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Mike Tyson  

When the 1990s began, Mike Tyson was simply the most feared fighter the sport of boxing had known. He was 23 years old, and undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, having won the WBC version at 20, and destroyed the claimants of the other authorities just past his 21st birthday. He had an awesome physique, including a phenomenal neck of 19 ½ inches, as thick and strong as some men's thighs. He entered the ring robeless, wearing simple black shorts and black boxing boots, and with an executioner's air of purposeful intent that carried more menace than King Kong and Godzilla combined. Many of his opponents were beaten by fear before any blows were exchanged. Only four of 37 had managed to be still on their feet at the final bell, mostly by subduing any violent feelings of their own in favour of self-preservation. Then, as soon as the 1990s began, everything went wrong. He lost his title to a 42-1 no-hoper in the biggest shock in boxing history, he was charged with rape, he was convicted, he served half of a six-year prison sentence, he returned to the ring after a four-year absence, regained a world title, then scandalously bit off part of an opponent's ear during a contest and was banned for a year. His outrageous behaviour guaranteed he would remain boxing's biggest-ever box-office attraction.

The bundle of animosity that became famous as Iron Mike Tyson entered the world on 30 June 1966 in the Cumberland hospital in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, New York. He weighed exactly 8 ½ lb. His mother was Lorna Tyson, who already had two other children, who like Mike carried her maiden name, since she and Jimmy Kirkpatrick, Mike's father, never married. Kirkpatrick was a big, strong labourer, whose legacy to Mike was the genes for the muscular development that would one day make his fortune. Kirkpatrick left the family when Mike was two years old and Lorna took her children to the nearby area of Brownsville, which had even tougher and poorer streets than those they left.

In this environment delinquency was second nature to most of the young boys, and Mike, without a father and with a mother who, however well-intentioned, couldn't control him, could not avoid the influence of the streets. But young Mike was certainly not a bully by nature and indeed throughout his life was to display glimpses of surprising sensitivity in the general picture he otherwise presented of utter callousness. The world bewildered him at times, and perhaps his shocking behaviour was a way to bring some sense into it.

His mother apart, the closest person to Mike as he grew into childhood was his sister Denise. Mike learned from her soft, girlish ways. His voice was quiet, unaggressive and with a slight lisp, which he retained to some degree even when later on he could alienate everybody inside or outside boxing by saying of a punch which broke an opponent's nose: "I catch them there because I'm trying to push the nose bone into the brain".
Perhaps he was still reacting then to the days when his boyhood associates called him the 'the little fairy boy'. There could hardly be a bigger contrast between the man who said those words in his muscled malevolent prime and the retiring, bespectacled, lisping, seven-year-old 'fairy boy', yet only a dozen years or so wrought the difference.

All his life the super aggressive Tyson shown a fondness for pigeons. He kept them as a boy, and legend has it that it was through a bully pulling off the head of one of his pigeons that Tyson discovered his strength and his warlike inclinations. In an unthinking fit of fury young Mike beat up the bigger boy who killed his pigeon, not only realising his power, but that he enjoyed using it.

Tyson based the rest of his boyhood on a life of crime, which was not confined to the petty theft from shops, stalls and slot machines and the pick pocketing in gangs normally associated with youngsters of the district. Tyson was arrested dozens of times before he was 12, and among the offences he committed was armed robbery. He was sent to a New York correction centre, the Tyron School, where the unaccustomed discipline and schooling made him an awkward rebel. But he and the school's athletic coach, Bobby Stewart, an ex-boxer, came to an agreement: Tyson would co-operate in lessons if Stewart would teach him boxing. It didn't take long for Stewart to notice the potential this amazingly strong, belligerent youngster would have as a boxer, and he arranged for him to meet a contact of his in trainer Cus d'Amato. Cus d'Amato was now 70 and in effect retired from the pro boxing game, having been made bankrupt some seven years earlier. He had been very successful in training two of his charges to win world titles: heavyweight Floyd Patterson and light-heavy Jose Torres.

When Cus d'Amato saw the 13-year-old Tyson sparring for the first time he said: "That's the future heavyweight champion of the world". He was living at the time in a large house in the Catskill district of New York, where he had been installed after his bankruptcy by a wealthy friend and boxing fan, Jim Jacobs, a former champion handball player. D'Amato was living there with his partner of 40 years, Camille Ewald, and was so enthusiastic about Tyson's prospects that he persuaded the authorities to allow Tyson to live in the house with himself and Camille. Undertaking to make sure Tyson received an education as well as boxing training in the gym he ran above the local police station.

