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February 2000

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The Mike Tyson who hit Britain in January is far removed from the fighter who seemed destined to become an all-time great heavyweight champion. NEIL ALLEN recalls covering the glory days from ringside

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THE HIGH POINT: Tyson's fear factor was never more in evidence than when Spinks folded... - Get Big Pic

Summing up with enviable crispness the demise, in 1910, of the Michigan Assassin who was then the reigning world middleweight champion, the American sports columnist Ring Lardner wrote: "Stanley Ketchel was shot in the back and killed by the common law husband of the woman who had been cooking his breakfast."

One day in the late 1980s, sitting in the seedy spa of Atlantic City, New Jersey, I quoted aloud that line from Lardner to Michael Gerald Tyson who had been proudly displaying his knowledge of old time fighters, gleaned from hours of watching vintage fight films in the home of his first trainer Cus D’Amato when he was barely 14.

"Say that thing about Ketchel dying, again," said Tyson, and I did. The then undisputed heavyweight champion gave a familiar little twitch of his head, almost as if he had a stiff neck, and grinned hugely, showing his gold teeth. "Yeeaaah," he exhaled, nodding his head as he whispered the words written so long ago about a crime of passion. "Yeah, like that. Says it all, short and sweet but with a real kick."

Just for free, we added a touch of trivia. "Guy who did the deed, shot Ketchel, was a farm hand named Walter Dipley Junior. But then not too many people remember that..."

More than six months later, this time in Las Vegas, hurrying through the back rooms of some vast casino, on the way to a press conference, a fist from behind thudded arrestingly into my kidneys. I turned to face again the golden grin of mighty Mikey. "How ya bin?" he said and then, before I could answer, he raised his right hand as if he was eagerly answering a test question in the school room. "Walter Dipley" he announced proudly. "Junior" I added, for the record.

Once upon a time, you see, when a 21-year-old Tyson had won the crown of crowns by outpointing Tony Tucker to add the IBF belt to those of the WBC and WBA, his life had been so succulent that you could, on a few good days, have fun being around him, especially if you were a British reporter he never read and not one of those hard nosed, hard digging New York scribes who would eventually spoil so many breakfasts in the Tyson household.

Inside the ring I never saw Tyson so savage, looking such an archetypal bully boy from Brownsville, as the time in Atlantic City when he smashed up out-classed Tyrell Biggs, the 1984 super heavy Olympic champion who subsequently had to enter a drug clinic because of cocaine addiction. Tyson, wound up by some American columns querying his ability as champion, said before the fight: "I think I hate him, I want to hurt him real bad." You hoped it was just pre-fight hype. But on the night Tyson sickeningly protracted the beating, helped by the "bravery" of Biggs’s corner man, Lou Duva, as he bellowed at his fallen fighter to get up for more punishment.

Listening to Tyson afterwards was not too pleasant either. The winner and still champion told us: "I could have knocked him out in the third [instead of seventh] but I did it very slowly because I wanted him to remember it for a long time. Hey, when I was hitting him in the body he was making noises. Like a woman screaming or something."

Infinitely more clean-cut, and therefore acceptable in our ambivalent attitude to this dangerous but compelling sport, was an execution you could never forget, that June 1988 night in Atlantic City when Tyson stretched out previously unbeaten Michael Spinks with a right hand in just 91 seconds of the opening round.

It is easy now, more than a decade later, to decry Spinks as little more than a blown-up light-heavyweight. But he came to that Tyson fight with two title match decisions over Larry Holmes and had taken only five rounds to beat up one time "white hope" Gerry Cooney. In a match billed as "Once And For All" by promoter Donald Trump, who paid a site fee of $11 million, separate from the enormous $19,298,230 which went to Tyson, Michael Spinks was definitely not "just an opponent".

But Tyson’s overwhelming will to win gradually got to Spinks until he was almost traumatised before the opening bell. He was not helped by a last minute dressing room suggestion from manager Butch Lewis that he should take the fight to Tyson instead of following the advice of trainer Eddie Futch to move laterally. After Spinks had been devastated in just a minute and a half both he and Futch denied that nerves had played a part. But years later, in a most telling phrase, Michael Spinks honestly admitted of that night: "Fear was knocking at my door big time."

Pragmatic was Tyson’s comment to me: "Fear ain’t too much about staring at them though Razor Ruddock said I was good at smelling it after watching me fight. I guess the fear, or rather the intimidation, comes when you’re hitting the guys and they know there’s more on the way." But Tyson also said of undefeated Michael Spinks: "I’ll break him, I break ’em all. When I fight someone I want to break his will."

