A Life on the Brink


The flurry of printed jabs beat a tattoo on a reputation that had not, in the best of times, been pristine. Mike Tyson, 22, the onetime juvenile offender turned invincible heavyweight boxing champion, breaks his hand in a public brawl with an old rival. He is accused by a member of his own family of beating his wife. Then he runs a car into a tree on the lawn of his Catskill, N.Y., home and is knocked cold for 20 minutes. Added up, the stories might seem little more than a series of pinpricks; heavyweight champions, after all, are expected to be dangerous men.

Then, unexpectedly, a story breaks that Tyson—in the midst of a troubled marriage to actress Robin Givens and unable to lure her back to his training camp after an argument—had been thinking of suicide when he encountered that tree. All over the world, there are ugly headlines, lurid speculation: Either Tyson is the victim of a gold-digging wife and her callous retinue, so the stories go, or he is the furious creation of his own restless demons, a danger to himself and others. Suddenly, a new image of the champion begins to take shape, a stark portrait of a young man in serious emotional distress.

The details of the accident on Sunday, Sept. 4—and all that led up to it—were spelled out first in the New York Daily News and have since been independently corroborated. Tyson, preparing for a scheduled Oct. 22 title fight with Frank Bruno in London, had just completed his roadwork for the day when he phoned his wife’s Manhattan apartment. They had been arguing for weeks. She wanted to be in the city to see the U.S. Open tennis championships. He felt out of place with the cosmopolitan tennis crowd and wanted her back in the mountains. He begged her repeatedly to return. Then, on Thursday, he threatened to kill her. The next day he warned Robin that he would kill her, then take his own life. As if to lend weight to the threats, Tyson ordered two shotguns delivered to his Catskill camp. Unless Givens came back, he reportedly told her on Sunday afternoon, “I’m going to go out and kill myself. I’m going to crash my car.” Then Tyson got into his wife’s silver BMW, took aim at a large horse chestnut and stamped on the gas pedal.

Givens and her mother, Ruth Roper, rushed back at once by limousine, working the car phone to summon aides and assistants. When they got to the Catskill hospital, they threw a protective cordon around Tyson. “I told you I’d do it,” Tyson reportedly told Givens. “And as soon as I get out of here, I’ll do it again.”

Quickly, Givens and Roper arranged for a private room at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan, where Tyson could be treated by Dr. Henry L. McCurtis, a prominent psychiatrist. Mother and daughter had been pressing Tyson to seek help from McCurtis for several weeks. He had always refused, and when the psychiatrist arrived with a neurologist, he accorded them a harsh welcome: “Tyson told them to get out or he’d kill them,” according to a source who was in the room at the time.

Even as he left the hospital and—against doctors’ orders—accompanied his wife to Moscow, where she was scheduled to film two episodes of her ABC sitcom, Head of the Class, one thing was certain: Mike Tyson, apparently invulnerable inside the ring, wasn’t ready to admit he was in trouble outside it. He denied he had been attempting suicide when he crashed his car, saying simply, “I have too much to live for.” He and Robin love one another, he said; he would never leave her. The only problem in his marriage, he claimed, was that both he and she were “high strung.” Together the couple denied that Iron Mike had ever beaten his 105-lb. wife, and in the Soviet Union the couple seemed affectionate, walking around Moscow arm in arm.

None of this was totally persuasive to associates who remembered witnessing frightening moments when Tyson, calling his wife “whore” and “slut,” would seize her by the neck and furiously shake her. Last June, after knocking out Michael Spinks in Atlantic City, Tyson took a 10-day vacation in the Bahamas, staying at a Paradise Island hotel owned by Donald Trump. There was a fight in which Tyson reportedly hit both his wife and a woman tennis professional. Security guards were summoned and dismissed the matter as a “domestic dispute.” Givens, says a source close to the incident, was left with a black eye and a swollen jaw. Since then, Tyson has reportedly boasted of learning to strike Givens with the side of his hand, leaving no visible bruise.

