I. In the Belly of the Beast
After legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach gave me Mike Tyson’s phone number at his Wild Card gym in Los Angeles in the spring of 2010, he giggled “You’ll never fucking get in there, kid.” But a short time later, on Easter Sunday, I entered Tyson’s Henderson, Nevada home through a thick cloud of marijuana smoke and met him for the first time.
I hadn’t published a word in my life and had no professional business or official justification to be there. It was entirely personal. All it had taken to walk through Tyson’s front door was 140 phone calls to his assistant Darryl — 99 percent of which lasted five seconds and ended with a promise to call back that never came. And then, finally, a fortunate case of mistaken identity got me inside. Both Darryl and Tyson mistook me for a writer then working on Roach’s biography, a project that was eventually abandoned.
At the time I met Tyson, as usual, his life resembled a joyride on the Titanic. After 139 calls, Darryl had told me to meet him and Tyson the following day at The Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, where they’d reserved the conference room for our interview. I maxed out the last of my credit cards, flew to Vegas and showed up at the prescribed time. No sign of Tyson or Darryl anywhere. The woman at the Luxor’s front desk courteously informed me they had never heard of me or been contacted by any representative of Tyson to arrange anything. She also behaved as though this kind of thing happened with amusing regularity.
I took a deep breath and made one last, sweaty phone call to Darryl.
“Oh hey, Peter?”
“Uh, sure. It’s Peter.”
“You’re from Boston?”
“Well, I’m at The Luxor now. You guys weren’t in the conference room so I thought I’d check in. For some reason the staff has no idea about you guys showing up today either.”
“Yeah,” Darryl sighed. “I meant to call you. Sorry about that, Peter.”
“I have to fly back home tonight — Boston’s a long way — so if there’s anyway we could do this thing today, like soon —”
“Yeah,” Darryl sighed again. I found out later that Darryl had gotten his job as Tyson’s assistant after washing his car and basically laying siege to Tyson until he was given a permanent job. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to do that interview at the house in Henderson. That OK?”
I took another deep breath as my pulsed raced. “Sure. I guess that’s OK. Thanks Darryl.”
“I’ll give you the address. You got a GPS?”
Forty-five minutes later Darryl was behind the fence of Tyson’s gated community home in a white Range Rover while I gave my name — well, Peter’s name — to a security guard. A tinted window from the Range Rover rolled down and an eerie finger pointed for me to follow. The window rolled up and the Range Rover slowly drifted past just as the gates parted for me to enter. “Buy the ticket, take the ride,” as Hunter S. Thompson used to say.
For people born with bad cards, the American Dream deals from the bottom of the deck. With a pimp for a father and a mother who turned tricks for drugs and food for her family, Tyson was groomed from birth for the red light district of sports, a place where sex and violence are never very far apart, or very far under the surface. For most of the last three decades of his global fame and infamy, Mike Tyson has existed in the popular imagination in existential free fall.
Was he pushed, or did he jump? Either way, he’s sold his journey as one of sport’s most bankable voyeuristic fetishes. It’s always easier to theorize about human behavior than it is to really look at it. I’d wondered about something a long time, long before Tyson ever reminded me in his living room that, “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow that’s cast.” From the beginning, the discrepancy of that voice, gentle as a lullaby, hiding, almost cowering inside his “baddest man on the planet” armor fascinated us. I think the reason why that is, and why it has never been written about, has been hiding in plain sight.
Like Muhammad Ali, the man who visited the adolescent Tyson when he was locked up in Spofford Juvenile Detention Center and first gave him the idea he could box his way out of his hopeless circumstances, many of Tyson’s most famous quotes and attributes were cribbed from other sources to create a construct he could buy into and then sell. The once weak, obese, lisping kid taunted as “little fairy boy,” who could never stand up to the violence that engulfed his childhood, eventually found safety in adopting the powerful traits of others he discovered in fight films; cutting his hair like Jack Dempsey, posing like Jack Johnson after victory, and grabbing his balls like Roberto Duran. Early on, as an amateur boxer, he borrowed the menace of Sonny Liston and even successfully passed himself off as Liston’s nephew. Later on, still suffering from a terminal identity crisis, Mao, Che, and Arthur Ashe were marked on his flesh.
Photo: The Ring Magazine
“It’s never me talking. I’m always quoting my heroes.”— Mike Tyson
But in 2002, at a Memphis press conference before his fight against Lennox Lewis, when Tyson cried out, “I’ll fuck you till you love me faggot,” it seemed a hint about what may have forged his genius in the ring. Perhaps these, too, were someone else’s words and perhaps that reveals something deeper about him, and something else about the way we feel about him, Tyson’s “Rosebud.”
“It’s never me talking,” Tyson reminds his readers in his 2013 memoir Undisputed Truth, which spawned the one-man show of the same name. “I’m always quoting my heroes.” At that press conference, was he quoting words someone had once used against him? Someone close to him? Any cop or social worker or family law advocate can tell you it’s far more common for the worst things that happen to us to come from people we trust rather than strangers. Then there’s the chilling Tyson quote Desiree Washington offered in her testimony that while Tyson restrained her in his hotel room before raping her, he pleaded, “Don’t fight me, mommy.”
