Saturday, July 17, 2010


There are two types of sports stories that draw tremendous interest. One, stories of the rare individual who is so good that he dominates his sport. The second type are the tragic stories of an individual at the top who then self destructs. But when the lights dim, in the darkness of anonymity, there are those fallen in all walks of life who redeem themselves, sometimes even in Dickensesque fashion. It is never a major story, even for fallen champions, but perhaps it is the most important one of all of them.

In Mike Tyson, we see the first of these stories. From his entry into professional boxing, he completely dominated the heavyweight division for five years. And in Tyson, we see the second of these stories. Tyson's fall from grace, both inside his sport and in his personal life was dramatic and far reaching indeed. And now, are we seeing the story of his redemption? Perhaps.

He was born in 1966 in a very rough section of Brooklyn. When he was still an infant, his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to raise Mike and his siblings. Mike early on found a love for raising pigeons - and indeed, his first real fight occurred when Mike beat up a much larger bully who injured one of his pigeons. And over the next decade of his young life, the young boy who loved his pigeons - and who spoke in a high pitched voice with a lisp - ended up fighting often. He also became a thief, arrested some 38 times before his 16th birthday.

Tyson's 16th year on this earth proved to be pivotal. He began the year in a New York correctional facility where one of the counselors, a former boxer, saw in Tyson an outstanding talent. He introduced Tyson to the great boxing trainer, Cus D'Amato. Tyson's mother died that year. D'Amato not only took Mike out of reform school, but he began to train Tyson. D'Amato became his father, bringing Tyson under his wing and into his house, then soon after, becoming his legal guardian. The photo at the top of this post is a young Tyson with D'Amato.

Under the tutelage and guidance of D'Amato and Kevin Rooney, Tyson bloomed. D'Amato taught him the peekaboo style of boxing - a strong defensive style that, when matched with Tyson's hand speed and power, made for a lethal combination. At age 18, D'Amato and Rooney launched Tyson on his pro career. D'Amato died in 1985, but Tyson stayed with D'Amato's team and stayed focused. By age 20, a disciplined and focused Tyson had laid waste to the heavyweight boxing ranks and was given a title shot against WBC Champion Trevor Berbick. Almost one year to the day after D'Amato's death, it took Tyson two rounds to knock out Berbick, becoming the youngest heavyweight champion ever. Three knockouts later and Tyson had unified the heavyweight ranks. The highpoint of his career came several fights later, in his 1988 match against undefeated Michael Spinks. In what many thought would be the toughest match up for Tyson, it proved no contest. Tyson knocked out Spinks 91 seconds into the first round.

Had D'Amato not died so soon, or had Tyson at least stayed with D'Amato's team, it is not a stretch to speculate that he would have been the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. He possessed a combination of skills, focus and power that put him in a class all by himself. But that was not to be.

After Cus D'Amato's death, Tyson slowly but surely became adrift. Eventually he fell prey the most scurrilous figure in pro sports, promoter Don King. Under King's guidance, Tyson fired his trainer, Kevin Rooney, and his business manager. Everything began to spiral down hill from there - all except for Don King's bank accout, at least. That grew exponentially as King robbed Tyson blind over the coming years. With Rooney gone, Tyson abandoned the boxing style that had taken him to the pinnacle of his sport. He became a head hunter with a mediocre defense. His private life became a mess as his first marriage ended in a very public divorce. And then in 1990, he lost for the first time as a professional, knocked out by journeyman fighter and 42 to 1 underdog, Buster Douglas. Two years later, his professional career in tatters, Tyson would go jail on charges of rape. He never recovered.

When Tyson got out of jail in 1995, he still had a great following, but the skills and dedication that had seen him to the peak of boxing were gone. He would go on to fight several famous bouts, with the most famous being against Evander Hollyfield, a natural counterpuncher who feasted on the now mediocre defense of Tyson. It was during their second fight that a thoroughly frustrated Tyson bit off a portion of Hollyfield's ear in the clinch.

Tyson's life went even further downhill after that. He engaged in a series of thuggish brawls, he was divorced again, he had more brushes with the law, more jail time, and a bankruptcy. Yet now at age 44, Mike Tyson has come full circle. He is again the man who loves pigeons and now, his family. He is the man who honors the memory of Cus D'Amato. He has become surprisingly reflective, revealing an introspectiveness and intelligence that one would never have expected from him.

This from a recent interview of Tyson in Details:

Details: Twenty years ago, you were one of the most famous men on the planet. Is there a big plan for Act 2?
Mike Tyson: The first stage of my life was just a whole bunch of selfishness. Just a whole bunch of gifts to myself and people who didn't necessarily deserve it. Now I'm 44, and I realize that my whole life is just a fucking waste. "Greatest man on the planet"? I wasn't half the man I thought I was. So if there's a big plan now, it's just to give—it's selflessness, caring for the people who deserve it. Because I think I'm a pig. I have this uncanny ability to look at myself in the mirror and say, "This is a pig. You are a fucking piece of shit." . . .