If Givens originally married Tyson for money, sources close to the couple say, she stays wed out of fear. At one point, aides even considered hiring a private bodyguard to protect her from Tyson’s impulsive violence. The Daily News story, in which Givens was depicted as searching frantically for an escape from a dangerous marriage, was apparently arranged by the Givens camp to protect Robin from the champion’s volcanic rages. In a series of urgent meetings with their closest advisers, Robin and her mother agreed that the story should be leaked, hoping that public shame and embarrassment would force Tyson to accept the professional help they felt he needed.

Tyson’s reckless and often bizarre behavior first attracted attention 18 months ago, after he attempted to kiss a female parking lot employee in Hollywood, then struck a male worker who came to her aid. The champion’s handlers reportedly would make cash payments to settle the incident out of court.

Last May, during an argument with Givens, Tyson drove his Bentley into a parked car in Manhattan. When two police officers arrived at the scene, Tyson tossed them the keys to the $180,000 car and told them to take it. “I’ve had nothing but bad luck and accidents with this car,” he said. (The cops were later brought up on disciplinary charges and did not get to keep the car.)

At that point Tyson seemed to have done himself no visible damage. Then, at 4:30 one August morning, while visiting an all-night clothing store in Harlem, he risked the very source of his fortune when he decked a former ring opponent, Mitch (“Blood”) Green, in a street brawl, fracturing his right hand in the process.

If the champ hadn’t seen what was coming, there were people who had.

Teddy Atlas, 32, was Tyson’s first trainer, from 1980 to 1984. “You have to go back to the beginning,” he says. “To understand what happened to Mike Tyson, you have to understand Cus D’Amato.”

Tyson first met D’Amato in the spring of 1980, when Tyson was barely a teenager and living in a “bad cottage” of an upstate juvenile detention home known as the Tryon School. A child of the streets, Tyson had been arrested 38 times and had been sent to Tryon for robbing and mugging people in his Brooklyn neighborhood. One of the counselors there was a rugged former boxer named Bobby Stewart, who looked at this 13-year-old block of cement and saw the promise of an unbeatable champion. Stewart knew that Cus D’Amato, the legendary fight manager, ran a kind of informal halfway house in nearby Catskill, where he took in tough kids from reform school and prison and turned them into fighters. D’Amato supported them. He fed them. And he instilled in them a sort of philosophy, a peculiar blend of Zen mysticism and Spartan pride. He emphasized character, willpower and the need to lead a good life. Above all, he preached rock-hard self-discipline.

In the spring of 1980, Stewart brought Tyson to D’Amato’s gym for a kind of audition. Tyson was 5’8″ and 200 lbs. He fought three rounds against the tough, ring-wise Stewart, who eventually had to bloody Tyson’s nose to keep him from coming at him. At the end of the match, Stewart asked Cus, “What do you think?” D’Amato replied, “That’s the heavyweight champion of the world.”

The Catskill compound was more like a monastery than a training camp. Rooms were spare and food was plain, but manners were observed at the dinner table. The young men in camp were like acolytes studying for the warrior’s life, listening to long lectures from D’Amato about the nature of fear and their capacity for conquering it. Training schedules were sacred. Any infraction could cost a kid his place in camp. Outside the compound, Cus was widely respected as a man who kept his word. If he vouched for a kid, that was good enough for the police and school officials and state correctional officers.

The discipline was important to Atlas, a former boxer with a bad back who had learned to fight through pain and adversity. “Everyone had to live by certain rules in Cus’s house,” says Teddy. “Everyone but Mike.”

After a lifetime in boxing, after battling mob attempts to take over his fighters, after enduring poverty and scorn, D’Amato wanted one more trophy: another heavyweight champion. Years before, he had managed Floyd Patterson, who had become the youngest champion in heavyweight history. But now Cus was 70, and he sensed his own mortality. Time was running short for an encore.