Certainly no fear on view, nothing but a true gladiator’s innate reaction to stunning pain, on the February morning in 1990 at the Tokyo Dome when I watched Tyson dethroned by James Buster Douglas in heavyweight championship history’s biggest ever upset. As outboxed, outpunched Tyson was sprawled, barely semi-conscious on the floor in the 10th round, he still kept groping for his gum shield, finally sticking it half-way in and out of his mouth as the 42-to-one odds paid off for anyone brave or eccentric enough to have backed Douglas.

Almost hysterical, sitting in front of me in the press section, was reporter Tim May from Douglas’s home town of Columbus, Ohio who kept shouting: "Who would believe this?", until reminded that he, presumably out of loyalty, was the only man who had tipped Buster to win and that he had better get on with filing his story. "Oh my God," he said, "but how can you write it? I mean who would ever believe it?"

You had to be present to believe the scandalously extended post-script to Douglas’s thoroughly deserved victory when Don King, grey faced from shock, tried so hard to reverse the undeniable result on the totally spurious grounds ["the first knockout obliterated the second knockout"] that Douglas had failed to beat the count when he was knocked down by Tyson right at the end of the eighth round.

While reporters shook their heads at King’s outrageous lobbying the shock-headed promoter found a not surprising ally in Mike Marley, then of the New York Post but later to work full time for King as a press officer. When Marley had the temerity to ask: "Shouldn’t it be declared that Mike Tyson is still the heavyweight champion of the world?" he was greeted with groans of scorn. Marley then turned upon the much smaller Sam Donnellon of The National sports paper and lashed out at him before they were separated.

Spare a thought too for the new but very much disputed champion Buster Douglas when one found him quite alone, wandering down the ninth floor corridor of his hotel. It was close to midnight after a 9.30 am fight start, and Buster was still fearful Don King would somehow pull his multi million pound title away from him.

"Listen to me," Tyson had lisped much more than usual through puffed lips, one eye and side of his face swollen. "Let me tell you something because you guys know I never bitch — I knocked him out before he knocked me out. Now you guys know I always walk it like I talk it."

Douglas kept shaking his head when I passed this on. "If Tyson was true to himself he would give me credit that I kicked his ass. He’s talking it but no way he’s walking it. This is cornball stuff, ludicrous. He’s a baby. The whole world knows what happened to him in that 10th round. Suddenly he wasn’t Superman anymore."

Buster pointed out that he had the WBC green belt still wrapped safely rounds his large waist. But when he signed a press fight order list that night he declined to put "world champion" underneath because "I’m still not sure what they may do to me with all their plotting and planning." Eight months later in Vegas, when we met again, Douglas clearly recalled that night of King "trickeration" in Tokyo and put down "heavyweight champion", but not his name, under his photo in a fight programme I was holding "so you can match it up with my Tokyo autograph". Sadly, the next night James Buster Douglas was to become a very much ex-champion at the hands of Evander Holyfield.

It is also worth recording of the heavyweight upset of the century, that it was attended by around 40,000 virtually silent Japanese taking an early lunch break, which meant that the arena remained so hushed you could hear all the in the corner instructions. So during this new century do not ever believe a written up re-hash by some hack who was never there about "the roar of the crowd" as Tyson was dethroned.

A couple of days before the debacle Tyson had been happy to give an interview to the visiting British reporters, not banned like 90% of the few Americans present, in the relaxed atmosphere of his hotel bedroom. He had seemed so relaxed, too, when his adoptive mother Camille Ewald visited him the night before the fight and got him to sign what turned out to be his last autographed poster as undefeated champion.

But Camille, a gracious lady who had been used to salty language after being Cus D’Amato’s friend for many years, was to remember a pre-fight sign of tension by Tyson when he had been asked at the final press conference whether he was seeing a psychiatrist. Stiffening and clenching his hands he had snapped back: "If you can’t fight, you’re fucked," which was smoothly turned into Japanese by the translator as: "It is very difficult to fight a person if you do not have the skill."

The "psychiatrist" was in fact a New York hypnotherapist named John L. Halpin whom I got to know very well through the years with the young Tyson. Halpin, in his early seventies then, kept such a low profile that he dryly referred to himself as "the secret weapon in the Tyson camp". A former high hurdler in his college days, he said: "Mike must have been no more than 16 when Cus D’Amato first brought him to my Manhattan office with the fighting Hilton brothers from Canada. I remember that when I asked them all to lay down on the floor to relax young Mike was the one who kept fooling around".

