Where There's Fire?
The controlled fury that not long ago lifted Mike Tyson to the pinnacle of his sport has already ebbed, as have his prodigious ring skills
By Richard Hoffer
His fans enjoyed the notion of Tyson rummaging through those canisters of old fight films, finding his role models in the crackling celluloid. Dempsey. Louis. Marciano. That Tyson was a serious student of greatness was encouraging in a sport that so often honors mediocrity. It would not be possible to distract him from so high-minded a devotion.
Yet now there is increasing doubt that Tyson can sustain his reputation. There was his loss by a knockout in February 1990 to Buster Douglas, his unsatisfying win over Razor Ruddock last March, and evidence that his skills were declining even before those fights. Is Tyson, who will turn 25 two days after his June 28 rematch with Ruddock, already fading into history? Is he merely a passing phenomenon, undone by fame and comfort like so many others? Is he just something to remember the '80s by, a footnote to boxing history?
Tyson, who turned pro in 1985, has a record of 40-1, with 36 knockouts, and he did KO Ruddock, after all, so requiems for this heavyweight are obviously premature. He is still the most bankable fighter in the world, even as a challenger. Last week Dan Duva, the promoter of champion Evander Holyfield, offered a record $51.1 million for a Tyson-Holyfield fight in Las Vegas in October or November. But there is a feeling in the boxing community that Tyson has already crested, and that even if he remains above the rest of the division, he is nevertheless on his way down. "He was great for boxing," says Emanuel Steward, Tommy Hearns's manager and trainer for many years. "But it's a whole new ball game."
Tyson's critics say that he has been ruined by Don King, the promoter who wrested control of Tyson's career from Bill Cayton when co-manager Jimmy Jacobs died in March 1988. Later that year trainer Kevin Rooney, a D'Amato protege, was fired, and a string of successors have failed to hone Tyson's skills or maintain the link to D'Amato. Sometimes they have had trouble even getting him away from the discos and into the gym. It is said that Tyson has been ruined by his own inescapable wealth and power, and that not even D'Amato or Rooney could have prevented that. He has been corrupted by comfort. Or he simply wasn't built for the long run. There's no agreement on the reasons, but nobody denies that Tyson has neglected the abilities that made him the most feared boxer of his time. Agreed: He has abandoned his potential.
He has no jab, he doesn't work the body, he throws few combinations, and clinches frequently. He shows less and less defense and only sporadically returns to D'Amato's trademark peekaboo style. He no longer intimidates. True, Henry Tillman and Alex Stewart, two stops on Tyson's way back from the Douglas fiasco, appeared to be terrified. But Ruddock stood in with Tyson and was not horribly damaged or even terribly impressed. Steve Lott, a member of the Tyson camp when Jacobs and Cayton held sway, is most struck by this growing composure among Tyson opponents. "You used to watch Mike, and you'd think, This guy doesn't get hit," Lott says. "These other guys are hitting air and he's coming back with bombs and the fight's over. Now the top guys are saying, Wait a minute. Ruddock stood toe to toe with Tyson, shot for shot, for seven , rounds. This never happened before. It happened for 30 seconds, but seven rounds? Now, Ruddock may be a good fighter, but he's not Joe Louis."
The example of the journeyman Douglas, who fearlessly jabbed Tyson to defeat, has emboldened the young heavyweights. The Ruddock fight woke some people up too. But it's not a case of suddenly realizing the emperor has no jab. In the past Tyson did not usually try to intimidate his opponents in prefight press conferences. "What he did was," explains Lott, "he used to hit them pretty hard."
Now, though he still hits hard, Tyson does not hit often enough, or in the right places. Eddie Futch, the veteran trainer who has taken on 23-year-old Riddick Bowe for an assault on the title Tyson once consolidated, says, "He's stopped using his jab to work his way in. He comes straight in, head up, swinging his punches. He seems to be trying to bomb his way through. The intensity is there, but the direction is not. Apparently his shots are not hitting the vital spots as often."
At his best, Tyson had a viciously simple style: He would engage his opponent's attention with a punch and quickly follow up, and the opponent would soon be sliding down a ring rope from the damaging flurry. But there are no flurries anymore, just the single punch.
