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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Mike Tyson: Dr. K.O.

All fighters come from mean streets and lower depths. Champions such as Sonny Liston, Archie Moore, Jake LaMotta, Dwight Braxton, and Macho Camacho have sur­vived prison detours. Mike Tyson, who could be the next great fighter, comes from the mean streets of Bed-Stuy and is a survivor of a penal institution for incor­rigible boys. When Tyson was 13 years old he moved directly from an upstate reformatory — where he’d spent two years — into the communal home of Cus D’Amato — boxing’s supreme teacher, psychologist, moralist, saver of souls, and father-substitute. D’Amato died last month at 77, and Mike Tyson, at 19, is his unfinished masterpiece.

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At this point, only boxing buffs know Mike Tyson’s name. He’s had only 13 professional fights — all awesome knock­out demolitions, nine in the first round — but he hasn’t appeared yet on network television. On March 23, 1985, he started his professional career fighting for $500. Since then he has fought in Albany, Houston, and Atlantic City. He does not have the kind of six-figure, multifight television contract that the 1984 Olympic champions received at the birth of their pro careers. He has been booked, and then bumped, from four cable-TV fights. This Friday night he makes his 10-round debut on his native ground, at the Felt Forum, against Sam Scaff for $5000.

Tyson started in boxing’s outside lane because he did not have the marketing advantage of an Olympic gold medal. He did not have the headstart glitz of past Olympic boxing champions like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Frazier, Michael and Leon Spinks, Floyd Patter­son, or George Foreman — or even of Ty­rell Biggs and Henry Tillman, the Olym­pic super-heavyweight and heavyweight gold medalists of the 1984 games in Los Angeles. All Tyson has is the power, speed, and character that might consti­tute ring genius.

The politics of amateur boxing cheated Tyson out of his rightful place on Ameri­ca’s 1984 Olympic boxing team. Cus D’Amato was advised, in a friendly way, not to even enter Tyson in the super-heavy­weight trials because that berth was reserved for Tyrell Biggs. And Tyson was robbed of two decisions in elimination fights with Tillman for the right to be the heavyweight on the Olympic squad. In one of those three-round fights Tyson scored a clean knockdown, and in the other he nearly chased Tillman out of the ring. But he lost split decisions each time.

Afterward, Tyson smashed the second­ place trophy against the wall of his dressing room.

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Tyson was not even a New York City Golden Gloves champion, like current pro contenders Carl “The Truth” Wil­liams, Eddie Gregg, and Mitch Green. Tyson had only 25 amateur fights. He never entered the Gloves during the years he was a secret being sculpted by Cus D’Amato in a gym above the police sta­tion in rural Catskill, New York, 100 miles from the deprivations and temptations of Bed-Stuy.

During those decisive years, when Ty­son was between 13 and 19, Cus D’Amato taught him everything he knew about boxing, for which Tyson had an instinc­tive aptitude, and about life — which is so much harder to learn, and for which Ty­son had only the primitive preparation of the streets and jail.

Inside the ring, Tyson quickly mas­tered the signature D’Amato moves of elusive aggression that made Floyd Pat­terson and Jose Torres (both former pu­pils of D’Amato) champions: bending at the knees to maintain balance and posi­tion; holding your gloves high, next to the cheekbones; keeping your chin down; get­ting under and inside the opponent’s jab; punching straight, short, and fast from the shoulder; and stepping to the side and throwing a left hook to the liver. (“The punch nobody can take,” Tyson says.)

During the long country walks, com­munal meals, and quiet evenings of watching grainy black and white films of the boxing masters of the past, D’Amato imparted to Tyson his special blend of psychology and philosophy. The key to it is what D’Amato called the “cultivation of character.” To Cus, “character” was a mystical combination of will, courage, self-denial, self-respect, and intensity. Cus told all his fighters, “The hero and the coward both feel exactly the same fear, only the hero confronts his fear and converts it into fire.”

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Cus also said that fighters of good skill and great character will often beat an opponent of superior skill but less character.

Cus also conveyed to Tyson his idea of the goal of the trainer-fighter relation­ship: for the fighter to eventually become completely independent of the trainer, and for the trainer to make himself obso­lete. This was one reason why D’Amato himself never worked in Tyson’s corner; he wanted to nurture in Tyson the confi­dence of self-sufficiency during a fight, so he would not feel dependent on an external adviser.

Five years ago my friend José Torres told me that D’Amato had found a trou­bled 14-year-old “kid from Brooklyn who is going to become the heavyweight champion of the world.” D’Amato had discovered Jose in the squalor of Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1957 when Jose was still an amateur, and guided him not just to a world championship but to a successful second act as a writer and state commis­sioner after his boxing career was over. Along the way Cus never had a written contract with José. Cus never took a dime from all the money José earned during his career, because Cus felt he was making enough money to live on from Floyd Patterson’s purses. When José was broke and on the way up, Cus paid for his wed­ding. When Cus died, he left no material assets or estate; he hadn’t had a bank account for 15 years. Jim Jacobs, Cus’s best friend, paid all of his expenses.

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So one morning in 1980, José and I went to the gym above the police station in Catskill, and we saw the future. Tyson was then 14 years old, 200 pounds, and about five-six. Outside the ring he seemed withdrawn and sullen. Inside the ring he was a manchild prodigy puncher. Toward Cus he displayed the beginnings of trust and affection.

On the day Cus died last month, Tyson cried and was inconsolable. The next day José Torres drove him to the train that would take him back to Catskill and spoke to Tyson fighter-to-fighter, brother-to-brother, since Cus had been a father to both of them.

“Who is going to teach me now?” Tyson asked. ”I was learning every day with Cus.”

Torres answered: “Cus had enough time. You know everything already. You now know everything Cus could teach you. Cus gave you inspiration. All you need now is experience, confidence, and desire.”

That same night I happened to read my daughter the end of E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” the chapter where the brave old spider dies, consoled by the ­knowledge that her eggs are rescued and about to be hatched.

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•••

The history of boxing is the history of immigrant succession in America. Fighters don’t come from prep schools or seminaries. The best way to understand this dangerous, corrupt, and disorganized sport is through the eyes of Charles Darwin.

When the Irish were the urban under­class after the famine of 1848, the great champions were John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, and Torry McGovern. The generation of Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Russia and Europe produced, during the ’20s and ’30s, Benjamin Leiner, known as Benny Leonard, and Beryl David Rosofsky, known as Barney Ross.

In the ’30s and ’40s, blacks found box­ing as an exit from the slum, and started to dominate the sport. Out of the jobless Detroit ghetto, at the bottom of the Depression, stormed Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. From Los Angeles came the first triple champion, Henry Armstrong.

In the ’60s and ’70s, great fighters emerged out of Latin America’s third world poverty: Roberto Duran from Pan­ama, Wilfredo Gomez from Puerto Rico, Carlos Monzon from Argentina, Alexis Arguello from Nicaragua, Jose Napoles from Cuba, Ruben Oliyares and Salvador Sanchez from Mexico.

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And so Mike Tyson was born in Brook­lyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant in July 1966 into an environment of riots, heroin, crime, disintegrating family structure, and collapsing public schools. He was born on Franklin Avenue, between De­Kalb and Willoughby, not far from where another fighter of the future, Mark Bre­land — the 1984 Olympic welterweight gold medal winner — was growing up. When Tyson was about nine, he moved to Brownsville, which is even more impover­ished than Bed-Stuy.

It is probably a miracle that Mike Ty­son did not die in a shootout with police, or end up doing 25 years in Attica. By the time he was 10 or 11 years old he was a remorseless predator, disconnected from society, doing muggings, stick-ups, and holding the gun during armed robberies, “because I was a juvenile.” Once he was knifed in the face by someone he had beaten in a fair fight.

Tyson attended the same public school I did — P.S. 54, at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Hart Street. He was a good student at the beginning, but by fifth grade he had become a chronic truant. “I knew who my father was, but he never lived with us,” Tyson says. Abnormally strong for his age, he was able to knock kids five years older unconscious in street fights. They would jab and jive like Ali, and Tyson would rush in and land his punch of natural power.

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“I started hanging out with a bad crowd,” he recalls now. “After I was about 10, I lived on the street. We robbed stores, gas stations, everything. I got ar­rested lots of times. I can’t count how many. They put me in a lot of different places that I escaped from. I just walked out in the middle of the night because they had no fences. I was in Spofford House in the Bronx for about eight months. Then I got convicted of assault and they sentenced me to 18 months in Tryon, a school for bad boys. But the held me overtime. I did two years because I knocked out a few guards and some residents. I was hyper in Tryon, and I couldn’t escape. I felt cooped up and frustrated with all my energy, so I had a lot of fights. But please, don’t think I was a murderer or anything like that. I wasn’t that bad.”

