COVER

A LIFE ON THE EDGE

MIKE TYSON—THE ICON—IS ON TRIAL

JAMES DEACON February 17 1992
COVER

A LIFE ON THE EDGE

MIKE TYSON—THE ICON—IS ON TRIAL

JAMES DEACON February 17 1992

A LIFE ON THE EDGE

MIKE TYSON-THE ICON-IS ON TRIAL

COVER

In Courtroom 4 at the Marion County Superior Court in Indianapolis last week, boxer Mike Tyson appeared ill at ease, caught in a fight that did not involve his fists. Slouched in a chair alongside his defence attorneys, his huge neck straining against the cutting rim of his collar, the former heavy-weight champion of the world slowly twirled a pen in his fingers, avoiding the gaze of witnesses as prosecutors concluded their rape case against him. As his bodyguards ushered him out of the courtroom and through a gauntlet of photographers and fans awaiting his departure, his posture straightened, and the muscles of his

enormous shoulders rippled under the thin disguise of his expensive suit. He reached out to touch a hand, then stopped the procession to let his frail surrogate mother, Camille Ewald, go ahead of him through the revolving door to the Lincoln Town Car waiting outside. “You’re still the champ,” a young man hollered, and the crowd roared in agreement. But the ex-champ smiled only faintly.

The trial of Mike Tyson was not only a legal proceeding but a sideshow, a spectacle of sport, celebrity and just plain prurience in the heart of Middle America. It featured scalpers who peddled courtroom passes for as much as

$100, a cameo appearance by Tyson’s wild-haired boxing promoter, Don King, and a fatal midnight hotel fire that sent jurors scrambling into the street in their nightclothes—sparking rumors of arson that persisted despite the denials of investigators. The Tyson trial was also the latest skirmish in the increasingly public battle to define where sex ends and violence begins. For so-called Iron Mike, a 25-year-old fireplug whose up-fromthe-ghetto success story has made him a role model for many blacks, the jury will determine if he remains an icon—or becomes just a con.

Pummelling: In Indianapolis, where the rape is alleged to have taken place in July, Tyson absorbed a legal and public relations pummelling last week. A petite 18-year-old college freshman from Rhode Island, who was a contestant in the Miss Black America beauty pageant when she met Tyson, testified that the boxer had asked her out on a date. She said that he

persuaded her to accompany him to his room at a downtown hotel at 2 a.m., then raped her remorselessly despite her frequent and tearful pleas to stop. Two expert medical witnesses, including the emergency-room doctor who examined the young woman the following night, testified that her vaginal abrasions were almost certainly the result of rape. And other witnesses, including pageant contestants, told the court that the fighter had made sexual advances towards almost every woman he encountered at the pageant.

Tyson’s lawyer, Vincent Fuller, countered by portraying the accuser as a woman looking to make money from Tyson, possibly the world’s highest-paid athlete. He called as witnesses four other pageant contestants who each said that they had heard the accuser call Tyson rich but unintelligent after meeting him. Still, Fuller could not avoid putting Tyson on the stand to reiterate his claim that the woman had consented to sex but became angry when he treated her poorly afterwards. Tyson told the court that when he asked in the most blunt and vulgar terms if she would have sex with him, his accuser said, “Sure, give me a call.” If convicted on all three counts—one of rape, two of criminal deviate conduct—Tyson could be sentenced to a maximum of 60 years in prison. Already, the trial has delayed his planned fight with Evander Holyfield, the current champion, and even a relatively short prison sentence could dash his hopes of ever

regaining the heavyweight title that he carelessly lost to James (Buster) Douglas in 1990. Also at risk are huge amounts of money: Edward Maloney, an associate editor of Boxing 92, said that for the Holyfield bout Tyson was promised $17 million and 40 per cent of the gross above $55 million.

Outside the courtroom, trial observers discussed the popular mythology that surrounds Tyson. The most enduring myth is the one about the poor Brooklyn ruffian who, at 12, was plucked from a life of juvenile crime by two kindly old white people—boxing trainer Constantine (Cus) D’Amato and Ewald, D’Amato’s companion. The story goes that, through Ewald’s home cooking and D’Amato’s coaching in the gym near their home in rural

Catskill, N.Y., Tyson not only channelled his violent behavior into a socially acceptable and highly profitable sport, he became an upstanding citizen. Although many people close to Tyson contend that no such reformation took place, the defence promoted the reform theme in Indianapolis, keeping Ewald at his side and King—after his one brief appearance—out of sight. In a sport notoriously riddled with deceit, King is widely regarded as king.

