Picks and Pans Review: Fire & Fear

by José Torres

Anyone who reads this detailed, compelling biography of heavyweight champ Mike Tyson will come away with an indelible impression. In the ring or out, Tyson, 23, seems to be a clicking bomb capable of going off at any time.

He was the youngest of Lorna Smith’s three children. His father, Jimmy Kirkpatrick, a disabled vet who lives in a housing project, had little to do with his son (the name Tyson is from a man his mother married briefly). Until he was 12, Tyson directed his fury at the Brooklyn ghetto dwellers of Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant. He is portrayed as thriving on violence, enjoying the sound of bone against flesh, finding comfort in the marijuana he smoked, the beer he drank, the goods he stole. “We were maniacs,” he tells Torres. “Sometimes, we got real crazy, nuts, got guns and started shooting in the neighborhood.”

Tyson ended up in a series of juvenile facilities. While in the Tryon School, a Johnstown, N.Y., reformatory, he first tried boxing. Impressed, camp trainer Bobby Stewart called in trainer Cus D’Amato. The aging D’Amato (he had trained heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson and light-heavyweight champ-turned-author Torres) saw in the 5’6″, then 186-lb. criminal an indestructible fighting machine. Under D’Amato’s care, young Tyson in 1986 became the youngest heavyweight champion in history.

Torres, a literary protégé of Norman Mailer and Budd Schulberg, has done a meticulous job. He knows his subject well (they met when Iron Mike was 12) and knows both ghetto life and the boxing mentality. He writes clearly and avoids easy clichés that often afflict boxing books. Author of a Muhammad Ali biography, he paces his book like a fighter paces a 15-round bout. The early chapters, on Tyson’s street education, are fast and furious, while the middle is more relaxed, showing how D’Amato shaped a champion. The book ends with a flourish, the arrival of TV actress Robin Givens and her turmoil-filled marriage to Tyson.

That marriage, Torres says, led Tyson to break off relationships with his friends, including Torres, align himself with promoter Don King and lash out at his manipulating wife. (Tyson’s interest in sex sometimes blends into his interest in violence: “I like to hurt women when I make love to them,” he told Torres. “I like to hear them scream with pain, to see them bleed.”) The final portrait of isolation that emerges is chilling.

Mike Tyson, the boy who sought comfort in violence, now battles his confusion under the public’s intrusive gaze. As this excellent biography confirms, Tyson’s ring future is most promising. Outside the ring, it’s another question. (Warner Books, $16.95)

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