I’m back again, in a room high up in the MGM Grand on the Strip, staring into the glittering darkness of Las Vegas. One Vegas hotel room looks like another but it feels as if I’m on the same floor when, all those years ago, in 1996, a giant image of Mike Tyson’s head turned menacingly on a metal cube outside the brightly-lit green MGM just before he crushed Frank Bruno to become world heavyweight champion once more. I know it doesn’t matter. It just feels like I’m back where I belong – getting ready to meet Tyson and preparing a new section for an updated edition of an old book called Dark Trade.
Tomorrow afternoon, at two o’clock, I’m due to meet Tyson again in his office in Henderson, twelve miles from the MGM.
The same old uncertainty rises up inside me. Tyson is now, incredibly, forty-seven years old. I am fifty-two. We’re both embedded in the strangeness of middle-age and so much has happened between then and now. Yet the first time we met I wondered whether Iron Mike would live to see the age of thirty.
He is now more than just a crazed fighter. Tyson is an actor, a one-man stage-show performer, the co-author of a grimly riveting autobiography and a boxing promoter with his own company, IMP, Iron Mike Productions. I need to start planning my questions but where do I even begin with Tyson?
My own life has changed beyond compare. Since Dark Trade was published in 1996, Alison and I have had three children. I’ve written six further books and the kids are old enough to recognize that a murky corner of my life is called ‘boxing’. In our house, it’s a source of mirth. Even our son, a sports-mad teenage boy between two arty sisters, laughs in bemusement at my boxing life.
Yesterday, a Tuesday, I returned from New York and a research trip for a new book about an old boxer. I landed at nine am and in the afternoon, when they got back from school, I had to tell them that I had just heard I needed to fly to Vegas the next morning – twenty-four hours after arriving home from America – to see Tyson.
My son sounded doubtful. “Tyson?” he said. “The guy who bit off someone’s ear?”
The old conflicted feelings have returned in Vegas. Why am I immersed as deeply as ever in boxing – at a time when most reasonable people dismissed it years ago as a tawdry joke? I still love movies and books and music, and sport, and I live an ordinary life with my family. But boxing continues to consume me.
I still meet fighters whenever I can. I pay my BoxNation television subscription every month and, most days, scan the major boxing websites and trawl my Twitter timeline for news of Floyd Mayweather, Gennady Golovkin and new favourites of mine like Carl Frampton, the Belfast bantamweight, managed by Barry McGuigan. Every time there is a big fight on TV Alison sits down to watch it with me, for old time’s sake and as her way of supporting me in my enduring madness.
It could be seen as a disease, I guess, but it’s an integral part of me. Just as I am a husband, a father and a son, I remain an addict of the ring. I am still lost in boxing.
So this is how it should end, or begin again, back near where we started, feeling different, but the same.
Waiting again for Tyson, I remember other fighters from these pages and beyond. I have been here before. Other circles have been completed or broken. They are not all happy endings because this is boxing. This is still, in Tyson’s resonant old phrase, the hurt business.
James Toney had been my favourite fighter for a long time. As the years slipped away, however, his Lights Out nickname became less a threat to his opponents than a summary of the way in which darkness had begun to shroud Toney’s life. He kept fighting because, at least in his mind, he had no other choice. Toney tried to tell himself, and us, that he was still a great fighter but whenever he opened his mouth his words sounded muffled and slurred. It became impossible to ignore the damage done by twenty-five years in the professional ring.
I only needed to listen to some of my early interviews with Toney to remember that he had always spoken with a drawling, almost mumbling swagger. But it was a shock to hear again the clarity and wit that rang out of his gruff voice from those past interviews. Toney’s mazy speech eighteen years later was lost in the creeping slurry of too many fights, and too many punches to the head.
It was painful to even imagine how I would write about Toney, and everything that had happened, for a revamped Dark Trade.
I remembered how I had read the news that Toney had been enticed to England in November 2013 to add some flabby stardust to Eddie Hearn’s Prizefighter tournament with a mournful sigh. The idea that Toney was about to fight in London for the first time would have once entranced, rather than depressed, me.
The reality was bleak. Toney first faced Matt Legg, a white novice from Milton Keynes who had a professional fight record of 6-1. Yet Legg had had just one bout over the past five years. It was a measure of how far Toney had fallen. Of course he made it into the Prizefighter semi-finals where he was joined by three journeymen in Michael Sprott, Brian Minto and Toney’s former sparring partner Jason ‘The Sensation’ Gavern – a policeman from Ohio.
Lights Out faced The Sensation – the youngest of the remaining Prizefighters at thirty-six. The combined age of the four semi-finalists was 156.
I still had to write about the ensuing charade – which was made even more ludicrous by the fact that Gavern decided to emit some high-pitched whoops and shrieks whenever he landed a half-decent punch. Around the arena hundreds of jokers chose to echo him by making their own “Woo!” screams. It was one of the least amusing nights of my boxing life.