The confidentiality provisions of the state’s social services law prohibited the administration and counselors at the Tryon School in Johnstown, New York, from talking for quotation about Tyson. But off-the-record they are all proud of the kid they remember as originally the most difficult of 35 residents who lived in medium-security Elmwood Cottage. In April 1984, the state’s youth services commissioner, Leonard Dunston, presented Tyson with a plaque for accom­plishment after being a resident in a state juvenile facility.

When Tyson first arrived at Tryon he was “violent, depressed, and mute,” ac­cording to one of his counselors. After a couple months he discovered boxing with gloves instead of fists. One of the guards at Tryon was Bobby Stewart, a former pro boxer who knew about D’Amato’s boxing club in nearby Catskill. Stewart arranged a meeting during which he sparred with Tyson in front of Cus. Even­tually, Tyson was paroled into Cus D’Amato’s custody. He moved in with Cus; Cus’s companion of 45 years, Ca­mille Ewald; Kevin Rooney, Cus’s loyal fighter from Staten Island, who would become Tyson’s friend and trainer; and the other young boxers who were part of the extended D’Amato family.

Things did not go smoothly at first. Cus enrolled Tyson in the local public school, but Tyson knocked out a few classmates, and Cus had to arrange for a private tutor to visit the house.

For the next six years D’Amato and Tyson worked and talked together every day. Tyson not only learned how to box from Cus, he learned the rules of civilized society. He also learned Cus’s code of honor: loyalty, perfectionism, courage. And no contact with — and no compro­mise with — the corrupters and connivers of boxing.

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By being such a gifted pupil, Tyson, in return, gave Cus the treasure of looking forward to the future. He made Cus feel young again. Cus felt like it was 1962 again, and José Torres was undefeated, and Paul Pender, the middleweight champion, was ducking his fighter. With Tyson’s father absent, and his mother (now deceased) living in Brooklyn, Cus became Tyson’s legal guardian.

Some fighters can be obnoxious bullies outside the ring. But every fighter Cus ever trained was a considerate gentleman. And under Cus’s tutelage, Tyson, too, began to feel free to display playfulness and even tenderness. He returned to an old hobby he’d had in Brooklyn — collecting pigeons. Tyson now spends hours training and playing with his collection of 100 pigeons. The birds give him peace, and are his second favorite form of recreation.

His favorite relaxation — also a solitary pursuit — is studying old boxing movies on a big screen in his bedroom. His co-managers, Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, own the world’s largest collection of boxing films and tapes — about 26,000. Their company, Big Fights Inc., is a $20 million corporation that sells the rights to show these films. So Tyson has access to his own vast film archive of past champions. He has become an authentic historian and scholar of the sweet science.

When I asked Tyson about the cham­pions of the past he most admired and identified with, I got answers that were surprising and revealing. I had anticipat­ed his identification with pure punchers like Liston and Foreman, but he dis­missed them as “just ponderous guys without too much brains.”

His favorite fighter, he said, was Rocky Marciano. “He broke their will,” Tyson said with reverence. “He was constantly coming in. But he swayed low, so the punches hit him on the shoulder. He didn’t get hit as much as people think he did. And we have in common fighting guys with longer reach.”

The second champion Tyson men­tioned was Tony Canzoneri, the clever-­aggressive, five-four, two-time light­weight champion during the 1930s. “Canzoneri had incredible guts and de­sire,” Tyson said. “And he was so smart.”

“And I love Henry Armstrong,” Tyson volunteered. “You know, Cus thought he was the best boxer who ever lived.”

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•••

Six days after Tyson was a pallbearer at Cus D’Amato’s funeral, he was sched­uled to fight Eddie Richardson in Hous­ton, Texas, for $2500. Jim Jacobs, Tyson ‘s co-manager with Bill Cayton, contemplated calling the fight off when he saw how “traumatized” Tyson had been by the death of D’Amato. But Ty­son wanted to go through with the fight; whatever grief and loss he felt, he would not let it interfere with Cus’s radical plan of fighting every 10 days to acquire experience and confidence. When boxing writ­ers in Houston asked him if he was emotionally prepared to fight so soon after Cus’s burial, Tyson told them: “I have certain objectives, and I’m going to fulfill them.” Jim Jacobs never saw him so ”res­olute and determined.”

Cus had been telling the boxing com­munity for years that Tyson was going to be “the youngest heavyweight champion in history,” and Tyson wants to make Cus a prophet. Under Cus’s direction, Floyd Patterson became champion at 21 years and nine months, and Tyson, not yet 20, has set his mind to break that record, even though it places him under the pressure of an artificial timetable.

At this infant stage of Tyson’s career, there are naturally unanswered questions about what hidden weaknesses might lurk beneath his growing aura of invinci­bility. Other fighters have looked like un­beatable monsters, only to have tiny flaws exposed and broken open under pressure from great rivals in big fights. Muhammad Ali unmasked George Fore­man’s lack of stamina and mechanistic inability to adjust his tactics and style. Larry Holmes revealed Gerry Cooney’s lack of confidence in his own endurance, and his demoralization when someone took his best shot and was still standing. Sugar Ray Leonard found weakness in Thomas Hearns’s chin, and ignorance of how to clinch when dazed.

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So in Texas, the herd of boxing writers seized upon Tyson’s height and reach as the potential flaw in this jewel. Tyson, at five-eleven and a half, is short when com­pared to Foreman, Ali, or Holmes. Since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title in 1908, only two heavyweight champions have been under six feet — Rocky Mar­ciano and Joe Frazier. And Tyson’s reach is not nearly as long as future rivals like Pinklon Thomas, Tyrell Biggs, Tim Witherspoon, Greg Page, Carl Williams, Gerry Cooney, or Michael Spinks. And his opponent in Houston was Eddie Richardson, who is six feet six inches tall, with a reach advantage of about nine inches.

“Are you too short to be a heavy­weight?” the skeptical writers kept ask­ing Tyson before the fight.

“None of my past opponents say that,” was Tyson’s standard reply.

Richardson was an adequate journey­man fighter — he had 12 wins and two losses going into the bout, with eight knockouts. Tyson had won all his 11 fights by knockouts.

The fight in Houston lasted 77 sec­onds. The first punch Tyson threw — a freight-train overhand right — knocked Richardson down. He got up, but Tyson, advancing in crouch, hit him with a left hook so fast that Richardson never saw it coming. Richardson seemed to be lifted off the canvas by the force of the blow, and fell backwards like a sawed-down tree. He was counted out.

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In the dressing room, before the local writers could formulate their questions, a pumped-up Tyson asked: “Do you still think I’m too short?” When an interview­er asked Tyson what lessons he had learned from D’Amato, he answered: “To face your problems.”

Several viewings of the tape of this fight, and the tape of Tyson’s one-round knockout in September of the six foot four Donnie Long, suggest the simple es­sence of Tyson’s distinction. He punches harder than anybody else. It was this raw natural power that Cus D’Amato saw when Tyson was 13 years old and still in a prison for adolescents. D’Amato merely concentrated and refined this power by teaching Tyson to punch in a shorter arc, improve his timing and hand speed, and develop a left hook that is just as power­ful as his right. D’Amato discovered Ty­son, but he didn’t invent him.

Tyson’s victims all say afterward that they have never been hit so hard. Donnie Long, who had never been knocked out before, said Tyson’s punch “felt like a blackjack.” Sterling Benjamin, who suc­cumbed in 54 seconds, said it felt “like a sledgehammer hit me.” He was put down by a left hook to the liver — Tyson’s punch “nobody can take.”

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John Condon is the head of Madison Square Garden’s boxing department. He has been around fighters for 30 years. He told me: “I have never seen anybody punch like Tyson. Not Marciano, not Lis­ton. Nobody. He would knock out Gerry Cooney today in one round. His trouble will be no one is going to want to fight him.”

Nobody can give a professional fighter this magnitude of punching authority. It comes from nature’s chemistry of lever­age, upper-body strength, timing, and quickness of hand that prevents the op­ponent from preparing his nervous sys­tem for the impact. Professionals get knocked out by the punch they don’t see coming.

One-punch destroyers have come in all shapes and physiques. A surprising num­ber of legendary hitters have been tall and thin: Ray Robinson, Sandy Saddler, Bob Foster, Thomas Hearns, Carlos Zarate, and Alexis Arguello. An equal num­ber have been compact, strong, and stocky: Stanley Ketchel, Joe Frazier, Ar­chie Moore, Sonny Liston, Wilfredo Go­mez, and Rocky Marciano.

Whatever the secret formula is, Tyson was born with it. But a punch by itself is no guarantee of success or greatness. It must exist in combination with other qualities  “character,” defense, and in­telligence. And there must not be that small vulnerability that some future foe will find and exploit in a contest the whole world is watching.

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Perhaps the most common unseen vul­nerability in young prospects is the in­ability to take a punch. This quality can­not be taught, and it cannot be known until it is tested in an actual fight. Cus thought the ability to take a punch was a reflection of character and will. Other trainers believe the ability to relax in the ring and the thickness of the neck as a shock absorber are also factors in avoid­ing being knocked out. This capacity to survive the other man’s best blow was one of the dimensions that made Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Harry Greb, Henry Armstrong, Carmen Basilio, Sandy Saddler, and Sug­ar Ray Leonard boxing immortals. Tyson told me: ”I know I can take a great punch, but I don’t want to have to prove it.”

