This is the fifth 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.
Up in the Catskills, the Borscht Belt hot spot where Jackie Mason, Sid Caesar, and Henny Youngman had cracked one-liners for generations, the grand hotels and resorts of what was once also known as the Jewish Alps began shuttering their doors in the early 1980s. This is where Mike Tyson, former Jolly Stomper, terror of Brownsville, Brooklyn, police blotter mainstay, guest of several gray institutions ringed by cyclone fences or razor wire, including Spofford (immortalized by Mobb Deep) and the notorious Tryon School for Boys, found himself under the idiosyncratic guidance of the Freudian Mad Hatter of boxing, Cus D’Amato. One look at the hulking Tyson, only thirteen at the time, and D’Amato was struck with something like a psychic vision. What D’Amato saw was the future, and, in that future, he saw Tyson, his soon-to-be protege/prodigy, bestriding the horizon as the heavyweight champion of the world.
Tyson was more than just a troubled teen when D’Amato took him into his home, he was a budding sociopath with a rap sheet as long as a papyrus scroll. “I didn’t care if I grabbed somebody’s chain and dragged them down the stairs with their head bouncing, boom, boom,” Tyson wrote in his memoir Undisputed Truth. “Do I care? No, I need that chain. I didn’t know anything about compassion. Why should I? No one ever showed me any compassion.” His was an anti-childhood. Essentially homeless, Tyson roamed the streets of squalid Brownsville—at ten years old on Thorazine and then as a teenage nihilist with felonious dreams—unburdened by conventional notions of morality.
Under the tutelage of D’Amato, Teddy Atlas, and Kevin Rooney, Tyson soon moderated his antisocial tendencies and developed a reputation as a ruthless amateur, but when he failed to earn a spot on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, he turned pro on March 6, 1985, and set his sights on becoming the youngest heavyweight champion in history.
With a carefully cultivated backstory (eccentric old man rehabilitates inner-city hoodlum) fit for a Hallmark After School Special and an even more deliberate PR campaign launched by his managers, Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, Tyson became hot copy within months of his pro debut. This was partly because Jacobs and Cayton bombarded media outlets with VHS copies of Tyson walloping one poor schlub after another (stiff competition for the Faces of Death video series), and partly because D’Amato still held sway over a few New York writers from his days as a grim aphorist holding court in the Gramercy Gym. That was in the 1950s and 1960s, when D’Amato trained Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, and like the gray flannel suit and “Flower Power,” D’Amato was all but obsolete by the time Tyson began terrorizing amateur tournaments. Mostly, Tyson earned sudden fame because of a whirlwind schedule (fifteen fights in his rookie year alone) and a ring style not seen since the days of Jack Dempsey, one whose ferocity sparked a unique crossover appeal.
In late 1986, Mike Tyson was like an urban legend from one slum to another in New York City. His name was invoked as shorthand for violence; the fade haircut, as passé then as a conk, returned to style because of the Tyson look; and jean jackets featured miniature graffiti murals dedicated to “Iron Mike” spray-painted on their backs.
But before the ghetto took to him en masse, Tyson titillated another crowd as well, not just the general sports fan, but the well-heeled from Wall Street to the Upper East Side, a crowd just as likely to frequent the Surf Club, the Four Seasons, or the Palladium as the Felt Forum on fight night. Somehow, Tyson became a fad among readers of The Official Preppy Handbook. And Tyson knew it, too. “The yuppie crowd likes coming to my fights no matter what the critics say,” he told KO magazine in an interview.
“Kid Dynamite” was only nineteen when ABC signed him to a multi-fight deal reportedly worth $850,000. His national television debut, a Saturday afternoon showcase on Wide World of Sports, came against Jesse “Thunder” Ferguson on February 16, 1986, in Troy. Although upstate New York had been a boxing wasteland for decades (ever since the end of the Basilio era), more than 7,500 fans jammed the RPI Field House in hopes of seeing Tyson do what he did best: destroy, destroy, destroy.
