This is the ninth piece in a ten-part series looking at the fighters whose stories make Donald McRae’s Dark Trade the enduring classic that it is. Learn more about the 1st U.S. edition of Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing.
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison
The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
In the winter of 1990, under the white lights of the Tokyo Dome in Japan, silence all around him, his body vexed and vulgarized after years of abuse, Mike Tyson finally went down. It wasn’t even ten in the morning by the time he was counted out—an ungodly hour on most days for Tyson, an evil one now. For years he had courted disaster, addicted to sex, drugs, and alcohol, whether he was in Brownsville, Brooklyn, or in Vegas or L.A. Perpetually imperiled outside the ring, now he was imploding within it. And then—like that—against James “Buster” Douglas, he was done.
His reign as heavyweight champion finished, Tyson returned to New York in search of refuge at Camille Ewald’s home in Catskill. Ewald had been the companion of Cus D’Amato, under whose tutelage Tyson had been transformed from a nihilistic delinquent into a ruthless practitioner of violence in his teens. D’Amato had died at the age of seventy-seven in November 1985, by which time Tyson had already begun to usurp rapidly the dormant heavyweight scene. A year later he would be champion, after viciously dispatching Trevor Berbick inside two terrifying rounds.
Yet boxing would only ever provide temporary satisfaction for Tyson’s more orgiastic desires. Soon his life outside the ring seemed organized expressly to precipitate his demise. Disaster was inevitable—desired, even. Fantastically rich and desperately unhappy, no sooner had Tyson gorgonized Michael Spinks in June 1988 than he had dumped his long-term management team to sign away his rights to Don King—practically a guarantee of decay. Then came his tumultuous break-up and divorce from Robin Givens. Beset by addiction and depression, afraid that he might be HIV-positive after an ex-lover died from AIDS, Tyson lived as he had always done, from day to day, in search of oblivion. “All my friends from my neighborhood were dying and dead anyway,” he wrote in his memoir Undisputed Truth. I had no anticipation of having a long life. I was too much of an irritant. You catch me in one of my irritating moods and you might get shot. I was living a fantasy life, going from country to country, sleeping with beautiful strangers. That shit began to take a toll on me.’
Returning to Catskill, Tyson’s retreat would last a mere matter of days before the place was swarming with press and paparazzi. In spare moments he was back in Brownsville, spending time with friends with whom he had once terrorized the area. But even then, grim news was never far away. Weeks after losing to Douglas, his twenty-four-year-old sister, Denise, would be found dead in Queens. The life of the fighter who once claimed to despise sympathy appeared to be in freefall.
And yet, even without the heavyweight championship, Tyson remained overwhelmingly the biggest attraction in boxing. His loss had not loosened his hold on the paying public; if anything, it had grown tighter. Whatever Philip Roth meant by the “indigenous American berserk” in his 1997 novel American Pastoral, Tyson was already its embodiment long before Roth’s book ever went to print—compared with which his story was not only more abject and more outlandish, but also, of course, true.
Vowing to regain the title under new trainer Richie Giachetti, Tyson would eviscerate Henry Tillman and Alex Stewart in consecutive fights upon his return to the ring. If he looked oddly sluggish in his one-round knockout of Tillman, throughout which he stuttered and stalled as he tried to catch his jittery opponent, Tyson seemed to resemble more his old self in the opening seconds against Stewart. Fighting at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, Tyson had swaggered out from the corner at the opening bell before collapsing his opponent immediately. And yet, even in the process of dropping Stewart twice more in two minutes, Tyson was still clearly not quite the fighter of old. Rearing in upright, at one stage he had swung so hard for Stewart that he had fallen over himself. Although he was triumphant more quickly than against Tillman, his performance remained artless and wild.
But if Tyson hoped to fight next for his old titles, he was soon to be disappointed. Buster Douglas had lost against Evander Holyfield in October 1990, after which the latter had agreed to defend his belts against the forty-two-year-old George Foreman in April 1991. For this Don King had tried to make the WBC strip Holyfield of its title; but when those machinations failed, Tyson was left in the lurch. With Douglas astray, he was signed instead to face the powerful Donovan “Razor” Ruddock on March 18, 1991.