Another popular perception is that Tyson is a kind of animal, relentlessly attacking opponents with a viciousness that laid waste to 37 straight opponents on his meteoric rise to become, at 20, the youngest heavyweight champion in history. Although Tyson has at times said that he was tired of making his living with his fists, many observers maintain that violence has been a necessary, even enjoyable,

means to an end. In his book Fire & FearThe Inside Story of Mike Tyson, former boxer José Torres, a longtime Tyson associate, writes that the fighter was sent to a boys’ detention centre after several arrests for theft and was soon confined to a high-security section of the facility. Wrote Torres: “Reform-school legend had it that Tyson spent his leisure time knocking out people with his bare hands, including prison guards.”

Montieth Illingworth, author of Mike Tyson: Money, Myth and Betrayal, paints a third picture: Tyson as victim. Illingworth told Maclean ’s that Tyson is unable to make the transition to adulthood because of the influences on his life. He was abandoned at birth by his father, and his mother died of stomach cancer before

he was able to show her that he had turned his back on a life of crime. His closest relative, his older sister, Denise, died of a heart attack six days after his loss to Douglas, which am him the heavyweight crown. As well, Tyson has never learned to deal with day-to-day chores because everything from financial management to cooking has been handled by those in his entourage. “So Mike has been spending his whole life in his first act,” Illingworth said. “He’s still a kid.” The result, he added, is that Tyson does little more than spend large amounts of cash in a nomadic prowl for fast cars, parties and women.

Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said that Tyson, like many athletes, defines himself entirely by his athletic achievement. Said Edwards: “It has crippled his ability to function in other areas of his life.”

Tyson’s managers, from D’Amato to King, have known of the fighter’s shortcomings, but it has never been in their interests for Tyson to mature. Torres writes that D’Amato predicted that Tyson would be heavyweight champion the first time he set eyes on the 12-year-old at the reform-school gym. He was big for his age, and incredibly strong. But what appealed to D’Amato was Tyson’s violent rage. Wrote Torres: “The boy was angry, distrustful, wild—good qualities to have if you intend to make your living in the ring.” Illingworth says that all of Tyson’s handlers have discouraged anything that might soften his hard edge to avoid derailing the gravy train that has produced nearly $60 million in fight purses for Tyson since 1985. Managers are entitled to a maximum of 33 per cent of that total.

That denial extended to Tyson’s aggressive behavior towards women. Early in his apprenticeship with D’Amato, Illingworth said, Tyson was accused of fondling his trainer’s underage sister-in-law. D’Amato assured the trainer that it would not happen again. But instead of admonishing Tyson, D’Amato quietly dismissed the trainer. And several years later, when Tyson was charged with assault following an altercation with a woman in Los Angeles, the dispute was quietly resolved with out-of-court cash settlements. Yet the image of Tyson as abusive to women stuck, particularly after Torres quoted him as saying: “I like to hurt women when I make love to them. I like to hear them scream with pain, to see them bleed.”

Ghetto: Prosecution testimony and tales of previous misdeeds failed to shake the certainty of the courthouse crowd that Tyson was innocent. Jennifer Dixon, a 43-year-old housekeeper, described him as a “lonely guy” who could not control his urges. “A young lady who goes into a man’s room at that time of night knows what might happen,” Dixon told Maclean’s. “Nobody is that stupid.” Carlton Rasor, a 20-yearold technical-college student, added: “I like him because he came from the ghetto and he got out of it. That is a positive role model for the black community.” But he said that he did not think Tyson was blameless: “Maybe our problem is that we need better role models.” Despite that support, the trial may have taken its toll on a fighter said by boxing experts to be a success as much for his ability to take a punch as for his own thunderous blows. Many who know him say that he seemed downcast last week. “He won’t admit it, but I think he’s scared stiff,” Illingworth said. “I think he can taste, on his tongue, being in prison, and he can imagine that all the sex, all the money, all the fast cars, the attention, is all going down the drain.” For Tyson, what is a fact in the ring is a fact in real life, as well: the only man who can beat him is himself.

JAMES DEACON in Indianapolis