Black and Blues Brothers: The Tragedy of Tyson and Liston

Mike Tyson and Sonny Liston had it all. Money, success and glory came easy, as did violent crime, rape and self-destruction. From the Jack archive, this is the story of the scary synchronicity shared by the baddest men on the planet.
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Mike Tyson and Sonny Liston had it all. Money, success and glory came easy, as did violent crime, rape and self-destruction. From the Jack archive, this is the story of the scary synchronicity shared by the baddest men on the planet.

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"Bad luck is fallin', fallin down like rain. No matter what I do seems like my life Wont ever change..." It did, of course, for Riley King, who sang and played hat song in Memphis in the Forties.  And plenty since. He started out as Beale Street Boy Riley King, and was famous on local black radio. He shortened his name to Blues Boy, then BB, moved to New York and played his guitar so damn sweetly everybody knows him know as King Of The Blues. Sonny Liston liked BB King, liked his music and liked the man.

They had history. Sonny was the second youngest of 25 children that a rat-thin cotton picker called Tobe Liston had by two women, the ninth of ten he is said to have had with a fine, big article called Helen. She had another child, her first-born EB, by a Mr Ward. When EB Ward married, it was to the mother of BBC King. Tobe beat Sonny every day he knew him, which wasn't long. When Sonny, a big boy for 13, ran away from home, he went to live with EB. They listened to a lot of blues.

So Sonny Liston, who made fighters wet their pants, was half-brother to the stepfather of the finest blues guitarist there ever was. How about that? In the black world, that sort of lineage is royalty, although you'd have to be told to know it. If you're white.

Mike Tyson didn't need telling. Hew knew all about Sonny Liston and BB King. Mike was big on history, smarter than a lot of people think. Crazy too. Mike knew Sonny was born in the early years of the Depression, into shoeless poverty in a hut with no roof, hidden among a hundred cotton fields in Arkansas. Helen couldn't remember the year, only that it was January. "It's cold in January," she said.

Sonny sometimes said he was born in Pine Bluff, which is 34 miles from Memphis, across the state line in Tennessee. His mother said no, it was a place called Sand Slough, Arkansas, and it's not on any map. Mike knew Sonny found trouble without looking. When Sonny stole the bus fare and went to St Louis, Missouri, to find his mother - she'd had enough of Tobe - there was no cotton to pick. But plenty of pockets.

In 1953, Sonny went to Boston for an amateur boxing tournament and raped a hotel maid. A call from St Louis fixed it but now he was in hock to the Mob for good.

With a couple of new friends, Willie and James, Sonny rolled drunks and was entered on his first rap sheet as 'No 1 Negro'. How anonymous can it get? He kept mugging, went to the penitentiary (such a hard, cold world). Inside, a Catholic priest claimed he taught Sonny to read, write and box. When he came out after five years, he couldn't read a bus ticket but had a jab that could kill. He was fixed up with union racketeer John Vitale, whose confederates, Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, knew all the right and wrong people.

In 1953, Sonny went to Boston for an amateur boxing tournament and raped a hotel maid. A call from St Louis fixed it but now he was in hock to the Mob for good. Sonny's jab was his left hand vibrato and he started making serious noise with it. But he'd have to wait.

He was too elemental a force in every way - for opponents, for the smart white writers, for the President even. When Liston finally got to challenge Floyd Patterson for his world title in 1962, when he may have been 30, 32 or older, the papers all said it was a crying shame and John F Kennedy, aware of Sonny's unsavoury dealings, told the clean-living Floyd to whip this sonofabitch for America. Sonny knocked Floyd out in a round. Later, he did it again. Same round, same pain. Sonny wasn't hot at the turnstiles, though, and after being champion for 17 months, they got him.

Just as Liston had monstered good guy Patterson twice, so Muhammad Ali, who would later become the most popular athlete in the history of sport, beat the bad guy twice. Classic Americana. Each bout was suspect, especially the second, which lasted less than a round in front of nobody in Lewiston, Maine. The bets were in and, as Sonny's wife Geraldine finally admitted last year, he was only ever up for a round's worth of punishment.

Same fee, less pain. June 1966 turned out to be a busy year in the grand theatre of boxing. In Texas, on the 28th, Ernie Terrell beat Doug Jones to keep the World Boxing Association version of the heavyweight title - not in itself a big deal, as everyone knew the real star was Ali. Muhammad had his WBA belt taken away for giving Liston that dodgy rematch in '65.

