“THAT whole year was crazy,” he would recall, more than two decades after the tumultuous events, that ultimately led to his shocking downfall, took place. In 1988 Mike Tyson traded handwraps, mouthpieces and gloves for subpoenas, police reports, hospital beds, prescription meds, and a seemingly permanent spot in the scandal-addled American psyche.
If Andy Warhol was the ecce homo of exhibitionism, as poet and novelist Stephen Spender once put it, then Tyson was the “Greed Is Good” 1980s equivalent: more violent, as the accelerated age demanded, and now with a distinctly urban tinge. And, to the prizefighting axioms that had been drilled into his subconscious by Cus D’Amato and Teddy Atlas since he was an oversized teen, Tyson seemingly misappropriated a bit of Aleister Crowley as well: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Even as a self-proclaimed extremist, Tyson went beyond the boundaries of commonplace self-destruction. His spectacular unraveling began in earnest during the summer of 1988, when a heat wave left the asphalt and concrete sizzling.
After spending the previous year and a half collecting title belts, Tyson defended his unified championship against Larry Holmes and Tony Tubbs, scoring chilling TKOs of both men on HBO. Still, his long-standing target, Michael Spinks, had proved elusive. Now, after months of public grandstanding, wrangling, handwringing, and haggling, the Spinks fight was set: June 27, 1988. And it was made at the request of Tyson himself. Unlike so many fighters who took centre stage in his wake, Tyson prodded his team to make the Spinks fight, refusing to let purses, politics or personalities derail a blockbuster event. It was an insult to his outsize ego for anyone to assume, even mistakenly, that he was reluctant to face Spinks.
Dubbed “Once and for All,” Tyson–Spinks would take place at the Atlantic City Convention Center. In the biggest coup of his nascent boxing career, Donald Trump had snagged the superfight of the moment. For a site fee of $11 million, Trump managed to undercut Las Vegas — then the fisticuffs capital of America — and, simultaneously, bring the biggest fight in history to New Jersey. In the mid-1980s, Trump realised that hosting marquee fights could help boost the drop at his Atlantic City casinos. To that end, he overpaid for a pair of Tyson title defenses (against Tyrell Biggs and Larry Holmes), which allowed him a first-rights bid on the Spinks extravaganza.
For some, the biggest question surrounding this fight was simple: Would Tyson make it to the Convention Center before cracking up? As “Once and for All” neared, Tyson began to feel the strain of a hectic personal life. He was at war with his manager, Bill Cayton, his marriage was on the rocks, he was combative fodder for tabloid papers and television news programmes, he was being reprogrammed by Don King, he quibbled with his trainer Kevin Rooney (a Bill Cayton loyalist), and he increased his drinking and carousing.
On the night of June 27, the stars — Jack Nicholson, Norman Mailer, Warren Beatty, Madonna, Sean Penn, Leroy Nieman — flocked to the boardwalk to bump elbows, hobnob with Trump, and watch Spinks walk a gangplank, of sorts.
An unusually animated Tyson warmed up by throwing lightning-fast combinations and pacing the ring as the celebrities in attendance were announced to the crowd. By contrast, Spinks barely moved. He kept his robe on until the fighter introductions began, as if he was hoping to remain, in a sense, armored for as long as possible. After both fighters were announced, Spinks returned to his corner and knelt in prayer.
The bell rang. Within seconds, Tyson unleashed a blurring combination that forced Spinks to retreat. As Tyson advanced, his bob-and-weave style not only elusive but perfectly coordinated for maximizing firepower, Spinks backed into the ropes. In a flash, Spinks, who had never been down in his career, was dropped by a left uppercut followed by a knifing right to the body. He beat the count and, sure proof that he was disoriented, marched directly into fire. Although he threw his vaunted right hand once, in desperation (he missed), Spinks was a loud target for Tyson, who bored in and landed a blurring left hook, followed by a right uppercut, that flattened Spinks. His head bounced against the canvas, under the bottom rope, like a tombstone knocked off its base by vandals. With his eyes wide yet clearly unfocused, Spinks tried to scramble to his feet, but his nervous system was haywire, and he floundered before pitching through the ropes. By then, Referee Frank Cappuccino had already stopped his count.
