During the spring of 1980, I started spending weekends up in Catskill, NY photographing young boxers for a term assignment at Parson’s School of Design. The boys were between nine and fifteen (and were being trained by legendary boxing trainer, Cus D’Amato. Some, like Mike, lived there, free of cost, supported by “The Big Fights,” a boxing promotion group led by Jim Jacobs, which saw in them possible future contenders.

The world of boxing intrigued me: the electric atmosphere at matches, no matter how small the venue; the training that was like a dance, with footwork and speed, rhythm and choreography. But I wasn’t there for the sport. My interest was the kids, where they came from and how boxing was changing their lives. Like me, they’d come in search of something. A way out, maybe. Or a way through to something else.

Living in the house with Cus D’Amato, meant that training went on all the time, including Cus demonstrating different moves at night in his bathrobe. Mike, I remember, was particularly studious. He read books about boxers and boxing history, and even had a movie projector in the attic, where he spent many nights watching old fights, studying moves.

He was a shy teen, exceedingly polite, and he didn’t love being photographed. But because Cus made me feel so welcome in the house, Mike accepted my presence and gradually began to get more comfortable with the camera.

On November 22, 1986, Mike won his first title fight against Trevor Berbick for the World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight championship, followed by the WBA and IBF titles. Overnight he seemed to go from being this shy kid wondering if he’d ever go out on a date, to having girls he didn’t know leave messages on his answering machine. He gained an entourage, including some old friends with their own agendas. I saw his rise and the beginning of his fall when he lost his WBC title to Buster Douglas in Tokyo in 1990.

I came to boxing as a student of photography. By chance I met a young fighter name Mike Tyson. We both turned pro around the same time. Mike’s world over the course of the following decade — years when he rose to the pinnacle of glory and then began to lose it all — is represented in these photographs and book by powerHouse Books.

—Lori Grinker
Excerpted from Mike Tyson 1981-1991 (powerHouse Books, New York: October 2021)

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