August 4, 2016
August 4, 2016
Mike Tyson

Courtesy Steve Lott

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THERE is an Olde Worlde charm and courtesy about Bill Cayton which sits uneasily with the venom in his voice when he talks about Don King, with whom he is locked in a legal battle for control of Mike Tyson.

King and Cayton are each other’s antithesis. King made his first serious money in the numbers racket in Cleveland before a manslaughter conviction derailed him, but he has probably earned enough in a spectacular 17-year  promotional career to match Cayton dollar for dollar.

Cayton represents “old money”: he made his first million in the advertising world before he was 30, then launched the Greatest Fights Of The Century series in the late-1940s for Vaseline Hair Tonic. That series, which he sold to television, was the forerunner of the world’s biggest fight film business, The Big Fights Inc, which owns the rights to more than 17,000 fights dating back to 1894.

Their personal styles, too, are dramatically different. Words spew from King in a torrent of hyperbole, malaprops and misquotations, while Cayton speaks with the careful, school-mastery manner favoured by his late friend and partner Jim Jacobs. Together, Jacobs and Cayton created and ran The Big Fights Inc from the 17th floor suite of offices on East 40th Street where I met him on a sweltering New York afternoon last month.

The combination of Cayton’s business ability and Jacobs’ unabashed passion for the game made them a formidable team, and when they moved into management (with the venerable Cus D’Amato serving as guru) they enjoyed world championship success with quality fighters like Wilfred Benitez and Edwin Rosario, WBA light-welterweight champion.

But Tyson was their master-work: they plotted every career move in daily strategy meetings in Cayton’s spacious, comfortably cluttered office, and they seemed to have succeeded in smashing King’s stranglehold on the heavyweight division by steering their prodigy to the brink of the title without the “assistance” of the ‘Hairy One’.

But once Tyson became champion, King suddenly moved to centre stage and the long and bitter struggle for control of his destiny began. Given that it was an integral part of Cayton and Jacobs’ managerial strategy to avoid any  entanglement with King, what had apparently persuaded two such shrewd individuals that it was safe to let the fox into the chicken coop?

“Jim and I had never intended to get involved with Don King,” Cayton recalls. “Cus was against getting involved with King, or for that matter Bob Arum.

“It was a tough decision. Jim and I did a lot of soul-searching. We talked almost by the hour about whether or not to go into the unification series because it meant that we’d get involved with King and Butch Lewis, and we weren’t that happy about either of them.

“We had another way of going, which we explored, which was to take the [Larry] Holmes fight, then the [Gerry] Cooney fight, and then fight the winner of the unification series. The problem was that we could not pin Holmes down to a deal. He would send people in to meet with me, and we’d discuss a deal and I’d say a figure.

“We had a meeting with the top people from Madison Square Garden, where the fight was to be held. Holmes wanted $200,000 training expenses and a million as the purse. I agreed to it, but by the time they’d left my office and got back to their office where Holmes was waiting, Holmes would have changed his mind.

“He said ‘No, I want a million-five, plus $300,000.’ He called me up and I agreed to one increase, but when they came back to me and asked for a second I said to Jim, ‘Forget it. The man doesn’t want to fight Tyson, because whenever you change figures it means you don’t want the fight.’”

“So we made the deal to enter the tournament, which was something that had been created by Don King, Butch Lewis and HBO. It involved HBO putting up $20m for a series of fights that would produce one champion. We decided that since Holmes would not be much of a fight anyway, and since Mike was ready, we would enter the series; thats how we got involved with King.

“The series involved three title fights and in all fairness to HBO we agreed that if we should win the tournament they would have two options. I thought that reasonable: they’d put up $20m. So we thought we were involved with King for
five fights and no obligations beyond that. Jim and I decided that was worthwhile, and we went ahead with the deal

“It was very successful – Mike won the title. During the period the series was going on, HBO came to me to negotiate an extension. They were willing to pay me $2m a fight for the next six fights, with Don King as the promoter, but I said no.

“I agree that since Larry Holmes would be the first fight and King could deliver Holmes, he could be the promoter for that fight only, but from then on it would be fight by fight, with the mangers of Mike Tyson making the decisions as to who the promoters would be. This was the way the contract was written, for a total of $26.5m, and there were windows in it for fights outside the series.

“So this was the deal we made, and so far as I was concerned we were under no obligation whatsoever after the original series of HBO unification fights. Don King desperately wanted to be the exclusive promoter, but we always felt it would be terribly unfair to our fighter to make an exclusive deal with any promoter.

