Boxing: Mike Tyson's rise was as swift as his eventual fall

By Wallace Matthews

Mike Tyson's life changed when he won the heavyweight championship title after knocking out Trevor Berbick, left, in Las Vegas 30 years ago. Photo / AP
Mike Tyson's life changed when he won the heavyweight championship title after knocking out Trevor Berbick, left, in Las Vegas 30 years ago. Photo / AP

On November 22, 1986, a heavyweight boxer barely out of his teens hit a 32-year-old world champion with a punch so destructive that his veteran opponent went down three times from it.

And when Mike Tyson, who had just become the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of boxing with that left hook to the forehead of Trevor Berbick, returned to his corner, he shrugged his shoulders almost sheepishly as if to ask, "Is that all there is?''

Thirty years later, on the anniversary of what looked to be the beginning of an enduring new era in boxing, the same question can be asked about Tyson's career.

"Thirty years ago? It seems more like a million,'' Tyson said in a telephone interview last week. "My whole life has changed since then. I'm a totally different person. I don't even know that person anymore.''

"That'' Tyson had the brashness and invincibility of youth. "I'm the youngest heavyweight champion in history,'' Tyson said at the news conference after the bout.

"And I'm going to be the oldest.''

This Tyson is a 50-year-old man, saddled with all the insecurities of middle age, worried about his future and unconcerned, he says, with his tumultuous past.

"I have not much faith in life anymore,'' he said. "I'm bitter at life. I wasn't smart enough to be bitter back then.''

Tyson laughed when he said it, but it had the ring of truth. The Berbick fight, now a hazy memory even for him, turned out to be one of the few real highlights of a volatile and surprisingly brief reign. A little more than three years later, Tyson was an ex-champion, and two years after that, a convicted rapist.

After three years in prison, he made a comeback and won a version of the title again, but it was a hollow championship, and his career endured disgrace - the biting off of a portion of Evander Holyfield's ear in 1997 - and ultimately, embarrassment when he quit in his final bout against a ham-and-egger named Kevin McBride in 2005.

Rarely in the history of any sport has a career that began with so much hype and promise ultimately delivered so little. Mike Tyson the phenomenon was real; between 1986 and 1990, the world stopped on the nights he fought.

But Mike Tyson the fighter? In retrospect, the whole added up to less than the sum of its parts.

Tyson KOs Berbick. Photo / photosport.co.nz
Tyson KOs Berbick. Photo / photosport.co.nz

'We thought everyone I fought was a bum'

Now, the former champion's boxing career is largely unknown to a new generation raised on computer games, virtual reality and mixed martial arts. To many millennials, Tyson is as remote a figure as Jack Dempsey was to Tyson's generation. He is better known for bit roles in movies and as the inspiration for a cartoon.

But what a time it was, tumultuous and unpredictable and never boring. So many indelible events crammed into so small a space - Berbick, Michael Spinks, Robin Givens, Buster Douglas, Indianapolis and the amassing and losing of two fortunes, to name just a few - that it is stupefying to realise that by the time he was 21, Tyson's best days as a fighter were already behind him; his 91-second knockout of Spinks, in what was at the time the most lucrative sporting event in history, came three days before his 22nd birthday.

Still, Tyson is the ultimate survivor; of the main players in the ring that night, Berbick is dead, murdered with a steel pipe by his nephew in 2006. So, too, are Tyson's managers from that time, Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, with whom he would have an acrimonious, and in some ways disastrous, split.

Gone, too, is Angelo Dundee, who trained Berbick, and the referee, Mills Lane, has been incapacitated for years by a devastating stroke. Tyson's trainer, Kevin Rooney - to whom the gesture of bemused surprise was directed - is in the early stages of boxing-induced dementia at 60.

"Me and Kevin, we thought everyone I fought was a bum,'' Tyson said. "That's why I shrugged at him after the fight.''

Asked whether he was nervous before the fight, Tyson said, "Yeah. Nervous I was going to hurt [Berbick] real bad.''

Heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, right, in 1988 with his then-adviser Donald Trump in New York. Photo / AP
Heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, right, in 1988 with his then-adviser Donald Trump in New York. Photo / AP

Watching Tyson fight was like watching Jaws

But people close to Tyson painted a different picture, one of a painfully insecure young man beneath the carefully cultivated No Robe, No Socks, No Mercy image.

Steve Lott, who was Tyson's friend, confidante and all-around factotum - and also his landlord, because Tyson slept on the couch in Lott's Manhattan apartment - was always cognizant of Tyson's fragile mental state.

Knowing that any variation in the usual rituals could unnerve his fighter, Lott would bring Tyson to the arena the day before a fight, insisting he climb into the ring and shadow-box, so the environment would feel familiar to him on fight night.

He also asked promoters to conclude their pre-fight celebrity introductions and the national anthem before Tyson entered the ring, "so that there would be less time for Mike to dwell on it.''