Years later, including the classic Spinks wipe-out and the two victories over Frank Bruno, Tyson relied greatly upon Halpin’s professional services. Indeed, no one, including his many women, surely ever talked quite so intimately with Iron Mike, the kid from the urban jungle whose father, Jimmy Kirkpatrick, sire of at least 19 children, left home about a month before Tyson was born.

In the final two weeks or so leading up to a major fight Halpin, this slim, courteous, clearly spoken man who loved to hum lines from Gilbert and Sullivan light opera to me, would be in constant attendance on Tyson in a nearby hotel room. He explained: "I have to be ready to react instantly to a phone call, often in the wee small hours, but certainly at any time of night or day, and then put Mike ‘under’, as the layman says, for sessions of deep relaxation."

Halpin admitted, as I got to know him better, and he appreciated he would not be asked to break any clinical confidences from his sessions with the Baddest Man On The Planet, that "part of my task is to build Mike into a state of controlled, confident violence, ready to ‘fight fear with fear’ as old D’Amato himself used to preach."

In the shocked aftermath of the Douglas defeat in Tokyo, Halpin said: "I just can’t work out if I failed him in some way, if his trainers failed him or he just failed himself. Every time I talked with him before a fight I would ask him if there was something more he wanted to add to the mix of ferociousness, calmness and elusiveness one tried to feed into him. Here in Tokyo he always said ‘no’." Without ever criticising Don King by name, Halpin made it plain that Tyson needed to get back to his roots: "They fed him women, you know, when he now needs to spend more time in the Catskills with his adopted family, the people who love him."

A year later, in Las Vegas again, before the first, uproarious battle with Razor Ruddock, Halpin revealed: "Normally Mike and I spend about an hour together in session on most days. But when he lost to Douglas in Tokyo he was cutting me down to 40 minutes and I sensed somehow that things were not right with him. Now we’ve just been together for nearly two hours so I guess he’s back with bad intentions."

Tyson and women had always been a potentially explosive situation. Looking back, it’s ironic that managers Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, at one Stateside meeting with the British press, were at pains to underline their fighter’s ravenous heterosexuality because of a published suggestion by former British featherweight champion Frankie Taylor that Tyson might be gay.

Just for a while love and marriage seemed to be the answer for the young Michael when he fell for and wed TV starlet Robin Givens — plus her mother, said the cynics. Looking now at a Life magazine cover from the summer of 1988 which Tyson proudly signed right across Robin’s décolletage, I remember meeting the young bride in a lift where she cooed at me: "I just lurve your English accent." Tyson recalled how nervous he was when they first met: "Let me tell you, I felt like a peasant trying to date the queen’s daughter." It still all ended in tears, TV confessionals and a divorce agreement which reportedly benefitted Ms Givens by several million dollars.

Fittingly, the last time I shook hands with Tyson was the night in 1996 when he had just licked a seemingly frozen Bruno to regain the WBC title. By then, deserved imprisonment for the rape of Desiree Washington had left him suspicious and embittered and his lack of control was to remain a sizzling fuse.

Happier to look back to the first Bruno match, in 1989, when we had regular enough access to a fighter who told me his out of training drinking had included not only sweet Mexican beer but also the lethal seven-spirit cocktails called "Long Island iced tea". At one interview I was on crutches, having broken a foot while out jogging in Vegas, when I brought up again the subject of the champion’s lack of abstinence. Tyson gave the old head twitch and glittering grin. "How’s about it?" he asked, "if I break your other leg for you...?"

It is impossible to forget the thrilling potential he showed in the ring as a young champion. And, for all his desperate anti-social behaviour, one prays it is not true, as Floyd Patterson claimed: "Tyson must either keep fighting or die in some gutter."

But what stays with one is the most chilling memory of all of Tyson talking the talk. It comes from a late afternoon in an Atlantic City gym when we were listening to him lounging on a massage table and sleepily musing after training.

"Have you seen that movie about Bird [jazz man Charlie Parker]?" Tyson asked. "Let me tell you there comes that moment when Dizzy Gillespie says to Bird ‘they’re all going to be talking about you after you die...’" Tyson suddenly looked us right in the eye: "I sat there and I thought ‘Jeeze, man, maybe they’re going to talk about me like I was nothing but a dog when I die. Like a dog..."

Neil Allen is former boxing correspondent of "The Times" and "London Evening Standard" and a contributor to the "New York Times".

Also available to read from issue:

Magazine Contents:
Full details of the February 2000 issue - the complete contents listing.

World Rankings:
See where the top fighters were rated when February 2000 went to press...

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