At 14-1, Ferguson was a competent pro who quickly descended into opponent status after Tyson was through with him. When the opening bell rang, Tyson tore out of his corner and set the tone by tearing into Ferguson with a blur of left hooks to the body. With his back against the ropes for much of the fight, Ferguson connected with the occasional blow, but he was overwhelmed by sheer firepower. In the fifth round, Tyson landed a screaming right uppercut that sent Ferguson plummeting headlong to the canvas. A dazed Ferguson staggered to his feet, blood pouring in rivulets from his nose.
When the fight resumed, Ferguson decided on a survival tactic soon to go viral among Tyson opponents: he held for dear life. In the sixth, Ferguson refused to release Tyson from his clutches and he was ruled a TKO loser by Referee Luis Rivera. Later, at the press conference, Tyson gave his first public hint that there was little, if any, separation between man and fighter. “I wanted to hit him on the nose one more time,” Tyson said, “so that the bone of his nose would go up into his brain…” It was a quote that earned Tyson his first instance of negative publicity. In the years to come, there would be nothing but damning headlines, but other than his Ferguson faux pas, Tyson was a mixed media dream come true. With fewer than twenty fights Tyson had already been on the cover of KO, Sports Illustrated, and The Ring. What really underscored his skyrocketing popularity, however, were profiles in People, The New York Daily News, and The New York Times, along with appearances on the Today show, NBC Nightly News, and David Letterman. No other fighter, except for Marvelous Marvin Hagler, was as hot as Mike Tyson was in 1986. In fact, a few weeks after dismantling Ferguson, Tyson signed a three-fight, $1.5 million deal with HBO, making him the only fighter in history, perhaps, to have concurrent television deals.
Between fights, Tyson was knocking back flasks instead of knocking around sparring partners. Already signs of a spectacular crack-up were showing. “We partied after the Ferguson fight,” Tyson wrote in Undisputed Truth. “I was drinking heavily during that time. Not during training, but once the fight was over, it was self-destruction time. I was a full-blown alcoholic. But I drank away from the glare of all the media in the city.”
It was no way to prepare for his next major fight. On May 3, 1986, Tyson would be facing veteran James “Quick” Tillis at the Civic Center in Glens Falls, New York. Early in his career, “The Fighting Cowboy” showed some promise, but an uninspired loss to Mike Weaver in a WBA title shot revealed the limitations of his ambition. Entering his fight with Tyson, the most dangerous heavyweight in the world, Tillis had lost four of his last five fights. He was motivated for Tyson, however, realizing that an upset would yield a blockbuster payday for a rematch. “From the root to the fruit, I’m in this game to make big money,” Tillis said when the fight was signed. “I wouldn’t want to work hard and train hard just to be a punching bag for somebody. I want to get back on top—in the limelight.”
After surviving a knockdown in the fourth round, Tillis went on to trouble Tyson for the remainder of the fight with his nettlesome jab and combination punching. At the end of ten rounds, Tyson won a narrow decision by scores of 6-4, 6-4, 8-2, and drew a cascade of boos from his hometown fans. Not only did Tillis become the first man to last the distance with Tyson, but he was also the first man to visibly shake “Iron Mike.” “I hit him with a lot of good shots and combinations in those last three rounds,” Tillis said. “I was punching, but he wasn’t because he was tired. And if you run out of gas, I’m going to kick your ass. You saw I was hitting him. Even Ray Charles could have seen that.”
Less than three weeks later, Tyson made his HBO debut against madcap Mitch “Blood” Green in Madison Square Garden. Already suffering from the long-term effects of angel dust, Green (“He was truly a crazy motherfucker,” Tyson once said of him.) kicked up a ruckus at the final press conference that completely overshadowed his performance in the ring. Outraged by his $30,000 payday, Green railed against the evils of promoter Don King and threatened Carl King in front of a room of reporters. Nor did Green think much of Tyson. “All the man’s got is a neck,” he said. “How can he win? He ain’t gonna hit me with no neck. I’m gonna put some kind of hurtin’ on him. That man can’t beat me with a stick. He’s a nut, coming into the ring without socks and a robe. That’s supposed to intimidate me? I think they rushed him too fast. He’s too young and dumb.”