The arrangement worked pretty well with Tyson embarking on a successful amateur career under D'Amato's surveillance, with Teddy Atlas, a strong-man trainer, brought in to groom Tyson for professional stardom. A hitch which foreshadowed some of Tyson's later problems was overcome. Atlas was told that Tyson had abused a 12-year-old girl and, in an attempt to shock him into behaving more responsibly, he threatened Tyson with a gun.
The partnership became impossible. Tyson was taken back to the Tyron school, but Cus d'Amato quickly arranged for him to return to training under a new trainer, Kevin Rooney.
In the final trials for the 1984 US Olympic team, the 17-year-old Tyson was beaten twice by Henry Tillman, who won the place in the team and eventually the gold medal. D'Amato decided it was time his boxer turned professional.

D'Amato had carefully arranged the wherewithal to finance Tyson's launch to stardom. Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton were the backers and subsequent joint managers of Tyson. Cayton was an advertising executive who had discovered through his business the appeal of old fight films and who, with Jacobs, had formed Big Fights Inc, buying up a huge collection of films which became the basis of a long running TV series. Tyson liked to watch the old films, and became knowledgeable about boxing history and his possible place in it. The films suggested to Tyson and his team the idea that Tyson should enter the ring in his plain black garb, like the old champions, setting himself apart from the modern trend of show-biz entrances and creating for himself the image of the no-frills destroyer.

Tyson's mother died when he was 16, and two years later, Cus D'Amato became his legal guardian. So it was a close-knit, highly professional team which was behind Tyson when he made his pro debut on 6 March 1985 at Albany, New York, against Hector Mercedes. He was not yet 19, and he won by knockout after 107 seconds. Cayton and Jacobs videoed this, an the other quick wins which followed, to compile a tape advertising Tyson for distribution to boxing people. Nothing was being left to chance.

Poor Cus d'Amato, however, was not to live to enjoy the day he became associated with his third, and perhaps greatest, world champion. He died in November 1985, aged 77. Nine days later Tyson beat Eddie Richardson, appropriately in 77 seconds. It was his 12th straight win, and ninth in the first round.
Tyson was not tall for a heavyweight, standing only 5ft 11 ½ in, but he weighed an adequate 220lb. D'Amato had taught him how to bob and weave and present a moving and difficult target. He mastered a fine array of hooks and uppercuts which he could throw from a variety of angles. His main assets were his hand speed, enabling him to deliver punches in swift combinations, and the terrific power of his punching. His ruthlessness in finishing off a stricken opponent was unsurpassed.

In 1986 the Home Box Office television channel (HBO) in the USA was organising a tournament to unify the heavyweight championship, the purses, allied to the television revenue, being sufficient to get the champions of all bodies and the chief contenders to agree the scheme. Such was the trail of destruction Tyson left through the ranks of heavyweight pretenders that the HBO enterprise would have been meaningless had he not been incorporated.
So it was that a mere 20 months after his debut, and a year after D'Amato died, 20-year-old Mike Tyson was challenging Trevor Berbick for Berbick's WBC championship. The 34-year old Berbick had beaten three previous world champions (he had been Muhammad Ali's last opponent), but was still a 4-1 underdog when he faced Tyson at the Hilton Center, Las Vegas.

Although the convention in world title fights was that only the champion wore black, Tyson risked a fine by appearing in black as well. Berbick's answer was to enter the ring in a black hooded gown, wearing knee-length black socks.
Tyson claimed he saw the fear in Berbick's eyes at the start, and he began quickly severely staggering Berbick in the first round. The second round was notable for the manner of Berbick's defeat. He rose from his third knockdown, delivered with an awesome left hook, to stagger right across the ring on drunken legs to crash again. Pulling himself up with the help of the ropes, he couldn't get his left ankle to hold him up, and the referee had to support him as he declared the fight over. It was a terrifying testament to Tyson's power. Tyson was the youngest man ever to hold a version of the heavyweight title, beating by 186 days Cus d'Amato's other protégé, Floyd Patterson.

Four months later he outpointed James 'Bonecrusher' Smith, who took care not to join in a fight until the last 30 seconds of the last round. Smith admitted he fought only to survive, but he came nowhere near to surviving as the WBA champion. Tyson now owned two-thirds of the world's heavyweight championship.
The IBF champion ,Michael Spinks, however, now opted out of the unification contests, presumably seeing a lucrative contest with 'white hope' Gerry Cooney as a better prospect than possibly losing his title and unbeaten record to Tyson. The IBF crown was declared vacant , and Tyson had to wait for a new champion, Tony Tucker (who won the IBF title by stopping Buster Douglas), before he could incorporate the IBF strand and become undisputed champion. He faced Tucker on 1 August 1987 and, despite being shaken straight away by a left hook, he outpointed Tucker to establish his right to total recognition.

