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Grudge Match—Tyson vs. King

The former heavyweight champion of the world and the world's most notorious boxing promoter are battling in court over millions of dollars.
Geoffrey Gray
From the Print Edition:
Tyson vs. King, Jan/Feb 04

(continued from page 1)

Atlas is a rugged disciplinarian, a doctor's son who carries a scar that runs down the side of his face from a knife fight and is now one of boxing's leading analysts. Atlas doesn't take on fighters anymore, he says, because of a tendency to lack in character. He ended his relationship with Tyson when he escorted the then 16-year-old fighter into a back alley behind D'Amato's gym, above the Catskill, New York, police station, and stuck the cold, steel butt of a loaded 38-caliber pistol into Tyson's ear.

"Right or wrong, I had to take a stand," Atlas says now. "Nobody else would."

The incident happened hours after Atlas learned that Tyson, his hard-hitting champion-to-be, had sexually propositioned Atlas's 11-year-old niece. It wasn't the first time D'Amato or Atlas or Tyson's financial backers had heard complaints about Tyson fondling girls in high school or suggesting lewd sexual favors and flying into a rage when he was rejected. Instead of disciplining Tyson, Atlas says, D'Amato often overlooked Tyson's mistakes, snuck him into the gym at night and sacrificed his morals to fulfill his last selfish dream before his looming death: having the youngest heavyweight champ, even if it meant the champ couldn't control his emotions or his behavior, and struggled with self-confidence and depression.

"You have to believe in your teachers," Atlas says. "All Mike's teachers turned out to be liars. It reaffirmed to him that he wasn't worth anything."

When Tyson signed with King, left King, then came back to King after serving three years in an Indiana prison for a rape conviction he still adamantly denies, Atlas wasn't surprised. In part, Atlas says, Tyson was always fascinated by King's aura, his street charisma, and the way he could talk and appeal to black fighters. But Tyson's decision to keep coming back to King is based on something different -- namely, Tyson's fear of confronting himself.

 

"Mike was always looking for an excuse; he needed to create those trapdoors so down the road he could escape. Don King offered those trapdoors," Atlas says. "Mike knows that when the time comes, when it's time to go into those rooms -- the rooms inside yourself where all real men must go -- he's not a gangster. He's holding a toy gun in those rooms. King just gave him the ammunition he needed to escape himself.

"Don't be fooled," Atlas says. "Don King wasn't the one that made Mike who he is. The writing was on the wall with Mike when we got him. Don King only speeded up the process. Don King only lifted up the top of the can. Don King let all the demons out."

Then Tyson signed with King, he didn't seem interested in spreadsheets and international rights, even if they were his own. But without knowing anything about it, Tyson claims he paid King's family members salaries and large consultancy fees for doing virtually nothing whatsoever. One alleged recipient of such payments was Carl King, a stepson of Don King's and also an exclusive boxing manager to King's fighters, an inherent conflict of interest. Carl King was never allowed to handle any of Tyson's affairs, but records show he received consultancy fees from Tyson in excess of $300,000 over the years, along with King's wife, Henrietta, whom Tyson inadvertently paid more than $1.5 million for allegedly decorating Tyson's homes. King's daughter, Debbie, also earned a dubious salary of $52,000 a year, plus expenses, for running the Mike Tyson Fan Club.

After three years under King, Tyson didn't even know he had a fan club. When the fighter found out, his longtime chauffeur and assistant, Rudy Gonzalez, says he and Tyson went to the Fan Club office within King's training facilities in Orwell, Ohio, to see what Tyson had been paying for. When they entered, they saw crates filled with thousands of unopened envelopes from fans, as well as photographs and underwear from women.

Sitting on the floor, opening some of the yellowed mail, Gonzalez, who will also likely be a key witness for Tyson, remembers the then heavyweight champ reading a letter from a woman in the Midwest. Her child had been dying of cancer. She wondered if Tyson could give the kid a call. Gonzalez remembers getting the number, dialing, and passing the phone off to Tyson who, after only a few minutes, hung up, cursed King and started to cry. The call was a year too late.

