MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Mike Tyson's opponent, Lennox Lewis, has called him "a cartoon character." To HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant, Tyson is "a psychopath."
Tyson has the world wondering what to truly make of him.
Tyson, 35, even has confused doctors, who have diagnosed and undiagnosed him with mental disorders and prescribed and unprescribed antidepressants and other drugs.
"I'm no psychologist, just concerned for the brother," said one of his former trainers, Tommy Brooks. "Mike is a cat with nine lives, and he's on 8 1/2 right now."
Brooks left Tyson's camp after his last fight, a knockout of Brian Nielsen in October 2001. But he'll be watching, along with a sizable audience, when Tyson steps into the ring at the Pyramid tomorrow night to try to lift the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Council heavyweight titles from Lewis.
Tyson has threatened to "smear [Lewis'] pompous brains all over the ring when I hit him." In an angry tirade in Hawaii on April 30, Tyson told reporters he wanted to stomp on their children. In a fracas during a January news conference, Tyson bit Lewis' leg.
Tyson has been incarcerated twice: A 1992 rape conviction in Indiana earned him three years in prison, and he spent three months in jail in 1999 for a road rage incident in Rockville, during which he kicked one man in the groin and punched another in the face.
"Mike Tyson's actions don't make him a sympathetic figure, but you have to be sympathetic to the fact that this is a person who clearly has mental problems and major issues that he hasn't been able to confront," said Lou DiBella, a former HBO executive who worked some of Tyson's early fights.
"I don't think anyone stops to ask themselves, 'Would I want to be as crazy as Mike Tyson? Would I want to feel the pain that this guy apparently feels all of the time?' "
Tyson first was diagnosed as manic-depressive in 1988 by Dr. Henry L. McCurtis, director of psychiatry at Harlem Hospital in New York, shortly after Tyson experienced several violent episodes on a mid-September trip to Moscow. During the trip, Tyson had chased his then-wife, Robin Givens, her mother and a female aide through a hotel.
Upon returning to the United States, Tyson had a tearful group therapy session with Givens and her mother, Ruth Roper, and McCurtis. McCurtis prescribed a trial of lithium, used to treat mood swings and chemical imbalances in the brain.
However, within a few weeks, Tyson saw Dr. Abraham L. Halpern, clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College, who said Tyson was not manic-depressive and took him off the medication.
"Dr. McCurtis had apparently been given information by Mike Tyson's mother-in-law at that time. I don't think it was exactly accurate," said Halpern, former president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. "All I can tell you is that Dr. McCurtis did agree with my assessment."
McCurtis could not be reached to comment.
Halpern said he wouldn't necessarily change his view of the man he examined 14 years ago, despite his public behavior.
"Who knows whether that was a promotional kind of approach, whether he's been advised to make those comments or not?" said Halpern. "Without examining him again, it would be impossible to conclude that the diagnoses had changed."
Contrasting diagnoses are not unusual, said Dr. Clemmont Von Tress, a psychologist at George Washington University.
"People misdiagnose all the time. People are human," Von Tress said. "The damage comes when you misdiagnose and prescribe a powerful medicine to correct the behavior. If you put a label on people, like manic-depressive, and then start treating them with heavy medication to correct it, you can do more damage than good. You can make the person more violent than he already is."
Tyson left a Tuesday news conference without talking to reporters and could not be reached. Shelly Finkel, the fighter's adviser, wouldn't respond to questions yesterday about Tyson's medication.
Asked this week about medications, one of his trainers, Stacey McKinley, said: "Go ask him [Tyson]. I don't know what he's on. Go on and ask Mike Tyson, 'What kind of medication you on, Mr. Tyson?' He might want to just take you and throw you in the river."
But Tyson reportedly has taken the antidepressants Zoloft and Prozac, lithium and Thorazine, used to treat symptoms of schizophrenia, at various times. His dosage or lack of it could factor into his erratic behavior, said Dr. Peter Breggin of Bethesda, author of Anti-Depressant Fact Book and Your Drug May Be A Problem.
"I would want to know during the various incidents whether he was either taking the drugs, changing the dosage of them or stopping them," said Breggin, founder and director of the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology in Bethesda.
"Prozac can make a person uncontrollably violent. And the main danger with lithium is that if he's on it for several months and then taken off of it, you can get manic reactions," Breggin said. "Once you have combinations of psychiatric drugs, you can have unpredictable or abnormal reactions. He could very well be losing control under the influence."
Tyson also grew up experiencing violence and loss.
Before his 22nd birthday, Tyson mourned the deaths of a sister, his mother and two father figures. While growing up in the slums of Brooklyn, N.Y., Tyson saw a childhood friend hanged by a group of men, Sports Illustrated reported. As a boy, he found solace in caring for pet pigeons, but an older boy decapitated one of Tyson's pets before his eyes.
"If a child of pre-adolescence is traumatized, physically or sexually, obviously, this is going to affect his behavior as an adult. Tyson may subconsciously see his opponent as the person who traumatized him in his early childhood," said Von Tress.
"It would make sense that Mike Tyson would lose control of himself as a way of fighting back at all of the things or the people who had hurt him when he was young."
Tyson includes the media among those opponents, accusing them of "trying to turn his life into a freak show," and has regularly lashed out at reporters and interviewers.
In October 2000, Tyson nearly became violent with USA Today boxing writer Dan Rafael during a one-on-one interview in Detroit.
"He was sitting right next to me. His hands and arms were on me at times, poking me in the shoulder," said Rafael, who interviewed Tyson with Brooks, Finkel and four others present. "At times, our noses were six inches apart. He swore, used racial words -- I'm white, so that was part of it. It went downhill to the point where he stood up shouting and cursing. At that point, Shelly said, 'That's it.'
"Clearly, Mike Tyson believes that every single person in the media is all the same, and that they're all out to get him."
Yet, in 1988 -- six months before the Moscow trip meltdown -- Tyson felt comfortable enough with reporter Michael Katz to call him from Tokyo, where Tyson was preparing to fight Tony Tubbs, to talk about his "lonely" life.
"He said people were chasing him. Millions and millions of cameras were on him," said Katz, who has covered boxing for 35 years. "They idolized him, but he felt like a piece of meat. ... He was, 21, 22 years old, but couldn't lead a normal life. He was ripe for the taking."
And regardless of who is to blame -- Givens and Roper, promoter Don King and/or just Tyson himself -- Tyson reportedly has squandered millions since becoming the youngest-ever heavyweight champion at 20. He owes about $13 million alone to Showtime, which is producing tomorrow's fight along with HBO.
"It's a known fact that the guy owes money to everybody under the sun. That's a lot of pressure for anybody," said former trainer Brooks. "When I was with him, the accountants were saying he had to have this fight and another one just to break even."
What Tyson needs, according to one expert, is direction -- from a caring director.
Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based social psychologist, compared Tyson's situation to that of former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who suffered schizophrenia. "Brian needed someone to tell him when to eat, shower and do everything," Butterworth said. "I think Mike needs someone who cares and has his best interest in mind."
In the meantime, Brooks said, "Mike does whatever he wants to do. He's been doing that since [his first trainer] Cus D'Amato passed away. No one has tried to bring him back to earth."
Who:Lennox Lewis (39-2-1, 30 KOs) vs. Mike Tyson (49-3, 2 no-contests, 43 KOs)
When:Tomorrow, approximately 11:15 p.m.
Where:The Pyramid, Memphis, Tenn.
Titles:For Lewis' International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Council heavyweight championships
TV:Pay per view
Purse:$17.5 million each
Weights:Lewis weighed in yesterday at 249 1/2 pounds. Tyson weighed in at 234 1/2 .