Boxing: After the lights went out
In his prime 'Iron' Mike Tyson was an unstoppable force. But where did all the boxers that he beat end up? Anywhere from prison to the pulpit, reveals Dominic Calder-Smith
Saturday 31 July 2004
Lost to Mike Tyson, 22 November 1986, Las Vegas (Round 2, technical knock-out)
By the end of 1990, the year Tyson was beaten by James "Buster" Douglas in Tokyo, his one-time opponent Trevor Berbick was serving a six-month probation for assaulting a former financial adviser. Shortly after his release, Berbick was accused of raping his family babysitter. He stood trial in Miami in 1992, before a virtually empty courthouse. Eleven days earlier, legions of press had descended upon Indianapolis to watch Tyson sentenced for raping Desiree Washington.
Tyson was at times oafish and monosyllabic during his trial. Berbick's behaviour in Miami was so irrational he was ordered by the judge to undergo a psychiatric examination. Handed a four-year jail sentence, Berbick was released in 1994, but broke his parole conditions and skipped to Canada. There he won the Canadian heavyweight title, but on discovering that Berbick did not legally hold citizenship status, the Canadian Boxing Commission withdrew his title and the authorities voided his immigration documents. He told the press in Montreal that God had recently visited him in his apartment and, when a subsequent MRI scan revealed a small blood clot on the brain, his boxing licence was revoked completely.
I finally located him in Florida. He was in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service but, ever delusional and highly volatile, he insisted that he was on the verge of securing a new, multi-million-dollar deal with Don King which would soon see him retake control of sport's richest prize. And, as he recalled that cold November night in Vegas, he pushed even more outlandish claims my way.
"That was not a fight," he wails. "I was taken to the doctor for two weeks straight before that fight. They made me sick. The real boys who controlled boxing knew there was no way Tyson could really beat me. They knew it, but the fight had to be made because they wanted Tyson to be the youngest heavyweight champion in history. Watch the tape. The punch passed my forehead. It did not hit me in the head! Ten seconds after the punch missed my head I went down, because of the medication that I took six hours before the fight. I wasn't dizzy, I don't know what they put in my medication, but I just went down."
The original tape shows the punch landing, but it's not easy to catch - the intertwined fighters obscure the cameraman's angle. And the delayed reaction, though it falls short of the 10-second period Berbick refers to, adds a further degree of mystery.
In 2002 Trevor Berbick was back in jail.
Lost to Tyson, 13 June 1986, New York (Round 1, technical knock-out)
A few years ago, I initiated a correspondence with Reggie Gross, one of Tyson's 22 first-round knock-out victims. Like Tyson, Gross had been denied a paternal influence growing up: his father had been knifed to death when the boxer was just three days old. Like Tyson, Gross grew up in homes for juvenile offenders after being arrested for purse-snatching. And like Tyson, he turned to boxing. But as Tyson's fame exploded, Gross's dreams collapsed.
In 1983 he was introduced to cocaine. The following year, his five-year-old son died from terrible burns he received at his grandmother's house. Gross started to hang around with a friend named Warren Boardley. By 1986 Boardley had become Baltimore's most ambitious and ruthless drug dealer. Gross was employed as hired muscle in the gang's turf war with a pair of brothers named Spencer and Alan Downer.
In September 1986, three months after his Madison Square Garden bout with Tyson, Gross was charged with three gang-land killings: the first when he shot an aide of the Downers named Andre Coxon first once, then a further five times as his victim tried to crawl to safety; 11 days later, two more Downer gang members had been machine-gunned down. Gross pleaded guilty to the charges in 1989, explaining that he was "strung out on heroin" at the time and that in the second case "there wasn't supposed to be no killing". Gross was handed two life sentences.
Gross's early letters gave me a short account of his career, mostly detailing the build-up to his contest with Tyson in New York. "I had a special gift," he wrote to me, "and I blew it. I know I would have been up there with the best." Before long, he was looking forward to being transferred to a prison nearer his family in Maryland. "I've only seen my daughters once in the last 12 years," he wrote. "But I have requested a transfer and it could happen any day now. Also, I have been communicating with Mike Tyson again. He sent me some pictures. He is a good man and has a good heart. Peace out, Reginald R Gross."