Tyson’s extraordinary 19-and-a-half-­inch neck is a good indication he can probably take a great punch. But he was once tested in this regard, in his toughest amateur fight.

This involuntary experiment occurred in the heavyweight finals of the Empire State Games in April of 1984, just before the Olympic trials. Tyson, then not yet 18, was fighting Winston Bent, the reign­ing New York City Golden Gloves champion.

During an exchange in the second round, Bent jolted Tyson with a right hand to the temple. Tyson punched back with fury. He did not go down. He did not retreat. And in the next round he knocked Bent out. It was an example of what Cus D’ Amato meant when he talked about “character” in a fighter.

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•••

On November 22 — nine days after his knockout in Texas — Tyson was in the ring again. The· location was Albany, and his opponent was Conroy Nelson, six foot five inches, and with a professional re­cord of 19 wins and five losses. He had a 10-inch reach advantage.

The venue was a music tent, sold out with 3000 people plus 400 standees on a cold, rainy night. They’d all come to see Tyson, who has become a hero in the Albany-Troy-Schnectady area. (The tele­vision networks are now considering showing Tyson for the first time in February, and staging the fight in the Albany area so there will be an enthusiastic live crowd rather than the usual indifferent gamblers and tourists who attend the fights staged in the Atlantic City and Nevada casino hotels.)

The second Tyson departed his trailer dressing room — wearing no socks and no robe; as is his tradition — the crowd start­ed screaming. And Tyson, who learned from Cus there is an entertainment and personality aspect to boxing, smiled and interacted with his fans.

At the opening bell Tyson sprang to the attack, immediately imposing his will and energy level on his opponent. Nelson retreated and covered his head with his gloves. Tyson stepped to the side and went to the body with supersonic hooks to the liver and kidney.

George Foreman at 26 did not have enough poise, flexibility, or intelligence to do this with Muhammad Ali in Zaire. Foreman kept trying to punch through Ali’s parrying gloves, and hit him in his bobbing and twisting head, instead of his stationary body. Foreman kept missing, got frustrated and exhausted, and Ali knocked him out. But Tyson, at 19, had the wisdom and patience to feast on Nelson’s exposed ribs until his hands came down, his breath came in gasps, and his legs lost their spring.

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Twenty seconds into the second round Tyson hit Nelson with one short, perfect­ly timed left hook that smashed the bridge of Nelson’s nose into pieces. Nel­son went down, managed to get to one knee at the count of nine, and then with his fearful eyes and tentative body lan­guage, signaled the referee that he didn’t wish to continue.

As soon as the bout was over a 10-year-­old kid named Tony, who trained with Cus, jumped into the ring, and held up a homemade sign that said: GOODEN IS DR. K — BUT TYSON IS DR. KO.

Afterward, in the trailer, with a trace of irritation, Tyson answered unusually silly questions from some of the local press. One scribe asked about a local politician who wanted to shut down Cus’s Catskill gym because it was “dirty.” Tyson and Kevin Rooney said they never heard of the crazy idea.

Another reporter asked Tyson if he ex­pected to win all his fights by knockouts. “That’s not possible,” Tyson the Histori­an replied. “Joe Louis didn’t knock out every opponent. Schmeling didn’t either. Nobody can.”

After the local press left, I followed José Torres behind a curtain, where he embraced Tyson. Tyson whispered, “Cus would have been proud.”

The following morning, Tyson told Ca­mille: “It was just like Cus was there. Everything he taught me came back to me.”

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•••

Boxing is now in a phase of transition. The Age of Muhammad Ali is over. Mar­vin Hagler is so magnificent he has run out of relevant competition. Boxing is at such a low ebb that Gerry Cooney, who has never beaten a legitimate contender under 35 years old, is being considered for a heavyweight title fight when his only credential is his white skin.

But about to dance on stage is the next generation of Mark Breland, Pernell Whitaker, and Mike Tyson. If boxing is going to be cleansed of its monopolistic manipulations and counterfeit crowns, it will occur when these three rising stars with honest managers become free and independent champions, liberated from phony rating organizations and option contracts to promoters.

So watch Mike Tyson, Cus’s kid from Brooklyn, this Friday night at the Felt Forum. He has overcome every adversity to redeem a wayward life and become a role model to a lost generation of the ghetto.

But while watching him, remember he is just 19. Inside his man’s body are teen­age emotions and inexperience. He has been a professional boxer less than nine months. He has never gone more than four rounds outside the gym. He has nev­er gone 10 rounds, much less the champi­onship 15.

There will be more tests to find hidden flaws in Tyson. We haven’t seen what will happen the first time some freak just shrugs off his punch. We don’t know how Tyson will handle the money and celebri­ty that are about to crash into his order­ly, ritualized life.

The Tyson we will see Friday night is not yet Muhammad Ali, or Joe Frazier, or Rocky Marciano. But at 19 he is more advanced than they were at 19. And 12 or 15 months from now, Mike Tyson could become the youngest heavyweight champion in history. Just as Cus D’Amato and his extended family knew years ago.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Up the Stairs with Cus D’Amato

In those days, you had to pass a small candy stand to get to the door of the Gramercy Gym on East 14th Street. The door was heavy, with painted zinc nailed across its face and a misspelled sign saying “Gramacy Gym,” and when you opened the door, you saw a long badly lit stairway, climbing into darkness. There was another door on the landing, and a lot of tough New York kids would reach that landing and find themselves unable to open the second door. They’d go back down the stairs, try to look cool as they bought a soda at the candy stand, then hurry home. Many others opened the second door. And when they did, they entered the tough, hard, disciplined school of a man named Cus D’Amato.

“First thing I want to know about a kid,” Cus said to me once, on some lost night in the ’50s, “is whether he can open that door. Then when he walks in, I look at him, try to see what he’s seeing. Most of them stand at the door. They see guys skipping rope, shadowboxing, hitting the bags. Most of all, they see guys in the ring. Fighting. And then they have to decide. Do they want this, or not? If they want it, they stay, they ask someone what they should do. Most of them are shy, for some reason. Almost all fighters. They whisper. You tell them to come back, and you’ll see what can be done. They have to spend at least one night dealing with fear. If they come back the second time, then maybe you have a fighter.”

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I wasn’t a fighter, but I came up those stairs almost every day in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and in some important ways I learned as much from Cus D’Amato as the fighters did. I was living then on 9th Street and Second Avenue, working nights at the Post, and I’d wake up around three in the afternoon and walk to 14th Street and hang out with the fighters. My friend José Torres was then the hottest young middleweight in the city and one of Cus D’Amato’s fighters. He had lost by one point to Laszlo Papp in the finals of the ’56 Olympics in Melbourne, and when he came to New York from Puerto Rico he placed his career in the hands of Cus.

“I didn’t know anything about New York,” he said. “I didn’t know very much about boxing. Most of all, I didn’t know anything about life. So I learned about everything then from Cus.”

Cus, who died last week at 77 after a long struggle with pneumonia, was one of the best teachers I ever met. He was a tough, intelligent man who was almost Victorian in his beliefs in work and self-denial and fierce concentration. For years he’d lived alone in the office of the gym, accompanied only by a huge boxer dog named Champ; there were books on the shelves (he loved the Civil War and essays on strategy and tactics and almost never read novels, although he admired W. C. Heinz’s The Professional) and a gun somewhere and a small black-and-­white TV set and a pay phone on the wall. After Floyd Patterson became champion in 1956, Cus took an apartment over a coffee shop on 53rd Street and Broadway and bought some elegantly tailored clothes and a homburg; but, talking to him, I always sensed that his idea of paradise was that room and the cot in the office of the Gramercy Gym.

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“You can’t want too many things,” he said to me one wintry evening, after the fighters had gone, the speed bags were stilled, and we stood at the large gym windows while snow fell into 14th Street. “The beginning of corruption is wanting things. You want a car or a fancy house or a piano, and the next thing you know, you’re doing things you didn’t want to do, just to get the things. I guess maybe that’s why I never got married. It wasn’t that I didn’t like women. They’re nice. It’s nice. It’s that women want things, and if I want the woman, then I have to want the things she wants. Hey, I don’t want a new refrigerator, or a big TV set, or a new couch … ”

Cus wanted his fighters to be champions, to have money and glory; but he truly didn’t seem to want much for himself. Once a bum made his way to the Gramercy from the White Rose bar across the street; Cus gave him a dollar; the next day, five bums showed up, and the day after that, almost 40. The fighters laughed, as Cus dispensed singles; and then Cus said, “That’s it, that’s all! You want to come back here, bring trunks!” He was a sucker for old fighters. Once when Cus had the shorts (he had to declare bankruptcy in 1971) Ezzard Charles came around to see him; the great light-heavyweight and former heavyweight champion was a broken man, confined to a wheelchair; he needed a thousand, and Cus borrowed the money, gave it to the old champion, and never heard from Charles again. When Patterson won the championship by knocking out Archie Moore on November 30, 1956, Cus used his share of the purse to make Floyd an elaborate $35,000 jewel-encrusted crown; a few years later, Patterson wouldn’t even talk to Cus. Cus once quoted Gene Fowler to me: “Money is something to throw off the back of trains.”

