At his peak, it is argued that Mike Tyson could have beaten anyone in a fight. A physical specimen and one of the hardest pure punchers in the history of combat sports, Tyson briefly tasted the rarefied air of boxing greatness as he ascended to the top of the sport, but those who climb the highest have the farthest to fall. A childhood spent in poverty and a life time of being exploited and misled by everyone around him left Tyson with a rage that he drew on in the ring, but led to deplorable acts outside of it. In the end, his nickname of "Iron" proved to be prophetic as Tyson was strong and hard, but was brittle when faced with enough pressure.
Born on June 30, 1966 in Brooklyn, New York, Michael Gerard Tyson's father left when he was just two years old. Struggling to make ends meet, Tyson's mother moved the family to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, a web of public housing projects that was notorious for its violent crime rate.
As a child Tyson tended to socialize with girls and developed a lisp early, leading to him being brutally picked on by the other boys. In his early years, Tyson just took the abuse silently and tended towards solitude, caring for pigeons. Then one day a boy, trying to provoke Tyson, twisted off the head of one of Tyson's pigeons and the rage that would come to define Tyson bubbled to the surface. Tyson knocked the boy out and beat him bloody, and from then on Mike Tyson was a fighter.
He began to run with a local gang, the Jolly Stompers. By age 11, he was participating in armed robberies, muggings and other crimes. Tyson would rob anyone, famously offering to carry groceries home for old ladies and then robbing them once they reached an elevator. Once, he and a friend broke on to a roof so Tyson could get at some pigeons and the owner caught them. Tyson managed to escape, but Tyson's friend was thrown from the roof with a noose around his neck. By the age of thirteen Tyson had been arrested over 30 times and had spent time in Juvenile Detention.
Mike was moved to the Tyron School for Boys, a reform school located upstate. There a consular and former amateur boxing champion Bob Steward noticed Tyson's natural talent and began training him in boxing as a way to give the boy structure and focus. Steward would only instruct Tyson if his behavior was good, and his grades improved, and the boy grew by leaps and bounds. Tyson stopped getting into trouble and went from being classified as learning disabled to a seventh grade reading level in a matter of months. Tyson loved boxing; he cherished every moment he trained, and would stay up past curfew in his room, practicing in the dark.
This was the first, and possibly only, time Tyson had a male figure in his life actually concerned with his well-being, as Steward legitimately wanted Mike to better himself. But it couldn't last, and in 1980 Mike, while sparring, broke Steward's nose with a hard left had and Steward knew the boy had grown beyond him. With nothing left to teach the young Tyson in terms of boxing, Steward passed the boy's name to Constantine "Cus" D'Amato.
D'Amato was a master boxing trainer, who had guided Floyd Patterson through his Hall of Fame career in the 50s and 60s. Born in the Bronx , D'Amato had stayed in New York at age 22 and opened a boxing gym. He trained Patterson from a youth to an Olympic champion, to a professional Heavyweight champion. Once Patterson won the championship D'Amato helped Patterson maximize his earnings potential with clever matchmaking and by avoiding the famously corrupt International Boxing Club (IBC).
Avoiding matches promoted by the IBC had its price. Patterson didn't fight several top challengers and actually hurt boxing overall as its Heavyweight Champion fought infrequently. Later, the IBC was dissolved due to antitrust law violations. D'Amato did train José Torres, a Light Heavyweight world champion, but then he moved out to Catskill after Torres' career was over.
Now with Tyson's arrival a prime physical talent had been dropped into D'Amato's lap in the twilight years of his life. D'Amato began immersing Tyson into boxing culture, having him train twice a day in the gym, watch footage of old boxing greats and putting Tyson to bed recapping what they had learned that day. D'Amato got Tyson amateur matches, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, to get the young fighter experience.
Tyson had a great deal of success as an amateur, winning the Junior Olympics with every win coming by knockout.
D'Amato and Tyson's relationship is an interesting one and a bit of a mystery. It is clear D'Amato became a father figure to Tyson, but what Tyson was to D'Amato is unclear. It is often portrayed in a near movie like fashion that D'Amato, a reclusive genius coach, and Tyson, a troubled but talented youth, find each other and are just what the other one needs. Tyson gets direction and discipline, and D'Amato had the fighter to get his revenge on the corrupt boxing world that had cast him aside.
