No athlete has been more dominant in his sport while at the same time being so self-destructive and contradictory to the ethos of that sport than Iron Mike Tyson. His storied career is inexorably intertwined with his bad-boy image and, now, his road to recovery and redemption.
From the moment Mike Tyson laced up his first pair of boxing gloves, it was clear he was something special. At only 13, the legendary trainer Cus D’Amato looked at Tyson and proclaimed that he would become heavyweight champion of the world. Coming from the cantankerous D’Amato, that wasn't a compliment to be taken lightly — after all, this was a man who found room to criticize Muhammad Ali’s fighting style, spirit and résumé. To boxing fans, the story thereafter is a familiar one: Tyson went on win the National Golden Gloves, then became the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history and the first to unify the WBA, WBC and IBF titles.
The Tyson story is so familiar that some might wonder exactly what "Undisputed Truth," Tyson's autobiography, actually offers. If you've seen Tyson's Broadway show, however, you would realize that behind the well-publicized stories of Tyson's life there are big and small unseen twists and turns that add much needed detail to the monolithic character that most think of when they hear the name Mike Tyson.
"Undisputed Truth" also offers us something more basic and unique. Despite the research, effort and analysis of even the best journalists and historians, no one has the capacity to better answer the question "why" than the primary source. Why did Tyson say he would eat Lennox Lewis' children? Why did he sit quietly, almost expressionless, next to Robin Givens as she lambasted him in a 1988 interview with Barbara Walters? And why in recent years has the former “baddest man on the planet” been so willing to cry passionately at what seems the mere mention of his father figure/trainer, Cus D'Amato?
Readers will find answers to these questions and so many more in Tyson's book. Below are a just a few brief glimpses into the life of the man that captured the imagination of the entire world with his fury and his fists.
Every man was once a boy. It is often when and how the boy loses his innocence that defines his character for life. Mike Tyson is no different.
There have been several recountings of the rough life Tyson was born into, complete with exciting stories of his early days robbing and scamming people with his Brownsville crew.
What has remained hidden in the shadows for so long is a look at Tyson's mother and how her behavior forever shaped his relationship with women. The most shocking story Tyson tells of his mother is also a surprisingly short one.
Tyson’s family was so poor that they seldom had a constant roof over their heads. They found refuge in abandoned homes and the rooms of step-fathers-for-the-week. Tyson usually slept in the same bed as his mother. One night, when one of his mother's lovers came home, he slipped into bed and started to have sex with her while he was still in the bed, awake. He didn’t speak out. He didn’t move. His brothers and sisters already had claimed their places on the floor nearby the bed. There was no place for him other than where he was. No innocence of youth can survive a moment like that.
She did anything and everything that was necessary to survive, Tyson explained, and he both appreciated her efforts and recognized how the lessons she taught through her actions reverberated intensely throughout his life. Her teachings about sex, love and necessity left an indelible mark on Tyson’s life and especially his relationship with women.
Coming to the book I was convinced that the D'Amato-Tyson trainer-fighter team was the most historic and tight-knit in boxing history. After reading the book I think I may have undersold their relationship. These two iconic boxing figures might be the most close-knit coach-athlete pairing in all of sports.
D’Amato once told interviewers that people grow old and died when there was nothing left for them to do and that he would have died long ago if it weren't for the young man sitting to his right (Tyson). The boy gave him a reason to keep on living. Watching D’Amato make his bold proclamation, you could see there was no boast of exaggeration in his tone or countenance. It was as genuine an expression of love as has been captured on film. It was a heartfelt moment, more between father and son than trainer and fighter.
From what Tyson recounts in his book, however, tender moments like that were rare between D’Amato and Tyson. It wasn't that Tyson felt unloved by his adoptive father — far from it. In several places Tyson goes out of his way to say that D’Amato was one of the few people, if not the only person, to ever really care about him. But that doesn't mean their relationship was filled with campfire songs and fishing trips. That is not how you build a heavyweight champion, much less the "baddest man on the planet."
The detail and examples of D’Amato's psychological approach to boxing is by far one of the greatest facets of Tyson's book. Not only are the stories of D’Amato’s philosophies fascinating and educational for anyone trying to build a champion, but they also provide an interesting wrinkle on Tyson’s boxing image.
At some points explicitly, at others implicitly, Tyson draws parallels between his antics and outbursts to D’Amato's teachings. Tyson says much of his aggressive, arrogant and inflammatory persona was the by-product of D’Amato’s approach to fights and his teaching on how to throw an opponent off-guard (including tactics about faking injuries to postpone fights just to throw off an opponent’s preparation for fight night).