Tyson the beat challenger Tyrell Biggs, prolonging the fight in order to administer a bad beating, in revenge for what he claimed was a 'lack of respect' shown him by Biggs years before on their amateur days.
He then invited three prominent, beautiful women to watch him repel the challenge of veteran ex-champion Larry Holmes (which he did without difficulty): Naomi Campbell, the model, Suzette Charles, who was Miss America, and Robin Givens, an actress starring in a TV sitcom Head of the Class. Two weeks later he married Robin Givens, a move which radically altered both his private and boxing lives. Everything now seemed to go wrong at once.
First of all Jim Jacobs, half of Tyson's management team, became seriously ill with leukaemia. He died a couple of days after Tyson, with new wife Givens at ringside, had easily disposed of challenger Tony Tubbs in Tokyo. Tyson had recently signed a new contract with his managers which meant that in the event of Jacobs' death, Cayton would become sole manager, but Jacobs' widow would continue to receive her husband's third of revenue earned.
Miss Givens, with the strong support of her businesswoman mother, now began to take a strong interest in Tyson's finances, telling him that not enough of his earnings were getting back to him. Her legal team alleged that Tyson had signed his last contract with Cayton and Jacobs while being kept in the dark about Jacobs' condition. They sought the contract to be declared invalid.
Meanwhile Don King, the ubiquitous promoter/manager, never happy unless he controls all the likely heavyweight champions in the world, opportunistically attended Jacobs' funeral and began a strong wooing of the Tyson family with view to taking over Tyson's business affairs to the benefit of all (in reality himself). Meanwhile, Givens, who had claimed to be pregnant at the time of her marriage to Tyson, allowed it to be revealed through her sister that Tyson was abusing her and that as a result she had suffered a miscarriage.
All this was brewing up as Tyson prepared for his most important contest to date, a meeting with still unbeaten former IBF champion Michael Spinks, whose supporters, including Ring and Boxing Illustrated magazine, claimed he was the real champion by 'direct descent'.
This contest took place at Atlantic City on 27 June 1988. It turned out to be perhaps Tyson's most impressive performance.

Fans were kept waiting over 15 minutes for the start, as both camps insisted their man was champion, and thereby entitled to be second in the ring. Eventually the New Jersey Commissioner, Larry Hazard, had to intervene and insist Spinks enter the ring first.
Spinks was clearly nervous while it seemed that a hyped-up Tyson couldn't wait to get at him.
A flurry of blows early in the first round put Spinks on one knee and forced him to take a mandatory count of eight. When Spinks tried to attack on the command 'BOX ON' he was caught by a right uppercut which knocked him flat on his back, from where he tried to rise but stood no chance. He was counted out in 91 seconds. No one could now dispute that Tyson was the most efficient fighting machine in the world

However, Tyson's next defence, against Frank Bruno, was rescheduled several times and put back in all by six months or so as Tyson's private problems mounted. He fractured his hand in a street fight with former opponent Mitch Green; he drove his wife's BMW into a tree in what many took to be a suicide bid; he threatened to hang himself after chasing his wife and her mother through a hotel lounge in Moscow, where Givens was filming; he objected to being filmed and smashed a TV camera; he appeared with Givens on a TV chat show looking drugged, and smiled foolishly and submissively while she repeated many of these stories against him, saying he was manic-depressive; he smashed up his house, threw furniture into the street and chased off his wife and her mother; he was sued for divorce; he signed a promotional contract with Don King without consulting Cayton; he sacked Kevin Rooney, his trainer since he turned professional, for siding with Cayton; he finalised his divorce after only a year and eight days of marriage, with Don King's help; and two women accused him of sexual harassment.

When Tyson eventually met and overawed Bruno, his performance was way below par, and he even allowed Bruno to stagger him with a good punch before he finished him off in the fifth round. Some good judges saw the seeds of decline in this fight, but nobody anticipated what happened next. With Tyson's problems with Cayton settled by an uneasy compromise, King was in control as Tyson fought challenger James 'Buster ' Douglas in Tokyo. If any betting existed, it was at odds which made Douglas a 42-1 shot. But Tyson was under-trained, listless and drugged for veneral disease and depression. Well outboxed, he eventually caught Douglas in the eight round with an uppercut which floored Douglas who, because of a slow referee, was given a long count (about 12 seconds), enough to save him taking any further punishment before the bell rang. Douglas recovered fully in the interval, continued as before and knocked out Tyson in the tenth, with Tyson, knocked down for the first time in his career, groping about on the canvas for a lost gumshield while the count was completed. Because of the long count earlier afforded Douglas, Don King spent days, it seemed at first with the support of the WBC, to get the verdict reversed, but the boxing world laughed at him.

