Mike Tyson and Other Notes

Mike Tyson: HoganPhotos.com
Mike Tyson: HoganPhotos.com
By Thomas Hauser

Mike Tyson has always been a compelling presence. Many observers of the boxing scene think that, early in his career, he was a great fighter. Others (such as Dave Anderson, who called Tyson “a thug who got lucky”) take a contrary view. What’s beyond debate is that Tyson, like Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis before him, entered the national psyche. Everyone knew who he was and everyone had an opinion about him.

This year’s most ambitious stab at defining Tyson came from filmmaker James Toback, who has crafted a documentary entitled Tyson (recently released on DVD). The format features Mike as a talking head interspersed with fight footage, clips of other happenings in his life, and interviews with mentor Cus D’Amato.

As a fighter, Tyson represented a perfect storm. He was a young man with prodigious physical gifts, who came out of a brutal environment wanting to hurt people. The he fell under the spell of a brilliant trainer who could virtually read his mind.

“I started believing in this old man,” Tyson says of D’Amato. “He broke me down and rebuilt me. I knew that nobody physically was going to fuck with me again. That would never happen because they knew I’d fucking kill them if they fucked with me. I turned my whole life over to boxing.”

The early part of the documentary establishes Tyson as a frighteningly devastating and ferocious fighter. But the seeds of self-destruction were within him and external forces helped them grow.

D’Amato died in 1985, a year before Tyson claimed the WBC portion of the heavyweight crown. Thereafter, hordes of enablers with dollar signs in their eyes looked on as Mike’s conduct spiraled out of control. A knockout loss at the hands of Buster Douglas toppled Tyson from his fistic pedestal, but he remained a source of media fascination. Every misdeed and profane public outburst was reported. Then he was imprisoned for a rape that he says he didn’t commit. Prison crushed his spirit.

In the ten years after his release from prison, Tyson fought sixteen times. Two of those bouts were declared “no contest.” He was disqualified once for biting off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear and knocked out four times. His last public act as a fighter was giving the finger to an idiot who threw a paper cup filled with Coca Cola at him as he left the ring after quitting on his stool against journeyman Kevin McBride.

Toback fashions the material at his disposal to create a sympathetic portrait of his subject. He glosses over much of Tyson’s anti-social behavior, such as the return to prison in 1999 for assaulting two motorists after a traffic accident. And he repeats Mike’s denial that he raped Desiree Washington; a denial voiced often enough and convincingly enough that this writer is inclined to believe that, in Tyson’s mind at least, he didn’t rape her.

One troubling note is Tyson’s claim in the documentary that his early co-managers, Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs, “were like slavemasters.” In truth, Cayton and Jacobs did a brilliant job of advancing Tyson’s ring career and maximizing his income.

Don King is referred to in the documentary as “a piece of shit.” But there’s no indication that Toback questioned Tyson about the role that Shelly Finkel played in managing Mike late in his ring career. Nor did Toback utilize a remarkable series of interviews that Tyson gave to Boxingtalk.com in 2004 in which Mike (fairly or unfairly) voiced anger and frustration about the role that Finkel played in his affairs.

Portions of the documentary consist of self-justifying talk on Tyson’s part. At other times, he’s open about his flaws. Regardless of who and what Mike is now, the person he once was is branded on his face in the form of an ever-present Maori tattoo that the whole world can see.

When Marvin Hagler and Slick Watts shaved their head, it began a trend that exists to this day. When Michael Jordan opted for a diamond stud in his ear, tens of thousands of young men followed suit. The tattoos adorning the bodies of sports stars are emulated by black and white alike. But facial tattoos haven’t caught on. Despite Tyson’s celebrity status, it seems that very few people want to be like this Mike.

Near the end of the documentary, Tyson acknowledges having disrespected other people for much of his life and says, “If I have any anger, it’s directed at myself. I’m disappointed in myself. I just want to be a decent human being, which I know I can be.”

Well and good. Still, at the close of Tyson, I couldn’t help but think back on the words of Gerald Early, who once wrote, “Tyson is not the sum of his myths; he is the remainder. Myth tries to invest lived experience with greater meanings. But despite the stories that have proliferated around him, Tyson’s life can never point to anything larger than itself, his own self-serving actions, his own madness, his own befuddlement and consternation before the revelation of his limitations. Tyson’s biggest drama was, and continues to, be with himself for the salvation of himself alone.”