But there is a case that D'Amato was more concerned with Tyson's success as a boxer than Tyson personally. The rules in the gym bent for Tyson and the young talent was rarely disciplined. As a result, Tyson was soon expelled from Catskill High School for violent and erratic behavior.
D'Amato got Tyson private tutoring and together with his fellow coaches Teddy Atlas and Kevin Rooney, schooled Tyson in the peek-a-boo style of boxing. A creation of D'Amato, the style consisted of a fighter holding his hands in front of his face and making heavy use of side to side head movement to set up hard counter-punches.
In 1982, Tyson's mother died of cancer, never knowing her son to have been anything but a rebellious and criminal youth. Tyson would later admit that thought tore at him emotionally, and the loss of his mother was a very difficult time.
In 1983, a sign of that emotional scarring and of the demons brewing inside Tyson was revealed when he acted in a sexual manner towards Teddy Atlas' 11-year-old sister-in-law. Atlas, in a fury, put a gun to Tyson's head and threatened to kill him if the teenager ever came near his family again. D'Amato, now legally Tyson's adopted father, threw Atlas out of the gym.
D'Amato then had Tyson focus on attempting to earn a spot at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and Tyson was matched with top seeded Henry Milligan at the Olympic Trials. Milligan got up on points but then Tyson, flashing some of the power that would become his trade mark, finished the fight and claimed the upset.
Mike Tyson - Henry Milligan (Amateur fight)
Tyson then lost at the Olympic trials to eventual Heavyweight gold medalist Henry Tillman, who had beaten Tyson before in amateur competition. With Tyson's failure to make the Olympics and turning 18, D'Amato decided it was time to take his protege to the professional ranks.
On March 6, 1985 Tyson made his professional debut against Hector Mercedes, a professional stepping stone for young boxers. Tyson won easily by knockout. A month later, Tyson got his second knockout win again another reliable loser in Trent Singleton.
Tyson got back in the ring after just another month against Don Halpin, a slight step up in competition and Halpin actually lasted four rounds against the young power puncher. The fight ended on a controversial note as Tyson hit Halpin after he was down.
D'Amato carefully selected opponents for Tyson to build the young man's confidence, his record, and his reputation as a fearsome knockout artist. Seven fights into his professional career, Tyson was matched with his first two fighters who had winning records. Michael Johnson was 11-5, but hadn't fought in two years and Donnie Long was 15-3, but had not faced anyone of significance.
Against them Tyson showed how much he had progressed under D'Amato's tutelage. Tyson used crisp head movement, slick angles, and a steady body attack to create openings. And Tyson used those openings to land powerful shots that dropped his opponents.
Mike Tyson Vs. Michael Johnson
Mike Tyson vs Donnie Long KO (1985)
Tyson fought 15 times in 1985, winning all of his bouts by knockout, most in the first round. But Tyson suffered another serious personal loss when D'Amato died from pneumonia on November 4, 1985. Kevin Rooney took over head trainer duties for Tyson, but D'Amato's father role in Tyson's life would never be filled again. Manager Jimmy Jacobs did fill the role of emotional support, but many point to this point as the beginning of Tyson's unraveling, which would take years to fully come to pass.
Heading into 1986 with a heavy heart, Tyson was a bright prospect in the heavyweight division and was looking to build on his success in the previous year.
Tyson fought once a month, sometimes more, and won almost always by knockout. Together with his trainers, Tyson created an intimidating persona. Tyson wore no robe on his way to the ring, no socks with his shoes, and played no music during his entrance. Everything about Tyson was meant to say he was here for other purpose than to destroy his opponent, and it defeated many fighters before Tyson ever threw his first punch.
Then in November of 1986, a year after D'Amato died Tyson was given his first title fight. Tyson would face the World Boxing Council (WBC) Heavyweight Champion Trevor Berbick, a man who had beaten the great Muhammad Ali. Just 20-years-old at the time, Tyson won by knockout becoming the youngest professional Heavyweight champion in the history of boxing.