In regard to Tyson, there has always been the sense that whatever evil he has perpetrated — raping Washington, biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear, all the “terrible things” he told me he left out of the memoir that “people don’t know but have an idea about” because “I’ll be in trouble” — that something far worse had happened to him, to make him what he is. We are repulsed by much of who he is yet simultaneously, almost inexplicably, also want to give him a hug. As much as we want to pretend to be just voyeurs, we’re actually on intimate terms.
All boxers are liars. Con men. The better the liar, the better the fighter. You realize this requirement immediately after you step inside a ring for the first time. That’s because if you knew what was in a fighter’s heart, if you knew what he was really thinking, he’d be easier to find. And if you could find him, he’d be easier to hit. And if you could hit him, you might expose him. And that might expose every person they never stood up to and every person they never stood up for. A single blow can unveil the watermark of your soul in a way nothing else ever can. Of course all fighters are liars, but it has nothing to do with being dishonest. It’s just all fighters are junkies for the truth. Honest people don’t have to understand anything about the truth, but for a liar nothing is more vital.
I have an uncomfortable relationship both with Tyson and the sport of boxing. Budd Schulberg once wrote, “As much as I love boxing, I hate it. And as much as I hate it, I love it.” Well, I hate pretty much everything about the sport and how it’s run and love pretty much everything about the fighters. As a little kid, the first prizefighter I ever discovered was Tyson: my brother owned Nintendo’s Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! A few years later, when I was 11, an incident with a bully and a lot of his friends left me pretty much a shut-in for the next three years.
Then, in 1994, when I was 15, I watched Tyson interviewed in prison. He talked about his own history with cowardice and the humiliation and torment of bullying. “I still feel like a coward to this day because of that bullying,” Tyson would later recall in his memoir. “That’s a wild feeling, being that helpless. You never ever forget that feeling.” It was the first time I’d ever heard someone describe how I felt and, miraculously, that someone had gone on to win the heavyweight championship of the world. If cowardice could fuel that kind of transformation, it meant there was hope: I didn’t have to give up.
“I thought everybody was fair game because I sure seemed to be fair game to everybody else,” wrote Tyson in his memoir. I think that’s why he never required an opponent to sell tickets. We’re all fair game to him, and when watching Tyson, you feel that threat.
The next day I went two places I’d never been before on my own: the library and a boxing gym. A week later I sat down and wrote a letter to inmate number 922335, inside the Indiana Youth Center in Plainfield, Ind., a thank you letter to a convicted rapist. The only thing I tried to explain to Tyson in that letter was, apart from anything else he was responsible for, that his story had saved my life. I never found out if he received it.
Inside Tyson’s front door, trying not to make a scene and coughing through the weed hanging in the air, a Sandra Bullock romantic comedy was playing on a flat screen television before an audience of Tyson’s children’s toys. I could see a shrine of Tyson memorabilia — a statue of him, portraits, trophies, and other knickknacks — inside a room down one corridor. Then Darryl handed me a bottle of water and pointed to a leather couch in the living room.
I sat down and noticed Tyson’s mother-in-law above me on a higher floor. She came out one door with a baby in her arms and quickly scampered behind another, slamming it as if she were auditioning for a role as the White Rabbit in Alice In Wonderland. Beside the door she vanished behind, I noticed the back of an enormous leather couch. It had some kind of bizarre hump in the middle. Then the hump moved, then tilted and turned in my direction. I noticed Tyson’s death mask face just as he laid his trigger-happy eyes on me and stood up.
His eyes looked as different in person as any Van Gogh does up close in the flesh. All boxers wear their heart on their sleeves, but Tyson’s heart is a pawnshop of broken dreams. He never took his gaze off me and began lumbering down the stairs toward the stranger in his living room, “So how did this white motherfucker get inside my house?”
With this nightmare of a fighting specimen glaring at me, I remember thinking, “If anyone ever brought a butter knife to a gunfight …” but then I knew I was wrong. Gratitude might be the most dangerous weapon on earth to a human being that hasn’t had it pointed at that their heart all that much in life. Everybody knows you’d have to be crazier than Tyson to actually feel gratitude toward him.
I smiled because I knew the only reason this white motherfucker got inside his house — or was able to leave my own long after giving up hope I ever would — was because of him. You think it’s dangerous meeting your heroes? Take a number. Try explaining Mike Tyson as your fucking hero growing up.
The girls just love it.
Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
The first piece of slippery evidence to back up the suspicion that we feel such compassion toward Tyson because of the abuse we both know he suffered and what we imagine appears on page 16 of the memoir. Tyson’s family was evicted from Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn when his mother lost her job. He was 7. Their furniture was dumped on the sidewalk and Tyson and his siblings had to defend their property while their mother sought some last resort to put a roof over their heads in Brownsville. He described his new surroundings like a war zone, “horrific” and “gruesome,” lethal hostility in every direction and sirens wailing all around, the constant sight of ambulances collecting attacked or overdosing bodies, guns going off at all hours, stabbings, windows shattering, cars broken into. Within a few weeks, wrote Tyson, he personally witnessed several shootings. When he and his brother were robbed right in front of their new apartment at 178 Amboy Street, “Wow,” the still little boy remembered thinking, “this is happening in real life.”
In the midst of these first impressions of the dungeon he’d found himself in, as almost an aside he chose to leave hanging — as if to see if anyone would notice — he confessed, “One day a guy pulled me off the street, took me into an abandoned building, and tried to molest me.”
Tried? Where does try to molest end and molest begin? Despite endless accounts in the memoir illuminating all manner of soul-crushing experiences and various other abuses both inflicted upon Tyson and inflicted by him on others — many of both described with relish — over the remaining 564 pages, he tellingly never once returns to that incident. As a rule, you learn a lot more about people by what they try to conceal rather than reveal. At the same time, we’re all desperate to be seen.
“I don’t do nothin’ unless I risk humiliating myself and really embarrassing myself,” Tyson told me. “When I have that hanging over my head, it allows me to rise to the occasion.”
He was addicted to the risk of being exposed. Every lie points at the truth. “I’ve been taken advantage of all my life,” Tyson confessed. “I’ve been abused. I’ve been dehumanized. I’ve been humiliated. I’ve been betrayed.” Now, however obliquely, Tyson himself directly raised the issue of sexual abuse — among all the other forms of abuse he inventoried having suffered — for the first time.
And then he dropped it, leaving us to ask whether or not this, finally, offered an illuminating glimpse of him — not just his rise and fall — but our fascination with him? Maybe that answer should be pursued. Maybe that could provide a better Rosetta Stone into his character and our attraction to it than anything else. After all, as F. Scott Fitzgerald warned, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Yet who in American life has had more acts than Tyson? His author bio on Amazon describes him as “philosopher, Broadway headliner, fighter, felon.” And, given how well he’s sold each of those acts to us — with “Mike Tyson Mysteries” we’re even unleashing him, a convicted rapist, on our kids in a cartoon, for fucksakes — I’m not sure how much or if at all America ever surprised Mike Tyson.
But for 30 years and counting Tyson has never stopped surprising us. You’d think the ruthless animal or basket case he’s always been made out to be would lose that power over us pretty quickly, but he hasn’t. Twenty-five years after he lost the heavyweight title, Tyson — not Floyd Mayweather, not even Ali anymore, not anyone else — is still the American boxer most worth paying attention to. And America has. From the beginning, we’ve never been able to look away.
Only now we watch not for anything he has ever done in the ring, but for everything that came before and what he has done since he left it, on Feb. 11, 1990, a loser in the ring for the first time.
Mark Kram, author of Ghosts of Manila, an account of the Ali-Frazier rivalry and who died in 2002 not long after signing a contract to write a Tyson biography, observed during his Playboy interview with Tyson in 1998 that, “Mike Tyson is the darkest figure in sports I’ve ever encountered. I left thinking that I had never before met a 32-year-old man so eaten up by rage, so hostile, despondent and absolutely convinced of his irredeemability.”
There are reasons, many that we know. By the age of 13, Tyson had already been arrested 38 times. His father, a pimp, dealt in violence and abandoned many of his 17 children. Before Tyson had even entered his teens, neighborhood kids in Brownsville had hauled him kicking and screaming to the top of an abandoned building in retaliation for pigeons he’d stolen. They wrapped a noose around his neck and nearly shoved off him off the roof.
Boxing caught him just as he was being pushed. And everything transformed when fate brought him Ali. “I’ve never forgotten it,” he said.
How could he? Suddenly, Tyson found a path where his rap sheet was the best resume he could have ever hoped for. Then, in March of 1980, while on leave from Tryon Detention Center, Tyson met a 72-year-old Cus D’Amato in a gym in Catskill, N.Y. It had happened before. In the 1950s D’Amato discovered and managed the career of Floyd Patterson, boxing’s youngest heavyweight champion and first millionaire.
“Break your opponent’s will. Constant attack, no let up. Destroy his spirit.”— Cus D'Amato
Photo: Ring Magazine
After all of six minutes of watching Tyson spar, D’Amato said to him, “If you listen to me, I can make you the youngest heavyweight champion of all time … All you have to do is listen to me,” D’Amato implored. “People of royal descent will know your name … the whole world will know who you are. People will respect your mother, your family, your children.”
Tyson’s immediate impression of D’Amato? The kid who’d been abused his whole life had an immediate reaction: as Tyson recalled in his memoir, he thought he was “a pervert.” Nevertheless, D’Amato gained Tyson’s trust and soon became Tyson’s mentor, legal guardian, and the greatest influence on his life and career.
