Dubliner Joe Egan sparred with Mike Tyson when they were teenagers, and they have remained friends through the bad times and the good
One of the many odd little ricks to Cus D'Amato's personality was that he liked silence at the dinner table.
When his sister-in-law, Camille, served up one of her meals to the tight little kinship of fighters who shared the D'Amato home, the avian chatter of the gym died and no more poured from your lips than was required by the exigencies of good tables manners. Pass the bread.
Pass the salt. Anyone like more meat?
Joe Egan recalls his dinner at the table, how out of sync he felt, a kid from Dublin suddenly thrust into this odd little commune in upstate New York. He remembers the catch in his chest from the homesickness as he stared across the mountains of pumpkin and sweet potatoes at this black guy, who was 17, like him, but who everyone said was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world.
Back in Ringsend the Egans had their own rule about elbows on the table and Joe quickly up that the man who was in effect now his guardian liked to eat his dinner in silence. Except that he forgot himself when Camille served him up a bowl of thick Scottish broth. "That's a gorgeous soup, " he said and every set of eyes around the table riveted in his direction.
"You know, " Cus said, after a studied silence worthy of De Niro, "in my time, I've heard of plenty of ladies that was called gorgeous . . . but, hey, never a soup!"
The entire table dissolved into laughter. It was how Joe broke the ice with his new family and this black kid who could become his lifelong friend.
Their careers took off on different trajectories. Three years later, while still only twenty, Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion of all time. Joe's professional career ended almost as soon as it began, after a bus crash on the road between Belfast and Dublin.
He was on his way home from his second successful paynight. His knee was torn open and for almost two years he couldn't so much as run, never mind skip rope. He never picked up the momentum again.
Mike earned hundreds of millions of dollars while Joe worked nightclub doors back in Dublin. Different worlds.
And yet, in so many ways, their lives have shadowed one another. Both have spent time in prison. Both were involved in highly publicised breakups with women. And they've been there for each other through it all.
They've never lived in one another's pockets. The best friends never have to.
Months, maybe a year, will pass without any contact at all. But whenever one is in a dark place, the other is the first on the scene, like the first shaft of sunlight after a storm.
"Joe is my brother, " says Tyson, whose appearance at the launch of his friend's autobiography in London last week drew a crowd worthy of the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
Friends don't ever have to honour debts of loyalty, yet he's never forgotten that, while he was sat in a prison cell, awaiting sentencing for the rape of Desiree Washington, Joe sat down and wrote a letter to the judge about the tender man he knew, in the hope of winning him clemency.
"I had my views on the case, " Joe says, "and I didn't think him capable of doing what they said he did. Mike was my friend. I was there for him. But in the same way, he's been there for me."
A few years ago, Joe's longtime girlfriend, model Lisa Murphy, left him for Michael Flatley. He was devastated.
It was a phone call from Mike that pulled him out of his deep funk. "He was in Vegas and the story made the supermarket tabloids over there.
He phoned me up and he said, 'Joe, I'm reading all about your private life in these magazines. Are you okay?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Take some advice from someone who's learned the hard way. Cut it loose, Joe. Let it go.'" And he did. He's always remembered something Mike told him one night in the Catskills, when Joe was missing his family and hankering for home: "You can't think about where you're not."
It's a lesson that has informed the way he's ridden the rapids of life, from his cruelly curtailed boxing career, to the mob attack on the pub he ran in Birmingham, to his own time in prison for his part in a luxury car-ringing scam. You make mistakes.
You stick your big, heavyweight chin out and take the punch.
In the beginning, the two didn't know what to make of each other. They were thrown together by chance. Joe . . . Big Joe, as Mike calls him . . . was in the States with the Ireland amateur team and ran into Floyd Patterson, the former world heavyweight champion who was D'Amato's first protege. Patterson had a special interest in fighters from Ireland, the birthplace of his wife.
"He arranged for me to go to the famous Gleason's Gym in New York, to spar a few decent heavyweight fighters.
I did alright. Then they started telling me there about this man called Cus who lived upstate in the Catskills and who had this up and coming heavyweight. I thought, yeah, I'd spar anyone. I presume he's just got the two hands, like me. He could only do me so much damage."
D'Amato was forever looking for fresh meat for his new monster.
"I'd never hard of Mike Tyson before, " Joe says, "and I dare say he'd never heard of Joe Egan. I could see him looking at me across the table, wondering what to make of me. That's what you do with sparring partners, you size them up, wonder how tough they are, what they're made of.
"Then we got talking about boxing. He was like an encyclopaedia. He knew all about all these Irish fighters, like Rinty Monaghan and Gerry Cooney and Sean Mannion.
Then I mentioned that I knew Barry McGuigan and that was it. Mike idolised him.
When I talked about him, he'd hang on my every word. It was Barry, Barry, Barry.
That's how we bonded."
Yet the friendship meant nothing within the parameters of the ring ropes. Mike had three sparring partners at any one time and Joe and the others worked in tandem shifts to provide him with a live target.
