The Art of the Steal: How Donald Trump Hooked Mike Tyson
August 9, 1988
Three days before he stage-managed the July 26 press conference that presented Mike Tyson as an athlete in charge of his own affairs, Donald Trump and attorney Thomas Puccio had a series of conversations at the billionaire autobiographee’s midtown office. Although he has kept it secret, the Voice has learned that Trump had been giving Tyson advice since March and, last month, arranged to receive a share of Tyson’s future earnings as payment for financial expertise (insiders estimate Trump’s cut at around 5 per cent of Tyson’s future fight purses). Trump had intended to stay offstage but was forced out of the shadows when Tyson filed his lawsuit against manager Bill Cayton, who is represented by Puccio (the former Abscam prosecutor who defended Claus von Bulow and Stanley Friedman). Facing the threat that Tyson’s earning power would be tied up in a long court battle, Trump had to step in as mediator; he insisted his motivation was Tyson’s welfare.
Working to structure a deal that would maintain everyone’s slice of the heavyweight champion, Trump and Puccio sweated out a compromise: Cayton would settle for a reduced cut (from one-third of Tyson’s purses to one-fifth) but would save face by retaining the title of manager; Tyson would make a little more than his previous two-thirds, but would lay off a share to Trump, who would now have his hands on the hottest commodity in the sports-entertainment industry.
Trump has refused to specify his arrangement with Tyson, but he has said that any payments for his advice will be donated to charity. What Trump doesn’t mention is that he will keep the millions reaped by his Atlantic City casinos when gamblers flock to the Boardwalk during the Tyson fight weekends Trump is now in a position to orchestrate. (According to a Trump Plaza spokesman, the casino drew approximately 25 million dollars over the three days preceding the Tyson-Spinks fight — eight times more than normal.) Although New York State boxing rules prohibit promoters from having any financial interest in a boxer, New Jersey rules are far more lenient; Garden State boxing commissioner Larry Hazzard says he hasn’t found any regulation that bars Trump from having a stake in Tyson.
Somewhere in the background lurks promoter Don King, who has become uncharacteristically quiet. “Trump gets his piece of Tyson,” explains a source close to the negotiations that resulted in the out-of-court settlement. “He’ll be in the boardroom, helping Tyson set up other business ventures. The managing and promoting will probably be left to King.”
According to sources close to Trump and Tyson, when Jim Jacobs, Tyson’s co-manager and surrogate father, died in March, King received Trump’s blessing to openly court Tyson. King used the press, the champion’s new wife, Robin Givens, and her mother, Ruth Roper, to fan the flames against co-manager Cayton. As the money man behind the Tyson-Spinks bout, Trump laid low, letting King draw the headlines. “It’s one of Trump’s best skills, picking the right moment to catch flak,” says a member of the casino operator’s team. “Until the fight, he let King play the heavy. But you must understand that Trump and Tyson had been talking months ago. This wasn’t an overnight revolt. Mike knew Jacobs was dying but he didn’t feel comfortable with Cayton — and Trump knew that.”
While the media chased the story of a heavyweight champion being duped by a gold-digging wife and controlling mother-in-law in the weeks preceding the Tyson-Spinks bout, the real story was in the private conversations between Trump and King; in addition to the fight’s logistics, they discussed whether Tyson should break his contract with Cayton. Tyson’s new lawyer, Michael Winston, a tax specialist recommended by Ruth Roper, threw the first punch by serving Cayton with a lawsuit on June 27, minutes before Tyson stepped into the ring to earn $21.2 million for 91 seconds of effort. During the postfight press conference, Tyson announced he was retiring. The brawl for it all had begun.
Cayton countered by hiring Puccio, who threatened to put Tyson on the witness stand. In the first weeks of the legal battle, sources say, Puccio and Winston sparred over some of the embarrassing issues that might be raised in court. “It could’ve been real ugly,” says a source in Tyson’s camp. “There would have been dirt on Mike’s family and Jacobs’s family. The public would have seen the worst.”
The dirty laundry included the claim in Cayton’s favor that he kept Tyson out of jail when he was arrested a year ago in Los Angeles after grabbing a parking attendant, demanding that she kiss him, and slapping her supervisor who tried to rescue the woman. (According to the L.A. prosecutor’s office, the assault and battery charges were dropped after a judge was satisfied that Tyson and his managers “made the victims whole” with an out-of-court settlement.) On the other side was the claim that Cayton ignored Tyson’s instructions to help his older sister, Denise Anderson, then living on welfare in Queens. (Anderson is now careful to keep a low profile to avoid jeopardizing recent help extended by Givens and Roper.) And both sides had damaging interpretations of Tyson’s claim that he didn’t know his trusted co-manager, Jacobs, was dying of leukemia, despite the fact that many boxing insiders knew Jacobs was ill and that Tyson was a frequent visitor to the Mt. Sinai hospital room.
On July 9, days after Puccio and Winston told reporters that they expected a court hearing on the lawsuit, Trump flexed his muscles, leaking word of his plans to formally join Tyson’s financial team. At first, sources said, Trump thought of becoming Tyson’s manager but he realized that this could make him vulnerable to lawsuits himself; he decided on the role of “adviser,” who would draw his share of Tyson’s money through Mike Tyson Enterprises, a new corporation. When Tyson unveiled the formation of this company two days later, Trump was announced as one of its directors. Tyson added that his retirement was over.
During the next week, sources say, Trump arranged for prominent entertainment lawyer Peter Parcher (who also represents Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger) to join Tyson’s legal team. In a series of late night meetings, Parcher assumed control of the lawsuit, pushing Winston aside. When State Supreme Court Judge David Edwards asked both sides to appear before the bench on July 19, Puccio and Parcher traded jabs as Tyson, Givens, and Roper lunched with King.
Two days later, in Edwards’s chambers, Puccio and Parcher set up an agreement to distribute the Spinks purse and allow plans for Tyson’s next fight to go forward. The following day, however, tempers flared and Winston stormed out of a meeting, casting doubt on a possible resolution. “That’s when Trump really went to work,” says a source in his organization. With the court hearing pending, the possibility of a bloody lawsuit threatened Trump’s efforts to control Tyson. “If he really wanted a piece of the action, then he had to come out and get it. He had to get involved in a way people would see.” Between July 23 and July 26, Trump played the role of the white knight, the peacemaker for charity.
With his massive Atlantic City holdings, Trump has become boxing’s premier banker and matchmaker, outbidding all others for the top fights. “The heavyweight division is his game now,” says a rival boxing promoter. “He has the money to buy whatever fight he wants and we just get the rest.” For now, Trump’s largesse extends to Don King, who has invested considerable time and energy in building the trust of Givens and Roper. “One Donald has the experience and connections to have Tyson box in Japan, Europe, or Asia,” says a boxing insider. “The other Donald owns the Boardwalk. Now, there’s room for both.” However, Trump’s interest in keeping Tyson’s fights in Atlantic City will restrict King’s bargaining power. And if he feels he can get away with it, King will undoubtedly try for a coup, using Givens and Roper as leverage. The inevitable clash between King and Trump promises to be the best heavyweight fight since Godzilla versus King Kong. ■