But come the summer of 2003, Gross was transferred not to Maryland, but further west, to Alexandria, Louisiana, and a far tougher prison regime. His words were now disconsolate: "I'm still trying to maintain my sanity ... I'm fucked up." While Reggie Gross squeezes every droplet of faith into a parole hearing more than five years away, he knows of only one fact concerning his future, other than death: if the parole hearings fail, he will be three years shy of 90 before he gets a second chance at life after boxing.
Lost to Tyson, 21 March 1988, Tokyo (Round 2, technical knock-out)
Tony Tubbs bought his four-bedroom house in Cincinnati after winning the WBA heavyweight title in 1985. It was the wisest investment of his life. He fought Tyson in 1988 and was knocked out in the second round. But although he was still fighting 15 years later, and although most of the prize money has slipped through his hands - "It's all gone" - he still has that house.
"I love Cincinnati but I hate Cincinnati, because the longer I'm here the more I'm bound to find an incident," he told me when I met him there last November. And over the years he'd found plenty: driving under the influence of alcohol, driving without a seatbelt, possession of narcotics, intent to supply crack cocaine and failure to pay child support (16 kids and counting). f
"I'm just trying to see if I can take some fights that can take care of this child support thing going on," he told me. "And I honestly don't know if I can do it without fighting again. I honestly don't. It's sad, man, and I don't see the situation changing. Ever."
I asked Tubbs if he'd been scared when he fought Tyson. "No, man, let me tell you something. When you're a champion, what you got to fear? If I do what I'm supposed to do right, you're not gonna hit me and you're not gonna hurt me. And even if I do feel a little bit scared, well I'm just gonna fight better. I had the tools to beat Tyson too ... but they only gave me three weeks to prepare for Tokyo. He was supposed to fight Tim Witherspoon, but that fight fell out and Don King rang me and told me to take his place. I didn't really have a chance to get ready like I wanted to."
Tubbs was selected for his durability: he had lost just once in 26 fights. For one round Tubbs employed the lateral movement, nimble footwork, quick hands and sharp combinations that belied his pudding-like physique. In the second round he got caught by a left hand thrown so fast you needed an action replay to see it clearly. As Tyson's follow-up volley shot over his head, Tubbs caved in and quivered on the canvas, a slim stream of crimson trickling down the side of his face. "I should have put my arms out and held him instead of boxing him some more because we only had maybe 10 seconds left in the round. Then I could have just come out and hit him with my jab. But Tyson was Tyson back then," he laughed. "That was the real Tyson you saw against me."
Lost to Tyson, 26 July 1986, Glen Falls, New York (Round 1, knock-out)
The son of the great Joe Frazier lasted scarcely 30 seconds against Tyson in July 1986. The loss preyed heavily on Marvis's mind; one observer described him as "ashamed of himself", and he fought only three more times before retiring in 1988.
Frazier made the transition from fighter to civilian with relative ease. He had formally pledged himself to Christ when he was 21, and so, as well as helping out at the family boxing gym, he began to work as a travelling evangelist in ghettos and jails across America and the Caribbean. One of those prisoners he visited was Mike Tyson, then serving his six-year sentence for the rape of Desiree Washington. "We embraced. He looked pleased to see me. We talked for an hour or so in the yard, and I believed there was still goodness in his heart."
In 1995, Marvis began ministerial work in his local church, after studying at Philadelphia's Center for Urban Theological Studies. I met him there in June 2002, after a three-hour service throughout which he stood by the pastor's side. When he sang, his eyes became wet. Six months earlier, his wife, Daralyn, had passed away, leaving behind a heartbroken husband and two teenage daughters.
"People are looking at me and saying, 'How is he doing it? How is his family able to sustain themselves and not fall apart?' Well, it's nothing except through the spirit of God.
"I'm really praying for Mike now," he told me when the subject of Tyson came up. "I think the Lord saw his arrogance and decided to humble him. But I also believe he will come back a better man for it.