“I was so insecure, so afraid,” he confessed in his memoir as he began to understand D’Amato’s agenda with him. “I was so traumatized from people picking on me when I was younger. I just hated the humiliation of being bullied. That feeling sticks with you for the rest of your life … That’s why I always projected to the world that I was a mean, ferocious motherfucker.”
“Break your opponent’s will,” D’Amato schooled the young the Tyson. “Constant attack, no let up. Destroy his spirit. Make all his causes a lie.”
So Tyson, in many ways, proceeded to make a lie his life’s most passionate cause.
“You have to face your demons, Mike,” D’Amato later counseled his developing prodigy, “or they will follow you to eternity. Remember to always be careful how you fight your fights because the way you fight your fights will be the way that you live your life.”
In 1985, on D’Amato’s deathbed, Tyson, not yet a champion, choked back tears confiding, “I don’t want to do this shit without you. I’m not going to do it.”
“Well,” D’Amato replied, “if you don’t fight, you’ll realize that people can come back from the grave, because I’m going to haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Given how Tyson still breaks down at the mere mention of D’Amato’s name, perhaps he lived up to his word.
The fairytale narrative of the elderly, ostracized Cus D’Amato, a man who spent his life standing up to the mob and corruption in boxing spending less than 10 minutes with the 12-year-old Tyson and seeing enough evidence to arrive at the conclusion he’d met the youngest heavyweight champion in history, and then making it happen, is one of modern sports’ ultimate redemption tales. It has always been one of the driving forces of both Tyson and D’Amato’s biographies, their private creation myth. D’Amato would credit meeting Tyson with extending his life, providing the very justification of his survival. For Tyson, that first encounter, even after endless telling, remains raw enough he still cries as if on cue. The trope was also a white liberal’s wet dream, to have what People Magazine termed a “virtual feral” troubled inner-city black kid saved and redeemed by a white surrogate father who soon adopted him and became his legal guardian. Not many ever wanted to look much farther. Why ruin a good story? But remember, fairy tales are written so we don’t have to confront our greatest fears.
In 1979, Tyson, age 13, moved into the Catskill home that D’Amato shared with his long-time companion, Camille Ewald (the sister of his sister-in-law), a 14-room Victorian mansion overlooking the Hudson River where many other lost youths — several dozen over the years, by some estimates I was given during interviews — with turbulent histories of physical and sexual abuse, were given shelter and sanctuary. D’Amato trained many of them at the gym he ran above the Catskill police station. Hardly any turned professional. Tyson was there to fight; he never finished high school. He remained in D’Amato’s care throughout his adolescence.
Constantine D’Amato was born Jan. 17, 1908 in the Bronx and endured brutality throughout his childhood at the hands of his father (a bullwhip was the weapon of choice) and on the streets. Like Tyson, he lost his mother early in his life and soon after his beloved brother Gerry was murdered by a New York police officer. D’Amato turned to the church for direction, with the intention of becoming a priest. After abruptly abandoning that path, he enlisted in the military but was unable to serve due to a bad eye and flat feet. He wanted to box, but an eye injury in a street fight stopped his career. He dabbled in communism (Hoover and the FBI opened a file on him), slept with a gun under his pillow for the rest of his life, and opened the Gramercy Gym in Manhattan.
For years, he actually lived there. He discovered Rocky Graziano only to have him poached by more established people in the boxing world. In 1949, a troubled youth named Floyd Patterson walked into the gym after spending two years in a reformatory upstate. Remind you of anybody?
D’Amato began work with his soon-to-be first world champion and clandestinely formed some key relationships within the mob that controlled boxing. Three years later he guided Patterson to an Olympic gold medal in Helsinki and had enough leverage in the sport to manage Patterson as a professional until he won the heavyweight crown at the age of 21, then the youngest champion in heavyweight history. He hardly took a dime. According to Patterson, money was never D’Amato’s motivation.
D’Amato could play both sides, managing to make a name for himself and a whole lot of enemies. While secretly still doing business with key figures in the mob, he simultaneously took a public stand against organized crime on Patterson’s behalf while grooming Patterson’s character and navigating his successful run as champion from 1956 until 1959. Then Patterson felt D’Amato was over his head — protecting him with soft fights and mishandling contracts that cost Patterson money. He cut him loose and soon suffered a string of defeats against more formidable opposition.
In 1965, D’Amato bounced back and had his second world champion when Jose Torres knocked out Willie Pastrano in the ninth round to win the light heavyweight championship. By then, D’Amato was considered both an eccentric and an expert, admired for his boxing acumen and ostracized for his fierce paranoia. Although Muhammad Ali routinely called him up for advice before major fights, D’Amato still ended up marginalized in the sport to which he devoted his life. He got it back and got revenge when he discovered Tyson.
He didn’t have long with his last protégé and died, at the age of 77, on Nov. 4, 1985, shortly after Tyson turned professional as a boxer and just over a year before Tyson won a share of the title beating Trevor Berbick. By then, D’Amato’s deification was already underway. But something else happened at the same time, a wall of silence arose over other aspects of his biography, a legacy that he himself, had spent years muddying and that the ensuing years have not made any more clear.
