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Boxing’s Soiled Image Suffers Another Blow

“There are very few archbishops in boxing,” the late Red Smith was fond of reminding me whenever I would be on the edge of waxing indignant over the latest illegal peccadillo of the pugilistic fraternity.

Red’s point was, you don’t get pugs out of seminaries. You get them out of pool halls, night courts, police lineups and sometimes (Sonny Liston) out of the Jefferson City pen. Or you get them out of a Marine platoon, a tar-paper shack in Galveston. They got Jack Dempsey off a freight train; Gene Tunney was a Marine, and Jim Corbett probably carried his own deck and dice.

None of them is going to make Secretary of State. But you hope they won’t make Death Row, either.

They got Mike Tyson off the mean streets of Brooklyn. He was no altar boy. He was no stranger to a police blotter. He was not about to go into rocket science or discover a cure for cancer, but he had this sledgehammer right and a zest for battle and a streak of malevolence that showed in the eyes whenever he was crossed. He also had this certain cunning and intelligence without which not even the best athletes can succeed.

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He fell into the best hands a person of his checkered upbringing could.

Constantine (Cus) D’Amato knew a potential heavyweight champion when he saw one. He had one in Floyd Patterson, who also had a troubled childhood and was in a school for runaway boys when Cus found him.

Cus was a strangely improbable character for the boxing game. A loner, paranoid, as moral as a monk, he lived a reclusive, tunnel-vision life. Cus saw demons where there weren’t any. He saw the promotional arm of boxing as a huge evil conspiracy. Maybe it was, but the realities are, Cus’ fighters, beginning with Patterson and ending with Tyson, always seemed to be able to find matches and title shots and championships, which would indicate that the monopolies were at least inconsistent and at worst inefficient.

Tyson was brought to Cus by another unlikely candidate to be in boxing’s dirty business. Jimmy Jacobs had been a world handball champion, was a graduate of UCLA and a fight buff who had collected the most impressive library of fight films of any collector in the world.

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Cus taught Tyson the trade of boxing, Jacobs taught him the lore. Mike Tyson knew more about the history of boxing than any man this side of Nat Fleischer. There may be young ballplayers today who don’t know who Jackie Robinson was, but Tyson knew as much about Joe Louis as any fight reporter who ever sat at ringside.

When D’Amato and Jacobs both died, Mike Tyson lost more than managers, he lost mentors, surrogate fathers. He was suddenly adrift in a world he didn’t know existed, let alone how to handle.

The fighter’s contract was inherited by Cus and Jacobs’ partner, a New York lawyer named Bill Cayton.

Now, Cayton, a decent sort, was neither a teacher nor a historian. His function was to take care of the books. He knew nothing about the care and feeding of 22-year-old street hoodlums who became heavyweight champions of the world.

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Mike Tyson developed the traditional young pug’s fondness for bright lights. Bill Cayton was a drag. He tried to warn his charge. There are some things you can’t do even if you are the best fistfighter in the world, he warned. Tyson ignored him.

Enter Don King.

King, as the world knows, is a man who understands the streets and their mentality. He came from there. He also came from the Ohio state prison, where he went for killing a man in a racket squabble.

Tyson tried to dump Cayton, but Cayton didn’t fall as easily as a lot of Tyson’s opponents. He still keeps a share of the fighter’s earnings. But he had no further influence on him.

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King, on the other hand, appears to have pandered to the fighter’s appetites.

King is not the devil incarnate his enemies make him out to be. But he is no archbishop. Neither is he a Cus D’Amato. Don King did not have Mike Tyson’s best interests at heart, he had Don King’s. He was exactly what Tyson didn’t need at this stage of his development. King doesn’t control his fighter, he joins him.

The headlines were inevitable. Tyson became the classic bully--rude, ribald, profane. His news conferences became studies in rancor. His prefight and postfight interviews became sprinkled with four-, eight- and even 12-letter X-rated words. His contempt for the public grew. His behavior ranged from antisocial to sociopathic. It culminated this week in his indictment for rape and three other criminal counts by an Indiana grand jury.

Whither Mike Tyson now? There have been scofflaws in the fight game before. Jack Johnson was a fugitive from a curious statute that seemed to have been pushed through Congress to criminalize him. It made it a federal offense to transport women across state lines for “immoral” purposes. Supposedly aimed at pimps, it was directed at Johnson because (a) he persisted in living with or marrying white women, and (b) he knocked out Jim Jeffries, a.k.a. the Great White Hope. Johnson had to defend his title in Cuba, but once he lost it, the law lost interest in him. He came home to run a flea circus on Broadway.

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Times don’t seem to change. In 1920, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey was indicted for “unlawfully, willfully, knowingly and feloniously evading and attempting to evade the (World War I military) draft.” He was acquitted. In 1968, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali similarly was charged. It took the Supreme Court to free him. It was still better than being in a tiger cage in Hanoi.

Fighters have survived scrapes with the law, military and criminal. Private Rocky Graziano once punched an Army captain on the base, served a slap-on-the-wrist term at Leavenworth and came out to be middleweight champion of the world. Top middleweight contender Tony Ayala is in a New Jersey prison for rape. Vince Foster was under indictment for rape and kidnaping when he died in a high-speed auto crash a few years ago. And so on.

Still, Mike Tyson comes into public focus as a combination Jack the Ripper and Bluebeard. His Nov. 8 title shot is guaranteed. His trial, and thus his presumption of innocence, will not run its course till next year. He may be the first heavyweight in history to fight for the title while out on bail.

There are still very few archbishops in the game. With Cus D’Amato gone, no one today even comes close.

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