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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 3)

King makes no delusions about his motivations. In June, at a press conference before a recent boxing match King promoted, Rich Neiderman, director of boxing operations at the Orleans Hotel and Casino, told reporters in Las Vegas, "We'd like to thank Don King for bringing us this great championship fight card. Hopefully, next time we'll make some money." (Laughter.) King took the podium for nearly three hours. He was hilarious, poetic and often seemingly delirious. "A lot of people extol me and my family, but fighters make more with me then they do with the honest guys!" he said, then chuckled. "Like me or dislike me, I get the money."

In boxing, stealing from a fighter has become so engrained into the lore of the sport that few are willing to give cries of theft any attention. As one television network executive told me about Tyson's case, "Nobody could give two shits." Accusations of robbery are almost expected, if not shrugged off as cliché in an industry governed without enforceable rules or regulations. There is no union, no pension plan or guaranteed benefits for either fighter or promoter. There is only chaos -- "a world of amorphous Jell-O," as Bert Sugar, the cigar-chomping fight historian, says. It's the last frontier for unfettered American enterprise, a no-holds-barred landscape where a fighter like Tyson can go broke after earning more than $300 million -- and a promoter like King can develop a reputation for such genius, and fiscal chicanery.

Tyson had been warned about King. The bald, nearly blind, paranoid boxing sage Cus D'Amato told him that when the championship would come, there would be others coming to earn his trust and test his financial naïveté. In a story often told, D'Amato adopted Tyson, the ghetto thief from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, arrested 38 times between the age of 10 and 13. Plagued with an awkward combination of great physical strength and a wispy, almost feminine voice, Tyson spent his fabled youth sleeping between the walls of abandoned buildings, mugging older women, sticking up delis and getting tied to his bed and beaten by his brother and sister who could not control his behavior. Tyson was the kid who held the gun because the other thugs could be tried as adults.

He was uncontrollable.

"Our walls were plenty dirty," says Teddy Atlas, who first trained Tyson under D'Amato. "If there's a leak in the roof, you know, the spill doesn't just stay in the kitchen."

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.

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