Details: How did it feel when you realized the life you'd built from the ground up from age 12 had come to an end? Was it a revelation? A relief?
Mike Tyson: It's just a simple question of humility. If you're not humble, life will visit humbleness upon you. I'm a really damaged human being, and it's still such a struggle, but I'm going to fight to the end this time. . . .

Details: You mentioned your upcoming pigeon-racing reality show on Animal Planet. Your first fight was with a bigger kid over his mistreatment of one of your birds.
Mike Tyson: Gary Flowers. Got one of my birds and [Wrings his hands and yanks]. Asshole.

Details: And that's when you realized you were a fighter?
Mike Tyson: That's when I realized I was a ham. Everybody was, like, hollering, clapping. It felt good to win, to get more shots in, but it felt really good that everybody was clapping for me. And I lived with that applause all those years, and now I can't take it no more. All I usually feel is just that bad energy of theirs. I just know it's not good for me and that I don't want to live that way again. I want to transcend.

Details: Transcend to what?
Mike Tyson: I don't know. I only know I'm not supposed to be here. I'm supposed to be in prison for murder. I'm supposed to be dead by now, have AIDS or something.

Details: Never thought you'd make it to 40?
Mike Tyson: I never thought I'd make it to 25, man. People just gotta love each other, treat each other better. I don't know about the Zen stuff to transcend to. I still got that fire in my heart, and it just burns, man. I don't want to have any misconceptions here. I'm not a pacifist and never will be. I still get angry, and I still scream. I can talk about humility, but I'm not humble. I mean, if you say, "I'm humble," you've just contradicted yourself. But I'm trying to be, man, I'm trying so hard. . . .

Details: Can you take all the lessons you learned from boxing—tenacity, intimidation, high pain thresholds—and apply them to the next stage of your life?
Mike Tyson: Definitely, but it takes rationality. And it takes balance. I can't live in the world like I lived in the ring, always at some extreme, always looking for that edge that'll tip the balance. If I were to say something to you now that would offend you, I could tell myself, I penetrated his defenses—I put a dent in him. So what? So I have another feather in my cap? . . .

Details: You learned discipline...
Mike Tyson: From Cus D'Amato.

Details: Is there someone like Cus in your life now?
Mike Tyson: I'm not a guru follower. I have to be my own Cus. I have to be the man who takes the boy under his wing, protects him, knows him better than himself. I'm still that little boy; I just have to learn how to protect him a little better.

Details: You have to learn to love him?
Mike Tyson: He has to learn to love himself.

Details: Why do you think you lost your first bout, to James "Buster" Douglas in 1990?
Mike Tyson: I just stopped caring. I just stopped feeling Cus inside me. All those headlines. I didn't care about boxing. And when Douglas got up after I knocked him down and came back at me—I didn't have it in me. I didn't have it in me when I knocked him down, either. It's just...more power to him, he got up. Nobody else had.

Details: And what about the infamous Holyfield fight?
Mike Tyson: Man, I didn't care about boxing anymore. I was wrong to do that—all wrong—all crazy to do that. But that wasn't about boxing. I just wanted to fucking maim him. I had no business being in that ring. A year out of prison, 16 months out of prison, already with two belts to defend? I had no business with those belts. I was already done. . . .

Details: So what were you thinking when you bit him?
Mike Tyson: I wasn't thinking. I wasn't training for that fight. I was on fucking drugs, thinking I was a god. I should've been home with my family, man. My kids. . . .

Details: How long were you out of prison before you actually felt free?
Mike Tyson: Never. Not till now, really. This is the freest I ever felt in my life. And I'm still not free. But it's an awesome feeling. I got no money. I'm not a glamour guy anymore. I got friends who've got money, so it looks like I've got money, but I don't. All the money I had, forget it. I never had anything, never had a stitch on me that felt like freedom. But to have somebody by your side, win, lose, or draw. My wife's lived with me in places I wouldn't take a shit in. I wouldn't be a prostitute in some of the places my wife and I have slept.

Tyson has already missed an opportunity to be the greatest fighter of all time. It's easy to be dismissive of Tyson. He has made many mistakes - some of them, such as the rape - unforgivable.

But its also hard to look on his life without some sympathy. His upbringing was a difficult one indeed, and with no parental figure after the death of D'Amato, he was led at least part of the way down his destructive path by a true human cockroach, Don King.

It takes a lot to be able to take stock of your life, to identify and admit to all the mistakes, and then chart for yourself the changes you would like to make. It is also a rare man who realizes he has been selfish and to try to turn the focus of his life outward to helping his family and others. Whether Tyson realizes his goals, only time will tell. But taking him at his word, Tyson sounds if he is on a road to redemption that will mean far more to those whose lives he touches on a personal level than anything he ever did in the ring. I admit I never expected it from him. Maybe he has the heart of a champion after all.


ZenTiger said...

Great post.

If you're not humble, life will visit humbleness upon you.

Yep, and it looks like he's finally getting the message. I'm glad he was able to pass that message on, it's worth hearing.

Soccer Dad said...

Did you know that he's also Michael Steele's ex-brother in law?

(He supported Steele in his 2006 run for the Senate against Cardin. That was something of a mixed bag though.)

GW said...

SD: No, I had no idea of that connection. Why was it something of a mixed bag?