"The first punch he ever caught me with landed on my hipbone and both of my feet left the ground. God knows what would have happened had he connected with my ribs. You just can't explain the power he had when he was younger and the quickness of his hands. You never got to throw any punches yourself. You were always too concerned with not being hit.
"He'd spar six or nine rounds a day, so each of us was in with him for either two or three rounds and we did it on a round-robin basis. You'd sit there dreading your turn coming around. You were looking at some poor guy getting pasted and thinking, 'Oh God, I'm next.' We were all sat there, supposedly hard men, looking sombre, like we were about to face the gallows. Except you knew what to expect when you walked up the steps of the gallows.
You didn't know what kind of pain Mike would inflict on you. There were so many bad things he could do to you in there.
"The worst was if the spar who went before you landed a good shot on him just before the bell went. Then it was your turn and you knew you were going to pay."
He remembers buying 10 Greetings from the Catskills postcards and sending them home to family and friends, writing on them, "I am training along with the future heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson."
And then he remembers countless times when he wished he wasn't.
"There was one day he bashed me up really bad, " he says. "Just smashed me to bits. I was in pure agony. My hands were all swollen up, my jaw was swollen, by ribs were all busted up, my back was killing me and when I put my head on the pillow that night it felt like a brick. I went straight to my bedroom after the session and just cried my heart out. It was just the pain of it.
"So that night I didn't show for dinner and, typical Mike, he came up to the room, full of concern for me, and he finds me there with tears steaming down my face. We're only teenagers remember, we're still not men. So Mike and Tom Patti, another fighter, find me crying. But Mike thinks it's because I'm homesick and he starts consoling me. He says, 'Hey, come on, Big Guy, we're your family now, ' and of course I couldn't tell him I was crying because he'd just smashed me up."
Mike was the special one.
They all knew that. His room was the entire top floor of the D'Amato mansion, where he'd while away hours, straddling an exercise bike, turning the pedals furiously while watching black and white cine film of old fights. "This was how he knew so much about the history of the sport. There was nothing he didn't know about the history of boxing. Every fighter, every fight, every round. He'd freeze frame the film and tell you that if a certain punch had landed it would have changed the course of boxing history. He'd come alive watching those films. Of course, I'd be dozing on his bed."
Mike went into two of his last amateur fights wearing green and white shorts with a shamrock on the front, a gift from his 'brother' . . . the man he called the toughest white man on the planet . . .
who was about to return home to Ireland after two years in the Catskills. Things were happening for him. One day he took Joe into the garage to show him the brand new Rolls Royce Corniche that Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs, his co-managers, had bought him as a gift on signing professional.
Cars and pigeons were Mike's two great loves after boxing. Joe told him that racing pigeons were big business in Ireland but Mike was into tippler pigeons, the endurance racers. "Let's build a loft, " Joe said. So they took a couple of hammers and some lengths of wood and put up a giant, two-storey structure for Mike's new birds, which, Joe was delighted to hear this week, still stands to this day. In front of it, Joe painted a sign that said, 'Tyson's flyers!'
"That was a very precious day, " he says, "because we both knew we were saying goodbye. Our lives were heading in different directions and it was one of the last times we spent together. So I went back home and Mike, as you know, became the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, like all of us knew he would, bashing up all these great fighters the way he bashed up me.
"We still talked from time to time on the phone but after Cus died Mike went off the rails. Don King got his hands on him and he started to self-destruct."
When he went on trial, denying charges of raping a beauty queen, Joe wrote to Jay Bright, another of the old Catskills gang, and asked what he could do. "He suggested I put into words how I felt about Mike. Did I think it was in his nature to do something like this? I didn't.
"So I sat down and wrote a character reference . . .
which I posted to the judge . . . about the Mike Tyson I knew. Mike didn't forget that.
"So when he got out of jail and he started fighting again he came to England to fight Julius Francis. I was having a tough time of it.
"I was running a pub in Birmingham called the Lyndhurst, which had, shall we say, a bit of a reputation.
"This gang had attacked the place a few months earlier with baseball bats, machetes, the lot.
"Mike phoned me up and asked me to be his guest of honour at the fight. It was unbelievable seeing him again. But he said to me, 'If you have any more trouble in that pub of yours, give me a call and I'll come down and help you sort it out, ' and the funniest thing of all was that he meant it."
In July, Joe took a flight to Washington, to watch his old friend fight Kevin McBride, sensing somehow that this was a night he shouldn't miss.
If he was the only Irishman in the place screaming his lungs out for 'the other guy' then he was forgiven.
At the end, the beaten man announced that his long career, which started with the delivery of that Rolls Royce Corniche 20 years earlier, was over. At the press conference, he picked out his old friend's face in the crowd.
"Joe Egan, " he said. "You were here for the start and I'm so happy that you're here for the end."
And here they are still. Old friends, still standing.
November 27, 2005