On June 29, the day after Ernie beat Doug, Sonny was still working. In Stockholm, where they loved him - and where he and Geraldine met and adopted an orphan called Danielle - he took seven rounds to shred a German heavyweight, Gerhard Zec. That night, and well into the following day, Sonny celebrated... and several time zones away, back in the United States, a mother would soon give birth at the Cumberland Street Hospital in bleak Bedford-Stuyvesant, in no way the nicest part of Brooklyn.

When they got back to Vegas in the New Year, the house stank and Sonny's spent body was next to the bed, KO'ed for good. Police found heroin and marijuana in the kitchen, morphine and codeine in his blood.

Lorna Smith was born somewhere in the South in 1930, around the same time as Liston. After WWII, and about the time Helen Liston was moving to St Louis, Lorna came to New York. She met and married a guy called Percel, of whom little is known. When Percel left, Lorna fell for Jimmy Kirkpatrick, a hard-living man with scant appreciation of his responsibilities - he had 16 children by other women in the neighbourhood. He and Lorna gave life to Rodney in 1961, Denise three years later then, on June 30 in that World Cup summer of '66, a bundle of trouble they christened Michael Gerard.

Jimmy moved out before his second son had started to grow the teeth that would become infamous. So, although Lorna was known to neighbours in Bed-Sty as Jimmy's woman, she gave baby Mike the surname she'd held from her marriage to Percel, the name that was to become synonymous with pain, confusion and cold terror. Tyson.

Sonny and Geraldine had moved to Las Vegas by now. He was still good enough to win 14 of his last 15 fights, but made better money at his first profession: collecting debts fro men with clean hands and grubby souls. For Christmas 1970, Geraldine went to her parents in St Louis with Danielle. When they got back to Vegas in the New Year, the house stank and Sonny's spent body was next to the bed, KO'ed for good. Police found heroin and marijuana in the kitchen, morphine and codeine in his blood.

Born in January, died in January, as a smart writer noted. One dead No 1 Negro. Lorna, meanwhile, struggled to support her family and had to move to Brownsville, an even poorer part of Brooklyn. Like Sonny, Mike was big but, lacking a father, he lacked confidence too. He had a high-pitched lisp and older boys called him 'fairy boy'; he was beaten unconscious four times. To escape, he went up on the roof of their building in Amboy Street and tended his pet pigeons.

When Mike was nine, a 15 year old boy snapped the neck of one of his birds. Tyson flew into a rage and cleaned his clock, word of which reached some toughs called the Jolly Stompers. Armed with guns, knives and new bravado, he mugged his way into their dubious affections. He was a man at ten and, like Sonny, a mature thug by the time he was a teenager. Tyson never got a chance to embrace innocence.

At 13, the age Sonny ran away from home, Mike was a serial delinquent and was delivered to Cus D'Amato, a cranky eccentric too aware of his own mystique for some. In the Sixties, he'd kept Patterson away from Liston long enough to ensure that Floyd is remembered still as a world champion. But now Cus had semi-retired  from mainstream boxing and lived in Catskills, upstate New York, where his companion Camille Ewald do his Burgess Meredith schtick. He shaped his scoundrel charges with growling homilies that might have been lifted from a John Sturges movie. And, getting old, Cus prayed for another champ.

His friend, the renowned boxing historian and all-round bore Jim Jacobs, knew they had a live one in Tyson. But he needed tutoring, so they showed him hundreds of old fight films, part of a priceless collection Jacobs owned with his partner Bill Cayton. Cus was particularly proud of Patterson. Mike didn't fancy watching Floyd, though; he preferred the old guys like Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey. Jack "Kid" Berg and Abe Attell, who helped fix the 1919 World Series.. And the fighter Cus feared like a negro night - Liston. What D'Amato couldn't crack was that there was a subliminal , unbreakable bond between Tyson and Liston. One bad black man talking over him down the years to another bad black man. Sonny, who was fighting the very morning Tyson was born, died three weeks before the kid's fifth birthday. Sonny, it's said, didn't reach 40. And when Larry Holmes said years later that Tyson might not get there either, Mike didn't disagree.

When 16-year old Mike went to the Junior Olympics, he knocked out everyone. The other boxers were heard to say: "There goes Tyson. He's Liston's nephew." D'Amato let the myth germinate. Some people still believe it.

