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People Top 5
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- June 27, 1988
- Vol. 29
- No. 25
The Champ and the Vamp
Will Marriage to Robin Givens Be Harder on Mike Tyson Than Next Week's Fight with Spinks?
Although the union has elements of a legend in the making, its symmetry is less than classic, mostly because the ending is unwritten and there is a third character involved: Ruth Roper, 42, Tyson's mother-in-law. Some people who know the two women can be downright poisonous in their opinions of mother and daughter. "Robin is cool, calm and conniving, and her mother is in it all the way," says one woman who has known Givens since the actress's days at Sarah Lawrence College, where she was the only senior in her class to be booed at graduation. Says a classmate of Robin's: "She's really not a very nice girl. She goes after what she wants no matter what the price. I feel sorry for Mike Tyson because I hear he's really a nice guy."
Next Monday, in Atlantic City, Tyson will defend his title against another undefeated heavyweight, Michael Spinks, 31; Tyson's share will be no less than $20 million. Even if all goes as expected—the odds are 4 to 1 that Tyson will make Spam out of Spinks—the contest may well prove anticlimactic compared with the war of wills that has been raging over young Mike's future. This offstage clash has been triggered by two unexpected events: Tyson's marriage to Givens in February and the death in March of his 58-year-old mentor and co-manager Jim Jacobs.
To most members of Tyson's devoted inner circle, Givens is not a monster but a muse, a loving mate who has enhanced Mike's life. Others, who have known her longer, hold a different view. "Robin has burned every one of her bridges," says a colleague in the TV industry. "Her philosophy is, it doesn't matter who she bleeps on the way up because she isn't coming back down." Even Givens' friends admit she can be temperamental. "She sometimes has an abrasive personality," says Brian Robbins, 23, one of Givens' co-stars on the ABC sitcom Head of the Class and her date before Tyson. "She can rub people the wrong way. When we fought she could be vicious."
Her foes view Givens as a woman who struggles with insecurities ("She needs to be told every hour how beautiful she is," snipes one associate), who embellishes the truth and sometimes looks on people as disposable conveniences. "She's very clever," says another woman who knows her well. "If she stays married for a year, she'll probably make $15 million. Where else can you get that return?"
Poor Mike—you'd think all he had going for him was his bank account. He is far more complex, a curious combination of opposites: invincible yet vulnerable, ferocious yet gentle, a semi-scholar on the subject of boxing lore who never finished high school and could read only at a third-grade level at the age of 13. A brutal fighter who likes to inflict pain, he will spend hours at his Catskill, N.Y., retreat, nursing an ailing pet pigeon.
In the ring Tyson is elusive, devastating, as close to perfection as a fighter can be, more like a battleship turret than a man. He is 5'11", 220 lbs., with hair that is fiercely trimmed and a neck that seems meant for a saddle. It's possible that he could look more intimidating, but only if he carried a spiked club. Robin, however, swears that this raging bull is nothing but a great big teddy bear at home. "Everything is endearing about Michael," she says. "The way you see him hugging a stuffed animal, the way he says, 'Tuck me in,' the way he brings me coffee in the morning. I love that. He's not intimidating at all. He just loves me so much and it feels so good." At Christmas Tyson demonstrated his devotion with a champagne-colored BMW wrapped with ribbons. In April, while visiting his bride on the set of The Women of Brewster Place, a TV movie she was filming with Oprah Winfrey, Robin asked him to run out and get her a "goodie." Tyson returned not with a Mars bar but with a pair of diamond earrings and a necklace to match.
Seeing Tyson and Givens together leaves little doubt of their attraction for one another. They nuzzle and peck; she sits on his lap; he whispers in her ear; she smiles coyly. It is clear that Givens likes Tyson, but few people do not. "He's a very humble guy," says friend and New York Post sportswriter Michael George. "Mike still hangs out with guys from the ghetto, guys with names like Rajeeb. He knows that if he hadn't had the opportunity to fight he might be a thug, somebody waiting in an alley to rip you off."
Mike was, by his own recollection, a gentle child transformed into a marauding nightmare of the Brooklyn slums. His father abandoned the three Tyson children before Mike was born. His mother died of stomach cancer before he had made a name for himself in the ring. He was a docile boy, small for his age, who kept mostly to himself, content to raise stray pigeons on his rooftop. By age 10 he was a master mugger and a thief. By 11 he was locked up in a school for juvenile delinquents. The following year a counselor brought him to the man who would change his life: trainer Cus D'Amato, an almost mythic figure in boxing, the man who made Floyd Patterson a pugilistic prince. By the time of his death in 1985 D'Amato had successfully transformed Tyson's fear into fire.
While Tyson was living in D'Amato's Catskill home, learning such skills as how to hold a fork, Givens was earning top marks at a private school in New Rochelle, N.Y., where she grew up. Her father, Reuben, an artist, was divorced from her mother when Robin was 2. "My mom was both mother and father to us," says Givens, whose sister, Stephanie, 21, is a pro tennis player. Robin spent her Saturdays studying music, dance and theater and at 15 entered Sarah Lawrence College. As for the remainder of her curriculum vitae, Givens continues to claim that she studied genetics, biochemistry and other medical courses at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, though the Harvard registrar's office confirms that she took only one class in 1984.
To Tyson, the dazzling Givens represented the unobtainable. He fell in love the first time he spotted Givens on Head of the Class and tried to wangle a date over the next four months. "I thought, 'Whoa,' " recalls Robin, who had previously dated Eddie Murphy and Chicago Bulls' guard Michael Jordan. "The heavyweight champion of the world, he has lots of women. I was too scared to meet him." On their first date, at Los Angeles' Le Dome restaurant in March 1987, she brought along a protective fleet, including her mother, sister and two publicists.