Shocked by this reverse, Tyson responded well, getting himself into better shape and beginning a comeback which saw him dispose of his amateur conqueror, Henry Tillman, and the dangerous Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock twice. A mullet-million dollar title fight was arranged with Evander Holyfield, who had assumed the heavyweight crown from Buster Douglas. But circumstances forced this encounter to wait for five years. Once more Tyson's reckless private life intruded.
Three weeks after his second defeat of Ruddock, Tyson went on a binge to Indianapolis, where he took a suite in a hotel near to one where the Miss Black America contest was taking place. He was introduced to the contestants, and on 19 July 1991 took one of them, 18-year-old Desiree Washington, to his room. It was 2.00 am and she alleged he raped her. Tyson was charged, came to trial, and in March 1992 was sentenced to six years imprisonment and four years' parole. As one who had lived the life of a multi-millionaire, however foolishly and wastefully, he reacted badly at first, but gradually he knuckled down and devoted himself to keeping fit, and, he claimed, to reading. He acquired new heroes (the names of Mao Tse-Tung and champion black tennis player Arthur Ashe were tattooed on his arms). He said he had been converted to Islam. He earned the maximum remission for good conduct, and was released after three years in March 1995.

Tyson was, of course, the hottest property in boxing. Everybody wanted to see the monster. The MGM Grand Garden, Las Vegas, signed him up to a six-fight deal and there was a further deal with ShowTime, the pay-TV channel, leading estimates of his first contest being worth $22 million to him. This comeback fight, on 19 August 1995, was against a soft opponent, Peter 'Hurricane' McNeely, whose father fought Floyd Patterson for the world title in 1961. McNeely had won 36 of his 37 fights, but it was a carefully managed record.
He bravely rushed across the ring to attack Tyson crudely at the bell and ,although Tyson missed with some counters, he eventually landed one to put McNeely down. When McNeely went down again, and rose looking groggy, his trainer Vinny Vecchione leapt in the ring to rescue him, which caused his disqualification. The contest lasted 89 seconds, and the sell-out crowd of 16,737, who had paid inflated prices to see the slaughter , yelled their disapproval at being cheated of blood.
Don King was still Tyson's promoter, and in all but name his manager. In December Tyson had a second run-out, against Buster Mathis Junior, another man whose father had fought for the title. The first Buster Mathis was beaten by Joe Frazier in 1968, and had died just before his son's meeting with Tyson. Mathis was a much more credible opponent than McNeely. The fight was switched from Atlantic City, where King was not allowed to promote because of a fraud charge hanging over him, to the CoreStates Spectrum, Philadelphia. Tyson won when a short right hook started a sequence that knocked out Mathis towards the end of the third round. But he was unimpressive, and to the experts clearly a long way short of the man he was at his peak.

Nevertheless the Tyson publicity machine was rolling and, with the warm-ups out of the way, it was time to start collecting the various heavyweight titles again. First up was the WBC title, held by Frank Bruno, Tyson's victim seven years before. The immensely popular Bruno was upbeat in the run-up to the fight at the MGM Grand Garden in March 1996, and attracted many British fans to cross the Atlantic and snap up the 6-1 odds locally available against him. Unfortunately for them, a frightened Bruno was overawed by the occasion, and a Tyson assault in the third round had him squatting on the bottom rope from where referee Mills Lane had to rescue him. Tyson was a world champion again and went on his knees in the ring to salute Allah.
Tyson's mandatory challenger for the title was Lennox Lewis, but Lewis' camp agreed to step aside, for $6 million, so that Tyson could challenge for the WBA championship.
Bruce Seldon was the WBA champion, and was expected to put up about as much resistance as Bruno, when the two meet at the MGM Grand Garden. An ex-convict (four years for robbery) he had three defeats in 37 contests. The odds against him were 20-1. He was called the Atlantic City Express, and was certainly very quick to grab Tyson when the fight started.
He looked as anxious as Bruno, was down twice in the first round, rising each time, but the second time he shook his head and referee Richard Steele called it off at 109 seconds.
The fans again hooted their displeasure. Seldon earned his biggest purse, $5 million, while Tyson picked up around $35 million.