* * *

More on Mike Tyson in the form of a belated acknowledgement of a very good book --

The Last Great Fight by Joe Layden details what many consider the greatest upset in boxing history; Tyson’s 1990 defeat at the hands of James “Buster” Douglas. The book’s title is misguided. There have been other “great” fights since then. But Tyson-Douglas stands on its own as a watershed moment in boxing history and the fulcrum on which Tyson’s career turned.

Prior to the fight, Layden notes, the world expected Tyson’s “deconstruction of another overmatched and frightened challenger.” But for one night of remarkable achievement, Douglas was the best heavyweight in the world.

The early chapters of the book alternate between Tyson and Douglas. Layden summarizes Mike’s early years nicely. But that material is old news unless one has arrived recently from another planet.

The early chapters on Douglas are more compelling.

“Despite his imposing physical presence,” Layden writes, “Douglas is genial to the point of being disarming. There is nothing in his demeanor that suggests the hardness required of a boxer. Boxing held some appeal to him as a sport. But whatever it was that drove men like [his father and former fighter] Bill Douglas, whatever anger or animalistic instinct carried them through the battle; that was lacking in James. Though physically gifted and charming enough to talk a good game, Douglas remained ambivalent about boxing. J. D. McCauley [Douglas’s co-trainer] often accompanied Douglas on training runs that became walks. When he’d grow tired of his nephew’s complaining, he’d give Buster a shove in the back and exhort him to be stronger. Sometimes Buster would resume jogging; sometimes he wouldn’t.”

However, unlike most of Tyson’s opponents, Douglas looked at the champion and saw, not a perfect fighting machine but a bully who could be beaten. “Most of the guys who fought Tyson lost before they got into the ring,” John Russell (Douglas’s other co-trainer) told Layden. “They were scared to death of the guy. He had a mystique about him. But James had no fear in him; none whatsoever. And believe me; I was looking for it.”

Layden paints a compelling portrait of Douglas overcoming the fear that paralyzed so many of Tyson’s opponents. And he gives readers insight into the relationship between Buster and his father, as well as the infighting among manager John Johnson, McCauley, and Russell.

In the end, Douglas trained seriously and fought bravely pursuant to a fight plan that was flawlessly executed except for one moment of near-fatal carelessness in round eight. Tyson, by contrast, had already begun to slip, did not take Douglas seriously, and did not train properly for the fight.

The fight itself is retold in particularly dramatic fashion. “Douglas beat Tyson in every way imaginable,” Layden writes. “He appeared to gain confidence as the fight wore on, while Tyson, in a display of progressive vulnerability that would come to typify the latter stages of his career, became frustrated and ineffective.”

Adding to Tyson’s woes was the fact that, in Layden’s words, “Tyson’s support team was incompetent.” As Teddy Atlas later noted, “Having Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright train Tyson was like wearing plastic thongs under an Armani suit. Those two guys couldn’t train a fish to swim.”

“The corner was pathetic,” Jim Lampley, who was at ringside, told Layden. “You wouldn’t have considered, for example, that they would come into the ring without an Enswell; without any cut material whatsoever. At that level of the sport, it’s just not possible. It’s like a baseball team coming onto the field without their gloves.”

Layden does exceptionally good work in recounting Tyson’s knockdown of Douglas in round eight. “As [referee Octavio] Meyran pried the fighters out of a clinch,” he writes, “Douglas took a long look at the champion, battered and bruised, before uncoiling a big lazy left. Not a jab, really; more like a hook, but delivered with no sense of purpose. ‘That was the only time I started to take notice of what I was doing,’ Douglas remembered. ‘I was like, damn, I’m cooking, baby. I was admiring my work, taking time to reflect. And then WHAM.’”

Douglas was on the canvas for fourteen seconds. “The count was long,” Layden acknowledges. “That much is indisputable. But Douglas bore no accountability for that. He rose before the count of ten, which was all that was required of him. By all indications, he was clearheaded [listening to Meyran’s count] and able to continue fighting well before he actually decided to stand up.”