Within two rounds, however, Green realized he was overmatched; he then made a conscious decision to spoil in hopes of lasting the distance. In doing so, he took a drawn-out beating and saw some of his bridgework knocked out of his mouth at one point. Tyson breezed to a unanimous decision. It was a one-sided battering marred by clinching and mauling. More important, perhaps, it was another fight that drew catcalls from the rafters.
After two disappointing outings, Tyson reignited his reputation for electro-violence with a frightening knockout of Marvis Frazier on July 26 at the Glens Falls Civic Center, where he had been booed and hooted against James Tillis a few months earlier. A fine amateur and the son of legendary Joe Frazier, Marvis had never recovered from being thrown into the ring as a novice against Larry Holmes in 1983 and being blasted out in less than a round. That experience, however, did nothing to deter his father, Joe, from talking trash before the Tyson fight. “I hear all this about Mike Tyson, and Tyson’s a good fighter,” Frazier said. “But he can’t punch. He’s never fought anybody as good as Marvis. This is an important fight for Marvis. I’ve never seen him work so hard for a fight. I never heard him say, ‘I’m gonna kill him’ before. This is a church deacon talking. That’s how he feels. He feels like Mike Tyson is getting all of this publicity and high ranking and he hasn’t paid his dues.” Unfortunately for Frazier, it was his son who would pay dues when the opening bell rang.
It looked less like a prizefight than a clip from Wild Kingdom, the cheetah mauling a helpless fawn while Marlin Perkins looked on. Tyson opened by ripping right hooks from a southpaw stance before slipping back to orthodox and driving Frazier to the ropes. Under siege, Frazier retreated to a corner, where Tyson ripped an uppercut that nearly sent his head into orbit. Frazier was unconscious on his feet. A few more shivering blows and Frazier slumps to his knees, his head ricocheting off the middle strand of the ropes. The din of the crowd captured the essence of a blood sport; it hardly mattered that the fight lasted only thirty seconds; it hardly mattered that Frazier appeared to have been seriously injured. What mattered was that moment of dark euphoria; that instant when Tyson shook thousands of people out of their daylight selves and into a temporary shadow world. Tyson himself understood his role as heavyweight executioner: “What makes an exciting fighter is his willingness to want to hurt the other man. That makes for great fights and superstars. When I was in the ring I projected myself as an animal. Like a dog in a pit, I was there to entertain the audience. The more I hurt someone, the quicker I hurt him, the more adulation I got from the crowd, and I fed off that.”
Two more KO wins, over Jose Ribalta and Alfonzo Ratliff, in August and September, vaulted Tyson into a shot against enigmatic WBC champion Trevor Berbick. Tyson, in less than two years as a pro, had fought himself into the HBO heavyweight unification tournament. This tourney featured a motley cast of characters that included Tim Witherspoon, an aging Larry Holmes, undersized Michael Spinks, Pinklon Thomas, Frank Bruno, and Stefan Tangstad. With Tyson now on board, the hitherto moribund tournament was given an immediate jolt of energy.
At the center of the movement to crown a single heavyweight champion, after years of chaos, was a borderline sociopath who once wrote, “I wanted people to see the savage that was within me.” In thrall to excess, to sex, to the reckless moment, never risk-averse—in the ring or out, like his hero Harry Greb—vexed anew each day by this glittering celeb world far beyond the boundaries of Rockaway Parkway and Van Sinderen Avenue, tempting his own early eulogy, perhaps, with drugs, prostitutes, hard liquor, a man unsure of his own limits or the limits of conventional society itself. In two years would come a summer from hell when no tabloid went Tyson-free for more than one edition. Then, in six years, a prison stint for rape. After that, life in perpetual extremis.
Yet here, now: November 22, 1986, the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, under the hot lights, a fixed scowl to go along with black trunks, black shoes, and a case of gonorrhea, waiting destiny, Trevor Berbick the intended vic. Then the opening bell rings, the crowd erupts, Tyson storms from his corner and——
“I was the challenger, so I had to go out first. They were playing a Toto song for my entrance but all I could hear in my head was that Phil Collins song “In the Air Tonight”: “I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord / And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all of my life, oh Lord.”