D'Amato was not a bad guy, but no saint either. And he was weak, letting Mike run wild. A rape was covered up. He got expelled. That didn't stop Cus claiming moral superiority and sagacity over anyone within a jab of his gob - even though in the early Fifties in New York, he'd been part of The Guild, a small-time cartel who strong-armed local promoters and managers for a cut of their takings. Later, he resisted the overtures of Palermo and Carbo, proper gangsters. It was all relative.

When 16-year old Mike went to the Junior Olympics, he knocked out everyone. The other boxers were heard to say: "There goes Tyson. He's Liston's nephew." D'Amato let the myth germinate. Some people still believe it.

That year, 1982, Mike's mother died of cancer. Two years later, D'Amato pulled some Catskills connections and adopted Tyson. There is evidence he also spent public funds on is prodigy which were intended for his community work. Cus knew the wrinkles. And he had his prejudices. "Give him enough time," he once said of Tyson, "and the nigger will come out in him."

When he died of pneumonia in 1985, D'Amato left behind not a young heavyweight with his head filled with wisdom (as is often written), but a spoilt and dangerous brat. Jacobs - another unusual man, who friends say made up stories about a rich father and who fantasised he was Batman's sidekick Robin - ensured the early part of Tyson's pro career was a masterclass in salesmanship. But the nigger of Cus's imaginings was there for the taking. By an altogether different Robin.

While nobody could stop him in the ring - at 20 he knocked out Trevor Berbick to become the youngest ever heavyweight champion, younger even than Patterson - Robin Givens would really mess Tyson up. Within two years of winning the title and becoming the most famous fighter since Ali, Tyson - drunk on lust and stimulants - made Givens Mrs Tyson. Jacobs was livid, because Mike had signed no prenuptial agreement and inherited in Ruth Roper the mother of all mothers-in-law. Ruth dressed Robin at the best department stores and exaggerated her daughter's modest CV. Nevertheless, Mike had another pigeon to stroke. And Robin got her ticket to fame.

It didn't take long for Givens to make more headlines than she ever did as a middling TV actress. On the Barbara Walters TV show, she told America she'd married a manic depressive and feared for her life. He was, she weeped in a pre-Springer performance "the all-American tragedy." Robin was right. Tyson, who made brave men think twice, sat on the sofa next to her like a tranquilised polecat, publicly de-balled. But who was more tragic? The bullies in Brownsville couldn't have done a crueller job on Mike's fragile psyche. The marriage lasted a year and a week, the settlement was announced on Valentine's Day, 1989. Nine days later, a fading Tyson beat the hell out of Frank Bruno.

Mike's mother was dead. So was his mentor and his manager. Cayton had been marginalised, the champ's ex-wife was vacuuming the bank account... and Don King was on the phone to the fighter most nights.  Tyson knocked out Carl 'The Truth' Williams and King took Mike to Tokyo for what should have been a routine defence against Buster Douglas. Mike, who reckoned he could never lose, stayed in his hotel room drinking and watching kung-fu videos...

The bullies in Brownsville couldn't have done a crueller job on Mike's fragile psyche. The marriage lasted a year and a week, the settlement was announced on Valentine's Day, 1989. Nine days later, a fading Tyson beat the hell out of Frank Bruno.

... We are in a bar in Roppongi, what passes for a red-light district in Tokyo. The bar is heaving with Englishmen and Irishmen here for the 2002 World Cub, and right now to watch some boxing. Mike is on the TV, getting his brains kicked in by Lennox Lewis....

It was Tokyo where his boxing career really went wrong, in the 38th fight, such a long time ago. Iron Mike - whom bookmakers had rated unbackable to break Rocky Marciano's run of 50 fights undefeated - was knocked out by a friendly fat man who got fit for a night.

Soon, Mike was ready to turn into Sonny. In a culture where success is often a mere prelude to the fall and the comeback, his was the perfect American superdrama. Riddled with self-loathing, Mike was their troubled Moor. Iago was on every street corner. There were a hundred, faceless Desdemonas caressing what was left of Othello's ego and his wallet. He trusted nobody but a dead boxer who'd died alone, caked in his own blood.