D’Amato undoubtedly strove to mold Tyson into a "mean" fighter — someone who showed no remorse until the moment after an opponent’s unconsciousness. In some instances, however, the cause and effect line Tyson draws gets a bit strained. If all his actions were just a part of a role that D’Amato had cast him in, then Tyson would be the greatest actor to ever live.
More likely, the aggressive persona was a plan that started with D’Amato's spartan teachings, then evolved, such that Tyson was consumed by the character he was playing. This was at least in part due to his childhood demons and the massive amount of alcohol and drugs that were omnipresent in Tyson's life. “Undisputed Truth” chronicles very coherently the progression and devolution of the fighter D’Amato built into what the world saw as arguably the most crass and shocking athlete of modern times.
The Mike Tyson story cannot be told without getting into the details of his many many legal issues. And while there is more than enough for the "Law and Order" fans out there that want to understand why Tyson was convicted of rape (more due to the incompetence of his trial team than the facts in evidence), some of the most interesting legal stories in “Undisputed Truth” are about Tyson’s time in prison.
From Tyson’s stories about earning respect on the yard to running scams, finding ways to have sex with visitors and even about the time John F. Kennedy Jr. came to talk with him, there is never a dull moment when Tyson brings you into his jailhouse life.
When I think of the most infamous boxing promoter of all time, I don’t think of his catch phrase, “Only in America.” Instead, I think of a quote by the late Joe Frazier: “Boxing is the only sport you can get your brain shook, your money took and your name in the undertaker’s book.” Throughout his career, Don King has been more than willing to help a fighter with each of these facets of boxing.
But how did the Tyson-King relationship unfold behind closed doors? Honestly, I didn’t expect what I read. The story of their relationship is like a Lifetime movie, a cautionary tale about a physically abusive relationship and co-dependency. The twist being that King was often on the receiving end of Tyson’s foot. Literally. Throughout the book, Tyson tells half a dozen stories about kicking King in the head. I think if you add them all up, it comes out to about one kick for every $10 million King stole from Tyson. Regardless, the roller-coaster relationship between these two alone is worth the price of admission.
By now, I think everyone in the world knows about Mike Tyson’s drug addiction. Even the baby in the first "Hangover" movie, where Tyson had a small role, knows about his drug issues. That doesn’t mean you’ve heard the amazing backstory of Tyson’s introduction to drugs when he was 10 years old or how he eventually ended up in an upscale party in Arizona, high on cocaine with a morphine IV drip in his arm (provided by a party-loving plastic surgeon) surrounded by seven hookers and prepped and ready with a few Cialis pills. From reading about Tyson’s lifelong drug use, you start to realize not only is it a miracle that he became heavyweight champion; it’s a miracle that he’s still alive!
It’s even less likely that you’ve heard about Tyson’s sex addiction. There have been rumors of course about Tyson’s sex tapes with big-name celebrities (which he confirms in the book) for years, and then there are the countless tabloid pictures with a litany of women, both "of the night" and the "well-to-do" variety. Such things may have been symptomatic of his sex addiction but not confirmatory. When put side by side with stories about Tyson’s relationship with his mother and his low self-esteem, the sex addiction starts to come into proper perspective.
The sex addiction added another self-imposed hurdle in front of Tyson, but it's the amount of drugs he consumed that makes his accomplishments even more spectacular. The annals of boxing history are filled with functional alcoholics, but I doubt there is a more successful boxer who has matched Tyson’s drug use.
As I neared the end of the book and read through Tyson’s many relapses and stints in recovery home after recovery home (hint: the plushy celebrity recovery homes are worthless; they are enabling enterprises that care about their profit margins more than an addict’s true recovery), I started to think about how much better Tyson could have been if he hadn’t been using drugs throughout most of his career. The late Burt Sugar (one of boxing's most revered historians) already puts Tyson among the best 100 fighters of all time.
Maybe it’s wrong to wonder what more Tyson could have been without the drugs. Maybe the right question is whether he would have made it all. When Tyson was on his third rehab attempt, he said he reflected on a fear that many of his famous friends (both athlete and layperson) who had gone through rehab told him about: what if getting clean took away what made them special? Maybe a clean Tyson would have been an unknown Tyson. We’ll never know for sure, but regardless, the life he’s lived, the performances he gave, both in and out of ring, are something special. Something the sporting world has not seen since, and may never see again. Mike Tyson’s legacy is a complicated one, rife with intrigue and scandal. It’s a story that has many tellers, but none quite so entertaining as the legend himself.
Now, go out and buy his book.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.