Mike Tyson's lifelong criminal tendencies have overtaken him.
His life has become the classic cautionary tale of the talented young man who zoomed to the pinnacle of the brutal sport of boxing at the unprecedented age of 20, achieving wealth beyond his ability to comprehend--or to handle.

The incredible physical strength and natural savagery that carried Tyson to the top of boxing's mountain proved impossible for him to subdue.

Now Tyson faces a cruel irony.
He has a fight set against Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas on November 8, during which he can regain his heavyweight crown and earn more than $200 million. Only in the outlaw sport of boxing, dominated by the gambling casinos and the underworld, would a man in Tyson's predicament be allowed to continue competing.

More important, he has a trial date set for January in Indianapolis, during which he must face criminal charges of rape that could result in a sentence estimated at 66 years in prison.

Tyson was the youngest heavyweight champion in history. No one was ever as aggressive, as wild or as cruel inside the ring. His boxing style was both thrilling and frightening to behold. It was quickly assumed he could go on to be the greatest heavyweight champion of them all. The problem was that, on many occasions, his style outside the ring was every bit as wild and cruel.

The seeds sown during those harsh days growing up on New York City's streets had merely been lying dormant, waiting for the opportunity to emerge and, once again, to take control of Tyson's personality and, finally, his very life.

Tyson grew up in Brooklyn's Brownsville, one of the country's most ferocious slums, without a father and in a walkup flat without heat in the winter and no cool spot in the steaming summer.

Tyson learned to be a pickpocket, a mugger, a slugger and a thief before anyone taught him to read or write. He once admitted that he had been arrested 40 times before he was 12, mostly for robbery and mugging. It wasn't until Tyson was confined to the Tryon Reform School, a facility for juvenile delinquents, that he thought of becoming a boxer.

When he was in his teens, Tyson was taken in by Cus D'Amato, boxing's eccentric, hall-of-fame loner and dedicated outsider who had ruled as a benevolent despot over the lives of boxing champions Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres.

Old Cus D'Amato trusted no one. He slept with a rifle close by. When he left his room, he set traps that would tell him if anyone had invaded his private place to snoop about while he was gone.

But D'Amato knew boxing. He also understood human nature. There was a motto he posted on the wall of his gymnasium:

"No matter what anyone says, no matter what the excuse or explanation, whatever he does in the end is what he intended to do all the time." That motto becomes more significant as you watch Tyson's life unfold.

In the beginning, Tyson's life was tightly controlled by D'Amato and Jim Jacobs, a former national handball champion who helped D'Amato train fighters.

Jacobs had developed the country's finest library of boxing films. For hours, Tyson would sit in darkened rooms watching films of the great fighters of the past. Tyson spent so many hours watching Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Graziano, Benny Leonard and Joe Louis that he knew their patented moves by heart.

But above all the things that D'Amato and Jacobs taught Tyson was the importance of controlling his emotions. They sat on him. Hard.

Tyson once told Phil Berger of the New York Times: "If I got upset, I'd get nasty. Cus would take me aside to warn me. If I did it again, he'd warn me out in the open--put me in my place:

"`I warned you about that already. You're not back in Brooklyn with those tomato cans and bums.'" There was a time when D'Amato went even further. D'Amato was in his seventies. Tyson was only 15, but potentially mutinous.

"You think you're tough?" D'Amato told him. "Let's go outside. I'll knock your fucking brains out."

Tyson did not step outside. He never attempted to defy D'Amato again.

D'Amato predicted, upon meeting Tyson when he was only 14 years old, that his new protege would be the youngest boxer ever to win the heavyweight title.

D'Amato was right, although he didn't live to see it. D'Amato died of pneumonia at the age of 77 on November 4, 1985. Tyson, at 20, became champion when he knocked out Trevor Berbick the following November in two rounds.

Once Tyson became heavyweight champion of the world, the money and the temptations rushed at him from all sides. So did the women, like Robin Givens, the actress who became his wife.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Fitzpatrick