A look back at the destruction of young Tyson with matchmaker Ron Katz
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Mike Tyson was arguably the most ferocious phenom boxing had ever seen when he arrived on the scene in the 1980s. Matchmaker Ron Katz recalls some of those early fights.
You likely have noticed, there is currently a surge in fascination with Mike Tyson, the Brooklyn-born human thresher who has packed five lives worth of living into his 53 years on this planet.
The ex-fighter has teased a comeback, and an Instagram snippet, a few seconds of him hitting pads with a trainer, whetted appetites of people tired of waiting for a king to ascend.
Maybe the deposed ruler could turn back the clock, some American boxing fans have theorized aloud, and inject some zest into a sport whose lead dog is neither American, nor a magnetic sort of neon attraction. No shade on Canelo Alvarez; it actually says more about the brand of being that Tyson was in his prime than the Mexican’s deficiencies as pack leader that a Tyson comeback is a hot topic.
The surge will accelerate Saturday, when ESPN screens a passel of Tyson bouts. Starting at 7 pm ET, boxing fans — and yes, even casuals who last watched a bout in 2015, when Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquaio engaged in their currency accumulation exercise in Las Vegas — can be reminded (or see for the very first time) why they called him “Kid Dynamite,” “Iron” Mike, “The Baddest Man on the Planet.”
It will be four hours worth of footage, starting with “Mike Tyson’s Greatest Hits – Volume 1.” Fitting, maybe, for Memorial Day Weekend, you can make a sign of the cross for victims, like John Alderson, Eddie Richardson, Sammy Scaff, Mike Jameson, Jesse Ferguson, Steve Zouski and James “Quick” Tillis. OK, not Tillis, he pushed Tyson, surprising most fight game folks, because he’d taken a bunch of Ls from notable heavies.
And one need not take my word for it — I found someone who wasn’t outside looking in at this mesmerizing scene, the likes of which I’m a bit confident we’ll not see again. Matchmaker Ron Katz, who today plies the trade for Joe DeGuardia’s Star Boxing, was up for a job at Madison Square Garden, but instead signed on to make matches for Josephine Abercrombie’s Houston Boxing Association in the winter of 1985.
Abercrombie doesn’t get the credit she deserves, arguably, from the young guns who comprise a solid state stable in Texas. Katz worked for an oil heiress, still living, counting down to her 95th birthday, who was married five times.
Her mom and dad took the train to New York City and saw Joe Louis stop Max Schmeling, and that lit her fire for the fight game.
The matchmaker really learned to sink or swim for the Texan, and piled up ugly long distance bills. HBA gave gigs to their talent, which included in 1986 Frank Tate, then an unbeaten middleweight. Other title-level talent who spent time under the HBA banner included Calvin Grove, Orlando Canizales, and Lou Savarese on his way up the ladder.
“Kid Dynamite,” still ascending, building buzz with the body count, fought on a bunch of HBA cards. Did all the fighters know that “Mrs. A” came from a family that did well in the oil sphere, real estate, the stock market, meat-making and the thoroughbred horse milieu? Likely not, they just knew the purses were good and they should be on their best behavior around this society dame.
She wanted to get into that top tier, with Bob Arum and Don King, and brought fresh (if rare) air into the game. ”I don’t think I’m wasting money,” she’d say, “because we are trying to help young people.”
Maybe it makes sense that her daddy, Jim, made a killing by developing a device which minimized damage, preventing oil well blowouts. Truly, she seemed to care; one of HBA’s first fighters was Cedric Rose, a certified bad boy. He rose to 8-0, but liked to blow off steam and then some. HBA politely told him to jet, after giving him a few last chances. He crossed law enforcement, and Abercrombie didn’t abandon him. She visited him in the joint, and counseled him to fly right.
Abercrombie came up with an investment plan for her fighters and company had a 20-unit apartment building boxers would live in, rent free. How’s that for a strange and marvelous perk for the pugilists? HBA offered health-care insurance and even profit sharing. That led to Tate to tell Sports Illustrated, ”’She takes care of us. Like a second mother.”
Mama finally threw in the towel in 1991, and stuck to the ponies, who even if they didn’t perform to par at least didn’t vocalize a silly excuse, or bolt to a rival owner on a whim.
So, Katz was part of the HBA crew before he went to Top Rank, with ex-accountant and ex-amateur boxer Bob Spagnola. Katz had been building his chops, making matches for Lou Falcigno, Cedric Kushner, Butch Lewis, amd their momentum accelerated to the point that HBA was just about the busiest promoter in the biz.
Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs managed Cus D’Amato’s masterpiece, Tyson, and with savvy. They strongly suspected that within a few years of turning pro in 1985, Mike Tyson and company would have immense leverage. So they did a fight-by-fight deal; Bob Arum’s Top Rank, HBA, and some other one-offs put together the shows on which Tyson detonated.
“Mike started out fighting with Top Rank, then after four, five shows, no more. I never got a clear story,” said Katz. “(Matchmaker) Teddy Brenner wanted one direction, Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton wanted another.”
HBA did a show a week around the time Tyson was affiliated with HBA on SportsChannel — a cable channel that had good penetration — and once a month, one of their shows ran on NYC Channel 9; in syndication, via Budweiser sponsorship, it ran all over the country.
“We had a lot of good fighters, did a lot of great shows, but didn’t make money, it wasn’t done the right way. But I don’t think Josephine really minded,” Katz continued. “With Mike, it was very exciting being around him. He simply struck fear in his opponents.”
See Saturday how you assess how Eddie Richardson, then 10-2, is feeling when on Nov. 13, 1985, a Wednesday night in a Houston Ramada ballroom, Cus’ kid bor e in on him.
“He was tall, thin,” said Katz of Richardson, and had set precedentby losing to Tyrell Biggs four months prior. Mission accomplished, as you’ll see Saturday, Mike blasted the Texas native out in the first.
If maybe you hadn’t seen Tyson yet and saw the replay on SportsChannel, perhaps you were thinking hey, that height could present problems for the sparkplug guy. The problem arose with the very first punch Mike threw; then, watch Eddie act like Tyson is a swarm of murder hornets, and then capitulate.
Now, back then wasn’t like today. Not as much of one’s personal business was bandied about. It was not common knowledge how sick Cus D’Amato had gotten. The wizard had managed to drag himself to see Mike take out 5-6-1 Sterling Benjamin on Nov. 1, 1985, but couldn’t travel to Texas to see his burgeoning project take another step toward ultra prominence.
With every win, Tyson was on more radars. The New York Times got tipped off and took it seriously, finally, by the fall of ‘85. But around the summer of 1982, astute reporters had perked their ears when D’Amato told them this beastly teen heavyweight he had was going to be a monster.
“He’ll be better than Floyd Patterson,” Cus would say, always adding the “if” — if Mike stayed married enough to the sport.
And he did, even after Cus died, three days after the Benjamin victory. D’Amato, no doubt a capital C character in a sport lovably lousy with ‘em, was 77, and the Times noted he steered Floyd Patterson to be the youngest fella to win the heavyweight championship, and also tutored Jose Torres.
“Although in semi-retirement for the past 15 years, D’Amato was an adviser to fighters managed by Jimmy Jacobs, Wilfredo Benitez being among the most prominent,” the Times obit shared. “He had been guiding Michael Tyson, an 18-year-old heavyweight who is undefeated in 11 pro bouts.”
On Nov. 22, young Mike took out another tall guy, a Canadian with a body beautiful that didn’t help his chin from getting checked, Conroy Nelson. Note this: Tyson debuted as a pro March 6, 1985, splattering Hector Mercedes. Do that math — Tyson’s body count piled up so quickly, and you’ll not likely see that again; for one thing, medical standards are higher and a manager would find it exceedingly hard to get so much action for their guy in such a short span.
Ron Katz said Cayton and Jacobs didn’t skimp, there was solid bankrolling, so he didn’t have to make that many calls when the request to get on an HBA card came.
“No, I didn’t have a free hand,” he said. Jacobs would grill him, and of course do his own due diligence, score footage on would-be foes. “Nobody had more tapes than them,” he said of the Jacobs-Cayton contingent. Trainer Kevin Rooney would weigh in as well. Katz’s buddy Johnny Bos knew the drill; he’d come to be admired by Jacobs, who used to say Johnny “is a genius when it comes to shit,” meaning his expertise at record-building couldn’t be matched.
Sammy Scaff from Kentucky got walloped on Dec. 6, at the Felt Forum in NYC, which meant more movers and shakers got to see the wrecking ball and hear the thuds. The effort was thoroughly rhinoplastic, Tyson shifted Scaff’s nose as badly as you’ll see from a anything short of a car accident which launches a victim through the windshield. 14-0 now, 14 KOs, 10 in round one.
“Mike Tyson’s just a hard-working fighter who lives a boring life as an individual,” the young assaulter told John Condon of MSG after, showing a considerable part of what made him intriguing. His assaults were Manson-esque, and then he was Mr. Rogers post-fight, humble and deferential. A humble assassin, more people started to catch on.
North Carolinian Mark Young got some money to pay off Christmas gifts on Dec. 27, in Latham, NY. That was a home game for Mike, 50 miles northward of Catskill.
