Mike Tyson: Lord of the Ring

The heavyweight champ takes off the gloves and speaks his mind

Mike Tyson attends Tyson Vs. Williams Boxing Match at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey on July 21st, 1989. Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Getty

The birthday boy is sitting in a window seat of the airplane, which has just taken off from Philadelphia. Seated next to him is his girlfriend, Tabitha Shuron, who bears a slight resemblance to the infamous Robin Givens, who was briefly his wife. The seat next to Tabby is vacant. Mike Tyson tells her to move over and beckons me to sit next to him. He doesn't say another word to her for the rest of the trip.

Also on the plane are some friends and some members of the "Tyson Team Family," led by fight promoter Don King. We're headed for a giant bash in Cleveland to celebrate Tyson's 23rd birthday. He has taken a couple of days off from his training for the fight with Carl "the Truth" Williams, which is three weeks away.

"I read your book," Tyson says. "You really knew all those people? Fantastic. . . . You knew Jack Dempsey?" I nod. "Gene Tunney?" I nod again. "And how about Henry Armstrong? He was one of my all time heroes. What kind of a guy was he?" "You know what a great fighter he was," I say. "He was a kind, gentle man. Became a preacher after he retired." "How about Jack Kearns? Was he as sharp as they say he was?" I nod again, then ask him, "Are you going to interview me, or am I going to interview you?"

He smiles, and as the plane rises out of a cloud bank, a sliver of sun streams through the window, lighting up his two gold teeth, the centerpiece of his smile. They look like freshly panned nuggets in the stark light.

"Were you trying to make some kind of statement when you got the gold teeth?" I ask. "I thought they went out with high-button shoes." "Could be," he says. "I hadn't thought about it then. But you know, I'm a Renaissance man. When I was a kid, I devoured everything written about boxing, and after I had digested what I read, I decided that the Teens and the Twenties were my eras. If only there was a time machine to take you back. The fighters were my kind of fighters. They came to fight. Not only that–I fell in love with the lifestyle of the times–the clothes they wore, the music, the morality. There was honor even amongst thieves. You didn't have lawyers cluttering up your life. Just a handshake could seal a big deal."

"Some of my heroes in those days sported gold teeth. It was fashionable in certain quarters. I had mine fitted when I was 17, you know, with the first real money I made. It was a sign of affluence. Yeah, that was probably my statement. I think that's where that old saying, 'Put your money where your mouth is' came from."

If Tyson were going to adhere to that old adage, he'd need a mouth like a barracuda's to stash the $30 million he's holding. This past week in Atlantic City, everyone has been talking about José Torres's just-published biography of Tyson, Fire & Fear. I ask Mike if he's read it. He leans forward in his seat, straining his safety belt, and says, "No, I haven't read it, I don't want to read it, and I don't even want to talk about it."

"Let me read to you from this, just for a reaction," I say, pulling out a newspaper clipping. "It says that this guy bounced his wife's head against a wall, cutting her head and nearly killing her. You any idea who that's about?" He shrugs his shoulders. "Hey, I don't believe any of that stuff they write about people's private lives." When I tell him it was Laurence Olivier, his mouth and his eyes open wide at the same time. "Olivier said that in his autobiography, describing how he beat the crap out of Vivien Leigh," I say. "I guess it could happen in the best of families," says Tyson wryly.

The advertisements for Torres's book quote Tyson as saying that he once hit Robin–his best punch–and bounced her off the four walls. Since this sounds ludicrous on the face of it, I don't ask Tyson if it's true, but I do ask him if he said it, because Torres told me he had Tyson confessing this on tape. He doesn't answer my question.

After a pause he says, in disgust, "Punch her? Aw, come on. Sure we had our arguments, and they were a bit volatile–not uncommon for young marrieds. She could punch pretty good herself and kick you where it hurt the most. What really happened was that in the heat of it I pushed her, and she stumbled into the closet. But I don't go around hitting women, despite that image they're trying to hang on me."

In a recent interview in TV Guide, Robin let us know where she is coming from as she discussed the marriage: "The thrill, the danger...I loved it...He was exciting. I can't describe it..He was a turn-on...With a certain type of woman, there are times when she wants the man she is with to be...a man."

