Love him or loathe him, Mike Tyson was one of the best boxers of all time. From the early days, you could see that Mike had something extra which separated him from the rest. His speed, sheer strength and boxing prowess combined made him a formidable opponent from the very first day he stepped inside a ring. He just had it, that extra little spark that separates the legends from the greats. Yes, he was troubled and I'll elaborate on those demons further on, but when it came to boxing he very rarely disappointed.
The Early Days
From his earliest days Mike was known for his knockouts. He was and still is a pigeon enthusiast.
When Mike was a young boy, an older kid in Mike's neighbourhood pulled the head off one of his pigeons - Mike knocked him out. Kids used to tease him about his lisp - Mike knocked them out. Kids would make fun of his family and you guessed it - Mike would knock them out. So what do you think happened when Mike stepped into the ring for his first professional fight with Hector Mercedes in March 1985 - That's right, Mike knocked him out in the first round. He did the same in his next fight, and the one after that and the one after that. Incredibly, he won his first nineteen fights by knockout and even more incredibly twelve of those knockouts came in round 1. So it's easy to see why he ended up with the nickname Iron Mike. As with all newly professional boxers, the early contenders were picked carefully so that Mike would win, but as Mike's clear ability and strength became apparent, the quality of his contenders began to ramp up. He was knocking people out for fun, and soon he'd be knocking on the doors of the heavy weight champions of the world looking for a crack at their titles, but before he did that, it would be remiss of me to not talk about his trainer in those early days and someone who Mike looked up to above all others, Cus D'Amato.
As you can imagine Mike Tyson was no saint when he was a kid. He grew up in rough neighbourhoods in North Carolina and such was his personality, he was never too far from trouble. He had regular run ins with the law and had racked up some 38 convictions by the age of 13. His brother had shown him this direction by leading a similar life, though he did try his best to keep his brother off the streets and away from trouble, but that proved very difficult, as Mike like all young kids wanted go be like his big brother.
Strangely it was through this life of crime that led Mike to meet his liberator, good friend and father figure Cus D'Amato. Mike was sentenced to spend time at a reform school Tryon School For Boys. During those days Mike got to know a counselor called Bobby Stewart, who just happened to be a former Golden Gloves Champion. Bobby tutored Mike for a while and taught him all he knew. Mike was hungry for more knowledge and training and that's when Bobby suggested that he meet Cus D'Amato who happened to live nearby.
Cus was a legend in boxing circles , but he had been ripped off different times over the years as world title contenders were poached away from his gym by the allure of money and empty promises.
He had always dreamed of coaching a Champ and as soon as he met Mike Tyson and saw him box, he knew this 13 year old kid had the potential to become a world champion. Cus set about training Mike over the following 7 years, as he made his journey from juvenile delinquent to world heavyweight contender. The road was long and arduous, with many ups and downs along the way. Mike was a troubled youngster and it would take all of Cus's strength of character and innate teaching skills to help mold Mike into the man and the boxer he knew that he could be. Of course Mike slipped at different times along that path, but Cus seemed to know how to bring him back towards the light again, and could equally be extremely tough or delicately soft depending on the situation. As time went by Mike looked up to Cus as a father figure, and when Mike's lowest moment came at the age of 16, when his mother died, Cus took Mike under his wing. The death of a loved one at any age has the potential to send someone veering off course in their life journey, but the death of a troubled 16 year old's mother had the potential to cause Mike to go off the rails completely and at that time Mike could have as easily ended up in jail as anything else. Eventually, he would end up in jail, but that came much later, and we will deal with that further on.
Cus offered to take Mike under his own roof after the tragic death of his mother. Mike agreed and this was a huge help for him at the time. Cus and his wife looked after Mike and he became a part of the family, and Cus even became his legal guardian. With Mike now living with Cus, every little thing was analysed and the two boxing fanatics would live, eat and drink boxing over the following years.