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He loved style in fighters and in writers, too. His favorite sports writers were Jimmy Cannon, Dick Young, and Dan Parker, all of whom took shots at him in print from time to time (“I don’t mind, they gotta job to do and I’m not perfect”), but he also said that the sports writer who moved him most consistently was the elegant Frank Graham of the Journal-American. Later, when Torres became friends with Norman Mailer, Cus started to read his work, as if inspecting it for signs of moral decay. “The guy is really good, isn’t he? He’s like a Robinson, he can box, he can punch … ”

He cherished great fighters — Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sandy Saddler, Willie Pep, Tommy Loughran — but sometimes, late at night, sitting over coffee, he’d talk about the fighter that didn’t exist: the perfect fighter, the masterpiece. “The ideal fighter has heart, skill, movement, intelligence, creativity. You can have everything, but if you can’t make it up while you’re in there, you can’t be great. A lot of guys have the mechanics and no heart; lots of guys have heart, no mechanics; the thing that puts it together, it’s mysterious, it’s like making a work of art, you bring everything to it, you make it up when you’re doing it.”

Toward the end, he thought perhaps that he had the perfect heayweight at last in young Michael Tyson, who has now knocked out all nine of his professional opponents, six in the first round. “He’s strong, he’s brave, he’s in condition, and most of all, he’s got that other thing, the mysterious thing,” Cus said, the last time I saw him. “I have no doubt he’ll be a champion. But more than that, he might be a great fighter.”

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There were a lot of good fighters at the Gramercy in the late ‘5os: Joe Shaw, a fierce-punching 140-pounder; light-heavyweight Jim Boyd, who’d won the gold medal in Melbourne; two more light-heavyweights, named Sylvester Banks and Paul Wright; a wonderful southpaw featherweight named Floyd Smith; and some fine amateurs ranging from bantamweight Georgie Colon to light-heavyweight Simon Ramos. But as Cus became more involved managing Patterson and Torres, the day-to-day training was left to Joe Fariello (now educating Mark Breland). Cus was away at camp with Patterson; he was up at Stillman’s with Torres, to find experienced professionals for sparring partners. And during the same period, Cus was waging his wars with the International Boxing Club and Madison Square Garden. Some people thought he grew increasingly paranoid.

“If this goes down instead of up,” he said to me one day as we stepped into an elevator in a midtown office building, “we’re in trouble.”

He laughed, but Cus meant it, too. The Mob was all over boxing when Cus brought his first good fighters out of the Gramercy Gym. The hoodlums cut into fighters, arranged tank jobs, fixed judges. Frankie Carbo was called the underworld’s commissioner of boxing, a vicious punk who lived off other men’s sweat and controlled a number of managers. Carbo was friendly, sort of, with Jim Norris, a rich bum with a hoodlum complex who ran the IBC out of the old Garden on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street. There’s no room here to relate the details of Cus D’Amato’s sustained contest with Norris, Carbo, and the Garden. Certainly he was on the moral high ground, but the terrible thing was that his personal crusade also hurt his fighters.

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We’ll never know how good Patterson and Torres might have become if they’d been fighting more often, battling those fighters who were controlled by the IBC and the Garden. Certainly Torres would have made more money. I remember one main event he had to take in Boston, when he was still a hot fighter in New York. The total purse came to $28.35. Joe Fariello said, “Joe, you take the $20, I’ll take the $8, and we’ll send the 35 cents to Cus.” Patterson did get rich, and Torres did become champion years later than he should have, and in the wrong division (he was one of the greatest middleweights I ever saw, but had to settle for the light-heavyweight championship in 1965). But the competitive fire of Shaw withered from lack of action; the others drifted away.

“It breaks my heart sometimes, thinking about those kids not fighting,” he said to me once. “But I don’t see any other way.”

That was the problem. From 1959 on, Cus never worked a corner for any of his fighters; he didn’t even hold a manager’s license, as a result of the botched promotion of the 1959 Patterson-Johansson fight, when it appeared (but was never proved) that Cus helped bring Fat Tony Salerno in as a money man. The fighters did their best, and for some fights Cus would come to camp, work with them, talk strategy and tactics. But Patterson broke with him, and Torres was forced to go with another manager (Cain Young) to get his chance at a title. Around the time Torres retired, Cus moved upstate, far from the gyms of the city. “I like it up there,” he said once. “I like the clear skies, the lake, where I go fishing. It’s beautiful. Beautiful.” Did he miss the gym on 14th Street? “Yeah,” he said. “Sometimes … ”

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The last time I saw him was almost exactly a year ago, on the 57th floor of the World Trade Center. We were there to watch Torres be sworn in as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, the first professional fighter and the first Puerto Rican ever to hold the job. “I’m so proud of José, I can’t explain it,” Cus said. We talked about Tyson and other things. And then I asked him if he’d ever gone back to the Gramercy Gym since he sold it in the ’70s. “No,” he said, and looked up at Jose, who was standing with Mario Cuomo at the front of the room. “No, I don’t like to look back.”

And so I did the looking back, sitting in the packed, brightly lit conference room, remembering Cus talking to me when I was 20 about the uses of fear, the meaning of courage, the need to concentrate energy and purpose in all things, and how I’d tried and failed so often to follow his lessons. I’d modeled a character on Cus in one of my novels, and he’d liked the book but objected when he saw the TV movie; on the screen, John Cassavetes stood on a ring apron talking to a fighter and smoking a cigarette. “What manager would do that? What kind of example would he be showing to a kid?” I remembered that conversation, and after José was sworn in, I turned to Cus and said, “Listen, Cus, I want to thank you for everything.” He squinted suspiciously at me. “What do you mean?” he said, and I said, “For letting me climb the stairs.”

He nodded, turned away, and said, “You goddamned writers.”

I’m sorry I never got to explain. ❖

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Mike Tyson: Cockfight in the Desert

Blood and Neon — Tyson, Smith, Las Vegas, and Boxing

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA — In a ring still stained with blood from the heavyweight fight that preceded it, Mike Tyson, at 20 the youn­gest heavyweight titleholder in boxing history, brings the fight for unification of the title to James “Bone­crusher” Smith, an aging athlete at 33, and the only heavyweight titleholder in boxing history to have graduated from college. Smith will have none of it. Min­ute follows minute, round follows grind­ing round, as Tyson tries to get inside to throw the rapid-fire combinations for which he is famous, and Smith clinches, backs away, walks away, clinches again, hugging his frustrated and increasingly infuriated opponent like a drowning man hugging something — anything — that floats. For the most part Smith’s expres­sion is blank, with the blankness of fear, a stark unmitigated fear without shame, yet shameful to witness. The referee, Mills Lane, exasperated, penalizes Smith by deducting points from him after rounds two and eight. (“I could have de­ducted a point from him after each round,” Lane said afterward, “but you don’t like to do that in a title fight.”) “Fight!” the crowd shouts vainly. “Do something!”

The pattern of the fight is immediately established: in the entire twelve rounds virtually nothing will happen that does not happen in the first thirty seconds of the first round. The spectator is gripped by stasis itself, by the perversity of the expectation that, against all evidence, something will happen. While my press colleagues to a man will report the match boring (according to the Los Angeles Times, “Two interior decorators could have done each other more damage”), I find it uniquely tense and exhausting; not unlike the first Spinks-Holmes fight in which the frustrated Holmes carried his right glove for round after round like a talismanic club waiting to be swung. This is the very poetry of masculine frustra­tion — the failure of psychic closure.

In the ringside seats close by me, Smith’s fellow boxers Trevor Berbick and Edwin Rosario are particularly vocal, as if in an agony of professional discomfort. For it seems that the superbly condition­ed Smith — who had performed so dra­matically only three months ago in Madi­son Square Garden, knocking out Tim Witherspoon in the first round of his WBA title defense — is now, suddenly, not a boxer. Though in an elevated and gar­ishly spotlit ring with another man, con­tracted for $1 million to fight him, per­forming in front of a crowd of 13,600 people in the Hilton’s newly erected out­door stadium and how many millions of television viewers, Smith cannot or will not fight. His instinct is merely to sur­vive — to get through twelve rounds with no injuries more serious than a bleeding left eye and a bad swelling on the right side of his face; and to retreat, profes­sionally disgraced, to his wife, family, and plans for the future (“Being a champion opens lots of doors — I’d like to get a real estate license, maybe sell insurance”) in Magnolia, North Carolina.