Mike lost interest in the sport that had been his obsession. His fighter's sheen went dull and he toured dimly lit stripclubs, one hand on a whiskey glass or a spliff, the other on any stray thigh. He won four more fights, but he was looking weary - and then it got worse. In July 1991, he arrived in Indianapolis with King and other enthusiasts of ebony flesh to hang out at a black beauty contest. After three days in a chemical haze, Tyson raped a contestant, Desiree Washington, 18.

In March 1992, Judge Patricia Gifford (white) sent Tyson (black) to prison for six years. About that time the (white) nephew of the late, Liston-loathing (white) JFK - whose (white) brother hounded Sonny's (white) scumbag friends out of boxing and into the penitentiary - was getting off a similar charge.

That October, Jimmy Kirkpatrick died. Mike chose not to go to the funeral. He said he could do life inside. No problem. To pass the time, Mike allegedly read Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Voltaire and other dead Europeans, managing at the same time to fail high-school entrance exams. He told a writer from New York he was going to "visit all the great libraries." Librarians everywhere held their breath. If Mike read about Superman, it's more likely it was the guy in the red underpants than Nietzsche.

Within three years he was out of prison wearing a skull cap, a goatee beard and a serene look. Born a Catholic, and briefly a Baptist, Mike had moved on to his third religion, Islam. Nobody could accuse him of not having an inquiring mind.

But, not quite ready for Harvard, Mike stayed with brain rearrangement. King did the deals. Tyson's comeback bout, at the gross MGM Grand in Las Vegas that August, was against a likeable chump from Boston called Peter McNeeley. For Mike's sake more than Pete's, a scrum of pimps, suckers and B-list stars paid nearly $114million to be there. Tyson got $22million; Pete was promised $400,000 - $390,000 more than he'd seen before or would see again. Not bad, either way, for 89 seconds of fighting - if that's the right word.

When he did get up, he begged Lennox for a rematch. He hadn't begged since the big boys beat him up in Brownsville. He had a better reason now. He was begging for his life.

Thirty-four years earlier, Pete's dad Tom lasted four rounds and ten knockdowns against Patterson, when D'Amato's champion was dodging Liston and every other breathing contender.  Tyson once would have cared about such a historical quirk, but those Catskills film nights with Cus and Jimmy were long gone.

Despite material appearances, Tyson was hurling all that D'Amato had wanted for him down the toilet. His friends lasted until he got new ones, then drove away in cars he'd bought them. His self-respect had haemorrhages until he'd turned into a vampire on the prowl in the best lap-dancing emporiums. He was king of nothing. He despised them all, and they didn't much care for him.

They never wanted Liston, either. The day after Sonny knocked out Floyd the first time, the new champion returned to Philadelphia anticipating a major reception at the airport. They opened the door of the plane and, as Sonny looked out, all he could see was tarmac. They say he nearly cried. Nearly.

What abused, Nietzsche-reading fighter couldn't love that? Mike won his title back, lost it - then really Lost It. After he'd bitten Evander Holyfield's ear, Nevada's boxing commissioners sent Mike to psychiatrists to prove he was mad enough to box. He was. He got married again and divorced again. He did another stretch, for beating up two middle-aged motorists. Rape claims against him continue to trickle in, like vinegar on a cut.

And so to Memphis, 34 miles from Pine Bluff, where Sonny thought he was born. As he lay flat-backed and finished by good-guy Lennox in the eighth, unable or unwilling to get up, Mike knew he was getting near the end of his part in this story. When he did get up, he begged Lennox for a rematch. He hadn't begged since the big boys beat him up in Brownsville. He had a better reason now. He was begging for his life. "Fighting is all I do, it's my whole horrible life, but I can't fight until I'm 60," Mike had said beforehand. "So... you figure it out."

After the beating, he said, "I want greatness more than money." Right. The guy is busted at the bank. He'll fight on. Like Sonny did. Like they nearly all do. Not for greatness and titles but the bucks which - in the super tragedy that is America - is the same thing. Ask Cus. Or Robin. or Don. Or Jimmy. Or Frankie and Blinky.

And, after another storm, another beating, Mad Mike will drive down any desert morning from whatever stripclub, as he has done before, to the Paradise Memorial Gardens next to MaCarron airport in Las Vegas and stand beside a plain headstone.

Was he Sonny's nephew? As good as. For a while Mike was a black king too. Like his old friend at his feet, the No 1 Negro. Every day, you got to sing the blues.

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