MANIC-DEPRESSIVES AND BOXING : ‘Ill’ Tyson May Just Be Setting a Trend

Times Staff Writer

Mike Tyson, manic-depressive? The heavyweight champion? Mental-illness sufferer?

There’s no consensus on that yet. The Eastern doctors who have seen him disagree.

But Tyson wouldn’t be the first warrior with such a handicap. A Los Angeles psychologist said the other day that among many others, Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s World War II leader, was a diagnosed manic-depressive.

And, commenting on Tyson’s future, a Culver City psychiatrist said that if the champion is a manic-depressive, it shouldn’t affect his career. He can fight as often as he wishes.


Nonetheless, a California boxing promoter said that, based on his knowledge of what’s going on, he would be reluctant to put Tyson in the ring.

The promoter is Don Fraser, who runs successful boxing shows each month at the Marriott Hotel in Irvine.

“If anything happened to a fighter with any kind of illness, I wouldn’t want it on my conscience,” Fraser said.

The psychiatrist is Michael J. Gitlin, director of the affective (mood) disorders program at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute.


“There’s no reason why a boxer who is manic-depressive can’t lead a relatively normal life if he’s properly treated,” Gitlin said.

"(In some instances) persons who are a bit manicky do better than the rest of us--they have more energy, they’re more creative--for a time. However, their periods of hypomania (the manic stage) never last.”

The psychologist is Harriet B. Braiker, a specialist in clinical and social psychology and author of a new book, “Getting Up When You’re Feeling Down” (Putnam).

“I can’t imagine that only one American athlete today is manic-depressive,” said Dr. Braiker, whose book deals with common forms of depression. “This is an illness that affects a large number of talented, really gifted people.

“The imperative for (such athletes and others) is simply to get their mood swings under control, and you do that with medication and psychotherapy.”

Ordinarily, the medication is lithium, a natural salt.

“Lithium isn’t a mind-altering drug, it’s a mineral that’s present in everyone’s body,” Braiker said. "(Lithium) works to prevent moods from getting too high or too low.”

Accordingly, if Tyson is manic-depressive; if he’s responsive to lithium; if he takes it as prescribed, no problem.


But is he really ill?

Or is it all a sham?

Or worse, is somebody setting him up?

“I would say that, quite clearly, he is a troubled fellow,” Gitlin said, using a term that to doctors implies an unsettled mental or emotional state.

“There’s not enough evidence available to make a (manic-depressive) diagnosis. Other possibilities are a personality disorder, or an adjustment disorder.

“But there’s some evidence of a disturbance. He’s had several car accidents, a stressful marriage, possible suicide threats, he has shown a temper at home. He admits to violence with his wife (who recently has filed for divorce).

“All told, these don’t lead us to anything, specific, except a disorder of some sort.”

Is there an implication in any of this that, as a professional boxer, Tyson might become too dangerous to let loose? In the ring, would Tyson kill?


“In the ring? There’s very little chance of that,” Braiker said. “If he were that far out of control--in an acute manic episode--the officials wouldn’t let him in the ring.

“His judgment would be gone, his mind would be racing, he wouldn’t have slept for days. His condition would be apparent to anyone talking to him.”

Depression can be a lethal illness. It’s listed as the leading cause of suicide. Is Tyson a danger to himself in the ring?

“I doubt it,” Braiker said. “If he wanted to commit suicide, that wouldn’t be his preferred way. Of course, any fighter risks serious injury in the ring, whether depressed or not.”

Isn’t it true that in certain stages of their illness, some manic-depressives feel madly capable of anything?

“There’s a feeling of invincibility, yes,” Braiker said. “But great athletes also feel invincible--athletes who aren’t ill. I suspect that this may have complicated the diagnosis in Tyson’s case.

“When an ordinary guy sits down in my office and says he’s so high on himself that he could conquer anyone, my reaction is that he might be manic. It would be a clue, at least.

“The difference in the case of a fighter like Tyson or Muhammad Ali is that you have to put (boasting) in the context of their record--their performance. In sports, self-praise has become a tool in building up self-confidence.

“If you’re a top athlete, it can make you better to say, ‘I am the greatest.’ In my instance, if I said ‘I’m the world’s best fighter,’ I’d be nuts.”

In other words, one of the possibilities now is that prideful athletes are simply beginning to confound medical science.

Tyson may be no more than a trend-setter.


In public relations terms today, a major problem for Tyson is that as the heavyweight champion, he has made his fortune in a volatile profession.

Behavior that would be rejected as insane in an office or home is applauded in arenas and Las Vegas parking lots. There, the whole idea is to beat up people.

So others tend to be a little afraid of prizefighters, who, particularly champions, often seem to be walking a line between rational and irrational behavior.

The ring’s history books are full of curious cases.

There was, for instance, the night in 1962 when an enraged welterweight named Emile Griffith won the world championship by battering his opponent senseless in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The loser, Benny Paret, was carried out in a coma and never regained consciousness. He died a few days later.