The principle architects in Tyson’s development and cultivation as a myth, D’Amato and Jimmy Jacobs and Bill Cayton, Tyson’s managers, are all long dead. “They came from different worlds than we came from,” Tyson told me. “Secretive worlds. I don’t know a lot of things about Cus.” Of Jacobs, Tyson was quoted in Scream recalling cryptically, “There are many strange things about Jim Jacobs that may never be known.” Both D’Amato and Jacobs wrapped their private lives in mystery, obfuscation, and contradiction. And both had their medical, Army, FBI, and criminal records sealed. Gay Talese, who knew D’Amato on close terms for years, described him as “an eccentric, amusing, but I think borderline psychotic or paranoid.” That only matters now to the degree it may allow insight into Tyson and the secrets he keeps. It may also help us understand why, 25 years after he lost the heavyweight title, 22 years after he went to jail for rape, we still feel sympathy for him.
On Oct. 28, 2014, I nervously smoked a cigarette outside the Ritz Carlton in lower Manhattan, waiting for the hour to arrive to interview Mike Tyson, now 48 years old, determined to be the first person to ask him not only whether that stranger he mentioned in his memoir had succeeded in molesting Tyson, but also if it had been the only time. The more I’d investigated the latter issue with everyone I could find from his early years and inner-circle, the more I’d run into a bizarre wall of silence or preposterous hagiography completely inconsistent with numerous reliable accounts and an even more peculiar unwillingness to even say why without speaking obliquely: “There are a lot of axes to grind.” Click. “I’m not here to talk about the past.” Click. That, or else, “Before we go near this, we’re off the record now, OK?” After months of hundreds of phone calls and meetings, all I’ve been able to uncover is that a lot of tracks have been covered.
Let’s remember, after Tyson was convicted of rape, despite always maintaining his innocence of the crime, he did write a letter to sports broadcaster Jim Gray confessing he was guilty of “five to seven” even worse crimes.
Worse than rape? Well, nothing approaching an incident of that description was inventoried in the memoir or, for that matter, in Tyson’s recent one-man Broadway show, or in the “Taking on Tyson” reality television series, or James Toback’s celebrated documentary “Tyson” either. But remember, for some crimes there is no statute of limitations.
Finally, nearly four years after scamming my way into his house, I had the chance to approach Tyson directly about a few things that his memoir started me thinking about. The prevailing wisdom I’d received from all the writers who’d known Tyson since before he began his professional career nearly 30 years before in 1985, then only 18 years old, was “leave those questions for last. You know, in case he decides to do what Mike Tyson does best and beat the living shit out of you.”
Not because those writers thought I was wrong — nearly all of them expressed similar suspicions — but in case I was right.
His publicist called me.
“We’re almost at the hotel. Sorry we’re late but it’s just this New York City traffic. Just so we’re clear, after that mess in Toronto with the TV reporter last month,” she said in reference to Tyson’s verbal explosion during an interview in September of 2014. “We’re not open to discussing Desiree Washington or Robin Givens. Don’t be that guy. Please keep the interview strictly to the contents of “Undisputed Truth.”
“See you in a minute.”
A kind concierge from inside the Ritz noticed me pacing outside their entrance and brought me out a bottle of water with a Ritz label.
“We just thought you looked like you could use it.”
III. Four Corners
“Boxing is, in fact, everybody’s favorite sport,” HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman proposed, with a mischievous thought experiment he invented to back it up. “If you come to an intersection and on four corners you see the following. On one corner, there’s a couple kids playing stickball. On the other corner, there are some guys that are shooting hoops. On a third corner, there’s a guy just standing there putting a golf ball. And on the fourth corner, there’s a fistfight. There are a hundred people at the intersection. How many people are watching anything but the fist fight?”
Let’s pretend some more. What if on one corner was Babe Ruth, bat in hand, on another Michael Jordan preparing to dunk, on the third corner Pelé dribbling a futbol? Then what if on the fourth corner Tyson showed up?
Where does the crowd go? Would they still go to the same place if it cost everyone their lunch money to watch? Babe, Jordan, and Pelé — their sports, let’s remember — were never behind a paywall like Tyson and his fights.
I think you have a pretty good idea where that crowd is going. Hell, you have a pretty good idea where Babe, Jordan, and Pelé are going too. They’re not just going where the action is, they’re going where they have the best story to tell afterwards, too.
“Douglas was a pedestrian fighter who, on that one night, fought the fight of his dreams.”— Jim Lampley
Nobody gave writers better copy than Tyson. Hemingway would have killed to have given the fighters in his stories the lines Tyson came up with. It’s unlikely that Tyson’s role made him the most compelling athlete in sports history. It never even mattered who Tyson was fighting. It did with Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, and Marciano. Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and today Floyd Mayweather all offer a ballet of violence. With Tyson, it hardly even mattered if he was fighting. It was always about his performance. His life itself was a symphony of rage and fury. Often an almost living crime-in-progress outside the ring, as a boxer, instead of arresting Tyson, police escorted Tyson to the ring on his way to inflicting the same malevolence for millions of dollars and even more millions of people’s enjoyment. Take Nov. 22, 1986 in Las Vegas when Tyson took out WBC titlist Trevor Berbick in a second round TKO to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history at age 20. Take June 27, 1988 in Atlantic City when he made $21 million and became the undisputed champ for knocking out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds. Or, not even three years later, take Feb. 11, 1990 in Tokyo when he lost perhaps the biggest upset in sports history against Buster Douglas. None of those fights were ever about anyone but Tyson.
