a typical question-and-answer style of documentary, Toback lets Tyson control the narrative. The result is extraordinary. In his oft-imitated high-pitched, lispy voice, you can hear the weariness and regret Tyson feels about many of his missteps. He breaks down at times, his voice cracking, mostly when he talks about his relationship with D’Amato.

Regrets, he has aplenty. Of promoter Don King, who had wrangled Tyson’s contract away from his managers soon after he unified the heavyweight title, he now says, “He is a piece of shit, a wretched slimy, reptilian motherfucker” who would “kill his own mother for a dollar.” It was King who convinced Tyson to fire long-time trainer Kevin Rooney – the last vestige of D’Amato’s successful team, whom many credited with keeping the unstable fighter on track long enough to win the championships.

From there, things only got worse. With no one left to rein him in, the drinking, drugs and womanizing spiraled out of control. He surrounded himself with an entourage whose main purpose was to get him drugs and seek out women for him to have sex with.

Worse, he no longer took boxing seriously. When he faced James “Buster” Douglas to defend his unified title in February, 1990, he was seriously out of shape, both physically and mentally. The 42-1 underdog managed to keep Tyson on the defensive for most of the fight, eventually knocking him out in Round 10. The world was shocked, but Tyson was not. He was rudderless, both professionally and emotionally, he now explains.

Remorse and regret are repetitive themes in “Tyson” – except when it comes to the fighter’s most egregious offense: The sexual assault in July, 1991, of beauty contestant Desiree Washington. Calling her “a wretched swine,” he maintains that the sex was consensual and that Washington was simply after money and notoriety. A jury thought differently, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

He served three years, but the time behind bars hardened him, he says. He converted to an extreme form of Islam, “because I was bitter at the world.” The incarceration also resurrected in him a fierce determination to regain the heavyweight championship. But to do that, he needed to fight Evander Holyfield, and Holyfield wasn’t exactly anxious to give him that chance.

After months of negotiation, the two finally meet in November of 1996. Frustrated by a series of head-butts, Tyson’s head bleeds through much of the fight. It is eventually called in Round 11 when corner men can’t stop the bleeding. Tyson is clearly enraged, demanding a rematch. Following months of tense negotiations, a rematch is scheduled for the following June. It is one of the most anticipated bouts in the sport’s history.

Unless you were living in a remote cave somewhere, you know how that rematch ended: with Holyfield missing a large chunk of his ear, and Tyson’s boxing career in the toilet. In “Tyson,” he explains that, after Holyfield head-butted him again, he just snapped, and went into an “insane rage where I wanted to kill everyone in that room – even the people in my own corner.”

The fight is stopped after the second time Tyson bites Holyfield’s ear. A melee ensues as Mike tries to get at Holyfield yet again. Later that night, realizing that he probably just destroyed his career, “I just went home, smoked a bunch of weed and went to sleep.” Eventually, he would lose his license to box in Nevada and be fined $3 million.

Tyson’s bizarre behavior continued, and even intensified. After a traffic accident in 1998 in Maryland, he kicks and punches the other driver before being restrained by his own bodyguards. He later serves one year in prison and pays a $5,000 fine for the incident. In February, 2000, he settles out of court with two women who accuse him of sexually assaulting them in a Washington restaurant. A few months later, a topless dancer in a Las Vegas night club accuses him of punching her in the chest.

The following month, after a fight with Lou Savarese is stopped, Tyson knocks over the referee to keep punching his opponent. That one would cost him $187,500 in fines and almost lose him his Nevada boxing license for the second time. In January, 2002, a press conference to promote an upcoming fight with Lennox Lewis breaks out into a brawl; Tyson later admits biting Lewis on the leg. (Somebody get this guy a chewy toy, for pete’s sake!) Lewis would go on to knock Tyson out in the eighth round.

In August, 2003, Tyson files for bankruptcy. He sells his New Jersey mansion to rapper 50 Cent. Later, he says, he stays with friends and even in homeless shelters at times. Drug dealers and pimps take pity on him, he says, occasionally tossing him freebies. Strictly for the money, he fights Danny Williams in July, 2004, getting knocked out in Round 8; and fights Kevin McBride in June of 2005, quitting after six wobbly rounds, saying “I don’t have the stomach for this anymore. I’m not going to disrespect the sport by losing to this caliber of fighter.”

“Tyson” is as honest a tale as can be told by a man eternally fraught with contradictions. He describes himself in one moment as “not quite human, almost an animal,” and in the next moment, in loving, gentle tones, describes himself as the quintessential family man. He claims to be deep in rehab, but does not go into detail.