"I don't know why right now," he added, "but apparently the Lord has taken my wife away for a reason. There's obviously something He wants me to do ... God has sustained me for all these years, so I know he is on my side. We haven't had any handouts from anybody all this time, we Fraziers, yet God continues to take good care of us."
Lost to Tyson, 30 May 1987, Las Vegas (Round 6, technical knock-out)
Pinklon Thomas grew up in Pontiac, Michigan. By the age of 10 he was addicted to heroin, and then crack. At 14, he was spending $150 a day on his drug habit. By 16, he had been a pimp and involved in an armed robbery, and had a contract out on his life. Boxing proved his salvation, and in the mid-1980s he was briefly WBC heavyweight champion of the world. Widely considered "shot" by 1987, Thomas none the less decided to call Tyson a "faggot" at the pre-fight press conference.
The inevitable crushing defeat - a knock-out in the sixth - was soon followed by another to Evander Holyfield, after which Thomas reverted to the comforts of the syringe. He saw out New Year's Eve 1988 drinking and smoking crack. He grew a straggly beard and his eyes and face sunk into the depths of his skull. In five days he emptied his bank account of $7,000. When he turned up at his gym one afternoon talking nonsense and barely able to keep his eyes open, his old trainer ordered him out of his life until he cleaned himself up. And that is what Pinklon Thomas set about doing.
In 1993 he retired from the ring and focused his attentions on his school lectures and an amateur boxing programme he had set up in Orlando. He taught white-collar boxing and organised fitness classes. Finally, he was taken on by the Orlando Center for Drug-Free Living, where he helps young offenders in the guise of "Mr Pink", which is what he was doing when I met him in June 2002. "My name is Mr Pink," he told a group of kids who were just coming to the end of their stretches. It was just after the Tyson-Lewis fight, in which Tyson had been knocked out, and they hung on his every word. "Mike's been drinking alcohol, smoking, playing with women, messing around with all kinds of garbage, while Lennox has been eating right, working hard and going to bed early. You don't think that made a difference in the fight?"
He has, he admits, "been tempted so many times. But I just don't want to be a part of that ever again." His background has its advantages. "A lot of the others who come to work at the centre with all their degrees have to leave before long, because the kids can be belligerent. But I know how to wrap them up, you know?
"All they're interested in at first is the boxing, but as they delve deeper and deeper, they realise more about who I am and the problems I had in the past. All the time, man, it's Mike Tyson this and Mike Tyson that. But you know what I do now, man? I use Mike Tyson's story as a lesson for them all." f
MITCH "BLOOD" GREEN
Lost to Tyson, 20 May 1986, New York (beaten on points in 10 rounds)
While the pre-adolescent Tyson was stealing handbags from old ladies, Mitch "Blood" Green already ruled swathes of New York gang territory. Brought together by Don King, the two New York boxers signed to fight one another at Madison Square Garden in May 1986. A day before the fight, Green learned that he was being paid $30,000 to Tyson's $200,000. He went berserk, threatening to pull out of the contest and had to be held back by bodyguards. A compromise was reached and while Green roared how badly he was going to knock his opponent out, the man-child Tyson smirked sheepishly.
In the end, although Green was able to ride Tyson's storm of blows, he fiddled, slapped and smothered his way out of serious trouble without ever coming up with an effective response. Tyson won a unanimous decision. "If I'd been paid right, I'd have knocked the faggot out," Green claimed afterwards, though there was little justification for his bombast.
Life was seldom dull for Green after losing to Tyson. One night, a dose of PCP sent him on a rage through Harlem. It needed half a dozen cops to take him into custody. Blood had become a carnival act, a lumbering street hoodlum with a deafening bark and a dwindling bite. Then one day in September 1988, Tyson decided to go shopping at a Harlem boutique named Dapper Dan's at four in the morning. By now, Tyson had defended the heavyweight championship of the world seven times. When he and his flunkies hit Harlem, Harlem quickly knew about it. Still simmering, Green decided to confront Tyson. He marched up to the Tyson entourage and howled at Tyson like a banshee, screaming gibberish and profanity. Tyson struck him with a fist made doubly persuasive by the square rings on his fingers. Green was sent hurtling back, left eye closing and a deep gash, which would need five stitches, spouting blood from the bridge of a broken nose. Green screamed in fury as Tyson was whisked away. Green would later announce with a degree of juvenile pride, "He still didn't knock me down." Tyson's hand was broken and his title defence against Frank Bruno had to be postponed.