It was all over, after only ninety-one seconds. Tyson, now the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, merely stretched out his arms, gloved palms outward, and gazed into the stunned crowd. This extraordinary gesture of nonchalance was a sharp contrast to the tumult of his life. By annihilating Spinks, never the most convincing big man but still the only other heavyweight in the world that mattered, Tyson reached a peak he was never able to duplicate. In the wake of his crowning achievement — he was the first undisputed titlist since 1977, and now the lineal champion as well — Tyson seemed almost joyless. No one ever seemed less happy after such an explosive win. An angry Tyson announced his (short-lived) retirement after the fight and continued his running battle with the media. “I wasn’t very appreciative of what you guys, the reporters, did to me,” Tyson said at the post-fight press conference. “You tried to embarrass me. You tried to embarrass my family. You tried to disgrace us, and as far as I know, this might be my last fight … I don’t like reading that my wife is a whore, that my mother-in-law is a sneaky conniver. And then I read that I’m an idiot. I know it goes with the territory, but it’s difficult.”
Who would have imagined that, after scoring the most important win of his career, Tyson would be the loser of the biggest upset in sports history only a year and a half later?
In July, Tyson spent most of his time bickering with his wife, making court appearances pertaining to a lawsuit he had filed against Cayton, and vacillating on a commitment to face Frank Bruno in England. But it was what took place in August on a Harlem sidewalk at four-thirty in the morning, just outside Dapper Dan’s Boutique, that marked 1988 as an annus horribilis for the multimedia ages. That you could find a clothing boutique (catering almost exclusively to hustlers, rappers, and drug dealers) open all night in New York City might come as a shock to current Big Apple denizens, used to a Starbucks on every corner and studio apartments renting for $5,000 per month. Even more surprising, perhaps, to the affluent hordes who have infused the ex-mean streets with Middle-America mores since the dawn of Y2K would be some of the bespoke wares that were available, such as Kevlar couture. “If you had a real beef, you didn’t just wear the bulletproof coat when it was cold out,” Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day wrote in his autobiography. “You wore that joint all summer. Bulletproofing became a big business for me.”
Some nights, Dapper Dan’s also doubled as an after-hours spot, where, invariably, the occasional ruckus broke out. The street brawl between Tyson and Mitch “Blood” Green, which lit up the newswires as well as the informal barbershop talk-circuit, also brought Dapper Dan widespread notoriety and the kind of scrutiny that eventually resulted in his undoing.
Possibly the only fighter in history with more mugshots than knockouts, Mitch Green, an ex-member of the Black Spades street gang, was, to put it mildly, deranged. As an amateur, Green won four New York Golden Gloves titles, but he never lived up to his early potential because his interest in the WBC, the WBA, and the IBF could never match his interest in PCP—angel dust. Green was both dangerous and offbeat. He was once arrested for driving with a television set screwed into his dashboard. Like 1920s gangster Legs Diamond, who survived multiple assassination attempts via gunshot and thus claimed the nickname “The Clay Pigeon,” Green had been riddled by bullets before he turned thirty. In a unique twist, however, Green [pictured below] once also managed to shoot himself, accidentally, with a homemade zip gun.
Over the years, Green had been stabbed, subdued by a taser, bitten by a bodyguard (employed by Larry Holmes), and brawled with prison inmates, police officers, gas station attendants, and toll booth agents. Although Green went 10 rounds with Tyson in the ring in 1986, he barely made an effort in spoiling his way to the final bell. According to Green, the humiliation of earning only $30,000 to face Tyson in Madison Square Garden sapped him of ambition. He blamed Don King for his meagre purse, but it was not King whom he encountered by chance on 125th Street nearly two years later.
They met in the predawn of August 24, when Tyson arrived at the boutique to pick up a custom-made white leather jacket bearing the phrase “Don’t Believe the Hype” on its back. According to Dapper Dan, Green was in the vicinity, wandering the streets while under the influence, when he was goaded into confronting Tyson by neighbourhood ragamuffins. “On that particular night,” recalled Dapper Dan, “the kids were out front, trying to escape the summer heat, when all of a sudden, they saw Mike Tyson pull up in his Rolls-Royce and walk into the store… The kids knew exactly how to get their entertainment for the night. They ran right to the area where they knew Mitch Green always be at. Sure enough, they found him there and told him, ‘Mike Tyson kick yo ass and he around at Dapper Dan’s right now’.”
