Tyson Hasn’t Forgotten His Roots
Sometimes Mike Tyson returns to where he came from and realizes how far he’s traveled.
Tyson, the world heavyweight champion, occasionally ventures to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn where he grew up. There, Tyson visits with old friends and gets a scary idea of how life might have turned out different for him.
“Sometimes late at night I go back to my old neighborhood,” said Tyson, who defends his title May 30 against Pinklon Thomas at the Las Vegas Hilton. “I’ll look around and say ‘I remember that corner, that’s where I had a fight once.’ It’s so weird because a lot of kids I knew are gone. A lot of them died away. I see their little brothers, I see their girlfriends with other guys.
“But to the guys I considered my friends back then, I’m still just Mike. They never ask me for money or anything.”
Tyson was rescued from Brooklyn at the age of 13 when he was sent to the Tryon School for Boys, a facility for juvenile delinquents in Johnstown, N.Y. There, he took up boxing under the guidance of Bobby Stewart. Upon his release, Tyson moved into trainer Cus D’Amato’s home in Catskill, N.Y. D’Amato legally adopted Tyson and groomed him to become heavyweight champion.
“I was so lucky because I was in that home,” Tyson said. “If I went to Cus right off the street, I’d still be stealing.”
Sometimes it is hard to believe the soft-spoken, shy champion was a violent teen-ager. But Tyson admits he was traveling the wrong path. He compared himself to Tony Ayala, the talented young junior middleweight who was a rising boxing star until he was convicted of rape and sent to prison in 1983 at the age of 20.
“I had the same mentality as Tony Ayala,” Tyson said. “Not the rape part, I wasn’t even into girls then, but I’d be stealing.”
By the time Tyson hooked up with D’Amato, he was set on becoming a world champion and willing to leave behind his life of street crime. D’Amato, who took Floyd Patterson to the heavyweight championship, saw the vast potential in Tyson and set out to prepare him mentally as well as physically for what the future would bring.
But the trainer never saw the fruits of his labor. He died in November of 1985, a year before Tyson won the World Boxing Council title from Trevor Berbick. Tyson added the World Boxing Association championship by defeating James “Bonecrusher” Smith in March.
Since D’Amato’s death, Tyson has been guided by trainer Kevin Rooney and co-managers Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton. In and out of the ring, he has continued to prosper. He is 29-0 with 26 knockouts and will receive $2 million against Thomas for his third seven-figure payday.
If he gets by Thomas--Tyson is a 6-1 favorite--Tyson wants to take care of the International Boxing Federation champion once that position is decided and the winner of the June 15 Michael Spinks-Gerry Cooney bout so there can be no doubt as to who the champion is.
Tyson’s goals have helped him resist temptation. At 20, he is the youngest heavyweight champion in history. But he is also a young millionaire celebrity who sees the good life before him but must taste it in small bits lest he lose everything.
“In order to be the best, you have to suffer, starve,” he said. “I’m never happy with myself, I guess because everybody else is.”
Tyson, who at 5-foot-10 weighs about 220 for bouts, knows his weight will balloon if he does not keep to a strict training regimen. His mental conditioning would also suffer.
“I don’t drink and smoke because I know how my mind works,” he said. “I don’t want any excuses.
“Whenever anybody would drink champagne, Cus used to give me water or soda. I’d say ‘Cus, let me have a drink, (former middleweight champion) Mickey Walker did it.’ Cus would say ‘You’re not Mickey Walker.’
“Once while watching a tape of a fight, I saw (former light heavyweight champ) Georges Carpentier smoking a cigarette at ringside. That really screwed my mind up all night.”
Soon after winning the title, Tyson found life as heavyweight champion was not as romantic as he thought. With the title came responsibility; public appearances and press conferences combined with his training schedule to limit his free time. Some of it he enjoys--like his work with retarded children--but he resents the restrictions and intrusions on his private life.
“I used to look at pictures of champions in the early 1900s,” he said. “I’d see them riding in a car at a parade, waving. Cus said ‘It’s not like that all the time, it’s just one moment.’
“I thought it was like that all the time.”
But Tyson has found being heavyweight champion has its rewards. He recently began dating actress Robin Givens (“I’m hen-pecked now,” he says) and he receives respect that no amount of money can buy.
“A lot of people have money but are not respected,” he said. “When you walk down the street as heavyweight champion, people look at you with respect.”