By Steve Kim
Like many boxers before him -- most notably Oscar De La Hoya -- Mike Tyson has decided to get into the racket of promoting the sport he once dominated. Playing off his old ring moniker, his start-up company is called Iron Mike Productions, and despite not having yet staged its first event, Tyson's new firm already has a fight on its hands. On Tuesday afternoon Dr. Charles Butler, president of USA Boxing (the sport's official amateur organization in the U.S.) sent an open letter to Tyson that accuses the former heavyweight champ of trying to poach fighters who might be candidates for the U.S. Olympic team in 2016. (Iron Mike Promotions signed Florida fighter Erickson Lubin, considered to be the best hope for a U.S. gold medal at the Rio Games, on Tuesday, his 18th birthday.)
"Mike, USA Boxing does not have the funds to compete with your offers," the letter said. "If you have money and would like to assist these young athletes and the sport, you should donate for athlete stipends to support the training of these boxers and help your country regain its prominence on the medal stand. Please do not take them from us. If they win a medal for their country, you can always sign them to professional contracts at that time."
There is a certain irony to this. A guy who once sued (and supposedly assaulted) Don King because he wasn't given his fair share of the money by his promoter, is now a promoter who's being chastised for giving a lucrative deal to a young hopeful.
This seems to be a rather desperate attempt by USA Boxing to make sure that what took place at the 2012 London Olympics -- where the red, white and blue garnered nary a gold, silver or bronze in boxing -- never happens again. In the 2008 Olympics, USA Boxing had just one bronze medalist in heavyweight Deontay Wilder) and you have to go back to 2004 to find America's last gold medalist: Andre Ward, the current super middleweight champion of the world.
In his letter to Tyson, Butler added: "We have heard that you were waiting for early October so that our best hope, a 17-year-old athlete, can turn 18 and be of age to sign a contract with you. We have offered him a spot in our resident program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center where he can train in a safe environment and we can provide for his education. The facilities and support services at the Olympic Training Center are unmatched and would benefit him and his future in boxing greatly.
"Mike, an athlete who is just turning 18 is too young for the world of professional boxing. The other promoters are not prematurely stalking our future Olympic stars at this time. You were a prodigy within USA Boxing in the early 1980s and understand the importance of our program; please don't harm our 2016 Olympic team.
"We ask, Mike, that you stop actions that will end these athletes' Olympic dreams. The value of these youngsters can increase dramatically if they become Olympians and, better yet, Olympic medalists. You are offering them a pittance of their future worth."
Somewhere the NCAA must be laughing at all this.
Anyway, many of these points have some validity to them. The only problem is that if they were to fall on deaf ears with anyone it would be Tyson, who turned pro at 18 (for the record, on March 6, 1985, versus Hector Mercedes), and became the youngest heavyweight champion at 20 when he stopped Trevor Berbick on Nov. 22, 1986, in two rounds. From there he became the game's brightest star and among the most lucrative prizefighters ever. So turning pro at an early age and forgoing the Olympics didn't adversely affect his fortunes.
Tyson reportedly counterpunched late Thursday in a letter responding to Butler's missive, in which Tyson said in part, "Your organization never attempted to contact me directly to discuss this matter. Had you done so, perhaps you would have a better understanding of my love for amateur boxing and my commitment to protect fighters by giving them the best possible opportunities this business can offer."
According to Kathy Duva, the current head of Main Events, a boxer participating in the Olympics was once, "the only way to go," if they had such an opportunity. Back in that era, not only were Olympic boxing matches televised in prime time by ABC, where Howard Cosell could anoint the next superstar (as he did with Ray Leonard in 1976 in Montreal), but amateur meets between the U.S. and foreign countries such as Cuba and the Soviet Union were also televised regularly by anthology series such as Wide World of Sports, making amateur boxers known commodities to the general public long before they got paid to punch.
There was a time when being an Olympic medalist gave a fighter the greatest head start he could ask for as he embarked on a pro career. Main Events, which was then run by Duva's late husband, Dan (who died of a brain tumor in 1996) signed the bulk of the highly successful '84 U.S. Olympic squad that featured Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor and Mark Breland to lucrative deals. "At that time the rewards for winning a gold medal were so great that you'd be out of your mind not to try it," Kathy Duva says. "Even Mike Tyson tried."
Tyson was beaten out for an Olympic berth that year by HenryTillman. Duva believes that Tyson was at a disadvantage because he had more of a professional style and that he was tainted in the eyes of USA Boxing because of his open association with pro managers Cus D'amato and Jim Jacobs. Also, Tillman presented a more wholesome image than the hard-punching brute from Brooklyn -- including his relationship with Jesse Owens' granddaughter -- and therefore he was the favored child of USA Boxing. Regardless, given that past snub, Tyson likely has no particular loyalty to USA Boxing.