“Other kids’d come in and they’d be good,” says Atlas. “Cus would say, ‘Yeah, but they aren’t heavyweights.’ ”

It was easy to tell that Cus was in a hurry. The common wisdom in boxing is that it takes 10 years to make a champion. “With Mike, we’ll do it in five,” he told Atlas with a wink.

Five, in fact, was all D’Amato had left. He died of pneumonia in late 1985, one year before Tyson won him his championship by pounding Trevor Berbick unconscious in the second round.

Back in September 1980, Tyson was enrolled in the eighth grade at Catskill High School. One day he went into the lunchroom at 10 a.m. and demanded to be fed. When he was refused, he started flinging cartons of milk against the wall. Another time, he assaulted a teacher. Then, in the fall of 1982, when Mike was 16, he allegedly “took liberties with someone’s physical body,” as Atlas puts it. The “body,” according to two sources, belonged to a teenage girl.

There were other accusations of unprovoked physical attacks by Tyson. The stories disturbed Atlas, who says he went to D’Amato and insisted that a firmer hand be taken with the boy. D’Amato replied that Atlas should be understanding, that Tyson came out of a reformatory, where he had no doubt been assaulted sexually himself. ” ‘Yeah, but Cus,’ I told him, ‘this ain’t right,’ ” recalls Atlas. Instead of clamping down on Tyson, he says, D’Amato covered up for him, protected him, fending off the authorities however he could. “Cus knew better,” says Atlas. “He took me in a room one night when I said I couldn’t take it anymore, and he locked the door. I says, ‘Hey, Cus, what are ya gonna do?’ And he takes the key and he shoves me down on the bed and he starts to shake his head. He’s telling me, ‘No!’ He believes that he can get his way through willpower, and now he’s using all of it on me. And I realized that Mike is gonna have his way.”

Despite D’Amato’s efforts to keep Mike in class and the lid on, Tyson left school after about two years. “Everyone forgot what we started out to do with this kid,” says Atlas. “Sure, we were gonna make him the champ. But we were gonna make a man outta him too. And everyone forgot about that.”

Those who saw Tyson during the early years can understand why D’Amato might simply have been mesmerized by the young fighter’s talents. Tyson’s workouts, they say, were marvelous to behold. “You can’t be stupid and become a world champion,” says Atlas. “It takes brains to learn to duck and move and hit. Mike was definitely not stupid. He worked hard in the gym, and he was definitely getting better and bigger.”

Still, Tyson’s out-of-the-ring wildness continued until Atlas could take it no longer. On two occasions, the trainer actually stuck a gun in the teenager’s face and threatened to blow his head off if he didn’t change. Both times, Tyson swore he would improve; both times, he broke his promise. Finally, in 1984, Atlas quit and went home to the city.

Despite the ominous direction the Tyson-Givens saga has taken of late, some in the boxing fraternity are still disposed to take a tolerant view of the champ’s erratic behavior. “Anyone could have an accident,” says José Torres, the former light-heavy-weight champion, who is now writing an unauthorized biography of Tyson. “And he would not be the first husband to tell his wife he was going to kill himself. This is all blown out of proportion because he’s the heavyweight champion of the world.”

Torres, who was initially in favor of the Tyson-Givens relationship, now believes that the fighter’s wife and her mother are alienating his old friends and leading him astray. Others agree with Atlas that though D’Amato taught Tyson everything about boxing, he left him dangerously untutored in the complexities of a life now made even more treacherous by money and fame. D’Amato’s memory is still fresh in Catskill. “Cus and Jimmy [Jacobs, Tyson’s co-manager, who died of pneumonia in March] were like his father image,” says Joe DiStefano, 53, who runs the barbershop next to the local gym. “He looked up to those guys. But the good Lord took them both away.”

People close to him say that before he died, Cus D’Amato glimpsed the truth. “There was nobody to give Mike Tyson guidance,” says Atlas. “I don’t think that Cus was happy about it. Not in the end, not when he saw what was happening. He got his champion, but at what price?”

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