Paret had been badly beaten in the early rounds. Then in the 12th round he became entangled in the ropes and took 15 consecutive right uppercuts to the jaw from the angry winner before the nationally televised fight was stopped.

The question afterward was whether Griffith was crazy or whether it was the referee, Ruby Goldstein, who belonged in an institution. The dead fighter’s manager, Manuel Alfaro, bitterly criticized Goldstein for standing by idly when Paret, his head between the ropes, couldn’t defend himself.

What had sent Griffith into such a rage?

It turned out that at the weigh-in before the fight, Paret, a native of Cuba, had addressed Griffith, a native of the Virgin Islands, in Spanish, calling him maricon , Spanish slang for homosexual.

It proved a deadly insult.

Somehow, boxing survived, profiting again, its critics said, by boxing fans obviously being less than civilized.

And in 1984 there was another form of irrational behavior by a fighter, Texas lightweight Bruce Curry.

Blaming his trainer, Jesse Reid, for a lost fight, Curry went after Reid in a Las Vegas gym. When Reid escaped and sensibly barricaded himself in a room nearby, Curry went for a revolver, then came back and tried to shoot Reid through a hole in the door. A judge ordered Curry into a mental facility, where he spent 6 months.

Fraser, the Irvine promoter who has been in boxing for nearly half a century, thinks it’s redundant to hail any fighter into court on a mental complaint.

“Fighters have to be crazy to get in the ring in the first place,” he said.

Still, Fraser is confident that no promoter anywhere will take advantage of Tyson without a full medical review of his condition.

“There are a lot of rascals in boxing, but no real villains,” he said.

Perhaps the most curious incident in the history of big league boxing--and perhaps the most irrational, as it was perceived at the time--was Ali’s tantrum before his first fight with Sonny Liston in Miami in February, 1964.

Liston, who seemingly had the demeanor of a professional assassin, had come to Miami as the champion. As a young challenger, Ali, then going by the name of Cassius Clay, wasn’t yet well known to the boxing public, or to boxing writers, when, suddenly, he began stomping around the weigh-in platform screaming, “I am the greatest! I am the best in the world!”

Wild-eyed, he continued his hysterical outburst, as bystanders described it, for 20 or 30 minutes despite the strenuous efforts of two doctors to pacify him.

“Clay is emotionally unbalanced,” concluded Alexander Robbins, the chief physician for the Miami Beach Boxing Commission. “He acted like a man off the beaten path.”

Said R. C. Bennett, chief medical examiner for the Michigan State Athletic Board: “Clay has all the symptoms of a paranoid condition, which is a sign of insanity in a young man his age.”

The doctors recommended a padded cell for Ali, not the ring, but with millions of dollars at stake for a number of people in boxing, cooler heads prevailed.

Ali was only fined for the tantrum, paying $2,500. Then, between the sixth and seventh rounds, he won the heavyweight championship when Liston, claiming a shoulder injury, refused to answer the bell, remaining seated in his corner.

That provoked two interesting reactions in press row:

--Some writers, ignoring, or perhaps remembering, the beating that had killed a man in the ring only 2 years earlier in the Griffith-Paret fight, complained that Liston had resigned on his stool. Said one: “Other (champions) have stood up to take their beating under worse circumstances.”

--Some others suggested that the fight had somehow been fixed in Ali’s favor. One writer said he was trying to type with one hand and hold his nose with the other.

Only later did sports fans learn that, first, Ali’s prefight outburst had been a deliberate confidence-building ploy, and that, second, the way he gracefully danced around Liston that night had been the real Ali. Fix? Hardly.

In the quarter century since Ali first screamed vaingloriously in public, other athletes in all sports, using Ali’s methods, have been psyching themselves up the same way. And if sufficiently talented, some have greatly benefited.

It is also a fact that to psychiatrists, any individual claiming to be the world’s greatest in almost any other field is a suspected manic.

But in boxing, that’s only a coincidence.

Or is it?


In question-and-answer form, here are some aspects of the psychiatric situation as it bears on Tyson’s case:

Question: If the heavyweight champion is manic-depressive, what’s going to happen to him?

Answer (Dr. Gitlin): If his condition is not properly treated, his moods will swing between high and low the rest of his life. If left untreated, it doesn’t go away. With proper treatment, he can have a basically normal life.

Q: What is a mood?

A: It is defined as a pervasive and sustained emotion that, in the extreme, markedly colors a person’s perception of the world. (Thus depression, elation, anger, anxiety. The two principal mood disorders are known as depression and manic-depressive illness.)

Q: How do doctors define manic-depressive?

A: It is a disorder characterized by intermittent periods of mania, an extreme high, and melancholia, an extreme low. Both are mental disorders. Manias can range from excessive enthusiasm or obsession to violent insanity. At the other end of the continuum, melancholia is extreme depression of a person’s spirits.

Q: Can you be manic-depressive and play football or the piano in public, or indefinitely participate in heavyweight championship fights?

Gitlin: Yes, absolutely. Just because a person is manic-depressive is no reason to exclude them from those activities.