Now, you can't knock that. And he loved her. It might have developed into a hell of a marriage if Robin and her old lady hadn't turned out to be so piggy.

Like Tyson, José Torres had been managed by Cus D'Amato, who took Tyson in when he was 12; Mike and José had been friends and confidants since then. I spoke to Camille Ewald, who was D'Amato's paramour for over 40 years. She was livid over the Torres book. Camille played mother to an assortment of 90 potential fighters that Cus had brought home, fed, clothed and trained. Three of them, including Tyson, wound up as world champions.

I asked Camille, who is 83 and goes to gym class four times a week, what kind of a kid Mike Tyson was when Cus first brought him home. She chuckled, and there was a long pause. "He was tough," she said. "He was only 12 years old, and he had just come out of that jungle in Brownsville, but he had the street experience of someone who was 20. Those kids in the ghetto live in a fantasy world, a macho world. They're always bragging about their contests, mostly lies. Mike was a great little braggart."

"We ran a very strict home, and Mike learned his manners quickly. My only problem with him was to get him to keep his room clean. He's real bright and very sensitive–scares you sometimes, he's so bright. Now all I hear when the book is mentioned is about Mike beating up on women. Not true, and José knows this. They were close friends for years."

"I was right in the middle of that marriage," she said, talking like a real mother. "I used to see Robin often, and you can be sure if Mike hit her, she would have told me, or I certainly would have seen some signs of it."

***

I had written a piece involving Tyson before I ever met him, and a year ago an interview was arranged. It never came off. The day I was to meet him, he ran his BMW into a tree, and that was the beginning of a series of traumas–his hectic trip to Russia with Robin, being de-balled coast to coast when Robin trashed him in a TV interview with Barbara Walters, the divorce mess. Then there was the confrontation in Harlem at 4:30 a.m. outside Dapper Dan's haberdashery in a scene provoked by the weird heavyweight Mitch Green. Mike punched him out and hurt his hand.

A few months ago, Don King told me Mike wanted to see me. "He read your Dear Muffo book," Don said, "and you have a lot of his heroes in there." By now Tyson had learned that I had been involved in several important heavyweight bouts with Cus D'Amato, who died four years ago.

I head down to Atlantic City a few weeks after Tyson started training for the Williams fight. When I arrive, he is in the ballroom at the Trump Plaza Hotel getting ready to work out. It's a closed session, but I squeeze in just as he's having his hands bandaged.

He reaches out with the bare hand and grabs my arm. "Hey, I read the book," he says. "Fantastic! You really knew Damon Runyon? He's one of my favorite authors. We got to talk–right after the workout." I watch as he boxes two rounds apiece with three sparring partners; he looks terrible. He is missing wildly and getting hit with sucker punches. At the end of the sixth round, he jumps out of the ring and, without looking at me or anybody else, runs out of the place through a back door, still wearing the boxing gloves.

Later, I ask him if he's aware of how bad he looked in the ring that afternoon. "I was the first one to know it," he says. "I just couldn't get interested. I think its those guys. They're getting boring." He says he has to run, and when I try to make an appointment for the next day, he says, "I want you to come to my birthday party! You know, I'm on a lot of those top rap albums, and a half a dozen of the top rap acts are coming to the party."

I don't have the heart to tell him that after one number, rap is like the Chinese water torture to me. But I accept the invitation and thank him. I don't find out until later that the party isn't until Friday and that it's in Cleveland.

The entourage takes off Thursday afternoon. We limousine to Philadelphia International Airport, where we board the plane for Cleveland. Tyson gives me the full treatment, carrying my bag from the car to the plane gate.

Tyson is an extremely impatient young man, and his attention span is about 30 seconds unless you've got him interested, but now I have him cornered in a window seat. He speaks rapidly, as though there were some urgency in getting his message out. As he talks, I wonder how he could be the same kid with the awesome juvenile record at 12, the high-school dropout. He sounds like a college professor I know from Brooklyn.

