The first time Bobby Stewart saw Mike Tyson, two staff members of the Tryon School for Boys, a center for juvenile delinquents in upstate New York, were leading Tyson across the grounds toward Elmwood Cottage, the living quarters where Stewart was a counselor. It was 1979, and Tyson was only 13 years old, but he was already built like a tugboat—5'8", 210 pounds—and he was in handcuffs.
"Even though he was 13, he could beat up most men," recalls Stewart, a former professional prizefighter. It had just taken two men to subdue Tyson after he had bullied and slapped around another boy at the school, and his confinement at Elmwood—known as the Bad Cottage because only the most incorrigible boys lived there—was punishment for that. Based on his third-grade reading level and a violent and sullen personality—"I had nothing to say to anyone," Tyson says—the youngster was thought to be mentally retarded, according to one school source.
Walking to Elmwood that day, Tyson found the fork in the road that would alter the direction of his life and lead him to where he is today. Where he is, at 19, is precisely 15 fights into a pro boxing career in which he has knocked out all his opponents, 11 of them in the first round, and has been in the ring a total of only 40 minutes and 25 seconds, or 2:42 per fight, including Friday night when he stopped Mark Young of Charlotte, N.C. at 50 seconds of the first round in Latham, N.Y. He is the most electrifying young heavyweight prospect in years.
Tyson may be the most devastating puncher in boxing today, a remorseless attacker who bobs and weaves inside and throws swarms of left hooks and right hands to the body and the head. The victims of these assaults may have been mostly nameless stiffs looking for a payday, but Tyson gave them more than that. Upon regaining their legs, they spoke with a remarkable unanimity about the experience of fighting him.
Eddie Richardson, counted out at 1:17 of the first round after Tyson dropped him with a right and then flattened him with a slashing left hook, was asked if he had ever been hit so hard. Richardson reflected a moment and said, "Yeah, about a year ago I was hit by a truck." And there is Sterling Benjamin, the Jamaican who sagged under a furious body attack after 58 seconds of Round 1: "He has a sledgehammer, mon."
And let's not forget Sammy Scaff, the 250-pound Kentuckian who buckled under a barrage of punches, finally succumbing to a left hook after 1:19 of the first: "I sparred with Greg Page, and I went four rounds with Tim Wither-spoon," said Scaff, whose nose was still bleeding half an hour after the fight, "but I've never been hit that hard in my life."
Tyson turned pro just 10 months ago, and co-managers Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton have been understandably cautious in bringing him along, especially because he had but 26 fights as an amateur. "Mike is only 19 years old," says Jacobs. "Look up the ring records of Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano and see who they were fighting after 10 months. You won't recognize any of the names."
Regardless of the competition, ABC-TV found such appeal in Tyson's slashing style that the network has signed him to an exclusive four-fight contract for the coming year worth $850,000.
It's a wonder to Tyson, as he looks back on his childhood, that he ever got to where he is after being who and where he was. By the time he took that march in manacles to the Bad Cottage, Tyson was so utterly caught in the cycle of crime leading to the stone-gray world of institutional living that he winces today when he thinks of it. "Six years have gone by, and it seems like yesterday," he says. "Six years! Now I'm here. Imagine if I'd kept screwing around those six years. I'd have been in the same place I was. In jail. Or dead. One of those."
Tyson was born in the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the youngest of three children. He was raised by his mother, Lorna, from whom he acquired an essentially timid and gentle nature. "I never knew my father," he says. "My mother didn't believe in violence," he says. "She detested it. Being that way, I was very shy, almost effeminate shy. My brother was five years older, so I had only my sister to play with. I guess I picked up some habits talking. When I was younger, they used to call me 'little fairy boy.' I was always gentle, really gentle."