Mike Tyson: Boxing’s Most Unpredictable Champion

On June 11, 2005, the world likely saw the last of Mike Tyson in a boxing ring. At 38, his body proved once and for all that it was not capable of engaging in a prizefight, as he was stopped by Irish journeyman Kevin McBride in a humiliating affair.

Have we seen the last of Tyson? Likely not. His life has become a melodrama of sorts and the news media makes sure to report on every act. Mike Tyson’s life has been one for the ages. A fighter who was proclaimed a throwback to the pugilists of yesteryear, in the end, his career became one of the modern athlete who got too much, too soon and had very little ability to deal with it all.

Born on June 30, 1966 in Brooklyn, N.Y., a young Mike Tyson prowled the streets finding trouble. Having been expelled from high school, Tyson spent time in juvenile detention and reform centers. In the early 1980s, Tyson’s boxing abilities began to become known, attracting the attention of legendary manager Cus D’Amato.

D’Amato had previously managed the youngest heavyweight champion ever in Floyd Patterson. With Tyson, he saw his shot at managing another young champion. As the story goes, D’Amato was a father figure to Tyson, helping to keep him in line, as well as shielding him from the problems Tyson still managed to cause.

Teddy Atlas – now a boxing commentator for ESPN – was Tyson’s first trainer. While Atlas has said that to a large extent the “father-figure” rule of D’Amato to Tyson was a fallacy, one thing can’t be ignored – With the individual attention, Tyson thrived and quickly morphed from street thug to one of the most dang erous heavyweights in modern history.

Losing in the 1984 Olympic trials, Tyson turned professional and immediately began to dazzle the public with his shocking punching power, rarely letting an opponent get past three rounds. It was not just the power, however. Tyson had all the tools necessary to climb to the top of the brutal profession. His speed was unmatched by heavyweights and his defensive skill were widely acknowledged.

Winning his first 15 fights by knockout, Tyson appeared invincible in the ring, however he suffered a major loss outside the ring as D’Amato died in 1985. While Tyson was still managed by Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs, and trained by Kevin Rooney – all who were on the D’Amato team – D’Amato’s death may very well have been the beginning of Tyson’s downfall.

In the ring, however, Tyson continued to thrive. Winning the World Boxing Council heavyweight title with a spectacular 2nd-round knockout over Trevor Berbick in 1986, Tyson had fulfilled D’Amato’s prophecy by becoming the youngest heavyweight champion at just over 20 years of age.

An interesting side note: This author attended the Mike Tyson – Trevor Berbick match, which was held at the Las Vegas Hilton. The event was electric as stars such as Sylvester Stallone and Kirk Douglas were among the crowd. Following the fight – which saw Tyson end it with a left hook to the temple that had Berbick staggering around the ring in nearly comical fashion – I spotted Tyson standing alone in the Hilton lobby. Slowly people began to notice him. I walked over and shook his hand, saying “Great job, champ.” A slightly shy Tyson said thank you and appeared to enjoy the attention of the fans.

Also that night, the battle cry for a Tyson-Michael Spinks fight began. While Tyson was A heavyweight champion, most boxing purists accepted that the undefeated Spinks was in fact the true champion, having twice won decisions over the former champion Larry Holmes.

Two years later, after several defenses of his title (including a sloppy decision over James “Bonecrusher” Smith that gave Tyson the World Boxing Council title, as well) the fight with Spinks was on.

On June 27, 1988, Mike Tyson became the heavyweight champion to all and his legend was cemented. Tyson destroyed Spinks in just 91 seconds, leaving the boxing world wondering if any man could deal with Tyson in the ring. After just three years as a professional, Mike Tyson was the undisputed heavyweight champion, and the world appeared to be his. The wheels, unfortunately, were about to come off the Tyson juggernaut.

Following the Spinks fight, Jacobs – a longtime handball champion, as well as a boxing manager and fight-film collector – shockingly died of Leukemia. Then, promoter Don King made a power-grab for Tyson’s services, eventually wresting him away from Cayton. Rooney was then fired from his job as trainer. The original “Team Tyson” was gone, and Tyson’s mystique was soon to make its own exit.

Over the next two years, Tyson fought just twice, easily dispatching Frank Bruno and Carl Williams. His personal life, however, was quickly unraveling. A misguided foray into marriage with actress Robin Givens put Tyson squarely on Page One of the Tabloids, and his training and dedication to the sport waned as King surrounded him with easily manipulated flunkies.

It all came to a head on Feb. 11, 1990 when Tyson faced 40-1 underdog Buster Douglas in Toyko. Often called “the upset of the century” an inspired Douglas got up from an eighth-round knockdown and completely dismantled Tyson, knocking him out in Round 10. The cloak of invincibility that shielded Tyson in the ring was gone forever as Douglas showed if one could stand against Tyson without fear, Tyson’s confidence would dissipate.

