The fight was over, and the boxing press was gathered for the traditional postmortem in one of those blandly appointed conference rooms in the outback of Atlantic City’s Trump Casino Hotel. They were listening to young Mike Tyson describing how he’d felled his latest redwood, a towering piece of timber named “Irish” Mike Jameson, imported for the occasion from California. “It was a right hand, then an uppercut and a left hook,” said Tyson, succinctly anatomizing the knockout.
“Exactly,” agreed Jameson, who claimed never to have been stopped before in nearly 30 pro fights. “You guys see that right hand in the second round, the one on top the head?”
The press indicated that it had.
“Well, he likes to have sunk my neck ’bout halfway down to my belly button with that one. I feel that everybody better look out for this man. By God, Mike Tyson’s dangerous!”
He is also soon to be rich. In an extraordinary move, ABC-TV signed the 19-year-old protégé of the late boxing savant Constantine “Cus” D’Amato (PEOPLE, July 15, 1985) to a six-fight deal worth more than $1 million. In his first contractual outing, Tyson is to be matched this Sunday on Wide World of Sports with Jesse Ferguson, a willing side of beef who is the World Boxing Council’s 17th-rated heavyweight. The hope and expectation is that the kid will be fighting for a world title by early next year, which would make him the youngest heavyweight champion ever.
Why all this fuss about a youngster who has had just 17 pro fights and who even in sporting households is largely unknown? The answer is that Mike Tyson appears to be the sort of heavyweight who comes along only once every couple of decades. He is for starters a thunderous puncher. Ask any of his 17 consecutive knockout victims, most of whom called it a night after one or two rounds. Ask Donnie Long, who said the kid’s punch “felt like a blackjack.” Or ask the West Indian Sterling Benjamin, who folded under some furious body work, explaining, “He has a sledgehammer, mon.” Or consider Eddie Richardson who, upon being asked if he’d ever been hit so hard, thought a moment and said, “Yeah, about a year ago I was hit by a truck.”
Tyson appears to be endowed with the punch of a Joe Louis or George Foreman. But it doesn’t end there. He appears as well to be “one of those hungry fighters”—the kind Jack Dempsey talked about, a caged beast who is released each round with the sound of the gong. “As a spectator,” says Jim Jacobs, the kid’s co-manager, “you can’t look away from a Tyson fight because you know that at any moment something terrible is going to happen.”
It seemed for a time that something terrible was in store for the kid himself. Mike never knew his father. He was spawned in the impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, moving at 9 with his mother, Lorna, now deceased, to nearby Brownsville. He was 10 when he began his flirtation with a notorious youth gang called the Jolly Stompers, fighting in the streets, sticking up stores and gas stations, mugging the locals. It was all something of a lark, only now and then the stakes were mortal: The big kids held the guns, while the younger ones, such as Mike, cleaned out the register or went through the victim’s pockets. “I really didn’t have it in my heart to do those things,” says Mike. “I just did them because everyone else was doing them. I got arrested lots of times. I can’t tell you how many.”
Then at the age of 13, after an arrest for assault, Mike was sent to the Tryon School, a finishing school for hard cases in Upstate New York. It was at Tryon that he met counselor Bob Stewart and started to turn his life around. He had heard that Stewart had been a champion amateur fighter, and he wanted the older man to teach him how to use his hands. Stewart reluctantly agreed, with the proviso that Mike clean up his act and work harder in school. “We deal in losers up here,” says Stewart, “but Mike Tyson had something. He was determined. I figured if he could learn fighting, he could become whatever he wanted.” Classified as borderline retarded upon entering Tryon, Mike raised his reading to seventh-grade level in a matter of months. He was even more avid about boxing. “I’d show him something,” says Stewart, “and then the third shift would tell me they had to put him to bed at night. He was up in his room in the dark practicing what I’d shown him, slipping punches, moving from side to side.”
One evening in 1980, a momentous one for Mike Tyson, Stewart took his youthful charge over to Catskill, N.Y., where they put on a three-round exhibition for the old fight manager Cus D’Amato. D’Amato liked what he saw. The kid was crude but dauntless. In the second round Stewart hit him and blew his nose all over his face, but the kid wouldn’t hear about quitting. Plus he was “a good month”—which is to say, he was a Cancer. D’Amato, to put it mildly, was not your run-of-the-gym fight manager. He was an eccentric legend in the sport, a celebrated Svengali who had guided Floyd Patterson and José Torres to world titles. He was also an American original, a student of the mind who believed, when it suited him, in astrology; who employed hypnotists in his training; who used his considerable rhetorical powers and a homespun form of Zen to convince his fighters that if they achieved mastery of themselves, they could handle any situation in life.
“You say you want to be a fighter?” D’Amato said to Tyson that night.
“Yes,” said the kid.
“Just a fighter?”
“No. I want to be the best. I want to be a champion.”
“Well,” said the old man, “I know exactly what you must know, what you must do, what you must be to be a champion. Now if this is what you want to be, you must subject yourself to my influence.”
Cus D’Amato died three months ago of pneumonia. Less than two weeks after Cus’s death, Mike fought in Houston, where he recorded knockout number 13. Since then, on the surface at least, it’s been business as usual. Mike appears to have mastered his feelings about the death of the man he came to think of as his father. But D’Amato’s friend, Camille Ewald, who owns the big white house overlooking the Hudson River that Tyson lives in, tends to think the kid is masking his emotions. “Mike didn’t think Cus would ever pass away,” says Camille, “even though Cus told him all the time. He thought Cus would always be there. He tells people that nothing has changed, but I know him since he was a 13-year-old butterball.
“The first fight up here in Albany after Cus’s death, Mike sat in my room on the side of my bed. He asked me what I thought of the fight. I said, ‘Oh, the fight was good.’ He said to me, ‘Everybody told me I did well. But you know, Camille’—and he was crying when he said this—’everybody tells me how well I do. But now that Cus is gone, nobody tells me what I do wrong.’ ”
A young fighter needs such reminders even when he carries the title World’s Next Great Heavyweight. The kid, as they used to say about Ingemar Johansson, possesses “toonder” in either hand. It is hard to remember sometimes that he is just 19 years old, a man-child in a man’s game.