That said, Douglas cut things dangerously close. And the “long count” led to arrogant maneuvering by promoter Don King, (WBC president) Jose Sulaiman, and (WBA president) Gilberto Mendoza in a failed coup attempt that delayed formal recognition of Douglas’s victory for two days.

Layden breaks new ground in reporting on this maneuvering. While researching his book, he spoke with Meyran who claimed that, before the fight, Sulaiman told him, “Be hard with Douglas, and be nice to Tyson.”

“But I’m a professional,” Meyran told Layden. “I said, ‘I’m not going to do anything not legal.’”

Layden also notes that, when Douglas knocked Tyson down in round ten, Meyran treated that knockdown the same way he’d handled the earlier one; picking up the count late and starting at “one,” thereby allowing fourteen seconds to elapse. The difference was that Tyson, unlike Douglas, couldn’t beat the count.

In the late chapters, The Last Great Fight follows Douglas through the loss of his title to Evander Holyfield; his descent into obesity coupled with a near-fatal diabetic coma; and a pathetic comeback attempt that took him nowhere. In the final analysis, he was, in Larry Merchant’s words, “a guy who just didn’t have the desire to go as far as his talent could take him.”

As for the memories that Douglas carries with him; Layden writes, “He appears neither perturbed nor overly impressed by the fact that his life will be forever defined by and measured against that single event.”

“I had my moment,” Douglas says. “It was a beautiful thing. Now I’ve moved on.”

Tyson has also moved on. Layden recounts his sad decline. But one of the saddest things about Tyson’s life is that all the craziness and the long drawn-out end of his ring career have obscured how good a fighter he was when he was young.

* * *

A few thoughts on the start of Showtime’s “super six” 168-pound championship tournament, which began with a doubleheader on October 17th.

The concept underlying the tournament is laudable. Take six elite fighters and match them in a manner that gives the public twelve competitive fights with a champion emerging at the end. Unfortunately, the losers are becoming damaged goods.

Exhibit number one is Jermain Taylor, who has evolved into one of boxing’s sadder stories.

After beating Bernard Hopkins twice, Taylor was the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. His record stood at 25-and-0 and his future was bright. Then he was talked into dumping trainer Pat Burns by enablers with their own wallets in mind. Jermain’s lifestyle and training habits deteriorated thereafter. He might have wasted more talent than any fighter since Mike Tyson.

Taylor has lost four of his past five fights and been brutally knocked out three times. The most recent stoppage came at the hands of Arthur Abraham, who knocked Jermain unconscious with six seconds left in their fight. Taylor suffered a severe concussion and was taken to the hospital for overnight observation. His post-fight medical condition dictated that he not fight again.

When Taylor drops out of the tournament, there will be a feeding frenzy to fill the open slot. The most logical thing for Showtime to do would be to make an effort to bring in Lucian Bute if he beats Librado Andrade in an HBO Boxing After Dark fight on November 28th. Kelly Pavlik is an interesting, albeit remote, possibility. Allan Green and Sakio Bika (both of whom have also been mentioned) are less attractive replacements.

Whoever replaces Taylor would enter the tournament at a disadvantage because he’d have no points (and thus be tied for fourth place) entering the second round. But he’d be guaranteed two good pay-days and, if he won both of his fights, would advance to the final four.

The other first-night loser on October 17th was Andre Dirrell, who dropped a decision to Carl Froch.

There were people who praised Dirrell’s effort. Showtime commentator Gus Johnson likened him to Roy Jones Jr (which is akin to likening your average roundcard girl to Gisele Bundchen).

I thought that Andre stunk out the joint. He refused to engage for long periods of time and ran for most of the night. One can’t say that he played hide-and-seek, because he didn’t seek. At one juncture, he was penalized a point for excessive holding.

If a round is even with nothing happening and one guy is running away while the other guy is trying to fight, the round should go to the guy who’s trying to fight. Froch won a split decision by scores of 115-112, 115-112, 113-114. He deserved it.

The irony of it all is that Dirrell’s skills enabled him to hurt Froch when he threw punches with bad intentions. Too bad he didn’t do it more often. He might have won.

We have to see Dirrell twice more in the tournament. Look for him to run even more in his next fight against Arthur Abraham.