No sooner had Green been heckled by a nocturnal “Our Gang” in Air Jordans than he was stumbling through the door of Dapper Dan’s, insisting that Tyson had not beaten the real “Blood” Green. “You didn’t beat me,” Green hollered. “I had no food. That mother***** Don King didn’t give me no food.” Although Tyson tried reasoning with Green — even getting a reluctant handshake out of him — things degenerated when they stepped out under the streetlights. Unwisely, Green continued haranguing Tyson, who was drunk and operating with a much shorter fuse than usual. Eventually, Green became physical, sparking one of the most infamous extracurricular sports moments in history. “He got into my face and started clawing at me and I looked down and he had ripped my shirt pocket,” Tyson recalled in his memoir, Undisputed Truth. “That was it. I just walloped him right in his eye. I was drunk and didn’t realise that he was high on angel dust so he really wasn’t going to hit me back. It was like fighting a 10-year-old. I would drag him all up the street, and he was screaming. He fought me better in the ring than he did that night.”
The blows Tyson landed that morning — sans Everlasts — left him with a hairline fracture of his right hand. Indeed, the unsanctioned rematch was as one-sided as Tyson–Spinks had been two months earlier. Dapper Dan was one of several eyewitnesses. “With Mitch on the ground, Mike landed one right hand after another that closed up Mitch’s left eye and broke his nose… All this information came out in later reports of the fight, but what people don’t know is that after Mike knocked him down, he got on top of Mitch and started choking him out. That’s when people jumped in and finally got Mike off of him. ‘I’ll kill you and your bitch, too,’ Mike said before driving away in his car and leaving Mitch bloody in the street.”
After getting stitched up in the hospital, Green limped over to the nearest police precinct and swore out a complaint against Tyson accusing him of misdemeanor assault. A few days later, Green dropped the charges in exchange for a guaranteed rematch — in the ring. There was only one condition: Green would have to work his way back into the heavyweight ratings. In the aftermath of the sidewalk fracas, Green received numerous offers from managers and promoters looking to capitalise on the publicity. “How do you like that?” Green asked. “I’m a hot item right now.” But Green was more than just hot; he was radioactive, a man whose impulses overrode everything, even his well-being. For a few weeks, Green was as omnipresent in New York as squeegee men or soapbox preachers in Times Square. Wherever he went, he carried with him a rubbery Gremlins doll fixed up with a dress and a homemade cast on its arm. This grotesque representation of Tyson, whom Green referred to as “Cicely,” took a drubbing from Green from borough to borough, but that was the closest he ever got to a rematch.
Less than two weeks after his free-for-all with Green, Tyson was back in the headlines when he drove his BMW into a tree. It was enough of a collision to knock Tyson unconscious and send him to the hospital, where he could find no rest even in a private room at Columbia-Presbyterian. Down on the street, with a crowd massing around him, was Mitch Green, howling for “Cicely” Tyson. The next day, the front page of the Daily News read, in slashing tabloid font, “Tyson Tried to Kill Self.” At the time, Tyson denied the assertion, but later he would admit to driving into the tree deliberately for one of the strangest reasons imaginable for the most polarising athlete in the world: He wanted attention.
With a chest contusion to go along with his damaged hand, Tyson was in no shape to face Frank Bruno on October 22. The fight was cancelled, and Tyson spent the rest of the year idle, something his original brain trust would never have allowed. The discipline of multiple training camps per year kept Tyson focused and out of trouble. Now, however, he was determined to commune with his dark side. Without Cus D’Amato and Jim Jacobs, who had both died recently, Tyson began to regress. The short leash Jacobs tried to keep him on was gone, and Tyson was free to run wild. During the turbulent summer of 1988, Tyson went from edgy sports personality to full-on boor, a joyless hedonist whose dissolution seemed to be an end in itself. His extracurricular brawl with Mitch Green was merely a symptom of his growing delirium. Although he was the youngest heavyweight titlist in history, a sporting phenomenon who dominated the back pages and gossip columns, and yet he was as bleak as Caligula in an Albert Camus play. “I had everything I wanted,” Tyson wrote, “but I wasn’t happy within myself. The outside world wasn’t making me happy anymore. I didn’t know how to get it on the inside, because happiness, as I realised later, is an inside job.”
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of Hannibal Boxing. This article has been adapted from his book Sporting Blood: Tales from the Dark Side of Boxing, to be released this month by Hamilcar Publications.