Mike Tyson vs Trevor Berbick [1986-11-22]
Tyson then took a few months off and returned with a decision win over James Smith to not just defend his title but also acquire the World Boxing Association (WBA) Heavyweight title. Tyson defended both titles with a 6th round TKO of Pinklon Thomas. Next, Tyson added the other major Heavyweight title, the one created by the International Boxing Federation (IBF) with a decision win over Tony Tucker and became the first Heavyweight to unify the three titles.
Tyson then knocked out undefeated fighter Tyrell Biggs to defend his titles, and was matched with all-time great Heavyweight Larry Holmes.
Holmes was coming off losing his IBF title in back-to-back losses to Michael Spinks, one of the best Light Heavyweight boxers of all time. They were close, controversial losses, and Spinks was stripped of the title when he refused to fight Tony Tucker and took a higher paying, non-title fight. These two losses represented the first of Holmes career, and while Holmes was entering his forties he was still very much on top of his game.
The power and speed of Tyson proved too much for Holmes, who fell in the fourth round to a right hand from Tyson. Holmes went on to be 22-3 with three more title fights after his loss to Tyson and was the only knockout loss of his career.
Soon after this fight Tyson's manager and primary pillar of emotional support Jimmy Jacobs passed away from leukemia. Tyson had also just been married to actress Robin Givens, but things between them seemed to immediately sour after Jacobs' death. But at this point Tyson's personal problems were not spilling over into his career.
Tyson traveled to Japan for marketing and promotional purposes, and while there he dispatched Tony Tubbs in a two round knock out to defend his titles.
At this point, Tyson was the undefeated Heavyweight champion, but he was not undisputed as there was one man still considered by many to the IBF Heavyweight champion, Michael Spinks. The fight was arranged by Don King, one of the biggest boxing promoters of his day and a man who was very interested in getting more deeply involved in the Mike Tyson business.
Spinks was known for using footwork and clever combinations to out-box his opponents, and the idea of his masterful style vs Tyson's pure aggression caused a great deal of interest in this fight.
I've included the full video of the fight so the reader can get a sense for the event; the fight starts at 9:35.
Mike Tyson vs Michael Spinks 1988
With this win, Tyson became the undisputed Heavyweight champion, and at this point in his career many argue he could have beaten many, if not all, of the great boxers of history. But for as brightly as Tyson had burned the flame was already beginning to dim.
Personal problems would begin to take their toll as Tyson and Givens divorced, and it was revealed that Tyson suffered from a host of emotional problems. To balance the needs of treating Tyson's depression and rage problems and getting him in the right emotional place to fight, the Champion had been going on and off medication causing mood swings and violent outbursts. Tyson physically abused her and their divorce was drawn out and very public, and Tyson lost a great deal of money in the divorce.
Tyson also left training with Kevin Rooney and signed with Don King. The effect on Tyson's boxing was immediately apparent. In a fight with British boxer Frank Bruno, Tyson's style seemed to have completely changed. The peek-a-boo fundamentals were completely gone. Tyson abandoned the body attack and jab that had set up his power punches and he just bulled into the clinch trying to land power punches to the head. As a result, Tyson was hit cleaner and more often against Bruno than really ever before, and was even stunned in the first round. In the end, Tyson was able to get the knockout.
Tyson only fought once more in 1989 with a fairly effortless knockout of Carl Williams. Tyson's attention had moved from boxing as he was more out of control in his personal life. He was no longer focused on training, and allegations of sexual misconduct continued to mount.
Tyson returned to Japan in February of 1990 to face a 42-to-1 underdog James "Buster" Douglas. A journeyman boxer Douglas was an afterthought for Tyson, who was more focused on the party scene in Japan and didn't bring a real boxing corner with him.
Douglas, who had just lost his mother, came to the ring as a man with nothing to lose and used a snapping jab to keep Tyson at bay. Tyson was unable to adjust, and his corner was unable to offer him any help. They didn't even have ice as they desperately tried to control the swelling on Tyson's face with condoms full of tap water. Despite all this Tyson knocked Douglas down in the eighth round and it seemed Tyson's power had bailed him out again. But Douglas was able to struggle back to his feet and then survived a ninth round onslaught by Tyson. Then in the tenth round Douglas sent Tyson tumbling to the canvas in one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports.