Douglas chuckled when he told me over the phone that after that fight, when his plane touched down in the United States and he saw the horde of reporters gathered at the end of the runway, he asked the friend sitting next to him, “Who they here for?”
“You,” his friend replied. But that’s not quite right. They were there to see Tyson’s belt with someone else wearing it.
That’s one boxing story. Here’s another.
The first fight Jim Lampley, HBO’s main boxing broadcaster, ever saw live was in Miami, Sonny Liston vs Cassius Clay on Feb. 25, 1964 when he was 14 years old. He told me over the phone he’d saved every dime mowing lawns to pay for the ticket, and Clay took the crown when Liston failed to come out for the seventh round.
“Liston was an eight-to-one favorite going into that fight. I’d covered Tyson’s fights since he started. Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas was the most important fight I’ve ever called and the most memorable fight I’ve ever seen.
“Douglas was a pedestrian fighter who, on that one night, fought the fight of his dreams.”
IV. Whistling Past the Graveyard
Around 9:00 a.m. local time on Feb. 11, 1990, in Tokyo, Donald Trump took his seat next to Don King at ringside for Mike Tyson versus James “Buster” Douglas and looked around the audience. He concluded, “It was the dullest audience I’d ever seen. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
As trainer Aaron Snowell marched with the heavyweight champion to the ring under a waving American flag, he remembered it was so silent in the arena, “You could hear a rat pissing on cotton.”
Lampley, calling the fight for HBO, recalled, “The thing I’ll always remember most is the quiet … You could hear the gentle slapping of Buster Douglas’ and Mike Tyson’s shoe soles against the canvas. In 32 years of network television sports commentary of every kind imaginable, I’ve never done a stranger or more memorable telecast.”
Tyson was 23 years old going into his 38th professional fight. Up to that point in Tyson’s career, it was novel for him to even get hit in fights, let alone hurt, knocked down, or remotely in jeopardy of defeat. As Lampley pointed out in his forward to Tyson-Douglas: The Inside Story of the Upset of the Century, “We were well into the next phase of his (Tyson’s) career, which had been incubated on the previous trip to Tokyo (two years earlier when Tyson knocked out Tony Tubbs) — married with considerable difficulty to Robin Givens, managed by the actress and her mother, in the promotional clutches of Don King, developing a circus-act life to feed the media monster that both natured and mauled him.”
By the third round, Douglas led the dance with Tyson and dominated the contest to such an extent that everything about Tyson’s identity and perceived invincibility took a dramatic turn.
Trump leaned over to Don King beside him and asked, “Is this really happening?”
In the eighth round Tyson landed a ferocious uppercut that dropped Douglas but failed to stop the fight despite a contested 13-second count. The referee only got to nine-and-half, before Douglas rose and was immediately saved by the bell to end the round.
Two rounds later, a reeling, half-blind Tyson was struck by a sweeping left hand, driven onto his back in the challenger’s corner, left staring up blankly at the lights for the first time. As Tyson fell, all the reporters in press row jumped to their feet from their chairs. Every ringside camera rose beneath the ropes to each photographer’s eyes, one even dropped his camera in the commotion and scrambled under the apron to retrieve it. As Tyson’s body absorbed the impact of his collapse, his gaping jaw released his mouth guard, which cascaded back over his swollen-shut eye and gently bounced off his brow behind his shoulder.
Tyson writhed in unconsciousness for a split second until the referee screaming the count in his ear jolted him into awareness. He attempted to lift his shoulder off the canvass with two feeble jerking movements, succeeding on the second try, desperately trying to turn himself over onto his hands and knees to then stand and beat the count. Suddenly he remembered his lost mouth guard and blindly groped for it. As he pawed the guard into his mouth with his glove, he bit down into a corner of it and struggled to his knees. He noticed the crouched referee’s elbow nearby and pitifully reached over for it to help prop himself to his feet. The referee quickly withdrew it and pivoted away. Just as Tyson unsteadily regained the ability to stand, the referee waved off the fight and smothered him, holding him up as the shock waves reverberated around the world that the curtain had gone down on the biggest upset in boxing — if not sports — history.
“This makes Cinderella look like a sad story,” Larry Merchant told viewers, just as Douglas’s corner jumped through the ropes and mobbed the new champion.