The adjectives got gaudier. Young tried to show that he could wing it, but his launches versus Tyson’s were not near comparable. Expectations ramped up another half notch. “Future champ,” more were willing to be so brave as to predict that, especially after ABC said they wanted to put Mike on in the new year.
19-5 Dave Jaco took the check next. They met January 11, 1986 in Albany, NY, and Jaco, typoed as Dave “Taco” in one paper, got yo-yo’d. Down three times, was Jaco, and Tyson credited the tough white dude after the destruction effort.
Little tidbits, little stats, they started to pop us, draw more casuals in. 16 consecutive kayoes to start a career, that tied a Rocky Marciano mark. More eyes were opened, more people put Tyson on their watch list.
We wonder, did “Taco” ask for an SI cover bonus? The Jan. 6, 1986 SI had Tyson on the cover, “Kid Dynamite.”
“The Next Great Heavyweight—And He’s Only 19.”
The hype game was so strong at this point. He was a violent tornado in the ring, but on that cover, if someone was thinking they’d get a glowering Liston vibe and could root against the scary black man, his smile, disarming and boyish, made them think twice.
Word came down right around when that cover dropped — hey, what a coincidence! — that Mike signed a four-fight deal with ABC. Bye bye cable, hello networks. And hello, more pain in the ass of matchmakers. HBA would get the next Tyson promotion, and Phil Brown looked to be game. Then, a see-saw move. Brown was seeing what Tyson might do to him, and he saw to it that his name was removed from consideration.
Mike Jameson subbed in. Cali guy, tall and tough, he’d eaten leather from Tex Cobb and Michael Dokes, and Katz figured this would be a useful outing for Mike.
“Mike Jameson was absolutely not afraid, not one little bit,” Katz said. He discussed it with Levine, as usual Abercrombie was letting her foot soldiers do the grinding. “Jameson didn’t have a body beautiful,” but that’s the kind of shit that rookies fall for.
You can be flabby and mentally tough, and, in fact, the jacked guys are sometimes extra suspect, because just maybe their weights regimen is done to give them false confidence.
This would be the third time Tyson would glove up at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, and the first time he’d see the fifth round. See for yourself Saturday on ESPN; on Jan. 24, 1986, Jameson didn’t soil himself when he tasted early trouble, and was sorta nimble afoot for a big lug. He’d get distance between him and Mike but not in a scared way and Tyson is an intuition fighter.
Dogs smell fear, and that’s why you’re not supposed to start quaking, and then run if you feel one sending nasty vibes your way. Be cool, or feign cool, and you can maybe keep from getting fang marks on your tush. Alas, Tyson did adapt, got inside and landed power.
“Jameson didn’t win a minute of a round, but that was the longest Mike had gone,” the matchmaker said.
Time for a step-up situation. On Feb. 16, 1986 ABC would want someone who’d not fold, not without a counter flurry. Names were bandied about, Katz, now a New Jersey resident, recalls. Houston Boxing Association, or HBA East, would have their name on the licensing, and they placed Tyson versus a decent vet in Troy, NY. Troy, 40 miles from Catskill, that would ensure a lively vibe, convey to the TV viewers that Mike Tyson spurred excitement in sports fans.
“Jesse Ferguson was one of a few names on the list. Everybody decided upon him, he was credible enough,” Katz stated. The payoff had to be righteous; one person offered to play the pinata said nope, “Not over my dead body,” to a reporter.
Tyson versus Ferguson, 17-0 versus 14-1. Jim Lampley succinctly set the table, telling people, some of them, watching their first heavyweight match since Ali shuffled off the stage. “I feel,” Ferguson stammered, “than I can beat Mike Tyson.”
On “ABC Sports Live,” he did not.
There was some ire rising up, a guy with a very low frustration tolerance didn’t dig Ferguson’s grappling/clinching/holding. But here’s an undeniable: Tyson added to his notoriety, and made a jump in persona type.
“In the fourth round, I saw the opening for that uppercut,’’ Tyson said with a half-smile after the win came. ‘’I try to catch him on the tip of his nose because I try to punch the bone into his brain.’’
Oh my — now that’s Liston-y. And his ratio shifted; he got more haters who’d tune in, they wanted to see the brute tamed.
“I wanted to be a cantankerous, malevolent champion,” Tyson wrote in his book “Undisputed Truth.”
And you won’t hear it on the ESPN replays, but a true shift had begun. Jacobs was losing Tyson. Mike was really enjoying the spoils of war. Or maybe better to say he wasn’t getting the emotional fullfillment he’d expected from all the winning. “I was a full-blown alcoholic,” he shared in “Undisputed.”