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Berbick writhes in the folding chair beside me, muttering, laughing, derisive, very nearly as frustrated as Mike Tyson, and clearly resentful — after all, Berbick fought Tyson here in November, and spectacularly (and humiliatingly) lost to him, in the third minute of the second round of that fight. Berbick too had tried to clinch with Tyson, to slow him down, to frustrate him; but Berbick had also fought him, or at least made a game attempt (“I wanted to prove my manhood,” Berbick said afterward, ruefully, “that was my mistake”). In this match, Smith’s manhood is not evidently an is­sue. He has no “machismo” to display or defend; if he is a boxer it must be by default. The six-four 233-pound Bone­crusher is a zombie tonight, a parody of a boxer, so resistant to boxing’s visible and invisible rules, that complex of mores that make boxing at once the most primi­tive and the most sophisticated of contact sports, that it is fascinating to watch him — to a degree.

Of current heavyweights Smith has in­variably been one of the most erratic and unpredictable in performance; capable, under pressure, of boxing well, yet strangely and unprofessionally suscepti­ble to vagaries of mood. Perhaps because he has no real vocation as a boxer — and no more instinct for fighting than one might expect from a man with a B.A. in business administration (from Shaw Col­lege, North Carolina) — he is easily de­moralized in the ring, allowing childlike expressions of triumph, hurt, bewilderment, and acute unhappiness to show on his face, as boxers so rarely do. He boxes as an intelligent man might box whose intelligence is his only weapon in an ac­tion in which “intelligence” must be subordinated to something more fundamen­tal. He draws upon no deeper reserves of self — no energy, imagination, emotion — beyond those of consciousness.

As for Tyson: unlike Dempsey, Mar­ciano, and Frazier, those famously ag­gressive fighters to whom he is often compared, he is not a reckless boxer; he is not willing, as so many boxer-fighters are, to take four or five punches in order to throw a punch of his own. His training is defensive, and cautious — hence the peek-a-boo stance, a Cus D’Amato signature: a return to boxing as the art of self-defense, of hitting your man, and scoring points, without being hit in return. D’A­mato trained Tyson to bob, weave, slip punches from sparring partners without throwing a single punch in response — a conditioning that has made Tyson an anomaly in the ring. His reputation is for power, speed, and aggression, but his de­fensive skills are as remarkable, if less dramatic.

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Confronted with an opponent like Bonecrusher Smith, who violates the de­corum of the ring by not fighting, Tyson is at a loss: he hits his man after the bell, in an adolescent display of frustration; he exchanges insults with him during the fight, makes jeering faces; pushes, shoves, laces the cut over Smith’s eye during a clinch; betrays remnants of his Brooklyn street-fighting days (Tyson, as a child of ten, was one of the youngest members of a notorious gang called the Jolly Stomp­ers) that his training as a boxer should have overcome. In short, his inexperience shows.

Tyson’s predicament vis-á-vis Smith recalls Jack Dempsey, similarly frustrat­ed in his matches with Tunney, shouting at his retreating opponent, “Come on and fight” (the subtext being, “Come on and fight like a man!”). But Dempsey was not a strategic boxer of the sort Tyson has been meticulously trained to be; Demp­sey’s ring style was virtually nonstop of­fense with very little defense. Outboxed by the more cautious and more intelligent Tunney, he eventually lost both fights. In the Tyson-Smith match there is no ques­tion that Tyson is the superior boxer; he will win every round unanimously and triumph in what is in fact one of the easiest fights of his two-year career as a professional. But this is hardly the dra­matic public performance he’d hoped to give, and the fight’s promoters had hoped to present. No knockout, none of the dazzling combinations of blows for which he is known — very little of what D’Amato taught his proteges was the boxer’s pri­mary responsibility to his audience: to entertain. Winning too can be a kind of failure.

This fight recalls several previous fights of Tyson’s with opponents who, out of fear or cunning, or both, refused to fight him. Yet more worrisomely it also recalls Joe Louis’s predicament as heavy­weight champion in those years when, after having cleared the heavyweight di­vision of all serious contenders, he was reduced to fighting mere opponents­ — “Bums-of-the-Month” as the press deri­sively called them. Worse, Louis’s reputa­tion as a puncher, a machine for hitting, so intimidated opponents that they were frightened to enter the ring with him. (“Enter the ring? My man had to be helped down the aisle!” one manager is said to have exclaimed.)

Though most of Mike Tyson’s twenty-­eight fights have ended with knockouts, often in early rounds, and once (with Joe Frazier’s hapless son Marvis) within thir­ty seconds of the first round, several op­ponents have slowed him down as Bone­crusher Smith has done — making Tyson appear baffled, thwarted, intermittently clumsy. “Quick” Tillis and Mitch Green come most readily to mind; and, though Tyson eventually knocked him out in the final round of a 10-round fight, Jose Ri­balta. Perhaps the ugliest fight of Tyson’s career was with Jesse Ferguson who, in a performance anticipating Smith’s, held on to Tyson with such desperation after Tyson had broken Ferguson’s nose that even the referee could not free the men. (Ferguson was disqualified and the fight was ruled a TKO for Tyson.) Such performances do not constitute boxing at its best moments, nor do they presage well or Tyson’s future: to be a great champion, one must have great opponents.

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In the antebellum American South white slave owners frequently pitted their black slaves against each other in fights of spectacular savagery, and made bets on the results. The descendants of these slaves, and their black kinsmen from the West Indies, Africa, and elsewhere, freely fight one another for purses of gratifying generosity: the highest paid athletes in the world are American boxers, and the highest paying fights are always in Las Vegas.

Incongruity, like vulgarity, is not a con­cept in Las Vegas. This fantasyland for adults, with its winking neon skyline and its twenty-four-hour clockless casinos ex­ists as a counter-world to our own. There is no day here — the enormous casinos are pure interiority, like the inside of a skull. Gambling, as Francois Mauriac once said, is continuous suicide. There is no past, no significant future, only an eternal and always optimistic present tense. Vegas is our quintessentially American city, a series of hotels in the desert, shrines of chance in which, presumably, we are all equal as we are not equal before the law, or God, or one another. One sees in the casinos, especially at those acres and acres of slot machines, men and women of all ages, races, types, degrees of probable or improbable intelligence, as fiercely attentive to their machines as academi­cians are to their word processors. If one keeps on, faithfully, obsessively, one will surely hit The Jackpot. (You know it’s The Jackpot when your machine lights up, a goofy melody ensues, and a flood of coins comes tumbling into your lap like a lascivious Greek god.) The ready dialects of irony — the habitual tone of the cultural critic in 20th century America — are as foreign here as snow, or naturally green grass.

So it is hardly incongruous that boxing matches are held in the Las Vegas Hilton and Caesar’s Palace, VIP tickets at $1000 or more (and the cheapest tickets, at $75, so remote from the ring that attendance at a fight is merely nominal, or symbolic); it is not incongruous that this most physic­al of sports — like the flipping of cards or the throw of dice — is most brilliantly realized as a gambling opportunity. Since Tyson’s victory is a foregone conclusion, the bookmakers could offer only one proposition: that the fight will, or will not, go four rounds. (Which accounts for the outburst of ecstatic cheering, the only cheering of the fight, when the bell rings sounding the end of round four and Smith, bleeding down the left side of his face and freshly admonished by the refer­ee for holding and refusing to break, nonetheless walks to his corner.)

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Mike Tyson will earn a mini­mum of $1.5 million for this fight (to Smith’s $1 million) and if his spectacular career continues as everyone pre­dicts, he will soon be earning as much as Hagler and Leonard, if not more. Though Tyson lacks Muhammad Ali’s inspired narcissism, he is not handicapped by Ali’s brash black politics and Ali’s penchant for antagonizing whites: for all his reserve, his odd, even eerie combination of shyness and aggression, his is a wonderfully marketable image. (See the iconic “Mike Tyson” of billboard and newspaper ads, a metallic man, not a 20-year­-old, but a robot of planes, angles, inhuman composure: “Iron Mike” Tyson.)

Yet how subdued the real Tyson appeared, following the inglorious fight, and the noisy press conference in a candy­-striped tent in a corner of the Hilton’s parking lot. One caught glimpses of him that night at the jammed victory party on the 30th floor of the hotel, being inter­viewed, photographed, televised, and, lat­er, being led through the hotel’s crowded lobby, surrounded by publicity people, still being televised, wearing his prepos­terously ornate WBC champion’s belt around his waist and his newly acquired WBA belt slung over his shoulder. His expression was vague, dim, hooded, very possibly embarrassed (“It was a long, boring fight”), like one of those captive demigods or doomed kings recorded in James Frazer’s Golden Bough.

To the boxing aficionado the sport’s powerful appeal is rarely explicable. It seems to be rooted in a paradoxical nature — the savagery that so clearly underlies, yet is contained by, its myriad rules, regulations, traditions, and superstitions. It seems to make quotidian that which is uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean: it ritualizes violence, primarily male violence, to a degree which makes violence an aesthetic principle. In this, men’s bodies (or, rather, the highly trained employment of their bodies) are instruments and not mere flesh like our own.