Even his tattoos are contradictions. The curly lines on the left side of his face, he explains, are the markings of New Zealand’s Maori warrior tribe. On his torso are tattoos of Communist Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung and Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.

I can’t help but feel sad for Mike Tyson. Not so much for the magnificent sports hero who tumbled from grace in a most self-destructive manner. But for the 18-year-old kid I first met in a musty gym above a small-town police station. Full of promise, full of hope, and with a surrogate father by his side to help keep him on the straight and narrow. Had D’Amato stayed with him just a little bit longer, his life might have had an entirely different outcome.

© 2009 Jon Pine

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6 Comments

Filed under Celebrities, Journalism, Posts by Jon Pine, Sports

6 responses to “Requiem (almost) for a heavyweight

  1. Wonderfully written tribute Jon. I loathe Tyson but I was with you til the very end. And now, maybe, I loathe him just a little less.

  2. Steve R

    Jon, one of my favorite Tyson stories goes back to those early days. I was in the Community Theater on Main St. in Catskill (you were probably there, too) and a bunch of us were talking to Tyson at the candy counter when a cute little kid, maybe four years old, toddled up to Tyson and said, “Can I meet you?” Tyson was gracious and smiling, and said, “Sure you can meet me,” and squatted down and talked to the kid, who was in awe.

    It really was heartbreaking to see what happened to him after Cus died. That’s not to say Tyson would have gone on to win a Nobel Prize had Cus lived; Tyson has always been a street thug. But Cus died at the worst possible time; just as Tyson was gaining fame and fortune, something he had no idea how to handle. When he dumped Jim Jacobs and Teddy Atlas, and fell in with Don King, he became a runaway locomotive.

    I remember the “bone into the brain” comment. We were at that fight. It was the Jesse Ferguson fight in ’86, in Troy. He hit Ferguson so hard, I remember people at ringside said they had Ferguson’s blood on them. Ferguson’s career effectively ended with that uppercut. It was Tyson’s first nationally televised fight, on ABC, and he made the comment in an interview (I think it was Jim Lampley) after the fight. I remember it clearly because it was the first time he had really shown the dark side of himself in public; a real contrast to the star athlete who was so nice to the little kid in the theater.

    My dad was a huge boxing fan and knew Kevin Rooney pretty well. He was thrilled watching Tyson come up, and he died a few months before Cus D’Amato. They’re buried just a few yards from each other in the cemetery in Catskill (and not too far from our old friend Danny Zimmerman). In a way, I’m glad neither of them ever got to see what Tyson turned into.

    • Johnny

      I take this opportunity to thank Jon Pine, for a refreshingly well rounded and interestingly worded article. I stand corrected, that at the end of the day, it probably is the smaller more “personalised” newspapers that offer you the sauce on people and events, allowing us readers from afar, to truly understand what is going on in a location that we have never visited.
      Regarding Steve R’s reply, which was again as interesting, a few corrections; Tyson dumped Bill Cayton favouring the rantings of money and fame from his new found “Brother” Don King. You see he had no personal relationship with Cayton – “just business”. However, Jim Jacobs he loved and idolised, a former sporting success story initself and an avid boxing fan/historian like Tyson. He like Cus took care of Tyson until he too died unexpectedly of cancer.
      Teddy Atlas had also left camp long ago, for the aforementioned reasons.
      About the “bone into the brain” comment, it was the one where the boxers mother sent Tyson a letter, of sheer repulsion. I read that somewhere….pretty sure it was the Ferguson bout – can anyone verify this – there seems to be a lot of contradiction on the net(i read the same about Berbick and Ruddock fights)? – thx.

  3. Jon Pine

    Steve,

    I wish I had your capacity for memory! I had forgotten that we were at the Ferguson fight together in Troy. I may have been one of those splattered with Ferguson’s blood, too, since I was probably on the apron trying desperately to get a usable photo.

    I also remember an earlier bloodbath, when Mike literally tore open the face of Don Halpin in his third professional fight. The Hammer, indeed.

    Do you know the scuttlebutt behind the firing of Teddy Atlas? Reportedly, Mike had been messing around with one of Teddy’s underage female relatives. Teddy allegedly put a loaded gun to Mike’s head and warned him to leave her alone. Mike told Cus, and that was it for Teddy.

    If you can find it, Barbara Kopple’s documentary on Tyson for NBC has that scoop, and more salacious details. If you look closely, and don’t blink, you’ll see me and my Maxxum ringside in some of the early fight scenes.

    • Steve R

      I remember Paul Post complaining that he got Ferguson’s blood on him. I didn’t remember the Teddy Atlas incident until you mentioned it, but then I recall that there was a scene like that in the movie they made about Tyson.

      And I remember that Maxxum!

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