A few years later, Blood took Tyson to court for the assault. His time to humiliate his old nemesis had arrived and he did so by mocking the former world champion with pouts and blown kisses. The jury ruled in his favour, but Green's reward was scant. He had been looking for $1m; the judge awarded him $45,000, not even enough to cover his legal fees.
"I still beat him in court," Green said when I brought up the subject. "And all he did was sit there and say in his sissy voice, 'He hit me first! He hit me first!' I called him a homo on national TV, and he did nothing. I'd bust him up good if I had the chance now."
I ran into him again in Atlantic City in 2001, after the Rahman-Holyfield fight. He was doing magic tricks for a young kid. He took two quarters out from behind the boy's ear and started jabbing at the air above his head. "Are you a fighter?" asked the boy. "Sure I am," Green replied. "And you're gonna be hearing a lot more about me too from now on." Behind us the victorious Holyfield was holding court. "Are you looking for a fight with anyone in there?" I asked, jabbing a thumb towards the conference room. "No, I wanna fight Mike Tyson still, that's who I want." "You fought Mike Tyson?" asked the boy incredulously. "Ask him," replied Blood, pointing at me. "He knows ... he'll tell you. Yeah, I fought Mike Tyson. And I've never been knocked down or knocked out, and all these other bums have - all of them: Tyson, Rahman, Lewis, Holyfield. But nobody's ever knocked out Mitch Green."
CARL "THE TRUTH" WILLIAMS
Lost to Tyson, 21 July 1989, Atlantic City (Round 1, technical knock-out)
A former world amateur champion, Carl "The Truth" Williams fought Tyson in 1989 and was knocked out after just over a minute. I first met him 12 years later, in New York. He'd been retired for four years and was working as a security guard. "Once you're out of boxing, nobody gives a damn about you," he told me. "But if I had to do it again, I would. Boxing helped cultivate me. I was a kid from Jamaica, Queens, in New York, where people joined gangs as soon as they could. I didn't escape that life but I was able to go through it and I'm still alive today, thank goodness.
"Boxing was good to me. But the bottom line is that the responsibility to do things right is ultimately yours. There were a lot of people during my career taking a bit here and a bit there, but where was I when all this was going on? Spending money like I was a billionaire, that's where. So here I am, working as a security guard, and the transition from being an employer - which is how I saw myself as a professional fighter - to an employee, is very difficult. You have to put yourself in situations where you have to kiss a lot of ass."
We met again the following year, in New York, where he was working as a security guard at Ground Zero. More than a decade ago, Carl had jabbed at Mike Tyson for $1.3m. Today, he padded through broken debris for two hundred bucks a night. I followed Carl as he picked his way across rubble and loose wiring, and on to office floors where marker boards still bore the minutes from meetings held in the early hours of 11 September 2001.
As we walked, Carl talked about his daughter, Nija, who was in hospital with leukaemia. He had just bought her a CD. "I always like to take her something when I visit. She's only 11 years old. It breaks my heart, man."
We stared down at what remained of the graveyard for thousands. Spotlights peered into the blackness of the pit where the Twin Towers had stood. "This is the heart of the devastation," Carl muttered. "It's like a silent world. A lost world. You don't hear nothing. And in the darkness, moving from one room to another, you get lost. It can be frightening sometimes. You never know if someone's going to jump you when your back's turned."
Adapted from 'The Long Round: the Triumphs and the Tragedies of the Men who Fought Mike Tyson' by Dominic Calder-Smith, published by Yellow Jersey Press, priced £10.99. © Dominic Calder-Smith 2004. 'Independent' readers can call 08700 798 897 to purchase the book at the special offer price of £9.99 (including p&p)
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