* * *
The “What Were They Thinking?” Award for October goes jointly to Carlos Ortiz Jr (no relation to the fighter) and Kevin Morgan.

On October 10th, Juan Manuel Lopez and Rogers Mtagwa engaged in a thrilling twelve-round slugfest at Madison Square Garden. Lopez survived and won a unanimous decision. But for the entire twelfth round, he was virtually out on his feet, one good punch away from being knocked out. Mtagwa pursued him with abandon and out-landed him 36 to 9 (all 36 being “power punches”). Yet Ortiz and Morgan scored the round 10-9 for Mtagwa rather than 10-8.

New York State Athletic Commission chairperson Melvina Lathan is a former ring judge. “Scoring that round 10-9 was obviously incorrect,” Lathan says. “That was as clear a 10-8 round as you can possibly get without a knockdown. There has been follow-up. I read them the riot act.”

She should have. But the selection of better judges and better training for judges before they’re assigned to fights would obviate the need for reading the riot act afterwards.

* * *

Tom Cushman is known in boxing circles for his work as a reporter with the Philadelphia Daily News (1966-1982) and San Diego Tribune (1982-1992). Muhammad Ali and the Greatest Heavyweight Generation (Southeast Missouri State University Press) is the short version of his contribution to the literature of boxing.

The book is a collection of essays about the elite heavyweights from Sonny Liston through Lennox Lewis with a few detours to lesser-known Philadelphia fighters and the mob thrown in.

Cushman is a good writer. His work flows nicely from one segment to the next. There are a few nagging factual errors, but the book is treasure trove of personal reminiscences and anecdotes woven into context.

Cushman references Ali as, “The most prominent athlete on earth” and “one of the great competitors of the twentieth century.”

“While his meteor was ablaze,” the author writes, “Muhammad Ali defeated the four most devastating punchers of his era. Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Earnie Shavers, in fact, would more than share that distinction with heavyweights of any generation.”

Cushman also observes that the “defining comment” heard from many of Ali’s opponents was, “I can’t believe the shots he took.”

“Roll the film back to George Foreman in Africa, Joe Frazier in Manila, to Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes,” Cushman notes. “Those men said the same thing. Ali absorbed the type of punishment that eventually would add to all the superlatives describing a glittering career, the word ‘tragic.’ The chin that had served him so well during the championship years eventually became his enemy, keeping him upright when he was virtually defenseless.”

Cushman’s gift for metaphor is apparent in his description of Joe Frazier as “straight ahead as a properly plowed vegetable row in one of the fields he worked as a child.”

There’s poignancy in George Foreman recalling a moment after his gold-medal performance at the 1968 Olympics. “I’d been on a local television show, and they were driving me home in a limousine,” Foreman told Cushman. “I was embarrassed for them to see where I lived. I asked to be dropped off on a street corner several blocks away, but they wouldn’t. When they saw the house, they were more embarrassed than I was.”

There’s a chilling segment on the murder of Philadelphia junior-lightweight Tyrone Everett and an entertaining remembrance of Don King’s first press conference at Madison Square Garden. “King’s haircut,” Cushman writes, “eventually would place the entire industry in his shade.”

For humor, there’s Larry Holmes (a junior-high school-dropout) saying, “I’m not the smartest guy. If I fought like I read, I’d be in trouble.”

Cushman is hard on the heavyweights of the post-Ali era. Evander Holyfield is described as “a muscled-up light-heavyweight.” Lennox Lewis is “a pepper-spraying pacifist.”

As for Mike Tyson, Cushman writes, “Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, champions all; each brought a touch of nobility to a hard, sometimes sordid, sport. There was nothing noble about Tyson. His passage through the sport will be remembered as a parade of public embarrassments.”

Those who read Cushman’s book will be reminded that there was a time when fight fans didn’t have to say “undisputed” before “champion” for that designation to connote the best in the world.

* * *

A word on Wali Muhammad (formerly known as Walter Youngblood or “Blood”); one of the people who worked behind the scenes in Muhammad Ali’s training camp and was in Ali’s corner from the first Ali-Frazier fight on.

Last Friday, Wali was at Portobello’s (an Italian restaurant at 83 Murray Street in downtown Manhattan). He’s 82 years old; still trim with a warm smile and sharp mind.

