Covering Mike Tyson’s tumultuous career was like riding in the backseat of Thelma and Louise’s convertible. You just held on tight as the most riveting boxer since Muhammad Ali took you on a wild ride.
For me it all started when trainer Cus D’Amato answered the phone. It was the spring of 1985 and Tyson had only a handful of pro fights to his credit but the buzz was already beginning to build. I wanted to get in on the ground floor.
Ranking Tyson’s 10 greatest knockouts
In honor of Mike Tyson’s 50th birthday, ESPN’s Dan Rafael ranks the 10 most memorable knockouts by the former “Baddest Man on the Planet.”
D’Amato and I had dinner together several years prior, when he came to Philadelphia to work with Eugene “Cyclone” Hart. I don’t know if he remembered me or not, but he was happy to hand the phone to Mike when I explained why I’d called.
At the time, The Ring magazine ran a monthly feature called, “Fighters Rate Their Division,” It was only a half page, but Cus and Mike were enthusiastic. Tyson’s pro career was in the incubation phase and the people guiding him understood the importance of marketing. One of his co-managers, Bill Cayton, was a former Madison Avenue ad agency executive.
Sometimes a fighter asked to rate his divisions needed a little prompting. But Tyson had no trouble reeling off his top 10 heavyweights, five of which — Pinklon Thomas, Larry Holmes, Bonecrusher Smith, Carl Williams and Tony Tubbs — he would subsequently fight and defeat.
By November of that year, Tyson had racked up 12 consecutive knockout victories and was getting hotter with each passing beatdown. The decision was made to put him on the cover of the next issue, so I went to see him fight Conroy Nelson in upstate New York.
D’Amato had died earlier that month, an event that had a profound effect on Mike’s life and career. People still wonder what would have happened if Cus had lived longer. It’s only natural. But there’s no way of knowing. There is, however, no doubt that Mike was deeply wounded by Cus’ death.
The fight was held at the Colonie Coliseum in Latham, a 1,800-seat amphitheater that had hosted a variety of acts, ranging from Bob Hope and George Carlin to Johnny Cash and Megadeath. The poster next to the box-office billed Tyson as the “Future Heavyweight Champion.”
The joint was packed with the local contingent of his growing fan base. Many wore Tyson T-shirts and carried signs that read “Dr. Knockout,” a nickname inspired by New York Mets pitcher Dwight “Doc” Gooden, whom fans called “Dr. K.”
After softening up Nelson with meaty left hooks to the body in the first round, Tyson put him out of his misery in the second. A left hook broke the Canadian’s nose and sent him tumbling to the canvas, where he rolled over and ended up with one foot and one arm draped over the bottom rope.
The crowd was ecstatic. Tyson shrugged.
Later that evening as I was paying my bill at a local restaurant, a giant hand reached around me and scooped half of the after-dinner mints out of the dish on the counter.
“There was a time when I would have taken all of them,” said Tyson, who was standing behind me, a roguish grin on his face.
I laughed, told him who I was and why I’d come to the fight. Mike wrote his phone number on a scrap of paper and gave it to me before disappearing into the night.
Access to Tyson grew increasingly difficult as the victories piled up and the fame and adulation intensified. Jacobs (who was much closer to Mike than Cayton) was dying of lymphocytic leukemia, and Cayton was busy trying to fight off Don King’s hostile takeover. When King took control not long after Tyson’s one-round knockout of Michael Spinks in June 1988, the situation became even more difficult.
And just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, Ruth Roper, the mother of Tyson’s wife, Robin Givens, appointed herself supreme guardian of the meal ticket. Mike called her “Ruthless.”
Beating Spinks earned Tyson the lineal heavyweight championship, but when I tried to set up an opportunity to present him with his Ring magazine belt, I got the runaround from King’s people. Roper wouldn’t return my calls.
It was during this period that Mike’s misadventures became regular occurrences and provided plenty of scandalous fodder for the tabloids. After a while you needed a scorecard to keep track of the debacles.