I sit alone in Mike Tyson’s office on an ordinary Thursday afternoon in Henderson. All the jittery and jet-lagged uncertainty I had felt the night before has melted away. I’m back in the old fight-game routine.
Tyson, of course, is late. Nearly an hour has slipped past, as if in homage to all those afternoons I spent waiting for him in Las Vegas in the 1990s. But time has been filled by a conversation with Steve Lott, one of Tyson’s oldest friends and now his assistant at Iron Mike Productions. Tyson and Lott are striving to build their boxing promotions and it feels easy to sit back and listen. Lott is a shy man, who still tells lots of jokes inbetween remembering all that he and Tyson have been through since they first met at Cus D’Amato’s house in the Catskills over thirty years ago.
When Tyson texts Lott, confirming that he will be with us in five minutes, I settle down on my own. I sit at Tyson’s desk, looking at his books and glancing up at the giant mural of D’Amato that stares down from the wall. I bring out a sheet of paper covered on both sides by my sixty-five questions. I suspect that Tyson will understand. Sixty-five questions should just be the starting point for such a tangled life.
It’s still a small shock to see him in person. He walks towards me and I feel surprised again by how short he is compared to the massive heavyweights I’ve met – like Lennox Lewis and the Klitschko brothers. Tyson is smiling, just a little, and he tilts his head to the side, as if to match his apology for being late.
As soon as we sit down I can sense that something special is about to unfold inside Tyson. Within minutes, Tyson has begun to talk with the same raw immediacy that gripped me all those years ago. We talk for hours about his life and boxing and books...
A day later, I return to Tyson’s office. He is due to make a television advert for WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] but, as if to showcase the difference in his own life from our past encounters, he jokes that we need to babysit his four-year-old daughter Milan and her friend.
“They’re finger-painting,” Tyson says while we watch the two small girls hard at work in the reception area. “And we’re in charge...”
Tyson is at his warmest and most generous on a blue-skied Friday afternoon. It’s easy to like him as we fritter away the hours. We even talk about his facial tattoo. “I just hated myself then,” he says. “I literally wanted to deface myself. I went to this tattoo artist and said I wanted my face to be covered in stars. He refused. He said I have a good face.”
The tattoo artist suggested, instead, that he ink a Maori tribal design onto the left side of Tyson’s face. “It looks awesome. That tattoo is me. Sometimes I see people with tattoos on their face and I’m like ‘Woah, this guy is crazy!’ I forget I’ve got one on my face.”
Tyson laughs. “In the beginning, some people were scared by it. But the bikers would shout: ‘Oh, that’s beautiful man, great ink!’”
Eventually, to the delight of Milan and her friend, the make-up artist arrives for the WWE shoot. It seems poignant, remembering his past brutality towards women, that Tyson should have his face covered in make-up while his daughter croons, “Don’t worry, daddy, she’s gonna make you look pretty!”
Tyson looks bashful while the make-up artist powders his tattoo. “Lipstick! Lipstick!” the little girls chant, gleeful at the thought that Iron Mike needs lipstick for television.
We walk to a conference room where the WWE commercial is being shot. Tyson winks at me before he addresses an autocue filled by words he needed to say out loud while being filmed.
The autocue has pages and pages which he has to read. His only mistake on the first take is to pay homage to ‘Cold Stone’ Steve Austin – rather than the wrestler’s ‘Stone Cold’ nickname. He does it again and again and again. By the fifth take Tyson the pro nails it – only for the producer to inadvertently cough during the last line. Tyson needs to do it again and so he tells the unblinking camera that one of the highlights of his career was being elected to the WWE Hall of Fame. He reels off the long blurb a sixth time, perfectly, only to hear that someone had knocked on the window when they walked past.
Take Seven, however, is unbeatable. He’s done it.
“I need a break,” Tyson says. He leads me back into his office as if he does not know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, Tyson looks at me and smiles. “Imagine if that happened twenty years ago,” he says of his repeated WWE takes. “I would’ve smashed up their cameras.”
The former champion ponders the damage he would have done and, then, Tyson lets slip a soft laugh. “Maybe I’m making progress. Maybe, after everything, I’m doing OK.”
I’m down to my last hour in Las Vegas now. Three nights and two days in this city, especially on the Strip, are enough. I’ve had my latest boxing fix, and it’s been the most memorable encounter of a book I began researching and writing 23 years ago. I did not see a punch thrown, or watch one man beat another in a ring of shared hurt. There had been no press conferences or crowded arenas. But my belief in boxing has been restored.
It seems curiously apt that such conviction emerged in the company of Mike Tyson. He was not Tyson the destroyer or Iron Mike or Mad Mike or the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world or the criminal or the addict. All those truths and personae helped create the fantastical story of his life. But out in Henderson, in his low-key office, he was just a man.