"Mike never really knew how important he was until then, that so many people had reached out to him," says Gonzalez, who authored the 1995 memoir The Inner Ring. "Mike never really knew he was somebody who had the power to change lives. He was an elephant in chains, the biggest freak act in Don King's circus, and when he didn't want to perform anymore, they tried to take him in the back and shoot him."

He says the case against King is the most important fight in Tyson's career. "This is Mike's chance to rectify his public image and show people the mental and psychical torture he went through," says Gonzalez. "It's a victory everyone wants to see."

But one King defense attorney, Peter Fleming Jr., says, "The only thing Mike is really interested in here is if he got what he signed for, and he did. The reason Mike doesn't have any money isn't because of Don. It's because Mike spent it all."

If Tyson had his way now, many say he would prefer to forget about his boxing future and his feud with King and simply tend to his more than 1,000 pigeons, many of which he buys online. He would rather read about historic gangsters (another passion) and come back to the streets and poverty of his youth, they say, come back to Brooklyn and talk shit with old friends, smoke pot and sign autographs for bums on brown paper bags.

Over the years Tyson has spent money (once more than $400,000 a year on pet supplies) and he has stolen money (often snatching the wallets of his personal chefs for sport) and he has lost money (say, millions in tax penalties). But there are few who can say Tyson has been greedy. He is unusually benevolent, known to hand off the rolls of cash in his pockets to the tune of $20,000 and more to derelict fighters and the homeless. Even as an incorrigible teen, Tyson once walked into an ice cream parlor upstate in Catskill with a friend, ordered a $1 cone and left a $2 tip.

"Why did you tip so much?" his friend asked.

"Cause I could see he was afraid of me," Tyson said. "So I wanted him to know I'm a good guy."

In many ways, wealth has also made Tyson uncomfortable. Even under the $700,000 Russian sable mink quilt he kept in his Ohio manse, a home so big he used custom-made Rolls-Royce golf carts to transport himself to the bathroom, Tyson could never fall asleep in his own bed. When Gonzalez would wake him up in the morning, he says he often found the young heavyweight champ curled up in a corner of his bedroom on the floor in a sleeping bag, or on a couch with his legs dangling off the arms, or in the back of his Mercedes stretch limousine parked in his garage. And when Tyson commissioned designer Gianni Versace to build a $2 million diamond bathtub for then actress wife Robin Givens (a Roman tub shipped to Tyson's New Jersey estate in an armored truck), Tyson was soon spotted chipping away at the tub's encrusted jewels with a kitchen fork. "The shit cuts my ass," he said.

Some say what Tyson wants more than $100 million back from King is simply a bed he can sleep in, a tub he can ease into, a regular life. Others say, amid the mutiny of emotions at war in Tyson's mind, there is no room for tranquility. He's Mike Tyson! A force of raw chaos that novelist Joyce Carol Oates defined as "a prehistoric creature rising from the crevice of our own subconscious," a nihilistic state neither he nor anyone can attempt to govern. His moods swing from rage to tears. He bites ears and gently feeds pigeons. He comes off ill-educated, though commands an accurate, insightful knowledge of boxing history from the woolly days of bare knuckles and tights. It's true. He is a historian minus the tweed.

"Mike secretly thinks he's conning everybody," says one of Tyson's confidants. "In my ear, he once told me he considers himself one of the greatest con men of all time."

Then again, others say Tyson is faking it. Tyson even claiming himself a con man is Tyson's true con. Sure, in the Indiana prison, as inmate No. 922335, Tyson could spout off about the lessons of Machiavelli, Voltaire and Dumas to visiting reporters (and still can), but Tyson's detractors also point out that he failed his general equivalency diploma exam. He knows only what's been told to him, they say, and passes off memorable quotes as his own. He hides not only beneath his contradictory tattoos (on Tyson's torso is mild-mannered tennis star Arthur Ashe; on his right bicep is communist chairman Mao Tse-tung), Tyson hides in history, too.