"Tyson used to stun you with those quick deliveries, the quickest since Joe Louis," says Futch. "But the value of his punch was realized in combination. He'd finish you off after he stunned you. Now he's looking to hit home runs all the time."
Trainer and broadcaster Gil Clancy saw the same thing in the Ruddock fight. Those home run swings were easy to see coming, and the blasts were quickly knocked down for ground-rule doubles. "So instead of having to get out of the way, Ruddock could just brace himself," says Clancy.
What has happened to Tyson's skill at working the body? At coming in behind the jab? "Not there," says Teddy Atlas, who worked with Tyson in D'Amato's camp years ago. "He doesn't work his way in behind the jab, he doesn't punch to the body. Rather than work his way into position to throw punches -- and it is work -- he loads up with wide punches and long punches. The one thing he has retained is his power. But when he's loading up, he's vulnerable."
And, finally, what about defense? Why was Ruddock able to hit him? Says Butch Lewis, who managed former champion Michael Spinks, a one-round knockout victim in the fight that is regarded as Tyson's greatest: "He was always in perpetual motion. He never stood straight up for us. Always the head moving, the shoulders rolling and pumping, side to side. Every time you looked back up, he was in your face, that little son of a gun. Where did that come from? Now he just stands up straight. Douglas exposed that."
This dereliction of technique is not easy to explain. Steward suggests that it is actually the result of the aging process, a natural regression. At 24? "I never saw him being successful past 26," says Steward. "His style was strictly youth and instinct, based on driving through people. It never allowed for a long career. All youth and aggression, fighting with your head up front. The second you slow down, for whatever reason, you lose it. Because your face, which is 10 inches closer, isn't getting out of the way like when you were young and fast. You just can't get away with it anymore."
Steward sees Tyson slowing noticeably. "You watch him when he breaks from a clinch, he takes quite a few seconds to get organized, needs a little time to regroup, and then he just throws the one punch at a time. There's no way for him to regain what he once had."
Most think that Tyson's decline has much to do with a loss of discipline and desire, which is perhaps inevitable as a fighter grows rich and famous.
"When you make that kind of money," says Atlas, "it's not abnormal to slow down a gear or two." Atlas sees a damping of Tyson's fire and fury that perhaps not even D'Amato could have reversed. "When I say he's not punching inside, that's not just a technical breakdown but a lack of desire. When a guy no longer wants to fight inside, he finds ways not to. So he creates clinches, whereas in the past, when he had a lot of fire and desire, he would create ways to punch. Now Mike puts his hands behind the guy's head. It's a lack of work ethic, and maybe you can understand that, with all that money he's already made. Maybe he'd have strayed whether Rooney or Cus was here or not."
Predictably, those from D'Amato's cult blame King for Tyson's decline. Cayton, Tyson's manager of record until Feb. 12, 1992, says that King has "poisoned and destroyed what could have been one of the greatest fighters of all time." Cayton believes that only Rooney could restore the spirit and discipline to Tyson's life. King, he says, uses Tyson to enhance King's position as a promoter. For example, Cayton maintains that King used the first Ruddock fight more to strengthen his own tenuous hold on undefeated junior welterweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez than to provide Tyson with a payday; Chavez was paid an inflated $2.2 million for an undercard appearance, at the expense, some say, of Tyson's purse.
Tyson has never seemed eager for an accounting, and though Cayton has said that he could have provided Tyson with an additional $50 million in contracts, this appears not to matter to the fighter. Jose Torres, who wrote a scathing book about Tyson, Fire and Fear, which began as an authorized biography, says Tyson is more thrilled by King's bonuses of $100,000 in cash, money he can immediately distribute to his entourage, than the extra $3 million or $4 million he should be getting in purses. "King understands the psychology," says Torres. "That's how he keeps Tyson in his portable jail."
