Like Mike

Cliff Couser fooled 'em all -- and maybe himself, too. Harry Benson for ESPN

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's June 14, 1999, issue. Subscribe today!

HE SHARES HIS FACE with another man, a man who is vulgar and infamous and fresh out of prison. He shares this face straight down to the gold tooth, and it delights him and it haunts him. He walks the Las Vegas strip, where tourists recognize him for who he isn't, and so he gives them another man's lisp and they say, It's him, it's him. And he knows they are fools for snapping their Polaroids and for chasing him through casinos, except these same fools amuse him. He goes to the Mirage Hotel sometimes because he knows he can toy with the Asian tourists who loiter there, and they queue up for autographs the minute he shows his face, his wonderful, terrible face. But it's white men, too, white men in Bermuda shorts and blue, knee-high socks. They show up offering him free advice and free meals, and one even showed up with a cell phone, saying, "Please speak to my ill father." And so he took that phone and did the lisp and told the ill father to get better soon. And at moments like that, he is floored. At moments like that, he feels this false sense of himself, or, rather, of his face, and suddenly he is horrified. Suddenly he is thinking, They think I'm him, but don't they know he's been sitting in jail? How can I be him? How can I be Mike Tyson?

He is by himself now, and he scares himself. He looks in the mirror and it's Mike Tyson in there. He grunts and tugs on his lips, and now he's the one who feels like the fool. He scans the Yellow Pages for a shrink because he wants to tell someone his sordid story, tell someone what it's like to have Evander Holyfield approach you and say, "Mike, is that you?" Hell no, he ain't Mike, but he figures there must be something to this, must be a reason why he and Mike Tyson have the same eyes and the same jawline and the same legs and the same lousy temper. The way he's heard it -- from his own mother -- he and Tyson have the same daddy, and to him, that explains this whole fiasco. He'd like to ask the daddy about it but that daddy is dead, and so he has to either take his mother's word for it or get this Tyson to take a blood test.

Of course, the latter means tracking Tyson down and that hasn't exactly been a breeze. It's had him camping out at prisons, barbershops and prize fights. It's had him contemplating crimes and coloring his hair. It's had him popping lithium and now has him on Zoloft, the same antidepressant that was prescribed for Tyson after he tried biting you-know-who's ear off.

But now it is eight years into his journey and he still hasn't had much more than a sniff of Tyson. He is, by all accounts, a desperate 29-year-old man. It has become his life's work to barge his way into Tyson's life, and to walk the streets that Tyson's walked, and to sign the autographs that Tyson's signed. If that qualifies as a manhunt, so be it. This is what happens when someone is the carbon copy of a former heavyweight champ of the world, and this is what happens when that someone has nothing else to believe in except hearsay.

This mother of his, Ada Richardson, pulled him aside when he was 20 -- after people had been calling him Little Tyson for years -- and told him Tyson was his flesh and blood. Problem was, she could not document it, and still can't, not with a photograph or a birth certificate or a diary or even an eyewitness. But she delivered this bombshell anyway, and her impressionable son bought it. Maybe it was all true or maybe it was simply her scheme to extract money from Tyson, but to her son it was fact all the way. He believed her because hed never had a daddy and because now she was inventing him one.

So she sat him down and told him his daddy had been this pimp named Jimmy Kirkpatrick (alias James or Michael Kirkpatrick), and that he'd bailed on them. She'd named him Cliff Couser, after the cabbie who rushed her to the hospital the night he was born. She told him she'd been a poor woman from Mississippi, and that she'd met his daddy in New York, and that his daddy looked just like Tyson and just like him.

She told him it was time to go locate Tyson and to let him know he had a long lost half-brother. She told him it was his birthright to do so. She told him that maybe he and Tyson could help each other, and then she started bawling, bawling hard. "It was one those bad cries," Couser remembers. "I figured I better go meet this Tyson guy. I figured, I'm on a mission."

And thus began the stalking of Mike Tyson. Cliff Couser simply heard a story, looked in the mirror, saw Tyson -- and has never seen his own self since.

Of course, imagine how Tyson feels, the real Tyson, the one who was set free on May 24, the one who's had a hard enough time living his own life, the one who didn't need his double greeting him at the prison door. "I bet his bodyguards were looking for me the day he got out," Couser says. "I bet they thought I was gonna be waiting outside that jail in Maryland like a male dog waiting for a female dog in heat."

So this is what's waiting for Mike Tyson on the other side: a faux Tyson? And it is a nightmare for Tyson because all he wants to see is his own wife and his own kids and no wanna-bes. It is a nightmare because it opens old wounds. Yes, Tyson's father was named Jimmy Kirkpatrick, and, yes, he's often heard that Kirkpatrick may have sired at least 16 children. So, yes, Tyson probably has a lot of half-brothers out there, but that does not mean he has to embrace every one of them. For years, people have tugged on Tyson's sleeve, asking for handouts, asking into his inner circle, and that is why he has repeatedly said he trusts no one, blood or no blood.

So Tyson has not been a willing participant in this sad chase, which began in Indiana, circa 1992, when Tyson was doing time for rape. It was there that Couser showed up for the first time, asking everyone and anyone at the prison to take him to Tyson. He says their jaws dropped the moment they noticed his resemblance--like they' d seen a ghost, Couser says -- but still no one dared maneuver him inside. He says he begged for help from Don King, who was standing by the prison door with Muslims and bodyguards, but that an effusive King simply urged him to try another day. And so his odyssey was officially on. He retreated to the car he was living in and began composing notes to Tyson asking into the boxer's life. "That's all I'd do, write," Couser says. "I'd write, 'I'd love to meet you, Mike. We're supposed to have the same father. My mom sent me here. We're supposed to be brothers.'"