Tyson returned to the ring later that year, winning a couple easy, confidence-building fights and divorcing Robin Givens. In 1991, Tyson had what he later himself called his last good fights. Tyson twice beat the large and talented Canadian Donovan “Razor” Ruddock.

Still, what appeared to be an upswing in Tyson’s career was offset by his personal behavior. His comments to Ruddock prior to their second fight gave off a distinct prison vibe: “Everyone knows you’re a transvestite and you love me. I’m gonna make you my girlfriend. I can’t wait to get my hands on a pretty thing like you.”

At this stage of his career, Tyson was awaiting a title bout with Evander Holyfield, who had taken Douglas’ hard-earned title away with a one-punch, third-round knockout. The fight with Holyfield (or rather, two fights) would come, but years later, as Tyson made the mistake that cost him three years of his life.

In 1991, Tyson was arrested in the state of Indiana, accused of raping beauty contestant Desiree Washington in a hotel room. The case went to trial in 1992 and Tyson was convicted and given a six-year sentence. After three years in prison, Tyson returned – angrier, more complex and often confusing, and not half the fighter he was just a few years earlier.

Tyson returned to the ring to win several fights against opponents who nearly were knocked out after signing the contract, so full of fear of Tyson as they were. Tyson went on to reclaim the WBC and WBA versions of the heavyweight title, but studiously avoided large, young heavyweights like Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe.

In 1996, Tyson finally faced worthy competition in Holyfield. While considered an undersized heavyweight, Holyfield has always held the reputation as a fearless fighter. The two’s first fight was dominated by Holyfield, eventually stopping “Iron Mike” in brutal fashion in Round 11.

Six months later, on June 28, 1996, the two squared off again. This time, Tyson’s demons came into the ring with him. After two-plus rounds of the same treatment he got from Holyfield in their previous fight, Tyson was head-butted by Holyfield and went into a rage. Twice in clinches, Tyson, who had eschewed his mouthpiece, bit Holyfield’s ear, the second time, literally biting a chunk of it off. Tyson was disqualified, banned from boxing for a year and fined $3 million for the incident, which brought a massive public backlash against him.

Three years later, with Tyson having won a few fights against inferior opponents, he was jailed again, receiving nine months in prison for an assault charge. Tyson, already facing financial difficulties despite making more than $200 million in his career, again returned to the ring.

A few more easy victories set up Tyson for what would be his final attempt at the heavyweight title, this time against the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Lewis. The fight came off in 2002, following a pre-fight press conference that saw Tyson tell Lewis: “I want to eat your heart and then eat your children” a melee ensued with reports that Tyson actually bit Lewis’ leg, though Lewis declined to comment on it in order to not jeopardize the fight.

With Nevada and other states saying no to the fight, it was held in Memphis, Tenn. and despite the highest hopes of loyal Tyson supporters, Lewis dominated the fight, finally knocking Tyson out with a vicious right cross in Round eight.

Again, Tyson returned, but this time with a large tattoo covering part of his face. His 49-second knockout of an intimidated Clifford Etienne did nothing to restore his former fearsome image, instead only creating more questions about Tyson’s physical and mental condition.

The end of his career came over the next two years, as Tyson – who declared bankruptcy in 2003 – lost twice to fighters who would not have been allowed in the ring with him years earlier. Both Danny Williams and then McBride knocked out Tyson, with “Iron Mike” looking decidedly disinterested in having hard battles.

Still, both fights did seem to bring a change in Tyson. Always surly to the point of violent with the media, Tyson seemed more introspective and willing to talk with reporters. Following the loss to McBride, Tyson opened up, saying he no longer had the heart to fight, and that he wanted to move on with his life, which he said was more peaceful than it had ever been.

With his financial problems still an issue (he reportedly owes millions to the IRS) Tyson has begun to dabble in endorsements. Despite his endless problems, Tyson’s otherworldly celebrity still gives him the opportunity to use his fame for financial gain.

So while perhaps Tyson’s legacy still has some left to be written and his comments to the press make it appear that his heart and mind are following a better path, one thing his certain – his promise was not fulfilled.

As a champion at the tender age of 20, Mike Tyson was compared favorably to the all-time greats. Now, it is impossible to imagine Tyson – who consistently showed a lack of confidence when fighting men who would fight back – could deal with a champion like Muhammad Ali, who won every mind game he ever played.

Regardless, Tyson’s odyssey has kept fans thrilled for nearly 20 years. The money he made is gone, as is his fighting ability. He once proclaimed himself “The baddest man on the planet,” and the public ate it up. So whatever his place among boxing greats, none can deny his place as one of the most important athletes of his generation.

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