Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1999
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JUNE 1999


You name the big bouts in boxing and writer Phil Berger '64 has been there, to capture the "trickerations" and the spectacle

H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S

Ringside Chronicles
By Dale Keiger
Photos by Teddy Blackburn

Ladies and gentlemen...

No. It has to be louder, much louder, and the syllables have to be drawn out, stretched like a rope through a turnbuckle.

Ladiiiiies aaaaand gennnnntlemennnnn....

Yeah, that's better. Though the man with the microphone is dressed in black tie, we're not in Carnegie Hall. The other guys in the spotlight go by names like Bonecrusher, El Torito, Iron Mike, Buster, Macho, Sugar Ray, and Marvelous Marvin. They come from hardscrabble circumstances in which hitting someone for pay represents one of their better options. They might earn $20 million for 91 seconds of work-- it's been done--but more likely they'll end up as what is known as a "tomato can." And no matter who they are, the instant multimillionaire or the tinned vegetable, they're likely at some point to become a victim of the trickerations of the fight game, to borrow a term coined by one of its more flamboyant promoters.

If you're a writer--and Phil Berger '64 is a pretty good one--the language of this arena, the boxing ring, is but one of its attractions. There are the characters, and the sheer spectacle. On a given night, you might witness a soft-spoken man of God losing a chunk of his ear to the canines and premolars of a convicted rapist. Your evening's entertainment might be promoted by a Talmudic scholar with a Harvard sheepskin on the wall, or by an equally successful loudmouth (Mr. Trickerations) who once served time for manslaughter. On the way to your seat you might brush sleeves with a real estate mogul, a starlet, a gambler with a hundred grand riding on the outcome, or a guy whose résumé includes "cut man" as a line item. A few seats over could be Muhammad Ali, deservedly known as The Greatest, or a large fellow who used to be called, accurately, the Bayonne Bleeder.

Boxing has been Phil Berger's fascination as a writer for more than 30 years. "It's just a very visceral experience when you see two great, well-conditioned athletes going at each other," he says. "There are people who are repulsed by it. I understand that. But it's kind of like your reaction to music. It either hits you as something that's exciting, or it doesn't. And for a writer it's just full of rich characters."

As a kid, Berger watched the Gillette Friday Night Fights ("Ladiiiiies aaaaand gennnnntlemennnnn....") on television. As a Hopkins liberal arts student he'd go to movie theaters in Baltimore for closed-circuit broadcasts of prizefights. As a writer, he spent seven years covering his favorite bloodsport for the genteel New York Times, and he has authored more than 15 books, including two novels, three ghosted autobiographies, several children's sports books, and volumes on boxing, basketball, and stand-up comedy. Not to mention, in his early days, magazine articles like "Coed Hookers."

At the beginning of March, Berger stares at the slush accumulating on the balcony of his apartment in Manhattan's East Village, counting the days before he flies to Hollywood. New Line Cinema is set to begin filming his screenplay, Price of Glory, starring Jimmy Smits, late of television's NYPD Blue, and Jon Seda of Homicide. Berger is more than ready. He wants to get the hell out of New York and spend some time around palm trees and a big-shot film crew.

"The day it begins shooting I'll be very happy," he says, "because I'll be getting what I've wanted."

When Berger took the Times job, the great champions were aging and retired. Boxing badly needed a new superstar.
WHAT BERGER WANTS IS what most writers want...the chance to tell the stories that matter to him, and finally, after 35 years of work, a shot at a sweet payday. He's spent most of his adult life doing the work he's wanted to do, which counts for a lot. He doesn't complain. But as is the case with most journalists, his writing has been a get-rich-slow scheme. You won't mistake his apartment for Tom Wolfe's. The small living room doubles as a gym (exercise bike, barbell, dumbbells), and the walls could use a coat of interior latex. The place is decorated in mostly black and white, like those old Everlast boxing trunks, and there's a poster of a George Bellows prizefight painting, Dempsey and Firpo, opposite the door. Against one wall is a matched set of white chairs draped with cloth antimacassars that bear images of the Mona Lisa and Chairman Mao. Berger has framed the dust jackets of his books, as well as lots of pictures of his 10-year-old daughter; she lives across town with her mom. On his office wall is an early '60s photo of the Johns Hopkins freshman basketball team, coached by Bob Scott. Berger is the skinny guy in the front-row center holding the ball, the captain, #14.