That a man as a boxer is an action, and no longer a man, or not significantly a “man,” puzzles those of us who feel our­selves fully defined in any of our actions. The romantic principles of existentialism in its broadest, most vernacular sense, have much to do with one’s will in creat­ing oneself as an ethical being by way of a freely chosen action. Boxing, more than most contemporary American sports, clearly inhabits a dimension of human behavior one might call metaethical or metaexistential. There is no evident relationship between the man outside the ring and the man inside the ring — the boxer who is, like Mike Tyson (or Joe Louis, or Rocky Marciano, or any num­ber of other boxers of distinction), “cour­teous,” “soft-spoken,” “gentle,” in private life, and, in the ring, once the bell has sounded, “brutal,” “awesome,” “murderous,” “devastating,” “a young bull” — and the rest. The aim is not to kill one’s opponent but to render him temporarily incapacitated, in a simulation of death. “It’s like a drug,” Mike Tyson has said. “I thrive on it. It’s the excitement of the event, and now I need that excitement all the time.” Tyson has also said, “Other than boxing, everything is so boring.”

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When the boxer enters the ring, cere­monially disrobes, and answers the sum­mons to fight, he ceases being an individ­ual with all that implies of a socially regulated ethical bond with other individuals; he becomes a boxer, which is to say, an action. When, as the story goes, Alexis Arguello met Roberto Duran and proffered his hand to shake, Duran backed away and screamed, “Get away! You’re crazy! I’m not your friend!” To touch another man in friendship, let alone in brotherhood, would make it difficult to kill; or to provide for spectators the ex­traordinary mimicry of killing that boxing of the quality of Roberto Duran’s, and Mike Tyson’s, customarily provides. Life is real and painful, and steeped in ambi­guity; in the boxing ring either/or pre­vails. Either you win, or you lose.

It might be argued that America’s fas­cination with sports — if “fascination” is not too weak a word for such frenzied devotion, weekend after weekend, season after season, in the lives of a majority of men — has to do not only with the power of taboo to violate, or transcend, or ren­der obsolete conventional categories of morality, but with the dark, denied, mut­ed, eclipsed, and wholly unarticulated un­derside of America’s religion of success. Sports is only partly about winning; it is also about losing. Failure, hurt, ignominy, disgrace, physical injury, sometimes even death — these are facts of life, perhaps the very bedrock of lives, which the sports actor, or athlete, must dramatize in the flesh; and always against his will.

Boxing as dream-image, or nightmare, pits self against self, identical twin against twin, as in the womb itself where “dominancy,” that most mysterious of human hungers, is first expressed. Its most characteristic moments of ecstasy — ­the approach to the knockout, the knock­out, the aftermath of the knockout, and, by way of television replays, the entire episode retraced in slow motion as in the privacy of a dream — are indistinguishable from obscenity and horror. In the words of middleweight Sugar Ray Seales, 1972 Olympic Gold medalist, a veteran of more than four hundred amateur and profes­sional fights who went blind as a consequence of ring injuries: “I went into the wilderness, and fought the animals there, and when I came back I was blind.”

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In Clifford Geertz’s classic anthropolog­ical essay of 1972, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” the point is made that, in Bali, the now-illegal cockfighting obsession is wholly male, and masculine. The “cock” is the male organ, as the Balinese freely acknowl­edge, but it is more than merely that; it is the man, the maleness, codified, individ­ualized, in a context of other individ­uals — which is to say, society. The cockfight is utterly mindless, bloody, savage, animal — and ephemeral: though a Bali­nese loves his fighting cock, and treats him tenderly, once the cock is dead it is dead, and quickly forgotten. (Sometimes, in a paroxysm of disappointment and rage, Geertz notes, cock owners dismem­ber their own cocks after their fighting cocks are killed.)

Boxing in America is far more complex a cultural phenomenon than the Balinese cockfight. It has much to do, for example, with immigrant succession, and with the ever-shifting tensions of race. But some of the principles Geertz isolates in the cockfight are surely operant: men are fas­cinated by boxing because it suggests that masculinity is measured solely in terms of other men, and not in terms of women; and because, in its very real dangers, it is a species of “deep play” (an action in which stakes are so high that it is, from a utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all) that seems to dem­onstrate the way the world really is and not the way it is said, or wished, or prom­ised to be. The boxer is consumed in action, and has no significant identity beyond action; the fight is a convulsion of a kind, strictly delimited in space (a me­ticulously squared circle bounded, like an animal pen, by ropes) and time. (Jack Dempsey, in whose honor the term “killer instinct” was coined, once remarked that he wasn’t the fighter he might have been, with so many rules and regulations governing the sport: “You’re in there for three-minute rounds with gloves on and a referee. That’s not real fighting.”) The passions it arouses are always in excess of its “utilitarian” worth since, in fact, it has none.

As the bloody, repetitious, and ephem­eral cockfight is a Balinese reading of Balinese experience — a story Balinese men tell themselves about themselves — ­so too is the American boxing match a reading of American experience, unsenti­mentalized and graphic. Yes, one thinks, you have told us about civilized values; you have schooled us in the virtues, pre­sumably Christian, of turning the other cheek; of meekness as a prerequisite for inheriting the earth — the stratagems (manipulative? feminine?) of indirection. But the boxing match suggests otherwise, and it is that reading of life which we prefer. The boxers make visible what is invisible in us, thereby defining us, and themselves, in a single consecrated action. As Rocky Graziano once said, “The fight for survival is the fight.” ❖

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Action Flick “China Salesman” Appears to Have Been Made by China Salesmen

China Salesman has got to be one of the most baffling, expensive pats on the back China has ever given itself. A two-hour stroke job of a movie from Chinese production companies and first-time director Tan Bing, it’s here to let you know that, when it comes to relationships with other countries, China always knows exactly what the hell it’s doing.

China is represented in the form of Yan Jian (Dong-xue Li), an ultra-intelligent IT engineer who goes to North Africa to help his telecommunications company win a competition where the grand prize is providing 3G coverage to the continent. Unfortunately, their chief rivals, represented by a diabolical, oily-ass French spy (Clovis Fouin), will do anything to make sure that doesn’t happen. And that includes setting off a possible civil war our protagonist becomes integral in trying to diffuse.

You’re probably wondering why I haven’t yet mentioned Mike Tyson or Steven Seagal (billed in the opening credits as “Steve Seagal”), since they’re the ones plastered all over the promotional material. That’s mostly because I’m still trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing in this movie. Tyson plays a vengeful African (wait till you hear his “accent”!) who aids in the spy’s mission, while Seagal is a mercenary-turned–bar owner who sells guns on the side. But don’t worry, folks — there is a lengthy, prop-obliterating fight where these two out-of-it muhfuckas try to act through it like they’re still in their prime.

Really, Tyson and Seagal are glorified supporting players, brought in to appear in this narratively mangled, horribly dubbed clusterfuck engineered for China to come out looking like a champ. There’s even a scene where our hero diffuses a heavy attack by carrying the Chinese flag, and he ends up getting saluted with gunfire by both African soldiers and rebels. I know China and many African countries have good relations, but gotdammit — they don’t have to rub it in!

China Salesman
Written and directed by Tan Bing
Cleopatra Entertainment
Opens June 15, Cinema Village

 

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LAST COMIC STANDING

Covet a signed photo of Lucy Lawless, of Xena: Warrior Princess fame, or an autograph from former heavyweight champ “Iron” Mike Tyson? The New York Comic Con is the place to meet both, along with numerous other badasses of fiction and fact. Among scores of panels, you can investigate whether pop culture’s many blind spots are becoming less opaque in “Women of Color in Comics: Race, Gender and the Comic Book Medium,” and get up to speed on franchising your brutal (and/or tender) fem hero of color at the “Selling Your Comic to Hollywood” confab. Add in vintage-comic dealers, preview screenings, and flamboyant cosplay, and you’ll have every opportunity to max out your credit card and update your fan-fiction blog.

Thursdays-Sundays, noon. Starts: Oct. 9. Continues through Oct. 12, 2014

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Tyson Delivers a Powerful Blow; Fighting is Down for the Count

The face of Mike Tyson stares out from the screen like a sentry—intent, sober, watchful. The camera sits close, the framing is tight, and as we lock eyes with the former heavyweight champ who could shatter an opponent’s confidence with little more than a glance, he seems to look past us into some unfathomable void. “The first question we ask is, ‘Who am I?’ ” says the voice—unmistakable, unusually soft and high for a man—at the start of Tyson. It is a question Tyson asks of himself many more times over the following 90 minutes, although the closest thing to an answer comes relatively early, in an excerpt from an interview given by the boxer when he was still a teenage phenom on the rise: “Nobody really knows Mike Tyson.” Nobody, including Mike Tyson himself.