Cus had certain techniques which he taught to Mike. I will list some below, but I am sure there are others as well:
- Peek-a-boo style - This one does exactly what it says on the tin. Do you know that game you play with new borns, where you hide your face behind your hands and then pop out and say Peek-a-boo, usually just before they roll their eyes and puke on you! Well, in professional boxing there is a defensive set up which mimics that very set up, where you arms are held high up to the face to protect yourself, as you weave and bob to avoid punches. The technique was one which Cus developed himself, and can be seen in Mike's boxing technique right down through the years. Cus would make Mike practice for hours with the stationary dummy and on the bag until he was able to punch by rapid combinations time and again. This style encouraged quick head movements as well as ducks and savage reciprocal damage, often utilising vicious rising uppercuts or hooks.
- Visualization of success - This formed a hugely important part of Mike's training regime. He wanted Mike thinking that he was going to be the Champ right from the get go, and even at age 13, Cus would tell him: "Mike, you're going to be the Heavyweight Champion of the world" Did Cus believe it then? Maybe he did. Did Mike believe it then? Maybe not at first, but if you hear something day after day, week after week, over a number of years, you do start to believe it. (Disclaimer: I have been telling myself for the past 168 weeks that I'm going to win the lotto, and it still hasn't happened, so I guess it doesn't work for everything!) So now Mike had it in his head that he could be the champ, and when you believe something like that, you train harder, you focus more and you work your ass off to accomplish it. Cus was training Mike 24 hours a day now, his body taking punishment during the day, while simultaneously honing his mentality in his dreams at night. Cus was telling him he would be the best, that he would be bigger than Ali, a heavyweight champion of the world and Mike was starting to believe it and live it.
- Positive Affirmations - It became a form of self-help hypnosis before bedtime every night. Affirmations, like the visualizations before, were the other part of the reprogramming techniques Cus made Tyson internalize. Tyson would repeat various affirmations that were tied to his visualized goals. Even when he woke up and was training in the gym, Cus would repeat the same affirmations to Tyson. They would both repeat to each other phrases about being the best, being unbeatable, being the most unbelievable heavyweight boxer that this world had ever seen. Over the course of a few years, these affirmations were ingrained into Tyson’s head as fact. He had set in his mind a prophecy that he was meant to fulfill. He told himself that he was the chosen one.
- Repeating Combos - The old chestnut of practice makes perfect is true in almost any walk of life. David Grohl didn't wake up one day and discover that he was a kick ass guitarist and rock frontman. Tiger Woods didn't happen upon golf and become a great player over night. They both practiced and practiced and practiced, and when they were done practicing, they practiced some more. What exactly is practice? It is repetition. When a top footballer like Messi hits a screamer into the top corner in a football match, how many times do you think he may have practiced that to perfect it? 10 times, maybe 20 times, I'd say tens of thousands of times. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Anyone at the top of their game, be it music, sport or business, repetition is a huge part of how they got there. Boxing is no different. A massive part of Mike’s training was repetitions. Cus wanted Mike not to not have to think when he was in the Ring. Instead he wanted Mike to rely on his Instincts, which were built methodically through repetition. In order to reach the very top, Mike would have to move without the added delay of thought. It might have been just micro seconds, but every microsecond counts at the elite level of sport, just ask an Olympic swimmer or Sprinter. Mike needed his mind and body to be one. His reactions would have to be razor fast and fully in tune with his body and mind. To do this Cus would set out intensive training sessions where Mike would repeatedly pummel the same spot on the bag and do the same combinations again and again until it became second nature. Mike Tyson turned his body into the ultimate fighting machine through theses repetitions.
Above we see Mike and Cus painstaking going through his repetitions on the bag, which could go on for hours at a time. They were like a father and son in many ways, and Mike certainly grieved for him like a son grieves for their son after Cus's untimely passing in 1985.
Cus famously this about Mike, and it is one of my favorite quotes of his:
"A boy comes to me with a spark of interest, I feed the spark and it becomes a flame. I feed the flame and it becomes a fire. I feed the fire and it becomes a roaring blaze."