Q: In the New York area, the psychiatrists who have examined Tyson are in disagreement on diagnosis. Is this surprising?

Dr. Braiker: No, there have been many instances when (psychiatrists) have been on opposite sides of a courtroom case. This isn’t a perfect science.

(Since their original comments on Tyson’s case, neither of the Eastern doctors has made further statements.)

Q: One New York doctor said that Tyson has never been manic-depressive, therefore he isn’t.

Braiker: Nobody is a schizophrenic until he has schizophrenia. Nobody has cancer till he has it. Many persons don’t have their first (manic-depressive) episode until their 20s, even their 30s.

Q: Has anyone suggested that Tyson might be a schizophrenic?

Gitlin: No. Schizophrenia is different. It’s a disorder characterized by a great deal of psychotic thinking (leading to hallucinations, bizarre behavior, etc.). It is the most serious psychiatric disorder.

Q: How long do manic-depressive episodes last?

Gitlin: The average untreated manic episode will go on for 3 or 4 months. Untreated depressive episodes last 6 to 8 months. It’s a lifetime disorder. If you’ve had one episode, there’s a 99% chance of another.

Q: How soon does a depressive episode follow one that is manic?

Gitlin: Frequently you come down from one and begin to slide right into the other.

Q: If Tyson has a mental illness, is it a surprise that he has made it this far at age 22?

Braiker: Not at all. Many (manic-depressive persons) have been highly successful in many different fields. (German composer) Robert Schumann and a number of other artists have had major mood disorders. It’s highly associated with creativity, charisma, energy, intelligence. Tyson is intelligent. He has shown a bent for the artistic.

Q: If the key is treatment, and if lithium is the usual medication, does lithium have any side effects that might impede athletic or, say, artistic performance?

Gitlin: The wariness on lithium is that it might affect coordination. About 20% (of those taking it) complain of a coordination problem, usually subtle. They might be a little bit clumsy. On the other hand, we treat surgeons and even violinists (with lithium), and obviously, their coordination must be perfect.

Q: Professional violists?

Gitlin: Yes. Some who (are left with) a marked tremor (by lithium) have to take an antidote, a beta blocker (which inhibits nerve activity), before performing. That takes care of the tremor problem.

Q: Could Tyson use beta blockers if necessary?

Gitlin: I don’t know if the boxing commission would allow it. I’m also not sure what effect they might have on high-level athletic performance. But I know some doctors and others who use (beta blockers) when they have to deliver a major speech. They aren’t (manic-depressive), they just want to do well, and beta blockers reduce anxiety.

Q: How effective are other kinds of medication, if for some reason Tyson couldn’t handle lithium?

Gitlin: When lithium is ineffective or not well tolerated, carbamazepine or sodium valproate are frequently very effective.

Q: Is lithium ever prescribed for any other problem?

Gitlin: Very rarely. It’s 98% associated with mood disorders.

Q: Tyson said recently that he feels well enough to discontinue treatment. Are manic-depressive persons told to use lithium only during an episode?

Gitlin: No. Because of recurrent disorders, they’re told that they (must stay on) maintenance medication indefinitely.

Q: How difficult is it to convince them of this?

Gitlin: They (must be) convinced.

Q: If Tyson is manic-depressive, is it good or bad for him to have a prominent wife?

Braiker: The answer is neither, necessarily. Severe stress and conflict are what’s bad for one with a mood disorder. Stress is the major factor in the first episode. The disease is genetic and biochemical. It runs in families, along with alcohol abuse and drug abuse. If a person has the genetic proneness for (manic-depressive illness), excessive stress can bring it on.

Q: If one of Tyson’s parents was manic-depressive, what are the odds that the champion would be afflicted?

Gitlin: If either of his parents had a mood disorder, there’s about a 15% chance that he will.

Q: From this distance, Tyson appears to have a symptom or two of some kind of irregularity. Could an individual have manic-depressive symptoms without the illness?

Braiker: The disease is there if there’s a consistent and recognizable pattern of (symptoms). Everyone, of course, has had part of the experience. Most people feel exuberant, euphoric, at times. And it’s possible for a person to be moody throughout his entire life and never have a severe form of (depression).

Gitlin: No one symptom gives you a diagnosis. You would base a diagnosis of Tyson or anyone else on a cluster (of symptoms) over a period of time.

Q: What symptoms are particularly relevant in the instance of an athlete?

Gitlin: Some manic symptoms can be sleeplessness--the person might only sleep 2 or 3 hours a night--he’s irritable if crossed, talks excessively, his thoughts run together so fast he can’t follow them, he talks so fast you can’t follow him. On the depressive side, the person has sleep problems, appetite problems, concentration problems, suicidal thoughts, a decrease in the capacity to enjoy himself.

Q: Given the fact that professional athletes regularly face failure--the agony of defeat--are they more likely to suffer from depression than other persons?

Braiker: It depends on how they interpret their failure. My research shows that mild to moderate depression is exceedingly widespread. In fact, depression has been called the common cold of mental illness.

Times researcher Doug Conner contributed to this story.