A LOOK AT THE HEAVYWEIGHT DIVISION : Mike Tyson, Only 19, Is Boxing's Baby Bull

Times Staff Writer

Boxing nervously awaits its next sword-carrier, a 19-year-old lad with a bad haircut and short arms and an unpredictable hormonal system.

This is the guy, the boxing world has shrilly insisted for a year now, a certifiable cross-over talent. This is the kind of fighter, like Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard, who will reach beyond the sport and restore its peculiar glamour and excitement. The next breakout boxer.

If only he stays away from girls, from a bad crowd, from trouble, from bright-lights in the big city, from . . . what else? A left uppercut?

That's the thing when saviors are anointed in their adolescence.

Never mind the uppercuts, which the thick-necked Mike Tyson appears to absorb with only the mildest annoyance. He is comfortable and confident inside a ring. But what of life outside it, a turbulent thing, wouldn't you say, when you are just 19, out of reform school?

Here's a kid being asked to save the floundering heavyweight division, at an age when his peers are being asked, tops, to take out the garbage.

Of course, it doesn't immediately occur to people that this 215 pounds of broadly sculptured muscle is really a teen. Seeing him inside a ring, however briefly he is ever in one, incites a certain wonder. Also an inclination to double-lock doors and call the National Guard.

He is exaggerated manhood, a fearsome apparatus, a terrifying device of destruction, and all topped with a modified Mohawk. He's such a single-use piece of equipment that it's not even surprising that he doesn't wear a robe into the ring, or even socks. Did you ever see an attack tank with a hood ornament or chrome trim?

Stripped down, made for mauling--that's it--a distilled, purposeful menace.

And to our astonishment, he is exactly as frightening in deed as in appearance. To have seen him knock out his first 19 opponents, 12 within one round, is to appreciate an awesome power at work.

His short arms, which occasionally operate in a blinding flurry, deliver the savage impact of wrecking balls to fighters' midsections. You can see the opponents flinch at the terrible smacking sound; important organs have been displaced.

It is no wonder, having seen him in the ring--even in his 20th straight victory, when he had to settle for a decision for the first time, a disappointment all around--that boxing has gone gaga over him. In the last month, four boxing magazines had him on their covers.

But excitement has been building for some time. Sports Illustrated sensed something special last December and put him on the cover, even though Tyson's most impressive victory to that point was over somebody named Slammin' Sammy Scaff, a man whose face was nearly entirely removed in one round, by the way.

Boxing, the heavyweight division in particular, has been desperate for some time, what with the dismal turnover of champions in three different organizations--there are at least 10 former champions still active. It needs somebody to believe in, and Mike Tyson is touted as that somebody.

Not only does he win, he wins excitingly. His straightforward destruction of opponents is so spectacular that even the nonboxing fan must slow to consider him, much as a motorist must slow to see a wreck at the roadside.

And, too, he just doesn't win excitingly or simply a lot, he wins often. In 12 months of boxing, he fought and won 19 times, nearly once every two weeks. This is unheard of in modern boxing.

The resulting impression is of a locomotive gaining steam in the distance, steadily accelerating, entirely unmindful of whom or what might still be on the tracks ahead. You can feel the earth rumble in the anticipation of his arrival.

All this, and a wonderful tale of a troubled childhood and the eventual rehabilitation by a cantankerous old man named Cus D'Amato, whose spirit guides Tyson's every move, has conspired to put Tyson, the rawest, most unproven of rookies really, into our living rooms in an amazing number of ways.

ABC signed him to five fights--for $850,000--and cable television's HBO, mindful that its heavyweight tournament doesn't have an attraction until it has Tyson, has signed him for three at about the same price.

And you no longer have to be a sports fan to be aware of him. He has been featured on "The CBS Evening News" and "The NBC Nightly News." He's been in magazines from People to Advertising Age to Rolling Stone. In fact, even if all you're interested in is eating, you still might have heard of him. A sandwich has been named for him at New York's Stage Delicatessen.

And he's just 19.

Given all this, it is possible to understand the palpable anxiety that attends the young millionaire's career, an anxiety that verges on a somewhat controlled hysteria. So much is at stake, and all in the massive fists of a youth who would like to date a little, see something besides his Catskill camp, where he constantly trains for his twice-a-month fights.

In March, the apparently gentle Tyson--he has a cherubic smile that is truly twinkling, one of his teeth is gold, and he has a piping voice that earned him the nickname of Fairy Boy--got involved in an "incident" at a mall near Albany.