That version of the pugilist didn’t have trouble taking out Steve Zouski on Mar. 10, 1986, in Long Island. HBA didn’t put that program together, but Tyson did take Zouski apart. Watch the finishing fury Saturday, and keep a few notes in your head. At 220 pounds, Mike was the heaviest he’d been as a pro.
“I didn’t like my performance,” Tyson said after. “I have a lot of personal problems that I am just getting over, but I’m going to do all to my best ability to be ready for the 29th against James Tillis.”
Uh-oh territory, no? Personal problems, already?
“That was my worst performance ever,” he shared. Points for honesty, or disturbing candor? Tyson said later that he was blue, because a few friends from Brownsville had been taken out in drugs wars.
Training camp didn’t go smoothly, the elevator ride wasn’t as advertised. Winning and being adored and fawned on, it didn’t automatically translate into serenity. May 3, 1986, Tyson stood toe to with James “Quick” Tillis, and Ron Katz knew what might happen.
“This was a huge step up,” Katz knew. Team Tyson thought Tillis was over that hill, he’d lost left and right and center — but Katz thought his pride would bubble up, he’d get up for Tyson.
“Proud guy, lotta skill, takes a pretty good wallop, will show up,” that was his scouting report. Even if the resume looked iffy, with three straight losse, to Marvis Frazier, Tyrell Biggs, and Gerrie Coetzee. But all were decisions, he’d not been caught napping, and Katz heard from Beau Williford that Tillis was doing camp right.
If you watch Saturday, see how well Tillis (then 31-8) works the Tyson body at the Civic Center in Glens Falls, NY.
“It’s not gonna be easy,” Beau told Ron. “I know it’s not,” came the reply. And it wasn’t.
Tyson was forced to go the distance for the first time, and life was not getting easier, as his fame grew. Checks got bigger, problems not always larger, but different. For a guy with a complex mental state, it was a large load to handle. Soon enough, Don King would have edged ever closer, and snagged Tyson in his force field. (Which was fueled by suitcases of cash.)
A new HBO contract ahead of a May 20th fight with Mitch “Blood” Green didn’t cheer him. “Not to be egotistical, but I won this fight easy,” he said after, staying with the darker-edged candor. Headlining at Madison Square Garden wasn’t giving him the uplift he’d have expected as he bested 18-4 Marylander Reggie Gross (TKO1) after Green went the distance with him.
A feast on 12-3 William Hosea of Illinois gave a minor lift; that happens when your power overwhelms or impresses you, gives a surge of self satisfaction, which can ebb when low dark clouds circle back. Lorenzo Boyd did the expected, when on June 11 he couldn’t continue when Tyson blasted him in Swan Lake, NY, in round two. Now age 20, he brutally hammered Joe Frazier’s overmatched son Marvis, on July 26 in Glens Falls.
It’s an easy and lazy take that Tyson got off the rails in 1990, when Buster Douglas pricked his balloon. No, the table was set long before. In August he’d beaten Jose Ribalta, in September Alonzo Ratliff. He got what he was told he’d get, a title at age 20, the youngest heavyweight ever. But no, the win over Trevor Berbick, it didn’t fill a hole in his soul.
By the start of 1988, Ron Katz had moved on to the Top Rank machine, but he recalls these Tyson fight bookings, being at events and seeing fury, power and exultation conjured, and it makes him smile.
“Watch Saturday and you can look for how destructive Tyson really was at that time, how determined he was to become heavyweight champion,” Katz said. “How good he really was when he had all the right people surrounding him, being able to control his mental faculties, allow him to focus just on destruction, not the other bullshit. Where is he among all time heavyweight greats? He could have been very, very high, and still merits consideration.
“Is he top 10? You have to judge the overall body. He didn’t have that type of career, though of course he lost time with rape sentence. He had the losses to Kevin McBride and Danny Williams. It affects how you have to place the guy. Top 15 maybe. If Jacobs didn’t pass, maybe he’d have been able to control the claws that got into him.
“And will we see that again? There’s always the possibility, but it’s highly unlikely you see a guy on his way up the ladder so destructive. No one instilled such fear into opponents as Mike. Everybody wanted to see Mike, he was very exciting to be around.
“And I’m not taking any credit, I was just a small part in that, but just to be around that! Tyson, everybody knew Tyson, every guy walking down the street, or an older woman, they knew who Tyson was. Floyd Mayweather, maybe they knew he was, kind of, but not nearly to the same degree. Tyson got the headlines in every paper across the nation, around the world! You never know, but it’s unlikely we see another like him. Mike Tysons just don’t come around very often.”