There were alleged nightclub gropings, a street fight with Mitch “Blood” Green and a bizarre accident when he rammed his BMW into a tree in his driveway. Some claimed a chemical imbalance was causing violent behavior. His marriage was a train wreck.
Tyson’s admittedly debauched lifestyle, complete with booze, drugs and as many women as he wanted, was slowly sapping his strength and resolve. The red flags were everywhere, but nobody cared.
After all, Tyson was still the “Baddest Man on the Planet” and the millions continued to roll in. That’s all that really counted. But it wouldn’t be long before his bombastic nickname lost much of its cachet. The day of reckoning was nigh.
Beside the shock of seeing Tyson knocked out by Buster Douglas at the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan in 1990, my strongest memory of the colossal upset is rushing into my daughter’s room and yelling, “You gotta see this. Tyson is getting his ass kicked.”
That’s how incredible it seemed watching his downfall on TV. It was hard to believe your eyes, but it was as real as the final right from Douglas that ended Tyson’s wining streak, and stripped him of the title and his cloak of invincibility.
Shortly after his fourth comeback fight, a 12-round decision over Razor Ruddock, Tyson was accused of raping Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington in an Indianapolis hotel room. Nearly a year later, in March 1993, a jury found Tyson guilty of rape and he was sentenced to six years in prison.
Little did I know that Tyson’s incarceration would lead to our first private conversation in a decade.
The Indiana Youth Center, located about 25 miles outside of Indianapolis in Plainfield, looked more like a rural high school than a penitentiary. But the barbwire fence and guard tower were a dead giveaway. Nobody was going home after the final bell.
It was late-August 1994 and I was there to visit inmate No. 922335, the erstwhile heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson. It had taken many months to arrange the meeting and a lot was riding on it. Mike understood that is would be a no-holds-barred interview, and I could hardly wait to hear what he had to say.
A guard escorted me to a conference room, where Tyson was waiting, away from the prison population. The guard closed the door and left. It was just two guys and a tape recorder.
“What can I do for you?” Tyson said as we shook hands.
We sat across from each other at a table and plunged into a 90-minute session. At first Mike seemed shy and spoke in a near-whisper, but it wasn’t long before he relaxed and the conversation flowed freely. In fact he became so engrossed that he occasionally tapped me on the thigh to make sure I was paying attention to whatever point he was making.
The Ring magazine’s attorney would not allow us to publish some of the juicier parts, but the remainder was clearly memorable enough. Reprint rights were sold to various publications around the world, a rare occurrence for a specialty publication.
Tyson’s answers and insights were fascinating. He described original co-manager Bill Cayton as “crude and sophisticated at the same time.” And Cayton’s partner, Jim Jacobs, as “very mysterious” a man who “lived his whole life a secret.”
Ironically, Tyson believed that judge Patricia Gifford, who presided over his rape case and handed down his prison sentence, knew he was innocent. In Mike’s mind that’s why she gave him six years instead of the 60-year maximum — a rather unorthodox theory but not entirely beyond the bounds of reason.
Was Tyson having a pity party and blaming others for his downfall or just honestly responding to the questions? After all, he had pretty much reached rock bottom and obviously was not in the most positive state of mind.
One quote in particular attracted a lot of attention, probably because it matched so well his public persona.
“I hate everybody.”
It made for a perfect sound bite, and headline writers couldn’t resist it either. After all, it was exactly what the public wanted to hear, an inflammatory outburst by a convicted rapist.
To me it sounded more like the wounded cry of a child of the streets, a wail of despair born of loneliness and the knowledge that no matter how much money he makes or how many men he knocks out, that empty feeling will always be with him.
When it came time for me to leave, Tyson stopped halfway out the door, turned around and said, “Write a good story. I trusted you.”
When Tyson was paroled on March 25, 1995, he leaped right back into the arms of Don King and the same managers he’d had since 1988, a decision he would come to regret. But when Mike launched his post-prison comeback, the same people who were guiding his career when he went to prison were still calling the shots.