The publicity, if not the incident, was sensational. Tyson and a friend were asked to leave a store after some clothes and verbal abuse were hurled. Tyson was apparently only guilty as an accomplice, just by being there. But boxing experienced a little chill nonetheless.

Then there was what Tyson has called "female problems," referring to a lost love and the apparent wide-ranging search for a replacement. There was also the time after his ear surgery--he had fallen out of a pigeon coop reaching for a stray--that he flat disappeared into Brooklyn for two days.

Not exactly a one-man Manson gang, huh? Even if this stuff is true, Tyson still gets to heaven. But right now, right here, Tyson is a special thing, and any hint of trouble sends his handlers reeling. So, for the moment, the glare of publicity has been dimmed.

"They want to let Mike sow his oats without a press corps around," a PR man said of Tyson's reduced access. The damage, if you'd want to call it that, must be controlled.

"I have to give him some leeway, he's just 19," says Kevin Rooney, trainer and now guardian and himself a one-time protege of the late Cus D'Amato. "But I tell him to stay on the ball for two or three years and then it will all be there for him. I tell him to watch who he's with in the meantime. The mall thing is the perfect example. He don't do nothing, the fitah's the one gets busted.

"I tell you, I'm just the trainer, I got to live with him. I got the hardest job. It's no picnic, but I'm young (30) so I can act that way, too. I get less worried, give the fitah a little slack. I never worry about it."

Worry is probably misplaced, anyway. Tyson says he has rededicated himself. Whiling the time away in a hospital after his ear surgery, "I had to decide, did I want to hang out at night, did I want to be a playboy?" Tyson said. "I decided I didn't want to be a playboy."

Good news.

Tyson said that the pace of his career left him momentarily confused.

"Being so active, meeting so many people, yet I never had a chance to think," he said. "Publicity everywhere. In the hospital, when I did have time to think, I decided all this is great. I mean, I can't feel sorry for myself. I'm getting rich and famous."

He'll get richer and more famous, but the marvel is that he ever got this opportunity to showcase his gifts at all.

Here's a kid who was doing armed robbery in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn at 11, time at 13. Deemed mentally retarded, Tyson was abandoned to an institutional life, beginning with the Bad Cottage at the Tryon School for Boys in upstate New York.

It would seem that if Tyson really were inclined to trouble, he would get into it in a bigger way than watching a friend throw sweaters around. He has resources and experience.

From there, the story takes a strange turn. Tyson decided he was interested in boxing and begged a counselor, Bobby Stewart, a former boxer himself, to teach him the sport.

As Tyson learned to fight, so did he learn other things. The mentally retarded tag was quickly dropped when Tyson began reading books. He was no longer sullen or uncommunicative. Within months, he raised his reading level from third grade to seventh.

But Tyson was really advancing in the ring, and Stewart looked for further guidance in Cus D'Amato, the one-time great trainer who had been reduced to running a small gym in Catskill.

D'Amato had once guided Floyd Patterson, another damaged youth, to the heavyweight championship but was never really in the mainstream of boxing. He was obsessively honest, a problem in the '50s when the mob ran the sport. And he believed money really was the root of all evil. True to his beliefs, he went bankrupt in the late '60s.

The quirky D'Amato was boxing's answer to Confucius. He was as much philosopher as trainer. But when he saw Tyson work out, he decided to bring both of his preoccupations together to the building of a citizen-champion.

"If you want to stay here, and if you want to listen, you could be the world heavyweight champion some day," he told the formerly incorrigible youngster. Tyson was 13.

And so Tyson, from Brownsville by way of the reformatory, settled into a rural domesticity that nobody could have predicted for him. D'Amato lived in a white Victorian house belonging to his friend, Camille Ewald, in a relationship that was always vague. Visitors remember D'Amato sitting on the arm of Camille's chair, "like a boulder resting on a precipice, gentling her hand."

Whatever it was, it was a family atmosphere that Tyson thrived in. Tyson became Camille's "butterball" and D'Amato's son. In fact, D'Amato became his legal guardian.

Living and training with D'Amato meant learning boxing, everything about it. And Tyson was an eager student. Jimmy Jacobs, the fight historian who accepted Tyson's management when D'Amato died last year, explained: "Putting Mike with Cus was like giving a hungry person an endless meal."

Jacobs helped feed Tyson, too, contributing his library of old fight films. If Tyson is a throwback, it should be no wonder, since he has seen at least 1,000 of those old films. He is such a student of the game and its old-time practitioners that the big fun in the fight camp is to try to fool Tyson in boxing history.