With a 25-1-1 slate, Ruddock was the second-ranked contender after Tyson in a division that was suddenly full of possibility. Originally signed to fight for the titles in November 1989, Ruddock’s shot had been nixed when Tyson pulled out, pleading pleurisy. Ruddock instead faced Michael Dokes, against whose quick hands for three rounds he struggled before suddenly razing his opponent with a chilling left hook in the fourth. Given Tyson’s subsequent defeat to Douglas, it was no stretch to imagine that Ruddock—also a tall, broad and agile heavyweight—might have proved victorious had his title shot taken place.
After brawling with Ruddock at the face-off, Tyson was dialed-in long before the opening bell rang at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Ruddock, on the other hand, was infected with nerves, twitching anxiously in the corner while Tyson stared him down across the ring. Tearing out after Ruddock, Tyson almost floored him inside twenty seconds with a counter. With his left hand cocked, Ruddock fired back at Tyson with a series of wild uppercuts thrown heedlessly from range. After brawling with Ruddock after the bell, Tyson came out for the second round with mean intentions. But after referee Richard Steele gave Ruddock an unwarranted eight-count after he was tripped, Tyson chose to realise his intentions through a brutally agricultural medium—via head-butts and low blows.
Although dominant, it was hard to square this grim version of Tyson with the electric fighter who had whipped and surged through the division in the last half of the eighties. Intermittently he would dip and slip into range, but mostly he plodded and thudded after Ruddock, content to switch between wrestling and whacking whenever in close. In the last ten seconds of the third round, Tyson landed a bullet left hook that sent Ruddock crashing to the canvas. Lesser men may have stayed down, yet Ruddock rose grinning and smiling—as if cheered by a glimpse of the original Tyson. Stunned and tired, Ruddock continued to offer openings to Tyson every time he turned his massive wingspan into another wild shot.
Either unwilling or unable to hold, Ruddock finally made some headway in the sixth when he tagged Tyson repeatedly in the center ring. “He punches like a fucking mule kick,” Tyson would later affirm. Knocked back into his senses, he would reassert his dominance in the seventh round with a crashing right hand. Under siege, Ruddock would be sent staggering back across the ring via the first lethal combination Tyson had launched all night. Stalking Ruddock, Tyson readied himself for the kill—at which point referee Richard Steele, to the incredulity of nearly all in attendance, suddenly launched himself between the two fighters and called a halt to the proceedings. With his eyes fixed on Tyson, Steele could have no way of knowing Ruddock’s precise condition, which the Jamaican-Canadian best summarized through a single baffled question: “What?”
So notorious was the stoppage that it would soon form the basis of a Saturday Night Live sketch. Although Tyson had been largely dominant, a combination of the controversial finish and the massive brawl that followed it gave promoters Murad Muhammad and Don King a natural premise upon which to justify an immediate rematch. Hugh McIlvanney was not the only sportswriter to shudder at the thought of a further series of press conferences involving King and Muhammad, which he described as a “horror for those of us who are asked to chronicle such activities.” “When teamed up,” McIlvanney wrote in The Observer, “they surely have no challengers for the ranting and raving championship of the galaxy.”
In any event, it was Tyson whose broadsides in advance of the second fight would make headlines. Awaiting sentencing on an assault charge, Tyson’s prefight diatribes became more and more charged. “I’m gonna make you my girlfriend,” he hissed at Ruddock once during a televised conference call. “You’re sweet: I’m gonna make you kiss me good with those big lips.” Then, in training, he stalked after an ABC cameraman and demolished his equipment. “Get outta my face, you fuck,” he spat. Given a curfew by Giachetti throughout training, Tyson would creep out of his room in Vegas and gun down the freeway to L.A. where orgies arranged by a friend awaited him. Sleeping no more than two hours a night then sleepwalking through training, he was only busted when Giachetti saw his Ferrari mufflers looking like burnt marshmallows.
Burning up, burning out—what else did the future hold for Tyson? In three weeks, he will be arrested; in six months, convicted of rape; a month later, given six years in jail. Behind him is mostly disaster; in front, there is only more. What did he know then, in the black trunks and the red gloves, sweat glistening on his back, body rippling with muscle, water pills and who knows what else running through his bloodstream, with Razor Ruddock looming in front of him? For now, there is only the present, on June 28, 1991, at the Mirage Hotel and Casino—before its imminent eclipse. And ahead? Ahead there is more of the same: the indigenous American berserk.