Wali was born in Louisiana. He has lived Harlem for most of his adult life. Sitting in Portobello’s near a wall covered with photographs of fighters, he reflected on his journey thus far.

“My grandmother raised me,” Wali recalled. “My mother had me at seventeen and then she was gone. When I was three, my grandmother started taking me to the fields. I’d sit on the sack and she dragged me along while she picked cotton. When I was five, I started picking cotton myself and, at the end of each day, my grandmother would give me a nickel or a dime.”

“I came north when I was fifteen. I boxed a bit. Then I got cut in a fight and the doctor said, if I fought again, it would endanger my eyesight. And I had a glass chin; that didn’t help either. So I stopped boxing.”

From 1948 through 1964, Wali was frequently in the employ of Sugar Ray Robinson, watching over his boxing equipment and serving as a personal aide. He was also an assistant minister to Malcolm X at the Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem. And he spent time at Sugar Ray’s Café, which was a magnet for the entertainment elite.

“I met Dinah Washington [one of the most popular rhythm and blues singers of that era] at Sugar Ray’s,” Wali reminisced. “I got to know her quite well. Ella Fitzgerald [widely acknowledged as the greatest jazz vocalist of all time] was another friend. Ella was so sweet; a very nice woman. She gave me a pair of gold cufflinks with a small diamond in each one. I still have them. There were a lot of women. The way it was then; if you had one singer, the rest of them came after you so they could say, ‘I had Dinah Washington’s man.’”

“I think that, pound-for-pound, Ray Robinson was the best fighter ever.” Wali continued. “And I’d have to say that Joe Louis was the best heavyweight I ever saw. Ali was a creative fighter. But Joe Louis was a scientific fighter and he could turn that right hand over so fast on the inside. If Louis could have gotten Ali against the ropes, I think he would have knocked him out.”

“Joe Louis was a hero to me. It was sad when Joe got old as a fighter. It was sad when Robinson and Ali got old too, but that’s the way things are in boxing. That night against Rocky Marciano, when Joe got knocked through the ropes and Ray got up from his seat and was trying to comfort him; I was sitting there right beside them.”

Wali paused for a moment before going on.

“There’s so much to look back on. When Joe was getting on in years, sometimes he’d come up to Ali’s training camp. I played golf with Joe Louis up there and beat him. I like to win, but just playing with Joe was special to me.”

Wali joined Ali as a security man and camp assistant in 1965, prior to Ali-Liston II. Over time, he became a fixture in Ali’s corner. In the past, he has spoken about those times.

On Ali-Norton I (when Norton broke Ali’s jaw): “During fights, Angelo would take the mouthpiece out, hand it to me, and I’d wash the mouthpiece. Against Norton, each round, I was taking out the mouthpiece and there was more and more blood on it. My bucket with the water and ice in it became red. In every other fight, between rounds, I’d take the mouthpiece out and put it in the bucket and there was just slobber on it. But here, after each round, I had to shake the mouthpiece to get all the blood out of it into the water.”

On Ali-Foreman in Zaire: “The plan was to dance for six or seven rounds, tire Foreman out, and when he got tired, move in on him. And instead, Ali was standing in one place, taking punches. A couple of times, I asked Angelo [Dundee], ‘What’s happening?’ Angelo said, ‘I don’t know.’ Then Foreman started slowing down.”

On Ali-Frazier III in Manila: “After the fourteenth round, Ali came back to the corner and told us, ‘Cut ‘em off.’ That’s how tired he was. He wanted us to cut his gloves off. Angelo ignored him. He started wiping Ali’s face, getting him ready for the fifteenth round. We sponged him down and I gave him a drink of sweetened water, honey and water, from a bottle I’d made up. I don’t know if he’d have gone out for the last round or not. Ali’s not a quitter; he’d never quit. But I’d never seen him exhausted like that before. Then Eddie Futch called the referee over.”

“It’s a wonderful feeling, being with a great man like Ali at important moments in his life,” Wali said last week. “Zaire was the best. Ali against Larry Holmes was heartbreaking for me. Ali had fast hands, fast feet, and a fast mouth. That’s gone now, but I have my memories.”

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (“An Unforgiving Sport”) was published earlier this year by the University of Arkansas Press.
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