SportsMike Tyson Is Still Really Torn Up About Muhammad Ali's Death
Iron Mike recounts his time with The Greatest and how the two became lifelong friends.
Twenty-one minutes into Spike TV's documentary Ali: Birth of the Greatest (airing tonight at 11:15 PM), Mike Tyson tells a story. He says he was still an amateur and had probably just worked out when he came in and told his trainer "Cus" D'Amato that he was going to be the best in the world. Cus then popped in the tape of the first showdown between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier (in 1971, the year of the fight, Iron Mike would have been 4-year-old Mike) then gave the braggadocious Tyson some advice: "He said, 'That's fightin', son. What you're doing is not fightin'. What you're doing is entertainment. This is fightin'.'"
It's telling that not even Mike Tyson—a man who was scared of no one, who rivaled Ali not only in boxing but in confidence—ever claimed he could beat Ali. Clearly, Cus's message got through. Tyson and Ali went on to become lifetime friends: a young Mike Tyson promised Ali he would avenge The Greatest's loss to Larry Holmes, and he did; an older Mike Tyson helped carry the late Ali to his resting place, a pallbearer at his recent funeral. We caught up with Tyson before the airing of tonight's documentary to talk about his longtime inspiration. We didn't get far before the interview ended, with Tyson breaking down, too overwhelmed to continue talking about his old friend.
GQ: How old were you when you can first remember leaning about Muhammad Ali?
Tyson: The first thing I ever heard about Cassius Clay was when he fought George Foreman. That's 1974. So I'm probably eight years old. The only thing I remember—the first thing I remember about boxing period is that it was a picture of Ebony Magazine, or Life, George Foreman was on the front cover with his hands on his hips. And my mother's boyfriend said to me—I'll never forget—“Now this is a man." And my mother said, "He keep playing around, Clay gonna take that belt!" And Ali won. My mother still called him Clay back then. I remember like it was yesterday.
Do you remember what you first thought about him?
It goes like this: around three or four years later, I'm in a reform school and Ali comes to the reform school! And I said, "Whoaaaaa." And that's when I really got familiar with who he is.
He spoke to you guys or what was the context?
We watched the movie The Greatest and then he came in through the door in the night in the dark and he just started talking to us.
Did you speak to him individually after?
No, it was just a crowd of us. But I was just so overwhelmed. I'm sure I'm not the only guy here inspired; I'm just the one that is talking about it. But God, he just blew the place up.
And what was the impression he left on you?
Wow! I can't even describe it.
Did it make you want to be like him or to fight or…?
I don't know if it made me want to be a fighter, but I knew I wanted what he had. To come in the room and everybody just lose it.
Do you remember when you first got that?
To me, it's not as big when it happened to me. I was being objective. I saw the prototype. I saw the first thing. So I could never see myself like that. That was just the first inspiration. Boom! The spark. The spark is just big. You never see yourself like the spark but you want to be like the spark.
But your favorite boxer was Roberto Duran right?
I was a different kind of guy. I was more like Duran in that I was a really street-oriented type of guy. Talking smack. Bravado. Macho. Think I'm the toughest guy in the world. Not afraid of nobody and all that stuff.
Ali would talk smack, though, wouldn't he?
Yeah, but he was loving and poetic. I came really dark.
You've said you've learned meanness from him?
Ali is the most competitive fighter ever.
In what sense?
I don't know. He's just that way. Maybe somebody should talk to him [about] why he's that way. He'll fight you to the end. He's really game, like a pitbull or a fucking rooster. But he looked like a model in his prime! He looked more like a model than a fighter. He was just a dead game guy. He was dead game. He had too much pride. He refused to lose.
I know Cus would show you the tapes of his fights. Do you remember the first time watching him?
On tapes? Oh yeah. I was trying to understand because his style was totally different than what Cus believed fighting was. And I'm saying, I can't understand how Cus said this guy is such a great, disciplined, extraordinary fighter, and he's got his hands down, he's moving all over the place. He never in his fucking life through a body punch. And Cus is telling me how great this guy is. And then you see him in fights with Foreman and Fraser and… Wow! He's fighting like an animal! [voice starts cracking] Wow… [trails off]
When you were young and skeptical, was there ever a time when you were like, "I could grow up and beat this guy?"
[crying] Man… I can't even talk… Can't talk about it… I'm sorry, I get too emotional. [long pause]…I'm sorry that, just talking about Ali, that's some serious stuff, man. There's never been anybody like that.