“We wanted to have various promoters competing for Tyson. We had Bob Arum, Dan Duva, Josephine Abercrombie all making offers to us, so there was no way we would make an exclusive promotional deal.

“In our early dealings with him, Jim and I controlled King because we controlled Tyson and King did exactly what we wanted. He followed our orders and instructions, and while I knew about the way he ripped off Tim Witherspoon and the others, I never felt he’d get around to ripping Jim and me off.

“Had Jim lived I don’t know what would have happened, but before King managed to get his hooks into Tyson and poison his mind, something even worse happened: Mike became obsessed with a woman named Robin Givens, whom he married. I should say that he married her and her mother, because they actually came as a team, and these people were not good people. Mike was thoroughly obsessed by her.

“I’ve known other men, brilliant executives in their 40s, who have fallen in love with beautiful young women – sometimes not even beautiful – and became so obsessed by them that they leave their wives, their families.
I’ve seen it happen to mature men, so I can understand it happening to a boy like Mike. To him, Robin was a fairy princess; educated, classy, an actress.

“Jim and I had heard rumours about Robin and her mother, but Mike was rushed into marrying her by a phony pregnancy so we tried to make the best of it. Yet Robin was claiming that we were trying to break up her marriage, when all the time we were trying to ensure that he stayed married.

“I knew she was a phony from the very beginning, but Mike was so brainwashed by her that he didn’t even realise she’d made a monkey of him.

“Cus and Jim will be spinning in their graves at what’s happened to Mike, but they wouldn’t be angry: they’d be sad. Mike was taken to the cleaners by a woman who never loved him, who saw in him an opportunity to become famous – which she did; to make a lot of money – which she did; and to use him. I don’t think she ever loved him for a minute, but he fell for her.

“I’ve never seen anything like Robin. She got Mike to fire Steve Lott, who had been like a close brother to Mike, but she decided she wanted rid of him so Steve had to go.

“In my own conversation with him on the telephone he’d be warm and friendly, and suddenly his voice would change:
it meant that Robin had walked into the room. He’d be like a different person. This is what I think broke Mike down. Before that he had a very warm and friendly feeling towards Jim and me.

“Whenever he had a major problem, even when Cus was alive, he’d call me. If he wanted to buy a car, he’d call me. When he cracked up the car, he’d call me. When he had personal problems, he’d call me. Sometimes I’d tell Cus, sometimes he wouldn’t even want me to tell Cus.

“So this was my relationship with him, which was totally and completely destroyed by Don King, who has even bragged to me about how he poisoned Mike’s mind against me.”

Given the vast amounts of money involved, Cayton’s anger and resentment is understandable, but he has reached the age and financial status where the cash doesn’t actually matter that much. I suspect that what motivates him more is a sense of betrayal, and frustration at watching helplessly while the fighter who was potentially the most intimidating heavyweight in history self-destructs.

He is still, at least on paper, Tyson’s manager: their contract does not expire until 12 February 1992, and until then Cayton insists that he will perform all the functions of a good manager committed to protecting his client’s interests. He claims that King is acting illegally in dealing with Tyson over his head, but his complaint on those grounds to the New York State Athletic Commission is still unresolved.

There are also several lawsuits in progress, sparked by the four-year exclusive promotional contract which Tyson signed with King, and which Cayton strongly feels is economically disastrous for the fighter.

It is sad to see any once-close relationship dissolve in acrimony, particularly as Cayton’s plans for Tyson extended beyond his retirement from the ring.

“I had expected that I was going to be able to teach him the business,” he says.

“The last good meeting we had, just prior to him getting married, he spent over an hour sitting here in my office while I explained to him about the Japanese deal [to fight Tony Tubbs], about how I’d put the deal together, how I’d got Nippon TV involved, the promoters, the sponsors. I told him, ‘We are going to Japan, but we have letters of credit so we know we’re going to get the $10m gross from this fight.’

“When Mike left the meeting and went back to Camille Ewald [his housekeeper and surrogate mother], he was very excited about it, and he told Camille how much he loved me, how patient I was in trying to teach him the business. If King had not gotten his hooks into Tyson, I could have made Tyson a goddam good professional manager, so that when he gave up boxing he would know the boxing business.

“He has an extraordinary knowledge of boxing history – Jim worked on him for that – and I was going to make him into a business expert too. “If King had not latched onto him, in my judgement – and it’s very conservative – he would have a minimum of $50m more net than he has made under King. He would have fought the Bruno fight in London, first of all, but King convinced him not to go over there because Jarvis Astaire and Mickey Duff would not allow King to be involved in the promotion.

