I recall it like it was yesterday, meeting a young 17-year old Mike Tyson at a boxing gym up in the Wakefield area of the Bronx. Tyson walked behind Cus d’amato, his coach, mentor, and surrogate father after a long drive down from Catskill, NY.
You listened to Cus. He was respected in boxing and as old school as it gets. By chance, d’amato knew some old friends that converted a neighborhood movie theatre into a spacious gym for the community. The Wakefield boxing gym was an outlet for the youngsters.
The gym became home to more than one amateur and pro fighter. When the doors closed it was all business. Mike Tyson heard the instruction from Cus and quickly went to work. He hit the bags and circled the ring. It was poetry in motion and then Cus d’amato, with a customary white towel on his shoulder, took me to the side.
“You are looking at the next and youngest heavyweight champion of the world,” d’amato said to me on that cold February day in 1982.
I was dispatched to do a column about the gym for a weekly tabloid known as “The Bronx News” and we watched Tyson do his work. I questioned that comment but saw it with my own eyes.
The angle of the column changed. Mike Tyson and not the gym was the story. A few years later, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion at the age of 20 after knocking out WBC champion Trevor Berbick in the second round.
I learned to never question Cus again. It was the beginning of another era for the heavyweights after Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes and others cemented their names in boxing history.
Years before, though, Mike Tyson was groomed to become a heavyweight champion. You know the history, the controversy. Media guys like me know the history of Mike Tyson. We experienced at ringside his canyon of fists and his rage that was out of the ring.
So Tuesday night, I was with many who viewed “Mike Tyson The Knockout” the first of consecutive weekly two hours on ABC that relived the knockouts and persona of Mike Tyson.
Yeah it was compelling. And of course it was reality that evolved before our eyes at ringside, in hotel lobbies, at press conferences that became theatre with Hall of Fame promoter Don King.
And that bizarre behavior in the ring. I was at ringside with colleagues and still see Mike Tyson angered after a disqualification from repeatedly biting the ear of Evander Holyfield during their heavyweight title rematch in 1997 at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas.
Now, 35 years later, after winning that heavyweight title, Mike Tyson’s success, turmoil, and revival remains. He is that icon out of a sport that has many and who else would generate over 1.5 million pay-per-view buys as 54- year old Mike Tyson did when he fought to a exhibition draw against fellow Hall of Famer Roy Jones Jr. in late November.
Then, as now, Mike Tyson is still a headline. He has that persona and always did to make the story. Again, I saw that first hand on that day in the Wakefield Boxing Gym.
My longtime colleague Wallace Matthews, then writing for NY Newsday and the New York Post, covered Tyson often and saw the persona. Matthews was one of the few that traveled to Japan and witnessed Buster Douglas dethrone Tyson of the heavyweight title in what is still considered the all-time upset in boxing history.
Matthews, an award winning Boxing writer of the year has never backed down from his subject and Tyson was no exception. My colleague is heard and seen often on “The Knockout.” In reality, Mike Tyson was The “Baddest Man on the Planet,” described as the coming of reality TV.
“You couldn’t keep up with it,” said Matthews. “This guy basically was reality television before reality TV was invented.”
In reality, though, Mike Tyson was a force of nature who dominated the heavyweight division in the 1980’s with knockout power that made him one of the biggest attractions in America. He won his first 19 professional fights by knockout, ending 12 of them in the first round.
That appeal transcended boxing as evidenced by his perpetual presence in all types of media outlets. I remember how that popularity peaked with his 91-second knockout of Michael Spinks in 1988.
But we remember that negative attention out of the ring and fallout from an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC’s 20/20 in which Tyson admitted to beating his wife Robin Givens along with the coverage of his rape conviction in Indiana in 1992.
Years later, I caught up with Mike Tyson at a Comic-Con Convention in New York City. Tyson was there to promote his animated show “Mike Tyson Mysteries” that solved mysteries like “Scooby-Doo” does, a series that did not last long but still runs in syndication. Tyson voiced his character, who tackled problems with help from the Mike Tyson Mystery team.
I asked Mike then, “Do you remember me?” He said, “ Yeah you were the guy that interviewed me at that gym in the Bronx with Cus.” He did not remember how many questions I asked him over the years and the fierce look that came with his response.
That connection returned. It was a different and calm Mike Tyson. He mentioned Wally Matthews and said the media was right about him being the bad guy.
Yes, he was a must story and still is with a legends boxing promotion and other ventures including some action in a AEW wrestling ring on TNT. But Mike Tyson made our job easier because he was the story.
Years later that persona and those knockouts are a part of boxing history and always will be.
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