That vaunted Main Events class of 1984 made their pro debuts at New York's Madison Square Garden in prime time against the highly rated Cosby Show. Nowadays the Olympic boxing tournament is no longer a featured event; it's relegated to one of NBC's smaller sister networks for much of the competition, where it plays to low ratings. So whereas past Olympians were able to showcase their skills on high-profile telecasts early in their pro careers, such fighters are now televised on cable channels and stuck on the un-televised portion of higher cards where they play to small, disinterested crowds who are waiting for the featured attractions to perform.
Bob Arum, whose company, Top Rank, signed a cadre of Olympians from around the world after the most recent Games -- including gold medalists Vasyl Lomachenko of the Ukraine, Ryōta Murata from Japan and Zou Shiming from China -- believes that fighting in the Olympics is still an effective springboard to a successful pro career.
"But there's a problem in USA Boxing, a terrible problem," Arum says. "There's no excuse for walking away from an Olympics with no gold medals, no medals period. We're falling by the wayside, we're not training the guys, we're not doing what they have to do and all these kids say they don't want to be in the amateurs because there's so much politics. Nobody trusts USA Boxing, they don't trust that they're going to get a fair shake. They don't trust the scoring, they don't trust anything about it. There's so much politics."
Fellow promoter Lou DiBella, who began his promotional business by signing a group of U.S. Olympians in 2000, says, "By the way, it's not like the U.S. amateur program is Mother Teresa." In addition to the usual complaints from trainers who have worked with young boxers since their formative days and no longer have a say in how their kids are trained in the run-up to the Games, DiBella adds that USA Boxing has "done all sorts of deals in the past where they've talked about having 'first-looks'. Why are they concerned that Mike talked to these kids? So that they can potentially do a deal with another promoter who had the first dibs on that kid after the Games?"
From a perspective of what takes place inside the ring, with the changes in amateur boxing that took place beginning in 1992 (including computerized scoring because of the bizarre and biased scoring at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea), amateur boxing has devolved into a game of gloved jousting that made the sport unwatchable and actually hindered the development of fighters for the next level. There is a train of thought that with what the sport has become, being a standout amateur might mean that the adjustment to the professional game will actually be more difficult. Think of a college quarterback who is adept at playing in the spread offense, and who plays his whole college career in the shotgun, suddenly having to play under center in a more traditional NFL offense.
"With respect to the U.S. team it may be a detriment," says DiBella, who has taken to focusing more on kids who compete at the national Golden Gloves events as prospective clients. "I'm being somewhat facetious, but the amateur style of boxing teaches you how to touch. They haven't had time to be indoctrinated into an amateur style that doesn't translate to the pros."
Beginning with the next Olympics in 2016, boxing will look much more like it did in the past -- and like the paid ranks -- as fighters will ditch the headgear and go to a 10-point must system. But that won't mean much to kids who may not want to wait three years to turn pro. After all, the game is called "prizefighting" for a reason. What's interesting is that Tyson isn't the first (and certainly won't be the last) promoter to sign a promising amateur before he can box for his nation's honor. The bottom line is that a young pugilist with a gold medal will come with a higher price tag, and in business, cost-control is key. In the past few years we've seen Top Rank sign Jessie Magdaleno, a promising junior featherweight, who at age 21 is already 15-0 (11 knockouts) and Golden Boy ink Frankie Gomez, a hard-hitting and rugged junior welterweight with a mark of 15-0 (11 stoppages), who were among the most talented U.S. amateurs and were considered strong contenders to land spots on the 2012 Olympic squad.
Neither Top Rank nor Golden Boy were sent notices by USA Boxing to stay away from amateur fighters. "I don't see why they would've sent [Tyson] an open, public letter and it's certainly a rational choice for a kid to want to go pro early," DiBella says. "It's a free country."
But Tyson is different. It's one thing to be Duva, Arum or DiBella, who are all key figures in the sport. Tyson is an icon. While it's been years since he's been a world-class fighter, his name and image still resonate even with this generation, who may have never actually seen him in the ring. Even today, as he enters the arena and walks toward his seat at fight cards, all eyes focus on him. There is a magnetism and mystique that are still associated with him.
Duva admits that she wouldn't have been given a public rebuke from USA Boxing if she had signed one of their prized prospects. "Probably not," she says, "because Mike Tyson's famous."
* * *
Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for Maxboxing.com since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at email@example.com and he tweets (a lot).