Mike Tyson's career was the equivalent of a held breath. A sense of urgency attended every aspect of it: twice-a-month bouts after he exploded onto the boxing scene in 1985, a hastily won heavyweight championship by the age of 20, a quick consolidation of the crown by 21. It was a flurry of ferocity never before seen. So rushed was the entire concussive enterprise that when his manager, Jimmy Jacobs, put together a video of Tyson's knockouts as a promotional tool, the resulting montage of helpless fighters slipping along the ropes onto the canvas, one right after another, seemed to play out in real time.
Was this precocity? You might have thought so as you watched Tyson's brutal talents so quickly overwhelm his sport. But knowing what the rest of us know now, it more likely was desperation at work, a reflection of the unspoken knowledge of those close to the young Tyson that here was a single-purpose organism, bred for bad intentions and well maintained for its unique ability to enact violent public spectacle but entirely unsuited for real life. There was so much aberrant behavior beyond the ring, so much 'history. There were so many "incidents." Former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, himself a victim in one of Tyson's choreographed catastrophes, observed Tyson careen through the civilian world and spoke the unspoken. Tyson, he said, would soon be dead or in jail. Actually, this was not a contrary view within boxing. The inordinate hurry that was applied to Tyson's young boxing life gave off the whiff of anxiety. The breathless career was suspicious. He was the fight game's brief opportunity—a fleeting moment of perverse charisma.
Now, with Tyson convicted of rape—an "incident" gone very bad and well beyond the control of his nervous caretakers—the game is over, the gifted career is done, the turbulence of his famous and agitated life is abruptly calmed. We breathe out.
You ask now, who would have thought that this would end otherwise? When Tyson arrived in rural upstate New York in a youth-prison van and soon landed, at the age of 13, in the care of Cus D'Amato, there was a certain spin put on his story that might have allowed you to hope otherwise. Despite his past as a fatherless street thug out of the Brooklyn ghetto, there was always a future for a boy who would fall under the sway of a man like D'Amato. D'Amato was so unyielding in his principles, had so much integrity, that he was virtually useless to boxing and was, in fact, something of an outcast, by then a kind of Boys Town figure in his dotage. This was the one man who might shape this vicious urchin.
And yet. looking back, it is clear that even D'Amato became shaken by ambition. Tyson's raw physical promise and—this was even more important—his devotion to any authority that also showed him affection made him the perfect prospect. And D'Amato, whose legacy to that point had been two world champions of the 1960s, Floyd Patterson and José Torres, but very little else, must have thought he had again, for one last time, been presented with the real goods.
After only two months working with Tyson, D'Amato told the teenager that he could be a world champion. Torres, for one, well aware of the master's insistence on total self-control and high moral value, was skeptical. "He's a pickpocket, a liar and a cheat," Torres protested. "But don't you understand," D'Amato said. "That's exactly what a boxer is when he's in the ring—a pickpocket, a liar and a cheat."
This preparation for greatness, cynical or not, took the outward guise of rehabilitation, and there is no doubt that D'Amato shaped Tyson's life for the better. Tyson flourished under D'Amato's affectionate touch and found in D'Amato's companion, Camille Ewald, a loving stepmother. In later years this would be presented as a sort of My Three Sons outfit—not an entirely normal family but more mainstream than not.
Teddy Atlas, another of D'Amato's found boys and later a Tyson trainer, watched this take place and was troubled by this strange family unit. Tyson was the perfect son, all right. "He'd mold to you," says Atlas. "He didn't have his own identity." Of course, Tyson was adopting the old man's, and as time went on he would shock people who had known D'Amato. Tyson would speak in the same strange rhetoric that D'Amato used and carry himself the same way. This part was satisfying to someone like Atlas. But to Atlas, D'Amato was disturbing the order of his own home. When Atlas ordered Tyson out of the gym as a punishment for misbehaving, D'Amato reinstated the youngster. "This boy," he explained to Atlas, "is a special case." This rehabilitation, it seemed to Atlas, involved a lot more compromise than D'Amato had ever offered before, and Atlas was dubious. "Put up a house too fast," Atlas says, "it can come back to haunt you when a strong wind comes along."
If it was rehabilitation, it obviously wasn't complete. Noting that D'Amato died in 1985, when Tyson was just 19, Torres said, "He never finished the job. He worked too hard on making him a champion first." It was like Edward Scissorhands's creator dying before he could outfit his creation with real hands. But it also wasn't like that. Tyson wasn't missing merely one last element of instruction or a piece of equipment. He was missing a childhood, or rather the correct childhood. His pattern of Brooklyn behavior was never entirely broken. He would sometimes bolt the Catskill camp, and D'Amato would ask Torres to locate him and bring him back. "I'd find him in the old places," Torres says, "doing the old bad things," reenacting his dangerous youth.
Even in Catskill, even under D'Amato, Tyson had a series of escapades that went beyond wholesome fun. Atlas has said that there were "incidents" with girls in school. There was a confrontation in which Atlas allegedly pulled a gun on Tyson over the young fighter's advances on Atlas's teenage sister-in-law.