Tyson's WBC title had not been at stake in this fight, Tyson being committed to meet Lewis for it. But now Tyson had the WBA crown, he was at liberty to defend that against Evander Holyfield, a fight which would be much bigger at the US box office than Tyson-Lewis.
So Tyson decided to ditch his WBC championship. All was now set for the big fight which should have taken place in 1989: WBC and WBA champion Tyson versus former champion Evander Holyfield. Holyfield had been a great cruiser and heavyweight champion, but had impressed in only one of his previous seven fights, suffering his only three defeats in this sequence. Significantly, after losing his titles Michael Moorer in 1994, he had retired from boxing because of a heart condition. A year before meeting Tyson he had faced Riddick Bowe during a comeback and been stopped in the eight, dramatically running out of steam after flooring Bowe in the sixth. Few thought a seemingly worn-out Holyfield would have the stamina to stand up to Tyson, but he trained so hard for 15 weeks and appeared so confident that initial betting odds of 22-1 on Tyson had been cut to around 6-1 on the night. Of 48 reporters polled, however, only one favoured Holyfield.

Right from the start of the bout at the MGM Grand Garden Holyfield showed that he was not intimidated by Tyson. He even stood toe-to-toe with him in the first round. Deprived of his usual psychological dominance, and faced by a confident, fast, skilful foe, Tyson quickly ran out of ideas. The contest developed into a scrappy one, with lots of holdings. Tyson was 30, Holyfield 34, and both began to look tired. In the sixth round Tyson walked into a left hook from Holyfield that sent him down and sliding back-wards across the canvas. He recovered and fought on bravely, but took a battering in the tenth. The effects had not worn off before Tyson was in trouble on the ropes in the 11th, and he ceased fighting back when referee Mitch Halpern saved him from further punishment. Tyson was bitterly disappointed. It was his second defeat, but he had excuses for the first. This time he was beaten by a better, and older man.
There had to be a return fight, and it was one of the most eagerly awaited of all time. The date was 28 June 1997, the place MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas. Both men had now had 14 world title fights, and both had won 12. Each was guaranteed $30 million. The fight had been postponed from 3 May because of a training injury to Tyson's eye. This time, of 50 boxing writers polled, 29 favoured Holyfield and 21 Tyson. Nevertheless Tyson was a narrow betting favourite at around 6-4 on.
What happened shook the world of boxing. Holyfield won the first two rounds, in which there was plenty of rough stuff. In the second a clash of heads cut Tyson's eye, causing him to complain. In the third Tyson came out without his gumshield, and was sent back for it, but after two minutes of the round he took advantage of a clinch to bite a chunk out of Holyfield's ear, and spit it on the canvas. Holyfield leapt in pain and turned his back. Referee Mills Lane, who proved much too weak to handle the fight, called a halt, and deducted two points from Tyson, but after a four minute delay allowed the round to continue. Tyson then bit Holyfield's other ear. Astonishingly the round was allowed to end, before the interval, Mills Lane belatedly disqualified Tyson. The Nevada State Athletic Commission fined Tyson the maximum according to their rules, a paltry tenth of his purse, i.e. $3 million, and banned him for a year, a ban which operated in all states, and which would not be reviewed until 5 July 1998.

Tyson was now publicly derided as low-life-scum, a coward, etc. But, of course, he would still be the hottest property in boxing were his licence restored. He had already earned more from boxing than any previous boxer -an estimated $200 million. In 1998 he owned six houses, including one he hardly used in Connecticut which had 61 rooms, 38 baths, and a master bedroom with five television sets. Yet he was reported to be short of liquidity, and owing $7 million in tax. He publicly confronted Don King outside a Los Angeles hotel demanding money, and allegedly kicked the promoter in the face. Lawyers are claiming that King did not account to Tyson fully and took more money from the boxer that the law allows. Tyson ditched King as a promoter, although King claims he has a valid contract with Tyson to promote four more fights. While Tyson is banned this aspect is academic, but in March 1998 Tyson was reported to file a $45 million fraud suit against King.

Tyson's private life is as complex as ever. Since the break-up of his marriage to Robin Givens, he has acquired four children, and is reported to be a devoted, if usually absent father. He also has a new wife, a paediatrician, Dr Monica Turner, who says he's a good guy, that he is far more intelligent that the press make out, and that she loves him for himself. His behaviour is as wild as ever, and late in 1997 he crashed riding a motor cycle, apparently having fallen asleep, and was nearly hit by a truck. He suffered broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung. He was riding without a licence, although still on parole from his recent imprisonment. In March 1998 he earned himself $3 million as an 'enforcer' at a Wrestlemania meeting before 19,000 fans in Boston. At around 240lb, he laid out a wrestler with a swift punch, but this "violence" which had no doubt been rehearsed.

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