"Mike doesn't know who he is," says Atlas. "He's a chameleon."

Gonzalez disagrees. After living with Tyson for more than seven years, he says, the fighter doesn't possess the mental tools to adapt in society like a chameleon might. "Mike is a Frankenstein," he says. "A product engineered by others, desperately trying to communicate with the world any way he knows how."

Whoever Tyson is, his predictability is his unpredictability, the ultimate attraction for Pay-Per-View voyeurs and the source of his perennial curiosity. He once confessed to a team of psychiatrists: "I have no self-esteem and the biggest ego in the world!"

In other words, anything can happen.

Expect the unexpected.

Still, who could have suspected that only months before trial Tyson would consider settling with King? The prospect seemed unthinkable. It's not entirely clear if Tyson had even planned to meet with King in the Peninsula. He had been scheduled to meet with his then manager Shelly Finkel and sign a contract to fight an opponent of his choice. This fight would also have settled an onerous rematch clause that Tyson had signed with the British heavyweight champ, Lennox Lewis, who had devoured Tyson in less then eight rounds in 2002. Soundly beaten, Tyson did not want a match with Lewis anytime soon; discouraged by the prospect of losing millions in lucrative Pay-Per-View revenue that Tyson has always been able to attract, regardless of his fighting form, Lewis's legal team proposed that Tyson satisfy his rematch clause by fighting a low-caliber opponent in a co-feature with Lewis, with Tyson receiving $7 million in pay and Lewis's promotional team sharing the Pay-Per-View revenue. The presumption was that the two would fight each other again at some point, should Tyson's skills and physical condition improve somehow.

Under what conditions Tyson came to meet with King at the Peninsula Hotel may be unclear, but what is clear is that after only a two-week period in New York, King gave the fighter and his associates more than $2.5 million in cash and gifts. Looking to settle, King floated the fighter more than $500,000 in cash, along with a cash payment of $20,000 to be delivered by junior lightweight champ Zab Judah, according to a confidential schedule of expenses prepared by King's lawyers. The records also show that King purchased a number of cars for Tyson and his associates, including a Rolls-Royce ($330,000), a Bentley ($284,658), a purple Aston Martin ($275,382), a Hummer ($50,000) and three Mercedes-Benzes ($303,000.) On one of Tyson's shopping sprees for clothes on Madison Avenue, King took care of $34,000 worth of designer clothes from Versace, along with more than $100,000 in Tyson's private jet expenses and more than $6,000 in hotel bills for Jackie Rowe, an old friend of Tyson's who has taken on the burden of handling the fighter's business affairs.

Checking out of the hotel, King also flew home with a bill from the Peninsula for more than $55,000, including a number of late-night dips into the minibar by Tyson and his entourage, room service three times a day and trips to the hotel massage parlor.

Still, Tyson had not inked a settlement.

King had no deal.

"Finally, it was Mike who conned Don!" says Warren Flagg, a former FBI agent who investigated King throughout the 1980s and now works as a private gumshoe in Manhattan. After Lewis's attorney, Judd Burstein, heard about King's purchases for Tyson, he retained Flagg's services. Failing to sign the rematch contract with Lewis, Burstein slapped both King and Tyson with a tortuous interference claim in federal court. He seeks a whopping $385 million.

"This was vintage King," Burstein says. "Sequester somebody, then barrage them with a combination of bullshit flattery, racial pride, intimidation and cash."

To push the drama further, King has called Burstein "an insidious insect" (a claim Burstein says he takes as a compliment coming from King) and a "scheister lawyer" (a claim Burstein says only confirms suspicions that King is an anti-Semite). King says those charges are unworthy of comment. Again, not to be outdone, he has filed a counter suit against Lewis.


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