"What do you think of the heavyweight champion as a role model for the young athletes and the kids?" I ask. "Does that mean anything to you?" "It means a lot," he says. "Kids look up to the heavyweight champion. It's a tradition. But I'm never going to go down in the image of a Jack Dempsey or a Joe Louis. When you think of those guys, you think of apple-pie American heroes. I've done a lot of stupid things; immature things. It goes back to the way I grew up in my early years, and it adds up to a bunch of negatives."

"What's new about fighters with a lot of negatives in their background?"

"My situation is totally different," he says. "Arrogant I am, by all means. I say what I feel, and I really believe that of the 5 billion people on this planet, no one can beat me. I guess people don't like to hear that, and a lot of them are waiting for me to self-destruct. I'm aware of that, but I think I'm too smart to self-destruct."

"Most people feel the negatives become history when they are corrected," I say.

"Perhaps I'm more conscious of mine," he says. He turns away and looks out the window for a few beats, then turns back to me, hunches his chunky shoulders and says, "Now I want to ask you something about Damon Runyon. I read a lot of Jack London and Runyon about the same time. London, of course, was a little older than Runyon. Didn't you think that Runyon tried to understand the rhythm of the black people and treated them with respect, while London was a sort of ...yeah, a racist."

"London was a racist," I say. "He perpetrated the crusade to find a white hope to dethrone Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion." Tyson already knows that.

"Did you ever see the story I did on Cus?" I ask. "It involved you." "No," he says. "What was it about?" "I was running the promotion for the first Liston-Patterson title fight at Comiskey Park, in Chicago. Floyd Patterson had been like a son to D'Amato. Cus managed him from the first time he put on a glove. I'm sure you know about that. Suddenly, for no reason, Patterson dumped him. This almost destroyed Cus, who was a very proud man. Two weeks before the fight I had dinner with Cus."

Tyson is nodding his head. He remembers the story, but he wants me to go on. He's still very sensitive about Cus, who legally adopted Mike when he was 17. "D'Amato looked depressed, beaten. I asked him if this meant the end of the fight business for him. He said, 'Hell no. I'll come up with another heavyweight champion. You'll see.'

"I asked Cus what his dream heavyweight would be like. 'I know what I want,' he said. 'A young kid, not too big...around 220...He would follow everything I told him to do, to the letter. He would have very fast hands, with dynamite power, and most important of all, he would have it stamped in his brain and on his soul that nobody–but nobody–in the world could beat him.'

"After the first time I saw you fight, Mike, I said to myself, 'That's the kid Cus was talking about,' and the gist of my story was that he invented you four years before you were born."

Mike sighs. "Cus," he says reverently, and a pudgy knuckle goes to the corner of his eye.

"What about your relationship with Don King?" I ask.

"It's a good relationship," he says, "but it's not just a business relationship. It's a togethership kind of thing, and it's been good for me. He steered me through the most precarious period of my life. When I was a kid on the streets, faith and religion was something I never thought about. I didn't believe in anything. He took me to his home. He insisted I go to church. Another important thing happened: I quit drinking and haven't had a drink for almost ten months.

"Basically, I think I was aware of the power of faith, but I had no way of expressing it to myself. Religion has fortified my faith. It can be powerful. But besides the spiritual stuff, I think Don is one hell of a promoter. The best.

"I want to make this clear though. No one has complete influence over me. It's the truth. I do what I feel. If you're going to screw up, screw up on your own decision, not on anybody else's. If you're going to make it, make it on your own decision. When the smoke clears, I hope the barometer on Mike Tyson reads, 'He did what he had to do.'"

***

During his turbulent year, incidents were blowing up like grenades around Tyson, and the pundits were saying he was going to self-destruct. But since King has "adopted" him, there has not been one incident, and Tyson seems to be a more composed, happier young man.

The birthday celebration is at the International Exposition Center, a cavernous building in which they made tanks and bomber planes during World War II. After a series of nondescript fights, most of the ringsiders walk to another section, where the birthday party is set. There are food tables with roast pig, ribs, greens and other soul-food morsels.