"We have quizzes," Jacobs said. "I show him obscure photographs, guys who fought years ago. I show him photographs of fighters after they'd grown beards. He knows them. He's a student beyond anything you can imagine.

"In fact, I got so tired of losing these little bets that, well, I did a most despicable thing. I showed him pictures of seven legendary champions, but when they were babies. An 18-month-old John Sullivan. Isn't that awful?"

When you watch Tyson fight, you may see glimpses of his favorites, Rocky Marciano and Tony Canzoneri. But what you recognize most is the D'Amato style. Tyson fights out of a peek-a-boo look, chin down, exploding punches to the midsection.

D'Amato knew so much about the human anatomy--the liver, the floating rib--that he probably could have practiced as an internist. Tyson goes for the internal organs every round. And he faithfully discharges D'Amato's obligation to make an exciting fight, carrying the action forward at all times.

But Tyson, like the others who were around the scrupulous D'Amato very long, learned more than boxing from the old master. A lot of speech in the Tyson camp, whether uttered by Jacobs, Rooney or Tyson himself, is preceded by "As Cus used to say. . . . "

And usually it's about fear, determination, discipline or honesty. A sample: "Heroes and cowards both experience fear, they just react differently".

Says Jacobs: "I always feel I've got Cus in my head."

It was D'Amato who chose the game plan, having Tyson fight often. "Cus felt it was imperative for Mike to fight often, rather than train often," Jacobs said.

"People were horrified at our pace, but they don't understand. Whatever you do, you must do it. Cus felt that because he was so young, he needed to know what it was like to get your hands taped before a fight, to drive to the arena, to listen to last-minute instructions. He felt a competent manager, a professionally compassionate manager, must give the fighter a lot of experience."

Jacobs said that D'Amato was careful to school Tyson in the "terrible pitfalls of overconfidence, which alone has defeated many fighters. Mike never enters the ring overconfident. He looks upon that as a flu, like a sickness. He is always prepared emotionally."

Certainly he was prepared to a point, but he didn't handle it at all when D'Amato unexpectedly died of pneumonia at the age of 77 last November.

"Uh, he took it badly," said Jacobs, not quite over it himself. "He was grievously hurt, and he's still suffering greatly."

The day of the funeral, a mourner noticed that Tyson had drifted away from the grounds. He was found alone in his pigeon coop.

"Mike always knew he loved Cus, but he didn't know how much," Jacobs said. "It was as if his head was cut off."

Days after D'Amato's death, Tyson went ahead with a fight in Houston, as planned. Jacobs remembers the fight, looking into the ring. "I couldn't help thinking, when he answered the bell, that that was not the place to be for his opponent," Jacobs said. "Nobody could have withstood his temperament."

It was a particularly savage one-round knockout, the leverage in the final punch undiluted grief.

Tyson has continued to fight and win, his list of victims growing ever more respectable.

All along, he has had doubters, people who wondered whether he could take a punch, what he will do when and if he ever gets frustrated, and what will happen when somebody tries to out-finesse him, as Henry Tillman successfully did in the Olympic trials.

James (Quick) Tillis, a quality opponent who once challenged for the title, helped answer some of those doubts. Tillis failed to hurt Tyson in 10 rounds, and his box-and-clinch moves did not unravel the youth. Tyson merely stalked him, patiently, single-mindedly.

That it went 10 rounds was both an amazement and a disappointment, since it halted the KO train. But his handlers claimed relief, citing the proven ring endurance. He knows now that he can go 10 rounds if he has to and go 10 harder than he did with Tillis. Progress is claimed.

But questions remain. Jimmy Jacobs and Bill Cayton, his co-managers, preside over the career with a fine intelligence, not rushing him into a title shot, grooming him properly. And Kevin Rooney seems of a temperament and talent to keep Tyson comfortable along the career path.

Yet, D'Amato, that enormous influence, is no longer there to oversee this youth, this bundle of talent and muscle.

Rooney is unworried. "The fitah likes the attention," he says. "Deep down, the fitah, he really likes the boxing. He likes the feeling in the ring, being on stage. He might not even think about it.

"And he has a lot of will, of heart. Cus used to talk about that will. The fitah has that. All he lacks is that certain something, a confidence that you know what will happen and what to do when it does. He's capable of getting it, he learned it from Cus, that inner confidence, like a Zen thing."

Rooney sees him challenging for a title within a year, after five to 10 more fights' worth of education. "Once he's champion, we'll see whether he keeps his interest, or is like the other guys," Rooney said.

In other words, for better or worse, we'll all find out what Mike Tyson, teen-age boxer, is going to be when he grows up.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°