“If King had stayed out of it there would have been $2m or $3m more for Tyson in London than he made here, Jarvis and Mickey say they would have had a complete, full sellout: they sold $2.5m worth of tickets in the first week they were on sale, the biggest ever.

“I don’t know what pressure Don King was able to put on Tyson to make him change his mind. His ability to  brainwash, his ability to lie, is unimaginable.

“Moving the fight to Las Vegas was a failure. Everybody lost money – Bruno was just not recognisable in America.
Also, Tyson broke off with Kevin Rooney before that fight. That was King’s doing. On the day he broke off with  Rooney, Mike actually discussed with Kevin that morning a comment Kevin had made on the air the night before to the effect that even though he was breaking up with Robin he could still date her.

“Mike called Kevin up that morning to say he thought it was funny, and they laughed about it, but by that evening King had worked him up to where he was angry that Rooney had dared to discuss his wife with him, so he phoned Mike Marley on the New York Post and told him he’d fired Kevin.

“Firing Kevin Rooney was a disaster for him, just like trying to fire me was, because Kevin was the one solid hold he had on Cus D’Amato and his training and background, Kevin instilled some discipline in Mike, and Mike listened to Kevin.

“In my judgement, Mike in the Spinks fight was either the second-best or the best heavyweight of all-time. The moves he made in that fight were extraordinary. It was not just the fact that he was a great puncher – it was those great boxing moves he made to get into position to deliver those devastating combinations.

“By the Bruno fight, he had deteriorated. Bruno hit him with punches that no one had hit him with before. He took more punches in the Bruno fight than in all his previous fights put together. He was hit by one punch in the Bonecrusher Smith fight and everybody made a big fuss about it; one punch in the Tony Tucker fight.

“That’s two punches in two fights, and nothing in many other fights, but against Bruno he was not elusive, he didn’t slip punches, he didn’t bob and weave – he lost the skills that had been instilled in him through all the previous fights under Kevin Rooney.

“And then of course going to Japan and what happened there, was a sheer disaster. It was not only the incompetence of Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright in training with him, which was obvious when he got in the ring in terrible condition, but that corner’s behaviour – I have never seen such rankly amateurish cornerwork. They shouldn’t have been doing a preliminary amateur fight, let alone the heavyweight championship of the world.

“So he lost the title, but he certainly wouldn’t have lost it had he stayed with Kevin and me. He’d still be heavyweight champion, and probably regarded as the best fighter of all-time. He’d have made comfortably $50m by now.

“Tyson knows enough about boxing to be aware that he’s deteriorating. He knows what’s happening. Presently, I regard the Holyfield fight as a 9-5 fight for Tyson, but if he was to get away from King today and come back to Kevin and Steve Lott, it would be 10-1. That’s how important I think Kevin is.

“Holyfield could actually beat the Tyson of the Ruddock fight, but he wouldn’t have a chance against Tyson and Rooney. It would be no more difficult than the Spinks fight. He’s just as easy to hit as Spinks, but he’s tough and well conditioned and if it goes past the sixth or seventh round Tyson will start running out of gas.

“He’ll never be able to get himself in condition with the likes of Richie Giachetti, Snowell and Bright. Can you imagine a more stupid choice for King to inflict on Tyson than Giachetti? Giachetti ridiculed Cus’ teaching. They had confrontations in the newspapers where they called each other terrible names.

“Cus said Giachetti should not be allowed to be a trainer, even though he had Larry Holmes at the time.

“Of all the trainers in the world, King picked the one who detested the man who made Mike Tyson. Five years of teaching and training by Cus D’Amato, who I regard as the finest teacher and trainer of all-time, made Mike Tyson such a great fighter. So who do they put in to get him back to being a great fighter? A guy who thought that Cus D’Amato was a phoney.

“I don’t think he will ever come back to Kevin. I think he’s too much under the control of Don King. Maybe he wants to, but I don’t think he’ll bring himself to. It’s a pity, because he was on his way to becoming the greatest heavyweight of all-time.

“I’ve been told that Tyson was ready to walk out on King time and time again, but couldn’t bring himself to do it because he doesn’t know how to face his friends, particularly in the black community. Yet King is the worst racist imaginable. He has the racist pitch, but with the exception of Tex Cobb all his victims have been black.

“According to King if anybody picks on him they’re picking on him because he’s black, not because of what he’s done.

“‘Only in America,’ he says. The fact is that only in America, because he’s black, could he get away with what he’s getting away with. For what he has done, in any other country in the world he’d be in jail. He has done everything imaginable that’s crooked and he’s survived, because he has very powerful political connections.”

Cayton has accepted that, even if he wins the court battles, his relationship with Tyson is over – but he’s not brooding over it.