Berger is still skinny, dressed on this blustery morning in blue jeans and a black T-shirt. At age 57, he has a sort of sad-sack look, a little world-weary, a little reflective and melancholy, with thick longish hair, a bushy mustache, and pouches under his eyes. His smiles tend toward the rueful, and though he's amiable he doesn't seem to laugh much. A one-word sentence that pops up throughout his writing is Whatever. Sometimes there's an air of wary alertness about him. When he answers the phone, he asks who's calling before he identifies himself. "I just like to know," he says.

He grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, and remembers always wanting to be a writer. In his senior year of high school, he revived the school newspaper. He came to Hopkins on an academic scholarship from General Motors, and during his summers off from school he worked at the Greenwich Time.

After Hopkins, he served a brief stint in Atlanta with the Associated Press, then went to Europe and freelanced some sports stories.

In Sweden, former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson was preparing to fight Eddie Machen, and Berger went to Patterson's training camp and introduced himself to promoter Al Bolan. Bolan took a liking to him and let him hang around and take notes on Patterson's workouts. One day, on the way from camp to the site of the bout, Berger narrowly avoided serious injury when the car he was riding in crashed and he was thrown out. "All I had was some dirt in my mouth," he recalls. The Patterson story was one of his first freelance sports articles.

Back home, he put in a year as an editor at Sport magazine. He wrote some kids' sports books--Championship Teams of the NFL, More Championship Teams of the NFL--and nurtured an idea for a grown-up book. In 1969, no sportswriter had yet spent a season on the inside with a professional basketball team. Berger thought it might be interesting, and when he heard that Simon & Schuster wanted someone to write a book about the New York Knicks, he jumped at the chance and sold them his idea.

In Mike Tyson, Berger found what he needed most--a compelling drama in which all the elements were as oversized as Tysons 19-1/2 inch neck.
The publisher offered only $3,500 up front, and Berger had to spring for his expenses to cover 65 to 70 regular season games and every playoff game--air fare, meals, hotel rooms, taxis, whatever. When the Knicks went out on a seven- or eight-game road trip, to Chicago and Los Angeles and Atlanta, Berger paid his own way. He kept himself on the road and a roof over his head by churning out more than 80 magazine pieces that year, many of them for his friend Lawrence Sanders. Sanders has gone on to become a best-selling mystery novelist, but in those days he edited an array of low-rent men's magazines with names like Swank, Dapper, and Swingle. Berger would take him a dozen ideas at a time --"Coed Hookers" was one of them--and Sanders would apportion them among his various titles.

To Berger's great good fortune, the 1969-70 Knicks turned out to be one of the more remarkable teams in the history of the National Basketball Association, a team that won the NBA championship in a final game regarded by aficionados as a classic. Berger was along for the whole ride, including an evening in which the ride went south out of San Diego to a Tijuana whorehouse. He titled the book Miracle on 33rd St: The New York Knickerbockers' Championship Season.

Robert Lipsyte, writing in the New York Times, called Miracle "a brilliant moody book that shifts from quick description to fascinating chunks of self-revealing monologues." Berger did not write the public relations version of the Knicks' season. "Up till then, sportswriters had been pretty puffy," he says. "You didn't get into the warts and all." Berger reported the warts. When the coach, Red Holzman, feuded with one of his star players, Bill Bradley (the same Bill Bradley who went on to the U.S. Senate), Berger was there and put what he saw in the book. He did the same regarding the racial tensions he witnessed, like the time Cazzie Russell called teammate Willis Reed an Uncle Tom. The book did not endear Berger to the Knicks' management, which barred him from the locker room for the next season. But it sold some copies ("I made a taste, maybe $15,000 or $20,000."), and more to the point secured his reputation among sports editors and garnered him the steady work he needed.

AFTER MIRACLE, HE WROTE a couple of novels and The Last Laugh, a history of stand-up comedy from World War II to the 1970s. He kept churning out sports stories. "When I could I wrote about boxing. But there weren't that many high-profile boxing guys who interested the big magazines." Nevertheless, in 1985 when the New York Times needed a writer to cover prizefighting, Joe Vecchione, the sports editor, called him. "Boxing was intriguing enough that I said yes. It's not day-in-and-day-out with the same faces, like most sports beats. It's like the circus pitches its tent in Vegas or Reno every three to four weeks, and you go and chew the fat with boxing types." The Times let him set his own agenda, mostly, he suspects, because no one else there knew enough about the sport to dictate his schedule. "Plus they trusted me. I didn't get beat. If I was getting my butt kicked by other papers, they might have looked more closely at me."