The rappers–Run-D.M.C., Heavy D. and the Boyz, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Slick Rick–are rocking the house. Tyson, wearing black shorts, a black and white shirt and enough gold around his neck to make Sammy Davis drool, works the room, shaking hands, posing for pictures and signing autographs.

I ask Mike how it feels to be 23. "Things are good and getting better," he says. "I know life can be a bitch, but this beats hanging out on a street corner in Brooklyn." The party swings until the late hours, and we go back to Atlantic City the next day.

I don't see Tyson again until the week before the Truth Williams fight. I arrive late Wednesday, and I'm told he'll do no more sparring. The next day, he works out in a closed session in the Trump Plaza ballroom. Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright, his two trainers who replaced Kevin Rooney, the controversial trainer Tyson fired, bark signals at him as he punches the big bag. They have him working on combinations and keep making him repeat the pattern until they're satisfied he has it down.

As they're taking his gloves off, Tyson calls me over. "You're back, huh?" he says warmly. "Tell me, did you know Harry Wills?" "He was before my time," I tell him, "but he was black and the number-one contender when Dempsey was champ, but Dempsey kept ducking him and never fought him." Tyson knows that.

I ask him, "What about the story that you're getting away from the Cus D'Amato method because you no longer have anyone around who knows how to administer it since you fired Rooney?"

Tyson wipes the sweat off his face and exhales noisily. "This gets sillier and sillier," he says. "Jay Bright here was with Cus for 18 years. Aaron Snowell is a big help. They coordinate beautifully. I'm very happy with my training team, and I hope that kills another false rumor."

"Watching you work," I say, "I have the feeling that you're going to end this one in a hurry Friday night. One round?" He nods. "That's the strategy. Get it over with."

Tyson lies low until he steps in the ring the night of the fight. It's over in 93 seconds, and the one memory you could take away is the perfection of the left hook that zonked Williams.

Tyson learns something with each fight. Right now, I think he has fulfilled about 85 percent of his potential. I don't know what Williams learned, but referee Randy Neumann added a couple of years to his life by stopping the fight, and Williams ought to be grateful instead of bitching about it.

Tyson is now faced with the problem that the great heavyweights of other eras have encountered–lack of formidable opposition. There really aren't any genuine contenders around except Evander Holyfield, an inevitable opponent who Tyson will meet next year. Meanwhile, Razor Ruddock will be Tyson's next victim. The services will be held in Canada in early November.

After checking out of my hotel the day after the Williams fight, I run into Mike on the steps out front, waiting for his car. I'm going to New York, and he's going to his estate in New Jersey. He's just put it on the market for $8 million.

When I first saw Tyson fight, I was startled by his fast hands and raw punching power, and when I met him, I was equally startled by his erudition. Then I began to wonder whether he had gotten to me with his flattery and rugged charm and whether I was overrating him. I decided to corroborate my impressions.

I asked Bill Mazur, the New York TV commentator and sports-trivia maven, how he rated Tyson out of the ring. "That Tyson is amazing," he said. "You can't stump him. I rate him as one of the best boxing historians in the country."

Dave Anderson, the veteran sports columnist for the New York Times, had just interviewed Tyson. "Would you say he is one of the brightest fighters you've ever talked to?" I asked him. "Not just one of the brightest fighters," Dave answered. "One of the brightest athletes I've ever talked to."

As we wait for Mike's car, I say, "Going home to take it easy, huh?" "Easy?" he says. "I've been taking it easy for two months. First I'm going home, then I'm going to Harlem tonight to make the show at the Apollo. Some good rap guys on the bill. Maybe I'll catch you late, real late, at the Columbus."

"Mike," I say, "there's one thing I wanted to ask you before you go. What do you say to those rumors that accuse you of being anti-white?"

"More nonsense?" he asks. "How absurd can they get? You have to understand who I am, where I come from and how I'm looked on by society. I never denied most of the things they accused me of in my rambunctious days. But anti-white, that's ridiculous. The most dear person I loved more than anything in the world was white."

His car pulls up. "Take care," he says as he gets in. When it starts to roll, he sticks his head out the window and yells, "Did you know Mickey Walker?"

There's a big gold smile on his face. This time I think he's putting me on.