Mike Tyson is a very complicated guy whose career is a cautionary tragedy, and his fall a complex interplay of factors.
Mike was effectively abandoned as a child. He was a feral kid, running the streets and trying to survive when Cus D’Amato came into his life, but Cus was not an unalloyed blessing – Cus only intervened and brought kids in who he thought he would be able to use. He wanted tough kids to mold into fighters. Cud did succeed in getting a young Mike Tyson to believe he might be able to achieve and become a fighter like his hero, Muhammad Ali.
He provided structure, training, and a purpose in life, and had taken Floyd Patterson out of a youth home for delinquents for the same reason, to make him a fighter. Cus took a hefty percentage as the manager/trainer. Mike had never had anyone care about him for himself, and Cus did not either.
Mike, as a prime fighter, was a beast. He had weaknesses, all fighters do, but his natural speed and strength, coupled with good discipline and training, made him one of the most dominant champions ever during his prime, short as it was.
Mike’s decline came from four sources:
The first, his background and upbringing, which left him vulnerable to manipulative people. After Cus died, and Don King had arrived on the scene, the fox was in the henhouse. Add in Robin Givens and her mother, and Mike had more manipulators than Hersey has chocolate. The result was a Mike under constant pressure, with Kevin Rooney driven out.
The second, Mike began to believe his press clippings. Every fighter that set foot in the ring with him during his prime was terrified, and Mike began to think that all fighters would be terrified of him. Further, as the papers began to say he was unbeatable, he began to believe he was unbeatable.
The third factor, the hard-working kid who watched film regularly when he was not in the gym training, was gone. The new Mike thought he didn’t have to train, that he could party and train in a training camp. He went from the gym and film room every day, to the nightclubs every night.
Fourth, and finally, there were approaching two fighters who met the criteria for matching Mike: a brutally brave and tough swarmer with power, Holyfield, and a master boxer with size, speed, reach, and excellent fundamentals, Lennox Lewis. Could prime Mike have beaten them? We will never know because prime Mike was long gone.
To maintain the style, which made Mike great, combination punching in volume, and bob and weaves defense, gym time, and top shape were a must. Mike went from a mini cyclone to a single cannon. His championship-style was a memory.
Mike’s natural speed and strength remained, but time was passing, and it takes a tiny bit every day. He was not as strong at 25 as he was at 20, nor as fast. The difference might be small, but it was there. Constant work in the gym, the right diet, rest, all can delay a decline, but Mike had gotten to the point he did none of them.
Enter Buster Douglas, who fought the best fight of his life on a night Mike had not trained for. A prime Mike Tyson would have stopped Buster in the first round. Then prison for three years, and more time lost. Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis were not the only fighters to see a decline from a three-plus-year exile, Tyson did as well. So it was a complex combination of factors, not a simple “he partied too much” or “bad girls took him down,” or “Don King did it,” as some folks claim. Life set Mike up to fail, and he was unable to overcome it back then – he seems to be doing much better today.
Mike’s talent was based on shaky foundations. His mental instability and immaturity, his reliance on technique, his ambivalence to the sport, combined with the challenges presented by his own style, meant he couldn’t keep it going for long enough to fulfill his early potential.
Despite this, he had a fantastic run for a few years, with one of the most dominating reigns in heavyweight history. He may have fallen short of some people’s expectations, but it was impressive while it lasted.