Fighting to the Finish

When push came to shove, Mike Tyson and Robin Givens settled for a split decision

After an eight-month period of adjustment and a tumultuous summer in which all America kept a shameless vigil on the disintegration of their marriage, heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and his actress wife, Robin Givens, finally let their private bickering go flagrantly public and began a mudslinging finale of epic dimensions. Soon after the pigeon-fancying champ tossed an andiron through a window of their New Jersey mansion early this month, Givens flew the coop. Claiming to have been beaten and terrorized once too often by Tyson, she flew to California, where she was to tape the television sitcom Head of the Class and where, cynics noted, a divorcing wife is entitled to half her husband’s assets. There, indeed, she promptly filed for divorce. Back East, Tyson sulked, then rallied and prepared to countersue. While the nation clucked over the scandalous details, lawyers flocked to the warring camps. For better or worse, the Tysons appeared to have reached the end of a spectacularly bumpy marital road.

“I should have known about his violent nature the first time he took me to his apartment,” said the 24-year-old actress, speaking last week from a Los Angeles retreat. “We were on the street in New York just after we started dating in May of 1987, and he just picked me up and carried me to 41st Street, where he lived. I didn’t want to go. But I was very much in love. When I wanted to leave, Michael hit me in the back of the head. It felt like my head would come off. But that isn’t what should have set off the alarms. What should have alerted me was the fact that he was living with Steve Lott [his assistant manager], and Steve came out of the bedroom, saw Michael hit me and just turned around and went back into the bedroom. In other words, it wasn’t so unusual. In other words, Steve Lott knew!” (Lott has refused to comment.)

Givens may have had some early glimpses of the darkness ahead, but Tyson apparently didn’t know the honeymoon was over until his wife hired divorce specialist Marvin Mitchelson to unplight her troth. In response, the 22-year-old champ retreated to a familiar world in which hitting is the norm and not grounds for a lawsuit. “I’m straight, everything’s over with,” a strangely upbeat Tyson announced on arrival at boxing promoter Don King’s training camp outside Cleveland. “It may be a blessing in disguise. I’m a human being, and I’m in love. Sometimes the person you’re in love with doesn’t give back as much as you give.”

Never at a loss for advisers, Tyson quickly contracted another one, signing on with legal heavyweight Howard Weitzman who may try to protect the champ’s $50 million fortune by seeking to have Tyson’s marriage to Givens annulled. Weitzman intends to investigate whether Givens tricked Tyson into marrying her last February by pretending to be pregnant. The actress was reported to have suffered a miscarriage in June; reports to the contrary, she maintains, are malicious. “Michael knows the truth, and the doctor knows the truth,” she says. “I am hurt and disappointed at Michael’s complete lack of loyalty.” Remarkably, Givens still professes her love for Tyson, although she has taken the precaution of obtaining a temporary restraining order requiring that he stay at least 1,000 yards from her home and studio.

Initial reaction to Givens’ move to dump Tyson indicated that she was not universally perceived as a victim. Raoul Felder, the state-of-the-art New York divorce lawyer, delivered a devastating assessment of her motives. The eight-month marriage, he said, seemed a “very obvious and, I must say, a rather shabby ploy” to get Tyson’s money. Felder changed his tune when Givens abruptly fired Mitchelson and hired him. “Well, she was obviously a victim,” he said, demonstrating a nimbleness Tyson might envy. “And besides, you can’t believe everything you read in the press.”

When Tyson and Givens met early in 1987, he was, by all accounts, instantly besotted. “That’s the girl I’m going to marry,” Tyson told Camille Ewald, 83, sister-in-law of the fighter’s late mentor and manager, Cus D’Amato. It was a poignant moment. “Mike thought no woman could love him,” recalls Ewald. “He never thought of himself as good enough for anybody. And he never thought he was handsome.”

Even then, Givens and Tyson seemed an unlikely match. She was the product of private schools; he was a child of the streets, rescued from a correctional home when he was 13. The tensions between them were obvious when the couple spent a delayed honeymoon in the Bahamas. Professional tennis player Lori McNeil, Givens’ friend, was staying at the resort, and the three of them had been drinking in a hotel lounge. “Michael was drinking too much,” says McNeil, “so me and Robin left. Michael comes after us and he breaks down the door. He starts throwing pitchers and glasses, and then he just sits down and watches television. We thought, ‘Maybe it’s over,’ but then he grabs Robin and starts hitting her. Kicking her. I was screaming, and he turned and hit me, and my lip started to bleed. She’s laying on the floor, and someone called security and there are eight or nine guys there and Michael takes off his shirt, is yelling, cursing, saying that they are going to have to deal with him.”

Perhaps the strangest episode of the soap opera that unfolded over the following weeks was last month’s 20/20 interview, during which a docile Tyson silently stroked his wife’s neck while she described him to Barbara Walters as a violent and dangerous “manic-depressive.” Like everything else in their lives, the interview almost instantly became a bone of contention. “He insisted on doing it,” says Givens. “He told me that you cannot snub Barbara Walters. I thought, ‘Oh, well, if this gets him to treatment, it’ll be good.’ ” For his part, Tyson now claims that, at his wife’s insistence, he was under the heavily tranquilizing influence of Thorazine and lithium during the interview. “People say the medication would ruin his ability to fight,” she says. “He is a fighter, and it is part of his job to be dangerous in the ring. But there is a life outside of the ring, and he has to live there, too.”

Though it is difficult to imagine Tyson living with her, Givens has claimed, perhaps disingenuously, that she would welcome a reconciliation. “I have feelings for him,” she said. “I would like everyone else to get out of our way and to get back together.” Rematches, unfortunately, more often produce good fights than good marriages.

—Additional reporting by Victoria Balfour in Catskill, N.Y., and Dan Knapp in Los Angeles

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