I was struck again by how much Tyson still loves boxing – despite his contrasting feeling that he had also been deformed by the fight game. Boxing had cultivated the darkest traits in his character, and fed off his past misery, while fuelling his fire and rewarding him for his terrifying brutality and lack of morality. “Boxing made me,” he said, “and then it disfigured me.”
Tyson told me some dark stories about Joe Louis and Sonny Liston in Las Vegas – as well as snappier anecdotes of his past friendship with fighters like Joey Maxim, the light-heavyweight world champion who, in 1952, had become the only man to stop Sugar Ray Robinson. “I loved Joey,” Tyson said, “even if, like Joe Louis, he ended up working as a hotel greeter in Vegas. I loved hearing his stories. They don’t make white guys like him no more...”
He cackled and then grew more animated as he began to tell me about his inspiring encounters with Emile Griffith. Tyson knew I’d been working for years on a book about Griffith, who was torn between the ring and New York’s gay underworld in the 1960s and ‘70s. After his personal stories of how Griffith bolstered him, there had been a surreal few minutes when we sat together and he read my chapter breakdown and I tried to explain how I had structured the story.
I learnt more about Griffith from Tyson in an hour than I’ve sometimes gleaned in a day from a dusty archive. His encyclopaedic knowledge of boxing was at his most irresistible when Tyson zipped from one great old fighter to another, from Ted ‘Kid Lewis to Alberto ‘Baby’ Azizmendi, from Harry Greb to Jack Britton. He spoke in detail about one of his favourite fighters, Panama Al Brown – the freakishly tall bantamweight of the 1920s and 1930s who had a tempestuous affair with Jean Cocteau.
“Can you imagine,” Tyson said his eyes widening at the unlikely pairing of a Panamanian fighter who became the first Hispanic world champion in boxing history and a French experimental writer and film-maker, “Panama Al and Jean Cocteau! Only boxing gives you these characters...”
As the sun slipped away in Nevada the shadows spread across Tyson’s tattooed face. The fading light made him look younger than he had seemed earlier that day. Yet I also knew his unbridled love for boxing had replenished him.
“Hey Steve,” he shouted to his old friend. “You still there?”
Steve Lott wondered in from next door, confirming that everyone else had left. “I’m still here – someone’s got to work while you guys do your yakking. But I heard…Panama Al Brown!”
We retreated to Lott’s computer. Tyson began to bounce up and down, as if getting ready to spar again, while Lott searched for the film footage he had stored of Brown. It took just a few minutes before Panama Al Brown, who died in 1951, at the age of forty-nine, came back to life.
Panama Al flickered across a screen while Tyson marveled at his skill and venom. “Oh wow, look at his style,” Tyson crooned. He seemed happier than I’d ever seen him as he entered into a fiercely informed debate over the amount of bouts Brown had in a career which, starting in 1922, lasted twenty years. They settled the argument by checking the Boxrec website. Tyson was right – Brown had fought 162 bouts.
As they dug out rare footage of Ted Lewis, the London fighter known as ‘The Aldgate Sphinx’ before he picked up his ‘Kid’ nickname in America, Tyson began to chart another epic boxing life. Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, like Panama Al Brown, also fought for twenty years, from 1909 to 1929, and he became world welterweight champion – but Lewis’ fights against Jack Britton fascinated Tyson the most. They met an incredible twenty times in the ring which was unsurprising, Tyson remarked, when Britton had had at least 350 professional fights. He also remembered that Britton’s bout against Mickey Walker at Madison Square Garden, in 1922, inspired Ernest Hemingway’s short story, Fifty Grand.
Tyson only lamented the absence of any known film of Britton or Harry Greb. “I bet it’s out there,” he said, “disintegrating in someone’s garage. Steve and me will track it down. Don’t you worry...”
As they moved onto their next fighter, and another slice of archive material, the ghosts of the ring seemed to replace the haunting darkness of his own past. “Fucking boxing,” Tyson eventually said, “you just can’t match it...”
It was then, in that giddy moment, that I felt ready to write again. I had pages to fill and fighters to remember. At last, I could go back to Dark Trade. Where else but in boxing would I have met contrasting characters like Michael Watson and James Toney, Barry McGuigan and Mike Tyson? Where else would I have found resonant links between Belfast and Las Vegas, between race and sport, glory and infamy?
It’s always said that boxing will never be quite as great or as meaningful again – but they complained about that truth in the 1990s when harking back to the 1970s or while disillusioned fight fans in the 1950s lamented the lost power of the game back in the 1920s. It was always better in the past and yet, for those of us still lost in the maze, there is always another fighter to follow. A new version of an ancient story is always waiting to be told. And so, even if Tyson might fall again or Toney climbs back in the ring, the darkest trade of all will keep on turning.
I leave the MGM Grand and head down the gaudy old Strip. As I walk away in the early morning sunshine of Las Vegas, a familiar old boxing truth consoles me. This is not quite the end.
The new and updated edition of Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing is published by Simon & Schuster on 5 June 2014.