Mike Tyson VS James Buster Douglas 1990-02-11
The spell of the unbeatable, invincible destroyer that was Iron Mike was shattered. King tried rebuild his aura with a series of very winnable fights. But more importantly Tyson's emotional problems were now at the forefront and in July of 1991 Tyson was arrested for the rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington. Tyson already had a well known reputation in the boxing world for being inappropriate and even violent with women.
So when Washington came forward with a graphic recounting of an attack by Tyson, it was not a surprise to many and his rambling defense did him no favors. King paid for a lawyer for Tyson, but the man was a tax lawyer and was out of his depth in the case and there are some who claim Tyson got railroaded, but Tyson's history with women stands against him.
Tyson served three years in prison, and he grew more reflective in prison. While he appealed his rape charge, he would later comment that he had committed crimes equal to or worse than the one he was imprisoned for and as a result he belonged in prison. Tyson also converted to Islam and attempted to reinvent himself. When he emerged from prison, there was a brief power battle between the Muslim brotherhood and Don King for control of Tyson.
Tyson's loyalty to King proved his undoing as he returned to the boxing promoter and to his old ways. King provided anything Tyson wanted; watches, cars, houses, exotic animals, anything as long as Tyson kept fighting.
King created a comeback tour that started with a fight with Peter McNeeley, who tried to brawl with Tyson and paid the price, and then a knockout win over Buster Mathis Jr. Tyson still clearly had the hand speed and power of his early career, but his finesse was completely gone. Tyson had become a head hunter who threw a few punches and the would clinch and then repeat after the ref broke them apart.
Tyson then reclaimed the WBC Heavyweight title with a win over Frank Bruno in March of 1996. Six months later, Tyson faced Bruce Seldon for the WBA Heavyweight title and his win here would be his last major success in boxing.
Mike Tyson vs Bruce Seldon (Complete Fight)
Tyson now had two of his three title belts back and he was required to defend his title. A match was set with the number one contender Evander Holyfield. A multiple time world champion, Holyfield wasn't intimidated at all by Tyson and coolly picked Tyson apart and knocked him out in the eleventh round.
Tyson was granted an immediate rematch with Holyfield. The first two rounds were all Holyfield, and at the start of the third Tyson left his mouth piece in his corner. Holyfield had been making a lot of contact with his head and in retaliation Tyson bit Holyfield twice, taking off a piece of his ear.
Tyson lost the fight by disqualification and had his boxing license taken away for a year due to the incident and was fined three million dollars. Tyson turned to King for a full accounting of his earnings to help determine how much trouble he was in due to these restrictions and was shocked to find himself massively in debt with almost no money.
Tyson was finally aware of the fact that King had been fleecing him for years, and in 1998 Tyson attempted to sue King for $100 million. Tyson's days as a powerhouse boxer were over, but he continued to fight to try to pay off his debt. He would fight Lennox Lewis in 2002 in a title fight, but Tyson was totally outclassed.
Tyson eventually settled out of court with King for $14 million in 2004, all of which went to pay off debt. Then in 2005 Tyson lost his last professional fight.
Tyson's career and life is a tale of exploitation. Tyson's physical talent was obvious, and it can be argued that every person in his life, save for his old high school counselor Bob Steward, was using Tyson to get something they wanted. D'Amato wanted a champion and was willing to pass over disciplining the youth in his quest to attain that goal, and then when Tyson reached that peak everyone around him wanted something from Tyson. Every emotional pillar of support for Tyson was taken from him, and it left him adrift.
In terms of boxing Tyson had the potential to be an all-time great, and some argue that during his run in the mid-80s Tyson could have knocked out just about any Heavyweight in history. While Tyson's flame burned brightly it was fleeting.
Tyson reached the highest peaks of a sport and plunged the lowest depths of humanity. An athletic prodigy who committed deplorable acts, Tyson's life was a tragedy that created more tragedy and a controversial addition to the Gods of War pantheon.