Givens describes their early romance as a gossamer romp with a golden boy. There is no trace in her gilded memories of a boxer with two gold teeth and MIKE awkwardly tattooed on his arm. "We'd play tennis, go to dinner, drink champagne, go to movies, drink sake and laugh together," she says. "We were like best buddies." The first time he tried to kiss her, she says, she dodged him and ran. Her apparent lack of interest fueled his desire and prompted a blizzard of phone calls. "At first he was like a pain in my rear end," says Robin. "He'd come to my apartment at 2 in the morning and say, 'Are you going to be my woman or not?' and I'd say okay because I wanted him to go away." Tyson tried to smooth over their first tiff by having a black dog with a red bow delivered to Robin's door, but the pup turned out to be so vicious she had to give it away.
When marriage became his object, he faced a formidable roadblock: Mom. "My mother was very worried about his being so forward," Robin explains. "You don't have to be Jewish to be a Jewish mother. I'm so close to her that it was very hard for me. There were times when she would get on the phone and tell him not to see me again. Eventually they each found out that the other wasn't so bad. Now she just adores him. Sometimes it gets on my nerves that they're so tight."
Tyson is a winsome son-in-law in more ways than one. He's worth an estimated $50 million, and Robin landed him without a prenuptial agreement. Following the wedding, Givens and Roper took an interest in Tyson's finances, plunking down $4.5 million for a 30-room mansion in woody Bernardsville, N.J., and demanding a full accounting of his business affairs from co-manager Bill Cayton. "When his management met me they thought I would make a good Mrs. Tyson," says Robin. "I was pretty enough and well spoken enough. They didn't realize that I wasn't interested in just being able to shop but that I happen to love Michael and I care about what happens to him. They didn't think I was a hustler until I started asking how much money Michael had in the bank and why he was giving them 33 percent. They don't seem to understand that I'm his wife. He is my husband. My mom has become his mother."
Relations between Ruth and Robin and the tightly knit Tyson camp grew frostier after Jacobs' death, when rumors circulated that opportunistic fight promoter Don King was trying to forge an alliance with Ruth to take over Tyson's management. In defense of her mother, Robin says, "She hasn't done anything that Michael hasn't asked her to do. Neither she nor I tell him what to do."
The close bond between Tyson and Roper—he calls her Mom—is not shared by other Tyson loyalists. Roper, who goes by her maiden name, is president of a New York company that designs computer systems. Last month Roper, Givens and an attorney halted the filming of Tyson's $4-million Pepsi commercial in Manhattan and spirited Mike away, to renegotiate co-manager Cayton's percent of the deal from one-third to one-quarter while the director, crew and 200 extras waited more than three hours.
Robin's experiments with more conventional forms of spousal support have not been unequivocal successes. The night she made her one and only lasagna dish, the champ left most of it on his plate. And there is Tyson's chauvinism to contend with. "He used to like it when I was independent and hard to get," she says. "Now he's going through the 'I'm gonna tame you, woman' phase. He thinks I talk too much. He won't let me talk about business anymore. He wants me to talk about shopping and the house." When she does talk about the house, she rolls her eyes at her husband's extravagance. "Fifty thousand dollar antique carpets!" she says. "A $70,000 chandelier! I say, 'Michael, we'll have to rope off the rooms!' "
Lack of privacy is one niggling irritant in their relationship. "Everyone recognizes the heavyweight champion of the world," she says, "so we'll be out on the street arguing and somebody will come up and say, 'Oh, I've just got to have your autograph.' Nobody ever seems to think this may not be an appropriate time." Then there are the women who kiss her husband and tuck their phone numbers into his shirt. Worst of all is the press. "I'm standing in the grocery line the other day and there we are in the headline, 'Mike Tyson's Wife Beats Him!' And I was just standing there amazed."
The story referred to an episode on Mother's Day when Mike, Robin and, of course, Ruth were cruising Lower Manhattan in their silver Bentley and sideswiped a parked car. According to one report, Tyson lost control of the car after Givens slapped him when she discovered condoms in his pocket. Tyson says he swerved to avoid hitting a cat. Givens denies she hit him. Shortly after that, it was Ruth's turn to make news. Word leaked out that she had sued New York Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield, charging that he had given her an unspecified venereal disease. The case was settled out of court.
In May Givens announced her pregnancy, but complications developed soon afterward. She was taken to an Atlantic City hospital, and when she woke up the next morning, she remembers, "There was a red rose on my pillow. And Michael said, 'I love you'. I thought I was going to cry." Two weeks ago Givens was rushed to Manhattan's Mount Sinai Medical Center, where she had a miscarriage. Tyson left his training camp in Atlantic City to join her. "I thought I was the mature one," she says, "but for the first time I completely leaned on him. He took care of everything." Though Tyson was expected back at camp, Robin says, "We were kissing for about 20 minutes, and I said, 'I don't want you to go,' and he didn't want to go." So the heavyweight champion of the world climbed into her hospital bed and spent the night.
That was one of the last evenings they've spent together. Since then Tyson has sequestered himself in his camp, trying to leave behind the distractions of family and finances and focus on the opponent he'll be paid to face on June 27—Michael Spinks. On the day after the fight, no matter what the outcome, Mike and Robin will let loose 75 of his 135 pigeons. The birds will fly in formation with the same precision Tyson uses in the ring, and after soaring in an arc out over the Hudson, they will do what he has trained them to do: Come home.
—By Kristin McMurran, with the Los Angeles bureau
September 24, 2016
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