Premium Feature

Mike Tyson – what might have been

Mike Tyson
Steve Lott - a crucial member of Team Tyson in the early days - reveals some extraordinary insight on why he might just have been the greatest underachiever in boxing history

STEVE LOTT lived with a young Mike Tyson for three years and has known him for 35. A crucial member of the team – alongside the likes of Cus D’Amato, Jim Jacobs and Kevin Rooney – who turned Tyson from angry young man into one of the most fearsome fighters in history, Lott claims to know the workings of Tyson’s mind better than anyone.

Has the Tyson story worked out the way you thought it would?

It’s changed, of course. It started out great in ’85, ’86, ’87, ’88 but it changed dramatically with the introduction of Robin Givens and Don King. And people think that Mike just self-destructed. It wasn’t like that. In the same meticulous way that Cus D’Amato, Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs looked at every single facet and made every single decision for Mike that resulted in him becoming the world’s most popular athlete, on the opposite side of the coin King and Givens made decisions that were in their best interests that resulted in the destruction of Mike Tyson. There was two completely separate objectives.

What if Mike had stayed with Kevin Rooney?

Well, it didn’t look like Mike was getting any worse, that’s for sure. If you look at the Tucker fight and the knockouts over Biggs and then Holmes, and then Tubbs, then Spinks and being voted the world’s most popular athlete, even when Mike broke up with Robin Givens and came back to the office to apologise to Bill in that summer of ’88, Bill told him the fights he had lined up, with [Francesco] Damiani in Italy in an outdoor stadium, with [Adilson] Rodrigues in South America in a huge stadium, with [Frank] Bruno in England, Lennox Lewis, then Evander [Holyfield]. Mike was thrilled and the big fights that would have taken place that would have been the monster fights would have been Tyson and Tommy Morrison and the fight of all fights would have been Tyson and George Foreman. Those are the fights that would have happened if he’d stayed with Kevin and Bill. But missing out on those fights wasn’t as bad as what happened to him outside the ring, losing his hero status, from going in 1987 and being voted the world’s most popular athlete to two years later the New York Daily News, the biggest newspaper in the world at the time, voted Mike the most unpopular celebrity. 

How long do you think he would have reigned for if he had stayed with Bill and Kevin?

That would have depended upon the competition, of course. But unless there was a distraction I would have thought that Mike would have found a way to beat the likes of Lewis, Holyfield, Moorer and Foreman. The guys that we are talking about were fine fighters but they all got hit, and whenever Mike fought a guy who was not elusive, it was a rather easy fight for Mike.

Where does he stand on the list of all-time great heavyweight based on his accomplishments?

Now there are two parts to that and I always try in my own way to distinguish it and I think there’s a difference between great and best. Greatness involves a lot of stuff. It involves not only the ability of a fighter, what his accomplishments were in the ring, his notoriety, his hero status, his longevity… A lot of stuff goes in that package. Best means you put two fighters in the ring, who will win? Greatest? You have the Greatest Of All Time, Ali, of course. Number two, probably Joe Louis. Number three, maybe Rocky Marciano. Maybe Evander at four. That’s putting all that stuff together. The best, Ali and Tyson. Now I don’t know who would win that. I would give Ali the edge in the first fight, if they fought more than once. Mike would have been very nervous. After the first fight, and when Mike realises Ali was easy to hit and not a great puncher, the second fight I would bet on Mike. The greatest? Mike would be down the list because of the unpleasant things he’s done outside the ring, with the rape, the ear biting, his demeanour. Everyone will vote him down the list on greatness, but best? That’s different.

Mike Tyson

Was Mike a wasted talent or did he fulfil his potential by becoming heavyweight champion of the world?

That’s a very interesting question. Usually, when a fighter trains they train at 50 per cent, 60 per cent or 80 per cent, and when they fight they fight at 100 per cent of whatever they got. Mike was the opposite in that there were some sparring sessions when Mike was spectacular, bobbing, weaving and coming up and he never fought like that. Maybe, after the Spinks fight, had he become more relaxed, some of that would have come out and I’m telling you he could not have fought any worse than he did against Biggs, Tubbs and Holmes and Spinks. He never fought 10 per cent of what was in him, yet he still beat those guys. Even without the stuff he was doing in training, he blew out everyone. So potential, I don’t know if he ever fought up to 50, 60 or 70 per cent.

Will anyone break his record of being world heavyweight champion at 20?

It is possible but the thing that makes it difficult is mathematics. There are less gyms around today than there were back then. If there are less gyms, there are less fighters. If there are less fighters there is a lesser pool of talent from which a fighter can rise, especially at heavyweight. There’s a difference between the United States and the UK. In the UK, there’s really no baseball [US] football or basketball. So any big kid who has athletic ability would probably try boxing, like Klitschko, or Joshua, Lennox… They are not sophisticated fighters but they are so f***** big, it gives them the edge. If you’re in the United States, it’s completely different. If you’re 12, 13, 14 and you’re 6ft 2in and 215 [lbs] and someone’s father says let’s try baseball, and the kid sees the beautiful fields, the beautiful girls, then the dad says, let’s try football. And he sees beautiful fields, beautiful girls… Let’s try basketball, and he sees the beautiful arena, the beautiful girls… Then he says, ‘Son, if you become heavyweight champion you can make more money in one fight than your whole career in another sport.’ They drive 20 miles to a gym, a spit bucket of a dump. ‘No way, Dad. No way.’ So I don’t think there’s a chance of an American fighter ever becoming a great world heavyweight champion again. It’s just not possible.

Also, Mike was having 10 fights a year at the start, that’s not often done these days.

That’s because the managers are either stupid or they don’t want to spend their own money to do what is in the best interest of a fighter. If a manager had a heavyweight kid, 18 years old, turning pro, and wanted to do what is best for the fighter, if he wanted the kid in New York to fight on a show in Chicago the Chicago promoter would say, ‘Really? Your guy is not a draw. We don’t need him.’ Then the manager would say, ‘I will pay for my fighter. I will pay for the opponent. You just put the fight on.’ Then the promoter would say, ‘You got it.’ And they would do that two weeks later somewhere else, then two weeks after that somewhere else. And that’s what Jim and Bill were doing with Mike. Mike was getting no purses whatsoever. They were paying for everything. Why? Because Mike needed that experience. Jim and Bill were spending $1,000 a week on sparring when Mike was still an amateur. That will never happen again.

What do you think Cus, Jim and Bill would have made of what has happened to Mike?

They would be very sad. Jim and Bill, Bill especially because Mike sued Bill and it is very emotional when someone you love and someone you put a lot of time, effort, money and energy into sues you. It would have hurt Jim if he was alive at the time and it definitely would have hurt Cus D’Amato. Don’t forget, Cus made Jim and Bill the managers. Cus was very smart and no one cared for Mike more than Cus and he made every decision for Mike based on what’s best for Mike. Cus put Mike in the hands of people he trusted and that would have hurt Cus.

What do you think people will remember Mike for?

I believe that most likely only boxing people will remember Mike as a boxer of incredible ability. Outside of the world of boxing they will remember Mike and think, ‘Yeah, he was a champion. And that tattoo. And The Hangover. And the One Man Show.’ All that stuff. The boxing people will remember the boxing, the rape and the ear biting. The non-boxing people will just remember him as a celebrity. Just a celebrity.

Read this week’s cover story on the descent of Mike Tyson here

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