As I was saying above, Mike was knocking people out for fun from the age of 13 in the street, through his sparring and underage boxing, right on through to his early professional bouts. Remember his first nineteen fights ended with Mike's hands in the air and Mike's opponent on their back with little birds flying around their heads! He was the undisputed knockout king and he was the talk of boxing, so it was only a matter of time before he'd get his title shot. That opportunity came in 1986 when Iron Mike Tyson was given a crack at Trevor Berbick for the WBC heavyweight title. You'd think that Mike would have been the underdog given that he was only 20 years of age, and had 3 inch height deficit and 6 inch reach deficit. Well you'd be wrong, as Mike was odds on and Berbick was 3/1 amazingly. The bookmakers as is usually the case were right on the money as Berbick somehow managed to get through the first round as Mike unleased an avalanche of punches, as he sprung from his corner like a pitbull. He went straight to work on Trevor, who made the mistake of trying to go toe to toe with the powerful youngster. As Mike started to connect with uppercuts and jabs in two and three punch combos, just like Cus had thought him, and weaved and bobbed away from the counter punches, we can see Trevor starting to fade. He tries his best to front up with bravado, but in hindsight, he did a damned good job to get as far as round two.
Mike really goes to work in round two and inside the opening minute Trevor is on the canvas, and gets a standing count to seven, but the ref lets him continue, as every single person in the arena and watching at home knows it is only a matter of time. Moments later the inevitable happens, as he is decked again. He tries three times to regain his feet, but his body simply wont obey the instructions, as he was well and truly obliterated by the wrecking ball that was Iron Mike Tyson.
On that day, November 22, 1986, Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history at the age of 20 years and 4 months. How he wished he could have shared it with his mentor and coach Cus D''Amato, but Cus surely had front row seats in the sky, as he looked down and enjoyed one of his fighters finally becoming a world champ. The positive affirmations and visualisations had become a reality and Mike had become what he was destined to be. The column inches filled with accolade after accolade and one which sticks in the mind is that of Donald Saunders
"The noble and manly art of boxing can at least cease worrying about its immediate future, now [that] it has discovered a heavyweight champion fit to stand alongside Dempsey, Tunney, Louis, Marciano, and Ali."
Here is a video of that famous fight for anyone who has not seen it before or the many of you who just want to relive it again.
Tyson went on to win all of the Heavyweight belts available and was given the title he always wanted of undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. He would hold onto the belts for a good stretch as well, and after losing to Buster Douglas, he fought his way back to the top again, cementing his place among the all time greats of boxing.
There is enough controversy around Mike Tyson to fill a book, and indeed there is a book called "Undisputed Truth" in which Mike gives his side of the many stories and controversies. Mike had a troubled life and did many stupid things and allegedly did many abhorrent things as well, but I have decided not to write about these, because this is a sports blog and the nature of the accusations and behaviour would sour the taste of this post which is about his sporting ability. If you are interested in reading about the controversies, then Google Mike Tyson, and you will come across them very quickly.
There is one controversy that I will cover however, as it happened inside the ring, and shocked the world of boxing when it did.
Evander, Can I have your ear a minute?
It would be remiss of me not to include this crazy moment that transpired in June 1997, when Mike was on his downward trajectory. Having lost to Evander Holyfield in November 1996, a rematch between the two heavyweight bruisers was penciled in for the following year. It was to be another pay-per-view event with bumper purses on offer to both fighters regardless of the outcome.
The fight was tit for tat in the opening rounds, as Holyfield again frustrated Mike with his head. Mike had openly criticised Holyfield after their first bout, and said Holyfield was using his head in an illegal fashion. Then in the third round Tyson did something sickening that would cause outrage around the world. As the two boxers heads came together, Mike bit Evanders ear, and I don't mean a little nibble, he literally bit a large lump out of his ear, showing his true animalistic tendencies. The ref stopped the fight and deducted two points from Mike, but unbelievably Mike was still hungry and actually took another bite out of Holyfield's ear. This time the ref was left with no option but to disqualify Mike Tyson there and then and declare Evander Holyfield Heavyweight Champion of the world.
The video below shows the savage attack:
You'd have to go a long way to find a worse act of brutality in a sport, and I was hesitant about including Mike in my Wednesday Wonder series, but in the end, I decided, to include him. Hopefully it was the right decision and you enjoy reading about his history and how he rose up to be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.