The plan was for Tyson to climb the ring steps, commit his signature brand of mayhem, and climb back out again. Too much thinking could only screw things up.

"Watching Tyson fight was like watching Jaws, " Lott said. "You never knew what was going to happen.''

Despite his youth and unpredictability, Tyson was a 7-2 favorite by the time he climbed into the ring to fight Berbick, who had ended Muhammad Ali's career in a brutal fight in the Bahamas five years earlier. On Tyson's way into the ring, Ali stopped him to say, "Kick his ass for me.''

And even though it seemed less a fight than a coronation, Tyson admitted, "The pressure was enormous, because everyone expected me to win.''

Some of it showed in the first round, when Berbick, surprisingly going toe-to-toe with the phenom, landed a hard right to the head in the first round. But Tyson sent him flying across the ring late in the round and had him reeling early in the second.

And just when it appeared Berbick might weather the storm, Tyson unleashed what would become a trademark combination - a right to the body followed by a right uppercut and left hook to the head - a combination so unorthodox it was like hearing The Beatles for the first time.

Berbick went down on his butt, and then began a bizarre, punch-drunken lurch around the ring that had him rise and hit the ground two more times before Lane wrapped him up in a fight-ending embrace. The entire affair had lasted 335 seconds.

"I was throwing hydrogen bombs in there,'' Tyson would say afterward, but in the ring, he remained poised, walking over to help Berbick up as he had seen Dempsey do for Luis Firpo in a grainy old fight film his mentor, Cus D'Amato, had shown him as a kid.

"Nothing was going to stop me that night,'' Tyson said. "I didn't really come to fight that night, I came to hurt him, because I knew I was going to have a better life after that fight. I would have the life Cus told me I would have.''

"And for a while,'' he added, ruefully, "I did.''

Tyson - seen here with Kiwi heavyweight Joseph Parker - says he follows boxing, but not the heavyweights. Photo / Supplied
Tyson - seen here with Kiwi heavyweight Joseph Parker - says he follows boxing, but not the heavyweights. Photo / Supplied

'I'd still be champion today'

What followed was largely a mess. The Spinks fight was preceded by allegations of domestic abuse from actress Givens, the first of Tyson's three wives. There was a messy divorce from Jacobs and Cayton and a messier one from Givens. Don King moved in, Rooney and Lott moved out, and before Tyson knew what was happening, his money, his title and, ultimately, his freedom were gone.

"There's a lot of things I wish I could have done differently,'' he said.

One of them was firing Rooney.

Asked whether his career might have gone differently if he had kept Rooney, Tyson said, "Hell yeah. Hell [expletive] yeah. I'd still be champion today.''

Recently, Tyson has reached out to old friends; a couple of years ago, after six years of radio silence, he called Lott out of the blue and hired him to manage his social media accounts.

But he has precious little contact with his past as a fighter. Tyson claims never to have watched a tape of the Berbick fight and refuses to look when people try to show him YouTube clips of his younger, more ferocious self.

Still, he says of the Berbick fight, "I think that was my best performance.''

Now, his life is caring for the two young children, 7-year-old daughter Milan and 5-year-old son Morocco, who live with him and Kiki, his third wife. He has five other children, including three who have graduated from NYU, American University and Drexel University.

Tyson has embarked on a most unlikely second act. Photo / Supplied
Tyson has embarked on a most unlikely second act. Photo / Supplied

"My kids are all academics, and their father never went to school a day in his life,'' he said. "Imagine that.''

He has embarked on a most unlikely second act as an actor of sorts, recounting his incredible life story as a form of performance art on the stage in Las Vegas, the site of the Berbick fight. A TV show, Mike Tyson Mysteries, which features a kid-friendly, animated Tyson, is about to begin its third season. A book about his relationship with D'Amato, co-authored with Larry Sloman, is due out in May.

He follows boxing, but not the heavyweights, and can name only one of the five nondescript men currently calling himself a heavyweight champion of the world: Tyson Fury, who was born in 1988 and no doubt named after the heavyweight champion of the time.

"It's just not part of my life anymore,'' he said. "I'm just an old guy trying to take care of his kids. All that other stuff seems like it happened to someone else.''

Tyson in an image from his TV series - Taking on Tyson - on Animal Planet. Photo / Supplied
Tyson in an image from his TV series - Taking on Tyson - on Animal Planet. Photo / Supplied

That's not how it felt just 30 years ago, when a kid just out of his teens, having knocked out the reigning heavyweight champion just a few hours before, sat quietly in a high-backed chair in a Las Vegas hotel lobby all alone except for the garish green leather WBC title belt around his waist.

"I'm really the champ now, ain't I?,'' Tyson asked quietly of a reporter who had come upon the scene. "I'm really the champ. It feels good, really good.''

Now, it just feels distant and somehow, unreal, a shrug of the shoulders from a long time ago.

- Washington Post

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