A grateful NORMAN GILLER has followed Mike Tyson’s career since the former heavyweight world champ was in his teens. Here, he offers the boxer a quiet word of advice
With “Iron Mike” Tyson in our midst this week, there is an army of veteran British sportswriters who should be standing to toast a man who provided us with more headlines, and occasionally headaches, than virtually any other sportsman in history.
All right, let’s agree that Muhammad Ali and, possibly George Best, matched him, but few sportsmen in our lifetime have gathered the column inches and media space as this idiosyncratic man who has often been like a walking, talking time bomb.
You never know when the hair-trigger Tyson bomb is going to go off. Even within a couple of hours of arriving in London from the United States this week, he was close to erupting during a compelling interview with sports-savvy Sky News anchorman Dermot Murnaghan.
When Murnaghan pressed him on an old quote â€” “I crave the thought of punching an opponent’s nose into his brain” â€” Tyson visibly had to control his touchpaper temper.
Off camera, the former world champion’s “minders” were trying to stop the interview. “I just want to see how much you’ve changed,” said Murnaghan manfully, no doubt wondering if he was going to end up stretched out like one of Britain’s horizontal heavyweights
“You’re starting to irritate me now,” Tyson told him, his surprisingly high-pitched voice heavy with menace. “I guess I did change because I’m not assailing you!”
Watching at home, I laughed out loud. This was the Mike Tyson I had grown to admire yet be wary of more then 20 years ago, when he was flattening opponents with stunning power and wrong-footing reporters with his off-the-cuff comments.
I cannot think of another sportsman in the world who would have used the word “assailing”. Tyson has always had an old man’s vocabulary, picked up from his hours sitting at the feet of his original guru Cus D’Amato, a Runyonesque character who seemed to have swallowed a dictionary.
The dear, departed Reg Gutteridge and I were introduced to a new sport back in 1980: Tyson Watching. D’Amato, who had guided a 21-year-old Floyd Patterson to the world heavyweight championship, told us in his Bronx drawl: “I’ve got a kid who’s going to take over from Floyd as the youngest world heavyweight champion of all time. Note the name. It’s Mike Tyson. Watch out for him.”
That was when Tyson was barely 14 years old.
So we started watching, first with casual interest and then with fascination followed by excitement as he began to develop into an extraordinary fighting machine.
What Reg and I did not realise was that our Tyson Watching would take in two books on his rise and then fall, and that it would turn into a frightening, stomach-churning experience. Suddenly it was like watching a runaway truck, and there was nothing we could do to stop it.
Many of us in boxing wanted to reach out and help him, but he was a law to himself and always seemed to have his finger close to the self-destruct button. I remember one evening in 1988, returning to the home of my valued friend Terry Lawless, after a meal out, to hear on his answer machine: “Does your boy want to come out and play with my boy?”
The message was left by Tyson’s then manager and mentor Jim Jacobs. It triggered the start of drawn-out negotiations for a world title fight between Tyson and Frank Bruno, who had been magnificently managed and marketed by Lawless (yes, that’s my slanted view, but I cannot think of a boxer who was better handled, yet never fully appreciating just how many strings were pulled for him outside the ring).
The first Tyson-Bruno world title fight was all set for Wembley Stadium on September 3, 1988. I was lined up as publicist, and I had master Daily Mirror photographer Monte Fresco primed for an exclusive photograph showing Bruno with a British bulldog and Tyson holding an American eagle.
But the Tyson camp suddenly decided they did not want to leave the States, and the fight went to Las Vegas along with my chances of a nice litter earner as PR.
Now, 21 years on, Tyson â€” the man who made a fortune with his fists and lost much of it with spectacular-scale frittering â€” is, in his own words, “fat and in my forties, and in no shape to ever fight again”.
But here is an impetuous, capricious ex-champion who is predictable only in his unpredictability. We long-time Tyson Watchers know that, to use boxing jargon, he should never be “counted out” of a change of mind and direction.
I bet he will get the old itch to fight again if he tunes into the Nikolai Valuev-David Haye world championship contest this weekend.
The voice inside his head will say: “Jeez, I could take these two out in a couple of rounds each.”
Those who have watched the rollercoaster Tyson ride will nod our agreement â€¦ but, like Mike, we will be thinking of him in his peak years when he truly was “the baddest man on the planet”.
If the 7ft 2in giant Valuev beats Haye, you can bet your boxing boots that there will be a promoter in America seeing and seeking zillions of dollars in a match between Tyson and the Russian Robot.
I sincerely hope Tyson ignores all overtures. He should just concentrate on talking a good fight. Assail us with words, Michael. You do not owe boxing â€” Â¬the promoters, the press or the public â€” anything.
Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.
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