John Horne was tall and skinny and Rory Holloway was short and chubby. Holloway had been Mike’s buddy since they were teenagers. Horne, a former shoe salesman and wanna-be standup comedian, did most of the talking. How any of this qualified them to be Mike Tyson’s co-managers was not so much a mystery as it was a farce.
Horne was widely considered King’s factotum — a front man and buffer, the guy whose job it was to keep a wary eye on Mike, look after King’s interests and keep the prying media at arm’s length.
Horne and Holloway kept promising to arrange an interview with Tyson but never did. Thankfully, our vice president of marketing, David Gerhardt (who had also been instrumental in setting up the jailhouse interview), wouldn’t take no for an answer. It took months of hounding, wheedling and cajoling, but his persistence was finally rewarded.
Tyson had already brushed aside Peter McNeeley and Buster Mathis and regained the WBC belt by knocking out Frank Bruno for a second time. He was getting ready to fight WBA titleholder Bruce Selden when Gerhardt and I flew Las Vegas in late June, hoping to obtain enough material for a special issue of The Ring dedicated entirely to Tyson.
An enormous man named Cookie picked us up at our hotel in a black Mercedes limo and delivered us to Tyson’s palatial home. Our photographer, Chris Farina, was already parked outside, unloading his equipment.
The electronic doors swung open and we pulled up next to a Bentley and a Ferrari. Cookie ushered us through the front door and into a sun-drenched atrium, complete with a trickling fountain. We looked up and there was Mike, peering over the balcony. He nodded and soon joined us in a large airy living room.
Tyson couldn’t have been more cooperative, and we were soon outside visiting his three big cats: Omar the lion and tigers Caesar and Kenya. Without hesitation, Tyson unlocked Kenya’s cages and went inside.
Dave, Chris and I looked at each other as if to verify we were really seeing what we were seeing. I told Chris to start taking photos.
Tyson spent time playing with each animal. He wrestled, tossed a ball and gave them kisses. It was an amazing sight. The cats’ claws had been removed but they still had teeth and their fangs occasionally flashed in the sunlight as they played with their owner.
Mike told us that the cats were just like kids and got jealous if he played longer with one than another. He also showed us where Kenya has sheared off one of his shoelaces as cleanly as a razor while they were tussling.
Back inside, our host took us on a tour of the house, including his bedroom, where he picked up a photograph of his youngest daughter, Rayna, and kissed it.
The stories about Mike being a voracious reader and history buff are true. Our conversation ranged from Alexander the Great and Socrates to Billie Holliday and cornet virtuoso King Oliver, of whom Tyson said, “That’s the guy it all goes back to. It was King Oliver who gave Louis Armstrong his start.”
We discussed the relative merits of novelist Ernest Hemmingway and Norman Mailer and Mike’s fascination with Arnold Rothstein, the mobster who fixed Major League Baseball’s 1919 World Series. Later we visited the scorching rooftop terrace, where Tyson marveled at the toughness of Joe Gans and Battling Nelson fighting 42 rounds under Nevada’s unforgiving sun.
For me, the best part of an incredible day was the ride Mike gave me in his $700,000 Ferrari F-50. We rocketed down the road at 130 mile per hour, the G-force thrusting me back in my seat, the scenery whizzing past at an alarming rate. What a rush!
I wanted a photo of Tyson with his white tiger for the cover, so Mike went in Kenya’s cage, put a large chain around his neck and brought him out. It was truly a magnificent creature, but as we walked to the front of the house I kept my distance. I needed a great cover shot but not at the risk of being mauled by a tiger.
As Farina, who seemed even more apprehensive than me, stood about 10 yards away trying to find the best camera angle, Tyson yelled, “Tell your photographer to hurry up. This is a man-eating beast I’m holding.”
Everybody laughed except Chris, but he got the shot we needed.
As we made our departure I thanked Mike and told him how much I appreciated the access he gave us. He replied, as if to reassure me, “You can come back again.”
It never happened, and it would be almost two decades before I spoke with Tyson again.