The genteel Times, says Berger, was not always comfortable printing everything he found out.
He covered the big-time fights and fighters of the late 1980s: Michael Spinks, Gerry Cooney, Hector Macho Camacho, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, James Bonecrusher Smith, Sugar Ray Leonard, Bobby Czyz, Buster Douglas, Larry Holmes. He wrote about other fight people: promoters like Harvard-educated Bob Arum and street-educated Don King, a former convict with wild standup hair who delighted in making bombastic statements to the "boss scribes" in the press about the "trickerations" of the fight game; cornermen like Angelo Dundee, who trained nine world champions, including Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali; characters out of a Damon Runyon story, like promoter Butch Lewis, who liked to show up at big fights wearing a tuxedo, complete with bow tie but no shirt; and hard-luck cases like Tony "El Torito" Ayala, Vinnie Pazienza, and Leon Spinks, talented fighters whose brief glory in the ring was eclipsed by their misfortunes outside it. He wrote about Dave Jaco, an affable single father ("a sweetheart-type guy," Berger recalls) who made a thousand here, a thousand there as a "tomato can," a fighter whose job, in Berger's phrase, was to be "a body for better men to beat on." Berger delved into the treacherous and byzantine business side of the sport: "Even if you're a good fighter, you get beat up financially if you don't watch out, if you're associated with the wrong sort of promoter or manager, a Don King type, or King himself."

WHEN BERGER TOOK THE TIMES JOB, boxing badly needed a new superstar. The great champions were aging or retired, and no one new had captured the public's imagination. "I thought, 'Gee, this is an awful time to be a boxing writer.'" Then good fortune, which had smiled on Berger with the Knicks, delivered exactly what he and boxing needed.

Berger had been with the Times for a month when it sent him to Atlantic City to cover a fight simply as a drill in meeting a daily newspaper's deadline. On the undercard (the preliminary fights) for the main bout was a teenager named Mike Tyson. "He knocked out Robert Colay in about half a minute," Berger recalls. "On undercards, you see a lot of quick knockouts. But Tyson had an authority that made me want to know more."

In Tyson, Berger found what he needed most--a compelling drama in which all the elements were as oversized at Tyson's 19 1/2-inch neck. People who ordinarily didn't care a fig for boxing wanted to know about Iron Mike. Even before Tyson had fought anybody of note, he was a story. In fact, there wasn't just a story, there was The Story.

By age 13, Mike Tyson was already in juvenile detention for armed robbery. The detention facility had a staff member named Bobby Stewart who had been a pro fighter, and Stewart began showing this young punk some moves. Stewart was so impressed with Tyson's ability he took him to see Cus D'Amato, who ran a gym in Catskill, New York. D'Amato was a boxing legend, the trainer and manager of champion fighters Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres. He watched Tyson spar and saw a future champion.

When Tyson was 14, the state of New York paroled Cus D'Amato. Thus was born The Story. Call it "Cus and The Kid." It was great copy: Crusty old prizefight legend takes tough black street kid under his grizzled wing...Tyson the hulking menace in the gym, but sweet natured out of the ring...spoke with a peculiar, high, lispy voice, was shy and courteous around women, and kept pigeons...pigeons! great photo ops of kid gently cradling white bird in massive black fist...Cus the father the kid never had...kindly white guy helps black former juvy offender turn his life around and seek riches and glory in the prizefight ring.... It was all so damned heartwarming, so Algeresque (Alger updated for 1980s America, with a rap music soundtrack)...what sportswriter could resist? Oh, and by the way, in the ring this kid hits so hard his opponents become visibly frightened and hope the fight is over fast, which it usually is....

After seeing Tyson fight on that undercard and hearing part of The Story, Berger went to Catskill to see this kid. "He took me out in the backyard to see his pigeon coop," Berger recalls. "He was charming and articulate." And man, could he fight. As Tyson began his rapid ascent in the boxing rankings, Berger was there. He was there in November 1986 when Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick in the second round to become, at age 20, the youngest heavyweight champion ever. He was there as Tyson became rich and famous. He was there the night of June 27, 1988, when Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds and earned $20 million.

Berger worked the story. He flew around the country to the big fights. He chronicled all the complicated business machinations, who was in with the champ this month, who was on the outs, who was suing whom, how much could Don King pluck this time from pay-per-view television's fat wallet. Berger cultivated sources who helped him keep track of the key players in between bouts, and paid attention to the telling details. He got a look at a personal financial statement and reported that in one year Tyson spent $219,819 on jewelry. When Berger visited the champ's 27,000-square-foot house in Worthington, Ohio, he counted 72 pairs of shoes in the closet and nine luxury automobiles in the driveway, including a Rolls, two Ferraris, and a Lamborghini. Then he did what a good reporter does--he read the odometers in all nine and noticed that each car had an average mileage of only 4,000 miles. "I don't drive them," Tyson conceded. "I just enjoy having them."

