When Tokyo Was Tyson Town

By March 1988, Mike Tyson had become a global celebrity. His name graced a Nintendo video game, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!, marketed with a memorable commercial in which Tyson, clad in his trademark black trunks, sits at a console to play and then throws his head back, laughing demonically, as if to mock the idea of any viewer’s getting into the ring with him. The video game reflected a broader reality: Tyson had broken through, in the tradition of the most prominent heavyweight champions of the past, to become a figure in American culture known to most, if not all. He had already earned millions of dollars, and the overseas market hadn’t even been tapped.

For most heavyweight champions, international fights were an afterthought: you had to have an image and reputation that would warrant going abroad—or, like Jack Johnson, be fighting abroad by necessity. Few champs had done so. Tyson's predecessor, Larry Holmes, had fought all 20 of his title defenses in the United States; Joe Louis defended his title 25 times, all in the United States. George Foreman was notable for making all three of his title defenses outside the United States, but the man who broke the mold for where heavyweight title bouts could be held was Muhammad Ali, who often stressed that he was champion of the world, and meant it. He fought in nearly every point on the globe—including Tokyo, where he staged what turned out to be a disastrous exhibition with a Japanese wrestler, Antonio Inoki, in 1976.  But Ali was no normal athlete. By and large, a heavyweight champion didn’t go to the international market: the international market came to him.

It first did so for Tyson in March 1988, when Tokyo came calling, and he journeyed to the Japanese capital to fight one-time WBA champion Tony Tubbs in the opening salvo of what was billed as the Mike Tyson World Tour. It was Tokyo’s second crack at hosting a heavyweight championship fight. Fifteen years earlier, in 1973, Foreman, fresh off his destruction of Joe Frazier to win the title, had defended it against Joe (King) Roman, who had no royal qualities, at least in the ring. Foreman nearly decapitated Roman in two minutes. The Japanese fans surely expected Tyson to do something similar, so they made sure to celebrate his presence before the fight. He appeared on talk shows, went sightseeing, and even visited with a group of Japanese Sumo wrestlers, whose massive size made clear to him that he could not be king in their domain. The media followed him everywhere, trying to record everything from his roadwork to the taping of his hands before workouts. He finally had to close his training sessions. Interviews with ordinary Japanese on the street reflected his identity as a global figure. “I would like to have a date with wonderful Mike Tyson,” one Japanese woman said. “Mike Tyson is sexy,” said another. As for the men, one put it as well as anyone could: “He is a symbol of the United States."

The symbol of America did not disappoint. His robe-less body glistening with sweat, he came down the aisle of the just-opened Tokyo Dome, an indoor venue seating 65,000, already called the Big Egg by many Japanese.  

Tony Tubbs was a skilled boxer with fast hands and deceptive agility, considering his size: he struggled with weight problems for his entire career, often showing up in the ring looking like someone who needed to begin a training regimen instead of a man who had completed one. He boasted that he would come in at no more than 230 pounds, but at the weigh-in he tipped the scales at 238, his belly jiggling with flab. Yet he went out and fought a strong first round, working his jab, showing speed, and not shying away from punching with Tyson at close quarters. He won the round on one judge's card and earned an even score on another's. But in the second round, Tubbs’s bravery was his undoing: standing in again with Tyson, he began absorbing power punches, including wicked rights to the body. With about 30 seconds left in the round, Tyson landed another right to Tubbs's body and followed up with his patented right uppercut. Tubbs reeled and held on, but then Tyson cracked him with a left hook, sending the challenger into a drunken-looking stumble across the ring. Just as Tyson wound up with another uppercut, Tubbs crashed to the canvas. Having seen enough, Tubbs’s corner men leaped into the ring to stop the fight.

The Tokyo demolition—for which he was paid about $9 million—suggested that Tyson was growing in force with each fight. His future looked boundless, both financially and in terms of his growth as a fighter. But his 1988 battle with Tubbs in Tokyo would be the last time that the world saw Tyson so serene, or at least stable. Storms were breaking around him, with three forces coming together to undermine that stability and threaten everything that he had achieved.

The first was the lingering illness of Jim Jacobs, who, after the 1985 death of Tyson's mentor Cus D’Amato, remained close to Tyson and looked out for his best interests. Jacobs’s business partner Bill Cayton, with whom he had acquired the world’s largest fight-film library, handled Tyson’s finances, but Tyson and Cayton had a distant relationship. When Jacobs died the week after the Tubbs match, Tyson was devastated. He would not grow closer to Cayton.

The second force was Don King, who had had designs on Tyson since the fighter burst on the scene. Jacobs’s death opened the door wide for the brilliantly manipulative promoter. Knowing that Tyson had no real affinity for Cayton, he worked on the champion for months and used his leverage with the World Boxing Council to give himself a role in promoting his fights. In time, King would get his man.

The third force was Tyson’s sudden marriage to Robin Givens, a 21-year-old actress then costarring on the sitcom Head of the Class. Tyson had met Givens the previous year and fallen quickly in love, though the couple fought furiously almost from the beginning. Givens pressed Tyson to marry her, and he impulsively agreed in early February 1988, in between his fights with Larry Holmes and Tubbs. Givens's background was about as different from Tyson’s as could be imagined. She was the daughter of a dentist and a businesswoman who attended elite private schools and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. Her father left the family when she was young, and she and her siblings—she had a sister on the pro tennis tour—were mostly raised by their strong-willed mother, Ruth Roper. Givens and Roper were ambitious, and, to many who knew them, not to be trusted.

From the moment Tyson said “I do,” Givens and Roper became obsessed with his finances, his contracts, and his managerial situation. What they wanted, it seemed, was to gain control from Cayton, and even from King—though, since King also wanted to wrest power from Cayton, he and the Givens/Roper team could work in tandem, at least for a time. The struggle for control of Mike Tyson was on, and it would shatter what remained of the fighter’s tranquility.

All this lay mostly in the future, though, as the HBO boxing crew—Jim Lampley (working his first Tyson fight for the network), Larry Merchant, and Sugar Ray Leonard—sat at ringside post-fight in Tokyo, wondering who could beat Iron Mike. They would have been as surprised as anyone if they knew that the end of Tyson's reign was not that far off, and that the champion's demise would occur in the same Tokyo arena in which they were sitting.



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