Yet you can hear the fighter rattling his chains from time to time; there are reports that Tyson and King have feuded, even to the point of physical confrontation. King declined to talk to SI. Last week USA Today quoted him as acknowledging that he and Tyson argue but adding, "When we do, I cuss him out and he cusses me out, and it ain't no boxing match." King also told the paper, "Ain't nobody screw with me, man. Part of my job as promoter and friend ain't to get my fanny whupped. I don't submit to that. I'm not afraid of Mike, and he's not afraid of me. We don't have to come to blows to resolve personal differences."
The differences between King and Tyson have less to do with money than with King's failure to procure a title shot for Tyson, which has obviously not been as important to King as to Tyson; King keeps making Ruddock fights for Tyson, and even with Duva's offer on the table, King is entertaining the idea of a date with George Foreman. Cayton says that King is taking this approach because Duva, not King, has the rights to a Holyfield-Tyson fight. As a consequence, Cayton says, "King uses Tyson's drawing power to make these other fights and pays exorbitant prices to his stable of fighters like Chavez and Simon Brown. This Ruddock rematch just compounds the stupidity. He should have fought for his title by now."
Torres, another D'Amato prodigy and a light heavyweight champion in the 1960s, is careful not to romanticize the D'Amato years as compared with the King years. Both men sought the same thing, says Torres -- a heavyweight championship -- if for different reasons.
"Do you know why Cus died?" Torres asks. "Because his work was done. He took Tyson from scratch and, along with Cayton and Jacobs, fabricated this monster. All those one-round knockouts, it was an incredible manipulation and management. He was their creation, 100 percent."
Still, Torres deplores King's control when he sees Tyson setting new lows for press-conference behavior, as in a session last month when Tyson promised to make Ruddock his girlfriend. "I can't wait for you to kiss me with those big lips of yours," he told Ruddock.
"Strictly jailhouse talk, the strong violating the weak," says Torres. "With that, you can see King working with his mind, how he controls him. He's going back into Mike's childhood, trying to get him to rediscover the bully in him."
For many people Tyson's behavior at that press conference, where he also called his opponent a "transvestite," was shocking. But it is not fair to blame King entirely for Tyson's behavior. "It has more to do with where he comes from," says Lewis. "All he can remember is that the tough guy, the bully on the block, gets all the respect." And Tyson, it seems, has become desperate for respect.
Atlas thinks that Tyson is desperate for more than that. He believes Tyson sees it all -- the fame, the wealth -- slipping away. Says Atlas, "Early in his career, when he believed in himself, he said things in a controlled way, very Spartan words, honorable words. Even when he talked about driving a guy's nose into his brain, he didn't mean that in a disparaging way. To him that was something Jack Dempsey might say. He thought it was sportsmanlike, glorious. But now, when he sees himself slipping, he's grabbing for something he never thought he needed before, a stick to take into the ring."
Even if Tyson is unraveling before our eyes, there is still plenty of material left. "If 30 percent of Tyson materializes in the ring with Ruddock or Holyfield," says Cayton, "he wins easily." And, says Lewis, "if he signs for a title fight, you just might see that old attitude."
But Tyson may be spent emotionally as well as physically. There comes a time, says Atlas, when it is no longer possible to persuade a fighter to step into the middle of the ring and "face this . . . thing in front of him, doing what he's doing to him. Cus used to say he could put a gun to a fighter's head and say, 'I'll kill you if you don't fight.' But then that fighter gets in the middle of the ring and he's still only thinking about one thing, that guy in front of him. He's not thinking about the gun." To be a great heavyweight champion, the one so many thought Mike Tyson was sure to become, may require more animal barbarity than he can sustain.
"Sometimes, if you listen to Mike, you can hear him preparing for failure," says Atlas. "He says, 'I've been poor once, I can be poor again.' He's said that a number of times. He's not saying, I'll never lose what I've got. He's saying the opposite -- I could lose everything and I could handle it. It's like he knows he's vulnerable and he's preparing for that day."
Perhaps that day is not yet at hand. Or perhaps Tyson, who on a bad day lost to a far lesser fighter, wonders more and more what it would be like to step into the middle of the ring and face this . . . thing in front of him, some young guy so disciplined, so confident, so elemental that he needn't wear anything but an old towel for a robe. Someone like Mike Tyson.
Issue date: June 24, 1991