Don King’s biographer, Jack Newfield, recalled the moment that first made Tyson: “I thought back to the night he obliterated Spinks, and that look of frustration in his eyes. It was as if he had climbed the highest mountain, kicked in a door, and discovered the room was empty. The look seemed to ask: Is this all there is? Tyson began to resemble a Greek tragedy searching for a stage.”
Photo: The Ring Magazine
The Tyson who destroyed Spinks never got old, he got bored
He found it in Tokyo, and now the look on his face said something else. There was nowhere else to go but a long way down. Had Tyson retired 20 months earlier after destroying the undefeated Spinks as he threatened to, rightly or wrongly, he may well have retired in many people’s minds as the greatest heavyweight who ever lived. Spinks was undefeated and had never even been knocked down. Tyson did that twice before knocking him out in a minute and a half and driving Spinks from the sport for good. We never saw that Tyson ever again. That Tyson never got old, he got bored. But after Douglas dispatched him in the 10th round, he was groping around the canvass for more than his mouth guard: the core of the identity he’d built up had been annulled.
From winning the championship against Berbick to losing it against Douglas, took just three years, two months, and 20 days — a measly 1,177 days — for that kind of career arc. When he fell to Douglas, he was not yet 24. In 17 of his previous 37 fights he had dispatched his opponent in the first round. Like Orson Welles or Bobby Fischer, Tyson’s zenith disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived. Remember, he was on his way to becoming the first billion dollar athlete in sports history, then as marketable outside the ring as he was popular fighting inside the ropes. Corporate America — Diet Pepsi, Toyota, Nintendo, Kodak — all had designs on him. He was even doing promotional ads for the NYPD.
That was before Tyson’s story took another fall 523 days later, on July 19th, 1991, when Desiree Washington agreed to accompany him to room 606 of the Canterbury Hotel in Indianapolis at 2 o’clock in the morning. Another 206 days later, on Feb. 10, 1992, it took Indianapolis jurors 9 hours 20 minutes to return a verdict of guilty on rape and two counts of criminal deviate conduct. Six weeks after that, Judge Patricia Gifford sentenced Tyson to 10 years on each of the three counts, with four years suspended and the sentences to run concurrently — a total of six years in prison.
At age 25, Muhammad Ali, America’s secular saint, became a martyr, eventually losing three-and-a-half years of the prime of his career for opposing the draft. Tyson, boxing’s secular demon, was the same age as Ali when he was locked up and lost four-and-a-half years of his career with that rape conviction. We never saw Ali’s prime, but we certainly saw Tyson’s.
Yet, even after the fall, even after he raped, we still let him get back up, and into our lives. Think those Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids cartoons will be shown anytime soon?
We even welcomed him back and paid him more than any entertainer on earth for the privilege. A hundred or so years after van Gogh delivered a package containing his severed ear wrapped in a cloth to a horrified prostitute in Arles, France, on June 28, 1997, Tyson chewed off a bloody-portion of Evander Holyfield’s ear and spat it onto his own canvas, a cultural artifact of the 20th century. That fight, featuring the fallen ex-champion and felon, took place at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and was the highest-grossing boxing match in history. A sold-out audience of 18,187 paid a record gate of $17,277,000 to see it live, another 1.99 million Americans spent $99,822,000 on pay-per-view, and the fight was seen in 97 foreign countries.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc
Maybe our dirty secret all along with Tyson was that no matter how bad we thought Tyson really was, we suspected somehow whatever happened to him was worse than anything he did to anyone else and the result of that was visceral and unpredictable, something we could not take our eyes off. That might be our real fascination. We always feared Tyson, and by fearing him, by letting him stand again after he fell, we never had to face what might be responsible for his emptiness.
He was a labyrinth without a center and the void Tyson always projected, that arresting mixture of rage and hopeless vulnerability, suggested some unimaginable horror, some justification for the sins of all those that created him.
If you ever cared about Tyson, let alone cheered him on, your hands were never clean.
V. Heart of Darkness
I met Tyson for the second time at the Ritz Carlton in New York on Oct. 28, 2014. He arrived after finishing an interview on “The Today Show,” the first installment of his New York media tour for the release of the paperback edition of his memoir. After our sit down he was headed to “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” now a figure palatable with both our morning coffee and last cocktail. Once his publicist took me up to Tyson’s suite, I pulled up a couple of chairs next to the window overlooking the water beyond Battery Park. Tyson emerged from his bedroom in a white T-shirt and shorts. Unlike his usual ring attire, he wore socks, haphazardly bunched up at his ankles.
The publicist sat behind me on a couch while we spoke and every few minutes two of his children regularly left the care of their mother in the bedroom to barge into the living room and kiss him on the cheek. Tyson’s only entourage these days is his family. After 45 minutes of easy conversation, I took a deep breath and decided to take the plunge:
“There’s one thing I wanted to ask you that I’ve never heard anybody ask you before. You mention that you were picked on all the time. And you say that you were picked on mostly with homophobic slurs against you like “Fairy Mike” and that sort of thing. You were always taunted with this homophobia. But you mention in the book, when you were only seven and had just moved to Brownsville, that a stranger abducted you off the street and tried to molest you.”