Directed by James Toback, who previously cast Tyson in his dramatic features Black and White and When Will I Be Loved, Tyson isn’t a traditional documentary portrait so much as a feature-length interview, in which the retired boxer, save for a sprinkling of archival footage and a montage of his famous fights, remains front and center for the entire running time. The only talking head is his own, albeit one that speaks in multiple, sometimes self-contradictory voices. In recent nonfiction cinema, the film’s closest precedents are the Austrian-made Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary and Errol Morris’s Robert McNamara tête-à-tête, The Fog of War. But whereas the former film had the feeling of a confession and the latter of an interrogation, Tyson is more like a particularly riveting therapy session, with Tyson as both analyst and patient.

The movie covers a lot of ground, some of it familiar—Tyson’s early years as a bullied, fatherless youth on the tough streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn; the petty criminality that landed him in an upstate New York juvenile facility; the redemption that he found in the person of septuagenarian boxing trainer Cus D’Amato—but much of it not. Even boxing fans who feel they know everything there is to know about Tyson may be surprised by the bracing candor with which he dissects his desire to fight (“I was afraid of being that way again . . . of being physically humiliated in the street again”), his 1992 rape conviction on charges brought by Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington (“that wretched swine of a woman”), and the 1997 Evander Holyfield bout that ended with part of Holyfield’s ear on the canvas (“I was totally insane at that moment”). Often, Tyson is most revealing when he doesn’t intend to be, as when he refers to the $14 million settlement he received from his 2004 lawsuit against Don King as “a small amount of money.” Likewise, Toback’s film is as absorbing for what it addresses directly as for its underlying and irresolvable questions of race, sexuality, and violence in American society.

In 1989’s The Big Bang, his sole previous nonfiction film, Toback was frequently on camera asking his subjects about the origins of the universe and the nature of existence. In Tyson—a movie about a cosmos of one—Toback smartly gets out of the way of his powerhouse subject in a manner that many a more seasoned documentarian would have been too predetermined to do. Probably, Tyson did not require much prompting—he has the air of a man eager to unburden himself. What he did need—what Tyson would have been unthinkable without—was someone he could talk to; a fellow traveler on the path of obsession and desire who could wear down the calluses Tyson has built up over decades spent as a mass-media punching bag; someone willing to take Mike Tyson explicitly on his own terms.

Those terms are constantly in flux, for Tyson is nothing if not a Heisenbergian particle, like all the surrogate Bob Dylans of I’m Not There rolled into one—and Toback is much too smart to pretend to give us “the Mike Tyson we never knew” or any similarly reductive postulation. Toback doesn’t come to lionize or to demonize, to goad his subject into a tearful breakdown (though Tyson does cry) or climactic Frost/Nixon apologia, or even to suggest that Tyson has anything to apologize for in the first place. Instead, he gives us Iron Mike in all his monolithic multitudes and allows us, for a brief moment, to peer alongside him into the existential abyss.

No cosmic questions weigh upon Fighting, the second film by director Dito Montiel, whose 2006 debut, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, was the sort of crude but fascinating object you might find in an exhibition of naïf art. Adapted by Montiel—a former hardcore punk musician—from his autobiographical novel about his teenage delinquency on the streets of Astoria, that movie was a ragged, misshapen mess, but its guttural power was undeniable. It was as if the movie had been kicking around violently in Montiel’s head for decades. Fighting feels like it’s been kicking around somewhere for a while, too—in the office of a studio development executive eager to find more Fast and the Furious–style catnip for the urban adrenaline-junkie crowd.

Like the Furious franchise, Fighting purports to offer us an insider’s view of an illicit underground subculture. Here, it’s the world of bare-knuckles brawling, whose competitors fight not out of emasculated rage against an overly commodified society like the angry young men of Fight Club, but simply because they enjoy it, or because there’s money to be made. The latter is the impetus for Shawn MacArthur (Saints alum Channing Tatum), a romanticized vision of the cornpone rube trying to make it in the big city who, in one of the more fanciful notions here, is first shown eking out his fleabag-motel existence by selling counterfeit Harry Potter books on a Rockefeller Center sidewalk.

Never mind that you’ve never seen anyone as chiseled and freshly scrubbed as Tatum hocking black-market goods on the streets of Manhattan: Where Saints carried such a vivid sense of place that you felt as if Montiel knew every one of those humid Astoria alleyways firsthand, Fighting seems to unfold in a New York learned primarily from other movies—specifically those of the pre-Giuliani grindhouse era—no matter that the setting is present-day. When Shawn, whose pugilistic skills are spotted early on by a ticket-scalper-cum-fight-promoter (Terrence Howard), does battle against one Asian challenger, the bout takes place in a gaudy, orientalized hotel room (complete with transsexual hostesses) that seems on loan from Year of the Dragon.

Montiel seems incapable of making an ordinary bad movie—he’s too much of a willful eccentric, with a casual disregard for things like backstory, character development, and narrative tension and a high indulgence for eccentric performers like Howard (here playing an unholy cross between Ratso Rizzo and Mr. Miyagi) and Tatum (who may be the most sullen and inexpressive leading man this side of Josh Hartnett). If Montiel was going to fail, it was bound to be spectacular, and Fighting bears that out in spades. The discursive style that managed to suit Saints is all wrong for a movie that needs the stripped-down engine of an American International Pictures quickie. For most of Fighting, Montiel denies us such basic information as how long Shawn has been in New York and why he came there. This may also be the first movie about underground fighting in which there isn’t so much as a single scene of the police busting up a brawl—or anyone even worrying that the police might bust up a brawl—and the only movie about fighting of any kind without so much as a single training sequence.

There’s no shortage of other clichés, from the former high school rival against whom Shawn ultimately has to prove himself to the inevitable fight-fixing quandary, but Montiel is too high-minded to really embrace any of them, and the movie never works up a pulpy head of steam. It’s like an exploitation movie that thinks it’s an art movie, only there’s no art to be found.

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Music

Literary Triumph
Seven different people pitch a book on Weezer’s Pinkerton to the 33 1/3 series.
Yeah, whatever, as long as you leave room for Hysteria and Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em.

TV Party

The tortured “gotcha” syntax of American Idol elimination meetings.
The ol’ “I’m very sorry to tell you that … you’re going to be seeing a lot more of us!” line only works like the first 50 times.

This Song Will Change Your Life
Covox’s version of “Computer Love” on 8-Bit Operators: A Tribute to the Music of Kraftwerk.
If you find a way to hack into my Nintendo so this is playing along to Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, I will never leave the house.

Album of the Year This Week
Pantha du Prince’s This Bliss.
Breathtakingly frigid minimal techno, like being brutally shot down by the hottest girl in class and loving her anyway.

Offensive Jargon
Referring to romantic comedies as “rom-coms.”
Knock it off.

Internet Distraction
Publicly admitting a fondness for that new OK Go video where everything blends into the wallpaper.
Considerably more damning than confessing to a triple homicide or porn addiction.

Fashion Nugge
The similarity between that wallpaper and the suit Ornette Coleman wore to the Grammys.
Useful if the Red Hot Chili Peppers are stalking you and you wish to escape detection.

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Really Black Humor

What’s so funny about a well-gnawed water-melon rind, ends upturned and grinning beatifically, on the cover of an African American humor anthology? If you don’t know, then perhaps Paul Beatty’s collection, Hokum, is not for you. Some might think the image in bad, ahem, taste; others may smirk in kind. Everyone has a right to be offended. But it’s precisely this subjective conflict—humor’s intrinsic, meat-or-poison ambiguity—that the book revels in questioning. That, and acknowledging for posterity the comedic genius that is Mike Tyson.

Edited by Beatty—whose novels, The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Tuff (2000), are riotously brilliant satire— Hokum is anything but the bunk that its title might imply. Beatty attempts to weave the folkish familiarity of the oral and the noble austerity of the written, threads of the black literary tradition—prove both to be part of one unbroken strand. The editor aptly describes his tome as “a mix-tape narrative, dubbed by a trusted, though slightly smarmy, friend.” No drama king DJ, Beatty samples eccentrically—never distractingly so—allowing his featured players to flaunt their lyrical gifts while he remains content to play charismatic selector. And after a six-year hiatus from the novel, it’s reassuring to hear Beatty—himself the most furious of stylists, who tickles bones savage and silly—play so nimble, even when confined to just the introduction and three section headings.

So who makes this playful playlist? Part of Beatty’s project involves exposing his readers to writers or performers whose work hasn’t been given the recognition it deserves, and rediscovering the comedic talent of those not primarily known for such, opening the door for some unorthodox names, none of which happen to be Pryor, Cosby, or Murphy. How ’bout booming belly laughs from W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, and Langston Hughes?

