NBC's 'Fallen Champ' takes few swings at Tyson, but wins this judge's decision

Phil Jackman

February 11, 1993|By Phil Jackman

To this day, Mike Tyson doesn't think he did anything wrong. "I didn't hurt anyone," says the former heavyweight boxing champion, probably thinking the word hurt is synonymous with kill.

The whole ugly incident, which landed Tyson in the Indiana Youth Center for six years after being found guilty of rape and lesser charges last year, was in the limelight constantly for more than 14 months. It wore heavily on the public conscience.

So was it really necessary for someone to go out and rehash the story, and for NBC to schedule "Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson" for prime time viewing tomorrow (9 p.m.)?

In a word, absolutely.

The two-hour show is listed as a "movie" by TV Guide and garners three stars, the idea being if it is listed as a documentary, only the eggheads will watch.

Perhaps nothing Tyson has done since he battered six opponents to the canvas in six fights at the Junior Olympics in 1982 has escaped attention, at least on the sports pages. All the stories are well-documented, especially after he became a champion in 1987, and his every word, deed or omission was recorded for posterity.

What this docu-drama does so expertly is to review the life and times of this street thug/delinquent pre-teen chronologically with pauses for remembrances and attempts at explanations by people closely associated with Tyson at the time.

For instance, there's Mike approaching ex-fighter Bobby Stewart at a reform school saying he wanted to box and Stewart telling him, "If you behave, I'll help you. Mike's reading level went up a whole year in just a month."

Tyson was a terror in the ring from the outset, and Stewart took him to the legendary fight manager and trainer Cus D'Amato. One look at Cus decreed the kid would be the heavyweight champ if he stuck only to boxing. Mike had just turned 13.

As fine a job as D'Amato did in some aspects of acting as Tyson's surrogate father, he is not painted as Edmund Gwenn playing Santa Claus in "Miracle on 34th Street." Cus, the people who knew him best decided, was "half-mad, half-blind, all trainer and hysterically paranoid."

Teddy Atlas, the trainer who started the development of Tyson's ring skills, noted that Mike was "easily misled. He needed confidence. He needed someone there. He needed a firm hand and discipline."

Atlas relates the story of how the young fighter "abused someone close to me, lewdly propositioning a very underaged girl. He thought he could do what he wanted." Teddy put a gun to Mike's head and warned, "Change your behavior, or I'll blow your brains out."

Tyson bolted. Clearly, it was time for D'Amato to enforce his own rules. He didn't. "Cus began compromising the rules with Mike. In effect, he gave him carte blanche to disrespect people," Atlas said. And, oh yeah, Teddy was let go.

The fighter soon assumed the straight and narrow, mainly because he was turning pro and managing his affairs was the tandem of Jimmy Jacobs, the boxing man, and Bill Cayton, the businessman, who provided Mike little time or opportunity to get in trouble.

Unfortunately, within a couple of years, both D'Amato and Jacobs died, actress Robin Givens and her mother Ruth Roper had designs on Tyson maritally and financially and promoter Don King was circling above, checking out the landscape.

The combination would prove all but fatal as earlier hints of problems became front-page banner headlines of Tyson allegedly trying to kill himself, he and Robin going on the "Barbara Walters Show" with the wife saying, "Michael's a manic depressive. It's been pure hell living with him." Meanwhile, Tyson sat there like the doped-up, sedated patsy he had become.

As Cayton put it, "The marriage [which lasted eight months] was Don King's opening. Robin Givens was the jab that set up the right hand by Don King."

It wasn't long before Tyson reverted to earlier character as far as his social behavior was concerned and his ring skills diminished, as usually happens when King assumes control of a fighter's life.

Enter the shocking loss to 42-1 underdog Buster Douglas in February 1990 and, in mid-1991, Tyson's appearance at the Miss Black America Pageant. "Maybe I was a little too young at 20 for all this to happen to me," said Mike of his celebrity.

Throughout the 93 minutes of film, you feel sorry for Mike, not because of the punishment he ultimately received for his sins, but because of those surrounding him.

Once charged by Desiree Washington, many rode to Tyson's defense, chief among them being Louis Farrakhan. At a big rally in Indianapolis, there's the leader of the Nation of Islam preaching, "You bring a hawk into a chicken coop and they wonder why the chicken got eaten up. [Naturally,] he wants to see if they as good as they looks [making a grabbing motion]."

With friends like this, Tyson certainly had no need of enemies, particularly when the complainant in the case was an 18-year-old Sunday school teacher from a small town who had been "Miss Everything" in high school.

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