Berger on prizefighting:

"It's chic among many, I know, to regard boxing as the sewer of the sports page and in that way to dismiss it as inconsequential. But as I see it, that's just looking down the wrong end of the telescope. Boxing is a user's game, no question. It's a pitiless greedhead enterprise that I daresay is pretty much what other so-called legitimate businesses are. The excesses of an Ivan Boesky, the connivances of international corporations, the misappropriation of an Art Buchwald story line by a movie studio--these are all, in the word of Don King, "trickerations"--scamming on the grand scale by suit-and-tie smoothies on whom we mistakenly confer credibility and respect."
--From Punch Lines: Berger on Boxing
Always hovering around that day's Tyson story in the popular press was The Story, Cus and The Kid, even though Cus had died in 1985. But early on, Berger began picking up hints that Tyson was a menace not just in the ring. There was a 1986 incident at a mall in Albany; Berger couldn't be sure of the details, but the story had Tyson becoming enraged in a store and throwing a lot of stuff around. The next year, another problem: Tyson forced a kiss on a Los Angeles parking attendant, then smacked her male boss when he tried to intervene, a smack that cost him $105,000 in an out-of-court settlement. Berger heard these reports and decided to take a closer look at Tyson's time in Catskill after his parole. He learned of problems with female students at the local school, an episode with a teacher, previously undiscussed problems with Cus D'Amato, and an incident with trainer Teddy Atlas's teenage sister-in-law that ended with Atlas confronting Tyson with a gun.

It took a while for these stories to supplant The Story, the killer in the ring cooing softly to his pigeons. "We didn't know the details," Berger says. "But as the cracks in the armor developed, we started looking back and checking things out." Should he have poked holes in The Story sooner than he did? Berger shrugs and nods. "With the benefit of hindsight, yeah. Sure. [Cus and The Kid] felt like a good story, and for a while we wrote it. I didn't consciously bury anything. I didn't know and wasn't looking yet. Once I had stuff, I put it out in print. I didn't put a shine on it."

Tyson married actress Robin Givens in February 1988, and soon after his life began its steep and wellpublicized plunge. Eight months after the wedding, Givens filed for divorce from Iron Mike, claiming brutality. Before that, she publicly humiliated him by telling Barbara Walters and a national television audience that he was a manic-depressive. In the midst of his marital woes, Tyson startled two New York Port Authority cops by trying to give them a $180,000 Bentley that he had just swerved into a parked car.

In 1991, an 18-year-old Miss Black America contestant accused Tyson of rape, and a jury convicted him, sending him to prison. "It all felt like a Dickens novel," Berger says. "Here's a guy on the fast track of the American dream, and he wasn't equipped to deal with it. There was a built-in arrogance that made him unable to learn."

Berger got news of the criminal charges from television, and he wasn't surprised. As Tyson and Givens were breaking up, Berger had published an engrossing book titled Blood Season--Tyson and the World of Boxing, in which he predicted that Tyson "would be dead or arrested before his time." He says, "In front of me, he was always sort of charming around women. But I'd heard too many stories about his grabbiness. When [as a reporter] you hear stories that you're not even looking for, you know you've got a guy who doesn't know how to act around women."

The Times was not always comfortable printing everything Berger found out, he says. At first it refused to print his report that Tyson had swerved his Bentley into that parked car because the fighter was being smacked around by Givens after she found a pack of condoms in his jacket pocket. (The Times did publish that information as part of a story some weeks later, after the New York tabloids had reported it.)

The Story was no longer Cus and The Kid, but Tyson the Fallen, "the time bomb" in Berger's words. Reporting the new story put Berger in some interesting situations. A few months after Givens's appearance with Barbara Walters, Berger ran into Tyson in a Las Vegas gym and tried to arrange an interview.

"You gonna make me out to be some sort of psychotic killer?" Tyson asked.

"No," Berger replied. "A manic-depressive killer."

Which led to a heightened moment as Berger wondered if he'd just said the wrong thing. This was, after all, Iron Mike, baddest brother on the planet, who could push your nose into your brain were he so inclined, and he was not smiling. Berger's mouth twitched up at the corners in an expression that he hoped said Mike, I'm joking here...please don't push my nose into my brain. Tyson didn't exactly collapse in mirth, but he got the joke, didn't kill Berger, and agreed to chat. They later had a three-part interview in which Berger, who jogs to keep in shape, went running with Tyson across the Dunes resort golf course. "His trainer timed the run and said it was Tyson's best by about 30 seconds. He said to me, 'Would you get up and run with him every morning?' I said, 'At 4:30? You gotta be out of your fuckin' mind! If he wants to run late in the day, give me a ring.'"

