By Stephen Sigmund
It was dark and cold that March morning in 1995. I was outside the Indiana Youth Center correctional facility in Plainfield, Indiana, in a suit and surrounded by satellite news trucks. Limousines were lined up in the driveway leading to the prison’s front gate.
It was just before dawn.
What were we all doing in that isolated location? Waiting for the release of Mike Tyson, then the world’s best known boxer. He was completing his prison sentence for sexual assault, and the press waited anxiously for his first words. The limousines contained boxing promoters, all hoping to get Tyson to sign with them on his return to boxing. At the front of the line was Don King.
Why was I there? I worked for a PR firm representing Showtime. Showtime had a contract with King to show his fights on Pay Per View. Showtime, and King, needed Mike Tyson.
A few hours earlier, I had arrived in Indianapolis, which was about an hour from the prison. There, I’d met with King, as well as Tyson’s “managers” John Horne and Rory Holloway, childhood friends who profited off of his comeback career and were fired by Tyson in 1998.
King was of course well known for his flamboyance. But there, in the wee hours at a motel, I met a businessman. He was focused, alert, had a strategy to keep Tyson himself away from the press that day, and helped me write the statement on Tyson’s behalf that would be handed to the assembled media at the prison.
When I arrived outside the entrance to the prison and distributed copies of that statement, I was assailed by reporters. “Who are you”? “Who do you represent”? “How do we know this is really from Tyson”? As instructed, I said nothing besides the statement is real, and you can ask Don King about it.
That fervor died down as Tyson walked out of prison and immediately got into King’s limousine.
They drove away. The satellite trucks, limousines, and me scrambled to follow. I knew where they were headed, the others did not. It was to a mosque just a few miles away, so Tyson could publicly show his prison conversion to Islam. But a mosque in Plainfield, Indiana is hard to reach.
There was only one two lane road to get there, and it was quickly choked with the Tyson chase traffic. My job was to arrive ahead of the media and other promoters, and to keep them out. We didn’t want Tyson to speak publicly until he had time to talk with King and plan what was going to be said.
But the traffic caused a snag in the plan. I was somewhere in the middle of the pack. I wasn’t going to make it by driving.
I pulled the car to the side of the road and got out. As dawn broke, I saw in front of me two large, frozen farm fields leading up to the clearly visible red brick Mosque. So I ran, in my suit and good shoes, across the frozen fields, all the while updating my bosses back in New York on one of those huge, walkie-talkie style cell phones. They’d asked for an immediate update as soon as Tyson was out of prison. “He isn’t talking to any press, right?” my boss asked. “Well, if I can get off the phone with you I can run a lot faster to make sure he doesn’t.”
Breathing hard and sweating even in the frigid air, I made it ahead of the pack. The Mosque was huge, looming over the barren Winter landscape. Tyson was inside, met by Muhammad Ali, performing morning prayers. I stood outside the front doors with Sheriff’s deputies, meeting an increasing crush of reporters and cameras that wanted in. We allowed a few reporters in to witness the scene of Tyson and Ali together.
After a few minutes, Tyson was taken out a back door, and I told the disappointed crowd that his morning statement would stand for that day.
What was in that statement we worked so hard to ensure were Tyson’s only words that day? As reported in the Desert News, “Tyson said nothing publicly Saturday, though a printed statement given out near the prison in his name said: “I’m very happy to be out and on my way home. I want to thank everyone for their support. I will have more to say in the future. I’ll see you all soon.”
Bizarre mission accomplished.
(Mr. Sigmund is a public affairs consultant and lives in New Jersey)