“Yeah,” Tyson nodded. “Uh-huh.”
Lisa Lake/Getty Images
The inside of Tyson's head is ‘a dangerous neighborhood to travel’
“Was that the only time something like that happened to you?”
“That one time it happened in the abandoned building, yeah.” He didn’t slam the door, but you could hear it click.
The publicist didn’t object and Tyson didn’t seem too agitated or threatened by the subject matter so, a minute later, I circled back and tried another door, “But I just always wondered, because you’re always quoting your heroes, or you’re quoting people to the public. There was a line you said, and you mentioned it in the book, too, where — I think it was just before the Lennox Lewis fight — you said, ‘I’ll fuck you until you love me, faggot …’ That line of yours, where did that come from?”
“I don’t know. A lot of girls ask me about that.”
“What do they say?”
“They loved that.”
“They loved it?”
“Yeah,” Tyson laughed.
But in Tyson’s memoir, he had traced the origins of that quote: “That was the audacity that Cus had instilled in me. But it was also me talking like my momma.”
The following morning, while I was transcribing our interview, Tyson still had this subject matter on his mind and volunteered it on “Opie Radio” on SiriusXM. This time he went a little farther. This time there was no talk of “tried.” It made headlines around the world.
“They don’t know that guy bullied me and sexually abused me and stuff … snatched me off the street. I was a little kid …” Tyson then lifted his hand and stuck his index finger against his temple, pointing inside his skull. “This is a dangerous neighborhood to travel by yourself.”
“Did you drastically change after that day?” one of the hosts asked a moment later.
“I don’t know if I did or not.”
“Is it something that you always remembered?”
“I don’t always remember. Maybe I do, but I don’t. I do but I don’t.”
And then they soon all talked about something else.
The answers in regard to Tyson and abuse always seem to stop short. What is whispered in private is never spoken in public. Jonathan Rendall would expand on the extensive interviews he drew from Tyson’s inner circle during the Catskill years for the Playboy article to work on a book based on Tyson called Scream. After years living on the edge with alcoholism and severe gambling addictions, Rendall’s body was found on Jan. 23, 2013, in his St Georges Street apartment in London, England, nearly two weeks after he’d died, the book unfinished (a version of it has since appeared in England). Before Rendall undertook his biography, Mark Kram, Sr., died shortly after he’d signed a contract to write a Tyson biography and attended the Lewis-Tyson match in Memphis with his son, Mark Kram, Jr. All attempts to write a full biography of D’Amato’s life, which may offer some keys to Tyson’s turmoil, have been thwarted, records remain hidden, voices silent, dimensions blurred.
Tyson, D’Amato’s ultimate protégé, learned more than boxing from his mentor. Like D’Amato, he too has learned to muddy the waters, intriguing us with what we know, teasing us with what we don’t, and leaving us to decide, on our own, what really might have happened and what any of it means. At times, his manipulation of his own celebrity makes Andy Warhol look like a clumsy amateur.
VI. The Unfinished Symphony
“Who am I?” is the question Tyson asks to conclude his memoir. All these years in the spotlight and together with his audience, we’re no closer to answering that question, of whether or not Tyson was sexually abused by anyone else or by whom. Those are secrets buried under secrets but we do know one thing; abuse of one kind or another both brought Tyson to the edge and pushed him off, and that despite all odds — all odds — he has somehow survived and, dare we say it, even thrived. He’s beaten something back, and as of the moment, seems to have buried it. When I asked to speak to Tyson again, to try to probe deeper, his publicist told me he had nothing more to say.
Legendary boxing champions of the past always resembled a boy’s dream of a fighter; Tyson’s era demanded a nightmare and he delivered. Norman Mailer once wondered of George Foreman, another once nightmarish boxer America had a fetish for, how “anyone is supposed to prepare to defend himself against the thoughts of everyone alive.” I think this is the reason Tyson never needed a dance partner in the ring to sell tickets. It turned out he didn’t even require boxing or even sports. He always had us, a willing partner in a hopelessly unending co-dependent relationship.
“People are full of shit,” Teddy Atlas, another D’Amato protégé and later his trainer, told David Remnick. “They want to see something dark. People want to feel close to it and in on it, but, of course, only from the distance of their suburban homes. They want to have the benefit of comfort, security, safety, respect, and at the same time the privilege of watching something out of control — even promote it being out of control — as long as we can be secure that we’re not accountable for it … We wanted to believe that Mike Tyson was an American story: the kid who grows up in the horrible ghetto and then converts that dark power into a good cause. But then the story takes a turn. The dark side overwhelms him. He’s cynical, he’s out of control. And now the story is even better.”
Tyson, by himself, was always enough. Today he goes on stage, a one-man show, both predator and prey, and for the past 25 years, after falling to Douglas and losing the title, we have continued to watch him, the world-class victimizer and the world-class victim, and struggled to answer perhaps the darkest question Tyson’s life raises — exactly what does that make us?
What role do we play, and what secrets do we keep?