Athlete. Born Michael Gerard Tyson on June 30, 1966, in Brooklyn, New York, to parents Jimmy Kirkpatrick and Lorna Tyson. When Michael was two years old his father abandoned the family, leaving Lorna to care for Michael and his two siblings, Rodney and Denise. Struggling financially, the Tyson family moved to Brownsville, Brooklyn, a neighborhood known for its high crime.
Tyson, small and shy, was often the target of bullying. To combat this, young Michael began developing his own style of street fighting, and graduated from this to criminal activity. His gang, known as the Jolly Stompers, assigned him to clean out cash registers while older members held victims at gunpoint. He was only 11 at the time. He frequently ran into trouble with police over his petty criminal activities, and by the age of 13 he had been arrested more than 30 times.
Tyson’s bad behavior landed him in the Tryon School for Boys, a reform school in upstate New York. At Tryon, Tyson met counselor Bob Stewart, who had been an amateur boxing champion. Tyson wanted Stewart to teach him how to use his fists. Stewart reluctantly agreed, on the condition that Mike would stay out of trouble and work harder in school. Previously classified as learning disabled, Mike managed to raise his reading abilities to the seventh-grade level in a matter of months. He also became determined to learn everything he could about boxing, often slipping out of bed after curfew to practice punches in the dark.
In 1980, Stewart felt he had taught Tyson all he knew. He introduced the aspiring boxer to legendary boxing manager Constantine “Cus” D’Amato, who had a gym in Catskill, New York. D’Amato was known for taking personal interest in promising fighters, even providing them room and board in the home he shared with companion Camille Ewald. He had handled the careers of several successful boxers, including Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, and he immediately recognized Tyson’s promise as a heavyweight contender, telling him, “If you want to stay here, and if you want to listen, you could be the world heavyweight champion someday.” Tyson agreed to stay.
The relationship between D’Amato and Tyson was more than that of a professional trainer and a boxer—it was also one of a father and son. D’Amato took Tyson under his wing, and when the 14-year-old was paroled from Tryon in September 1980, he entered into D’Amato’s full-time custody. D’Amato set a rigorous training schedule for the young athlete, sending him to Catskill High School during the day and training in the ring every evening. D’Amato also entered Tyson in amateur boxing matches and “smokers,” or non-sanctioned fights, in order to teach the teen how to deal with older opponents.
Tyson’s life seemed to be looking up, but in 1982 Mike suffered several personal losses. That year, Tyson’s mother died of cancer. “I never saw my mother happy with me and proud of me for doing something,” he later told reporters. “She only knew of me as being a wild kid running the streets, coming home with new clothes that she knew I didn’t pay for. I never got a chance to talk to her or know about her. Professionally, it has no effect, but it’s crushing emotionally and personally.” Around this same Tyson was also expelled from Catskill High for his erratic, and often violent, behavior.
Tyson continued his schooling through private tutors while he trained for the 1984 Olympic trials. Tyson’s showing in the trials, however, did not promise great success; he lost to the eventual gold medalist, Henry Tillman. After failing to make the Olympic team, D’Amato decided that it was time for his fighter to turn professional. The trainer conceived a game plan that would result in breaking the heavyweight championship for Tyson before the young man’s 21st birthday, breaking the record originally set by Floyd Patterson.
On March 6, 1985, Tyson made his professional debut in Albany, New York, against Hector Mercedes. The 18-year-old knocked Mercedes out in one round. Tyson’s strength, quick fists and his notable defensive abilities intimidated his opponents, who were often afraid to hit the fighter. This gave Tyson the uncanny ability to level his opponents in only one round, and earned him the nickname “Iron Mike.”
The year was a successful one for Tyson, but it was not without its tragedies. On November 4, 1985, D’Amato died of pneumonia. Tyson was rocked by the death of the man he considered his surrogate father. Boxing trainer Kevin Rooney took over D’Amato’s coaching duties and, less than two weeks later, Tyson continued on the path that D’Amato had laid out for him. He recorded his thirteenth knockout in Houston, Texas, and dedicated the fight to D’Amato. Although he seemed to recover well from D’Amato’s passing, those close to Tyson say that the boxer never fully recovered from the loss. Many attributed the boxer’s future behavior to the loss of the man that had previously grounded and supported him.
By 1986, at the age of 20, Tyson had garnered a 22-0 record—21 of the fights won by knockout. On November 22, 1986, Tyson finally reached his goal: He was given his first title fight against Trevor Berbick for the World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight championship. Tyson won the title by a knockout in the second round. At the age of 20 years and four months he beat Patterson’s record, becoming the youngest heavyweight champion in history.
Tyson’s success in the ring didn’t stop there. He defended his title against James Smith on March 7, 1987, adding the World Boxing Association (WBA) championship to his list of victories. On August 1 he became the first heavyweight to own all three major boxing belts when he won the International Boxing Federation (IBF) title from Tony Tucker.
Tyson’s rise from childhood delinquent to boxing champ put him at the center of the media’s attentions. Met with sudden fame, Tyson began partying hard and stepping out with various Hollywood stars. Around this time, Tyson set his sights on television actress Robin Givens. The couple began dating, and on February 7, 1988, he and Givens married in New York.
But Tyson’s game seemed to be on the decline, and after several close calls in the ring, it became clear that the boxer’s edge was slipping. Once known for his complicated offensive and defensive moves, Tyson seemed to continually rely on his one-punch knockout move to finish his bouts. The boxer blamed his long-time trainer, Rooney, for his struggle in the ring and fired him in mid 1988.
As his game was falling apart, so was Tyson’s marriage to Givens. Allegations of spousal abuse began to surface in the media in June of 1988, and Givens and her mother demanded access to Tyson’s money for a down payment on a $3 million home in New Jersey. That same year, police were called to Tyson’s home after he began throwing furniture out of the window and forced Givens and her mother to leave the home.
That summer, Tyson also found himself in court with manager Bill Cayton, in an effort to break their contract. By July of 1988 Cayton settled out of court, agreeing to reduce his share from one-third to 20 percent of Tyson’s purses. Soon after, Tyson struck up a partnership with boxing promoter Don King. The move seemed like a step in the right direction for the boxer, but his life was spiraling out of control both in and out of the ring.