After Tyson got out of prison and resumed his career in 1995, Berger noted in print that despite all the hype that "Iron Mike was back," Tyson was no longer the fighter he'd been. "They [the promoters] were trying to fool everybody and milk the Tyson cow as long as they could," Berger says. It seemed to him that Tyson had abandoned his winning style, which had been to bob, elude, jab, elude, then deliver a knockout combination. Instead, Tyson began standing straight up and looking to "load up" every punch, as fight people say, meaning he was impatiently trying to make every punch a knockout blow. Soon, Berger figured, Iron Mike would run into someone who wasn't intimidated and would outbox him. Berger was right. Evander Holyfield outfought Tyson twice, the last time winning on disqualification when Tyson shocked even the jaded fight world by biting off a chunk of Holyfield's ear.

Today, Berger just shakes his head when asked about Tyson, who is back in jail for assault. "Tyson's downfall lies at his own doorstep. I don't feel a lot of pain for him. I'm not sure why. I feel a touch of sympathy, then sort of a cynical shrug. He's just a guy who lives stupidly."

"The father-son stories in boxing tend to be full of volatility," says Berger. Filming on his screenplay began this spring.
IN 1992, BERGER LEFT the Times. He continued sportswriting and publishing books. In 1995, he hooked up with a swindler named Craig Jacob and ghosted an autobiography called Twisted Genius. Last year, he published Larry Holmes--Against the Odds, another ghostwriting job done with the former heavyweight champ. But he had another project cooking that he hoped would bring a long-time dream to fruition.

His explanation for leaving the Times is simple: "I wanted to write movies." He had always harbored an intense interest in film. He'd seen his first foreign movie while at Hopkins, Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers. In New York, he'd go to the Elgin, or the Bleeker Street Cinema, to see anything that might be showing. He remembers, "Somewhere along the line, I said, 'You know, I think I'm capable of doing this.'" So he started trying to write his own screenplays. He finished one about a schoolteacher in Appalachia in the 1930s, and got it optioned. "I thought, 'Hey, I'm off and running!' This movie thing was going to be easier than I thought. Little did I know."

He goes into another room of his apartment and brings out a framed page from the Times, dated February 12, 1985. The paper is framed because it includes a tiny item announcing that the Tiber Theater Company was going to read the first act of The Ortegas, a planned two-act play by Phil Berger. He was one of 15 new playwrights so honored. The Ortegas concerned a Latino ex-boxer who tries to seize the glory that had eluded him by training his three sons for the ring. "The father-son stories in boxing tend to be full of volatility," Berger says. "There are fascinating stories: Jerry Quarry and his old man, Roy Jones and his father, who eventually had a falling out just before he went for the title. I saw it time and again and thought the dramatic potential was terrific."

He finished The Ortegas as a play. Six years later, he had a new draft of the script as a screenplay, and a deal with Morris Ruskin at Shoreline Pictures. Berger's script was accepted for a 1995 filmmaker's workshop at the Sundance Institute in Utah. Ruskin got as far as signing a director and scouting locations before the project collapsed for lack of financing. After two or three years, Berger ran out of patience with Ruskin, and after his option lapsed, Berger took the project to Esparza/Katz, a production company that specializes in Latino films like Selena. Esparza/Katz took his script to New Line Cinema, and suddenly Berger was in business. New Line renamed the project Price of Glory and signed Jimmy Smits to play the father, Arturo.

As Berger gazes out at the slush on his balcony, filming is scheduled to begin in Los Angeles in a few weeks. "I'm very curious to see how things are done. And hey, it's my baby. It's gonna be exciting to see actors bring it to life."

He has five other scripts completed, including the Appalachian-schoolteacher story, which was never filmed, and he'd like nothing better than to become Phil Berger, Film Guy. Writing for the movies, he says, is something he'd like to do for the next 40 years.

"I remember one night years ago watching Jerry Seinfeld on television being interviewed in his multimillion dollar digs in L.A. The interviewer asked him what had been the most gratifying. He said, 'I bet on myself and I won.' At that point, I had bet on myself and hadn't won. was like a hammer blow to my chest. But now that we're days away from filming, it looks like I have won."