Tyson’s career certainly is worthy of Hall of Fame status. Blessed with blinding hand speed and vicious power, he scored 12 first-round knockouts in his first 16 fights. He captured the heavyweight title at age 20 on Nov. 22, 1986, when he knocked out Trevor Berbick at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, fulfilling the prophecy of Cus D’Amato, who pulled Tyson out of reform school at age 13 and trained him to be a fighter.
|Former boxing heavyweight world champion Mike Tyson
After successful defenses against James “Bonecrusher” Smith, Pinklon Thomas, Tony Tucker, Tyrell Biggs, Larry Holmes and Tony Tubbs, Tyson’s invincibility was solidified with a dramatic first-round destruction of Michael Spinks on June 27, 1988, in Atlantic City.
“The Mike Tyson up until the Michael Spinks fight, that fighter belongs in the Hall of Fame,” said Tyson’s long-time trainer Kevin Rooney.
Intimidation was a big part of his success. A menacing sneer was made even more threatening by his old-school wardrobe of sockless black shoes and black trunks. Brooklyn native Mark Breland, an Olympic gold medal winner and world welterweight champion, initially doubted how much success Tyson would have as a pro because he was just 5-foot-10.
“But he could punch and slip at the same time,” Breland said. “As he progressed, people were so intimidated by him until it was ridiculous.”
With Rooney as his trainer and co-managers Bill Cayton and Jimmy Jacobs taking over when D’Amato died in 1985, Tyson seemed unbeatable.
“The goal was to break [Rocky] Marciano’s record of 49-0,” Rooney said. “Mike got to 37-0. Maybe we could have continued on. But first Cus died then Jimmy died and that’s when everything got whacked out.”
Part of Tyson’s legacy is that he was just as intriguing if not more during the “whacked out” years when chaos engulfed him. His disastrous marriage to Robin Givens led Tyson to not trust those closest to him. The Spinks fight would be Rooney’s last as Tyson’s trainer, and Cayton’s role as manager following the death of Jacobs was challenged in lawsuits brought by Givens and Tyson with the support of Don King. Tyson eventually would lose his title to Buster Douglas in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history and later spend three years in prison after being convicted of rape. Prison only fueled his anger. He bit Evander Holyfield twice during their rematch in 1997. The bizarre behavior continued when he later attacked Lennox Lewis during a press conference, causing a melee.
King, Tyson’s primary promoter until a falling out after The Bite Fight, defended his handling of Tyson during those years.
“No matter what I was or wasn’t, he soared with me,” King said. “But just because you win money and titles, it doesn’t mean you come up with brains. When he was with me, everything he did that was wrong, I was to blame..”
Richie Giachetti, who was Tyson’s trainer for the Bite Fight, said he thinks Tyson ending would have been different if he had beaten Holyfield.
“The Holyfield fight haunted him. If he had beaten, Holyfield he would have gone through guys like Grant took Richmond. They would have called him one of the greatest of all time. Some people have all the luck. He had bad luck.”
Luck had little to do with Tyson’s career. From the time he moved in with D’Amato he was carefully groomed to become a fighting machine with little regard for his anti-social and even criminal behavior outside the ring. His managers and promoters from Cayton to King lusted after the money he could generate, manipulating Tyson and each other to siphon the riches he would generate. Ultimately, it became a cesspool of greed enabled by Tyson’s own ignorance.
“If you look at the guy now with time removed from the bad behavior and Robin Givens and the medication and the crazy comments and the ear biting and all that other stuff, when you look at the whole picture now, I think he’s sort of an empathetic soul,” DiBella said. “He was his own worst enemy to a large degree. But I admire the fact that rather than spiraling down after his career ended like is the case with so many fighters, I think he spiraled up. I think getting this honor when he is at this stage of his life is a wonderful thing.”
Tyson, who turns 45 later this month, will be enshrined as one of the greatest fighters of all-time today, a distinction that comes at a time when he apparently has cleaned up his life. He lives in suburban Las Vegas with his wife Lakiha, 2-year-old daughter Milan and newborn son Morocco. From all reports, Tyson, who could not be reached for this story, is in a good place.
If Tyson’s career is a success story, it’s because he has survived the tragedy his life seemed destined to become. That’s worth celebrating more than his boxing.