Funny is funny whether ruthless or whimsical, and there’s humor in Malcolm X chiding “house Negroes” for taking semantic ownership in “our government . . . our astronauts” and “our Navy” as Negroes “out of [their] mind,” and in Danzy Senna’s hilarious “Variations on a Theme of Mulatto” (which include African American Jews and Italians cheekily dubbed “Jewlattos” and “Gelattos”). The most anarchic charms lurk in the collection’s final, absurdist segment, which identifies jokey avant-gardism in stand-up, spoken word, and straight-up poetry. Confluences and relevancies abound: Recently shot rapper Cam’ron’s purple prose bears so much resemblance to Harryette Mullen’s fantastic, full-on alphabetical cartwheel “Jinglejangle” that he might think twice about tossing accusations of “swagger jacking” at Jay-Z.

Then there’s Iron Mike. If you listen closely, Tyson reveals scars much deeper than the ghastly tattoo he wears across his face. He can be politely barbaric (“My main objective is to be professional but to kill him”), delightfully metaphysical (“My power is discombobulatingly devastating. . . . It’s ludicrous these mortals even attempt to enter my realm”), and sublimely kooky (“I’ve been training Confuciously”). Tyson’s unintentional hilarity belies a psychologically battered bruiser. Convicted rapist, yes, and repugnant for sure, but occasionally his words possess a clarity of thought that hints at cultural insight: “The reason I’m [irresponsible] is because, at twenty-one, you all gave me fifty or a hundred million dollars and I didn’t know what to do. I’m from the ghetto. I don’t know how to act. One day I’m in a dope house robbing somebody. The next thing I know, ‘You’re heavyweight champion of the world’ . . . I’m just a dumb pugnacious fool.” Not quite funny ha-ha, but then neither is the “nigger” tossed at Andre Leon Talley by a French fashion house ingenue at the end of Hilton Als’s superb 1994 New Yorker profile, here reproduced in its entirety. Talley forces a laugh, though the gash in his vigorous personality is keenly felt.

Subtly, Als’s piece divines the source from which many of the featured writers draw, and which Beatty describes in his introduction: “African-Americans, like any other Americans, are an angry people with fragile egos. Humor is vengeance. Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying. Sometimes you laugh to keep from shooting.” A lot of the humor here is both Black and black, as the often grotesque injustice of said Black experience necessitates the usage of a more feral comedic form.

You may not, after reading Hokum, be able to surmise just why it is that the caged bird sings, or to discern the tears behind the raucous laughter (though if so, well done, as it will count toward your African American studies final grade), but you’ll damn sure smile. For those inveterate frowners among us, even two weeks of decompression in South Africa—with or without Dave Chappelle—won’t help.

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War Stories

M.O.P.’s Lil’ Fame was wearing a T-shirt that screamed, “Mike Tyson Will Still Whoop Yo Ass.” Rap’s greatest ironist, maybe? After all, anyone truly toeing the Curtis Jackson party line, and who’d just spent the weekend at 50’s CT compound—formerly the property of Mr. Tyson—tossing back a few Chimays, wouldn’t be so brash.

See, like all armies fighting losing campaigns, 50’s G Unit is recruiting from decimated communities in need of a boost—once proud ’90s thugs. But new draftees Mobb Deep and M.O.P. don’t fight tactically; they scrap. And if they take an L, well, it’s not the first one. Havoc and Prodigy at least looked like team players in their minor-league glittery bulletproof vests, but when 50 stared down a crowd that shouted “G-U-Not” a little too easily, he was all alone. “I expect every motherfucker to put their hands up,” he said, like an exasperated phys-ed teacher. “You betta fuck with me. I got hits for days.” Lloyd Banks and Young Buck—busy pouring water over each other. Tony Yayo—throwing shirts to the crowd like the hype man he still should be.

And yet, it was headliner Eminem’s set that seemed bloated. His defensive line—D-12, Obie Trice, Stat Quo—crumbled. And his puerile jabs at other celebs—Mariah, Jacko, Bobby & Whitney—no longer sting the way they did when they made headlines. Nowadays, Eminem is the bully—he’s got the upper-arm strength, too—and boy is he good at it. So good, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook how weird and eccentric he is, and how very foreign to hip-hop and its tribulations he’s become.

Last year’s Encore was often dismal, but rarely dull, and onstage he enlivened even erratic mongo like “Rain Man” and “Ass Like That.” But give Slim Shady a stage and he’ll take a vein. “Lose Yourself” and “Mosh” were riveting, and “Like Toy Soldiers” was his “Kumbaya.” The show was being filmed for Showtime, and this was the moment that will air on all the tribute specials, if hip-hop ever does catch up to him.

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Sports

CAPITALIST PIGSKINS

Call Fisher & Sons: The stadium boom of the ’90s is officially dead. With such bastions of “urban revitalization” as Camden Yards and Jacobs Field half empty, and state budgets swimming in red ink, it’s easier these days to put Rich Garces through the eye of a needle than to pry loose a few billion nickels from a state legislature.

Witness the stunning events of last month, when Major League Baseball, looking to comparison shop for the best stadium boodle for the footloose Montreal Expos, instead got slapped upside the head by two prime markets: first, the Washington, D.C., council told MLB there’d be no stadium bill without a firm commitment to move the Expos there; then the county board in Arlington, Virginia, took itself out of the running for a ballpark, saying the proposed site could generate triple the tax revenue with non-baseball development.

If the stadium well is at last running dry, we can expect to see more haggling over the existing spoils by revenue-starved team owners. Witness the spectacle of New York’s (in name, anyway) football teams: While the Jets continue to hitch their wagon to New York deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff‘s increasingly tenuous Hudson Yards plan, the Giants last week issued an ultimatum to the state of New Jersey, threatening to sue if their current abode isn’t kept “state of the art.” Jints honcho Robert Tisch says the team will front the cost of a $200-million-plus renovation that would snazz up the concourses and add club seats—but only if the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority turns over full control of the stadium. The effect, says sports economist Rod Fort, would be for the Giants to buy all future stadium revenues with a one-time investment of cash: “$200 million in the bank for ten years at 6 percent is just over $358 million. Since he could always put the renovation funds in the bank, it is reasonable to assume that Tisch thinks the new revenue stream will be greater than $358 million.”

With his agency sitting on $160 million in existing stadium debt, George Zoffinger, the president of the Jersey sports authority, is unlikely to let that revenue go without a battle. “If he is foolish enough to sue us, we will fight, and we will win,” Zoffinger tells the Voice, all but audibly licking his chops. “The rich are different. They’re used to getting what they want, and when somebody tells them no, they can’t believe it. Well, I’m telling ’em no. We’re not in the business of subsidizing billionaires.” Somebody alert Dan Doctoroff. —Neil deMause


THE FUR-LINED BULLPEN

The Yankees’ recent purge of Armando Benitez and addition of Jeff Nelson are just the latest moves in their inexorable search for pitchers who are capable of holding a three-run lead, and it has left the team with the most expensive bullpen ever assembled.

Based on the average annual salaries of Chris Hammond, Sterling Hitchcock, Jesse Orosco, Antonio Osuna, Mariano Rivera, and Nelson (plus the injured Steve Karsay, Gabe White, and José Contreras), the yearly price tag for the entire group is in excess of $48 million. This figure is actually higher than the payrolls of four other teams, including the Kansas City Royals, who are fighting for a playoff spot. Royal reliever Jason Grimsley is earning an average salary of $1.95 million, but every other member of the Kansas City bullpen makes less than Orosco, who, at $800,000, is the low man on the Yankee totem pole. The next lowest Yankee is Osuna, at $2.3 million per year.

This obsessive collecting of talent is the signature of George Steinbrenner‘s management style, and it becomes pronounced when he panics, like when the Yankees traded for Benitez in the first place. It allows them to quietly bury someone like Hitchcock in the role of $6 million mop-up man—an option only they can afford.

The archrival Red Sox have been portrayed lately as matching the Yankees move-for-move in terms of personnel, but the cost of the Red Sox relievers is around $18 million, which means that comparisons between the two bullpens’ respective talent levels cease to be of much relevance if you consider that Boston is being outspent by $30 million. —Sinclair Rankin


IF TYSON WERE A LAWYER . . .

Mike Tyson‘s August 3 bankruptcy filing in Manhattan federal court is remarkable not only for its list of debts but also because it’s the closest to an autobiography that we’re ever likely to get from the guy. Though lawyerly and unembellished, the document is delivered in a first-person voice that is positively eerie. You hear a Tyson from another universe calmly describe utter ruin and wreckage. There’s no barely suppressed rage, only depressing facts.

“I am a professional boxer and a former heavyweight champion of the world,” the filing’s key section begins. “I was born on June 30, 1966, in Brooklyn, New York, and began boxing at the age of 13.” What follows are six pages of events like his turning over his business affairs to Don King in 1988, his rape conviction in 1991, his fight with Evander Holyfield in 1997. One key figure is missing: Cus D’Amato. But then, if Tyson’s original mentor had lived past 1985, maybe there wouldn’t have been this horror bio. —Ward Harkavy