He says he concocted 50 notes in all, dropping each one with King or a bodyguard, but he was never invited into the prison and, after three weeks, returned to his home in St. Louis, depressed. His football coaches at Soldan High had nicknamed him Mike -- I mean, everyone who came in contact with him thought he looked like Tyson, head coach Arthur Davis says -- and Couser had hoped to inform them that it was no coincidence. Instead, he slipped back into an ornery way of life, gang-banging and stealing cars. He says he even considered committing a more serious crime and turning himself in, just so he could be sent to prison with Tyson. It was an illogical thought and he talked himself out of it. He decided there might be another way to go: boxing.

He began studying Tyson's fights and mimicking Tyson's voice and lisp, and he entered a Golden Gloves tournament wearing the familiar black trunks and no socks. "Tyson was locked up, so I decided I'd fight for him," Couser says, but he was unpolished and went 2–5 in his first seven amateur fights. He turned pro because there were bills to pay, and soon he heard what he'd been dying to hear: Tyson was getting out.

Couser packed and moved to Las Vegas because this was where Tyson would be setting up shop, and he thought he could keep tabs on him there. He roamed from gym to gym, looking for Tyson and looking for someone to train him. eventually he stumbled into the regal Eddie Futch, a stroke of luck considering Futch had trained six heavyweight champions, including Joe Frazier. Futch saw enough raw power in Couser that he agreed to tutor him. "I noticed he looked like Tyson", Futch says. "It was so obvious, you couldn't miss it. And he could punch good and he learned fairly well, and I thought maybe he could be a good fighter. But he wouldn't obey the rules. He wouldn't take care of himself. He'd be out all night or come into the gym late or wouldn't show up on time to spar. I couldn't tolerate it, so I dumped him.

"After I dumped him, and he found out I wasn't kidding, he wanted me to take him back. But I wasn't gonna waste my time twice. I mean, I've made six heavyweight champions, and if a guy can't take advantage of that experience, what do you think he is? An idiot."

Couser had been preoccupied with other matters, mainly Tyson. He had asked around and had heard where Tyson lived. He began dropping letters and photographs in Tyson's mailbox. He also began frequenting Tyson's favorite barbershop, Hair Unlimited. One of the barbers there, Mack Smith, would always tease him and say, "You just missed him ... You just missed your twin."

Couser would ask Smith to give him the same hairstyle he'd given Tyson. "He wanted everything down to the same part," Smith says. "He asked another barber there to call him the next time Tyson showed up." And one day in 1996, this barber called, but Couser had no car and could not jog over in time. He had been in Las Vegas a year now and he had not laid one eye on Tyson or received one note. He made a pact with himself to stop dwelling on it.

"So I went for a haircut one day and I wasn't even thinking about him no more," Couser says. "And guess who walks in the barbershop? Mike! I look over with a big smile on my face and he looks at me, and we hugged. Hugged! We sat down and talked. I started crying, and said, 'Do you know who I am?' He said, 'I know you, I know you. I got a few of your pictures.'

"I was like, 'Why did you never call?' And he was like, 'Well, things have been going kind of crazy.' But he told me, 'You look good, you're doing good,' and I said, 'I need a pair of boxing shoes, because I'm fighting in these raggedy shoes and my feet are always hurting.' He said, 'I'll send you a pair of mine,' and he told me to write down my address and give it to his bodyguard and I did it. But I didn't trust that bodyguard. So I wrote it down a second time and gave it to Mike. I said, 'Here Mike, here's my address. I couldn't believe I'd found him, touched him, talked to him. It felt warm. I was like, 'I miss you, man, I love you.'

"He was like, I love you, too.'"

Smith, the barber, was an eyewitness, and he remembers them shaking hands and hugging. Someone snapped a photo of them, and off they went on their separate ways: Tyson to his mansion and Couser to wait for the mailman. This was clearly Couser's moment of triumph. In the ensuing weeks, he considered changing his name to Cliff Tyson or Cliff Kirkpatrick. But the boxing shoes never arrived, and after four months, he stopped expecting them. "I knew then it was a big facade," Couser says. "And it hurt me. It had hurt me before, when I'd written the letters and never gotten a response. But finally, we see each other and he lies. That really killed it for me. I said, f-- Mike."

According to members of his camp, Tyson likely was turned off because Couser wanted something from him: the shoes. They say that was the red flag that wiped Couser off Tyson's slate. But what this episode did as well was make Couser obsess more. He began attending Tyson's weigh-ins. He'd observe Tyson's wardrobe on those days and then he'd buy similar clothes. He'd show up at Tyson's fights wearing these same outfits and would dupe the ushers, who would simply let him in. "I'd smile and do my imitation of Tyson's voice and in I'd go," he says. "They'd say, 'Go get him, Mike.'"

And when he got a gold tooth -- just like Mike's -- everyone thought he was Tyson. "Even Evander Holyfield thought I was Tyson one day. Do you believe it?" Couser says. But he needed Tyson to notice him -- not Holyfield -- and on April 12, 1997, he thought he'd found a way. He was walking the aisles that night at the Oscar De La Hoya-Pernell Whitaker fight in Las Vegas when a publicist from HBO Pictures, Jeanmarie Murphy-Burke, saw his face and lit up.

"I saw him and he looked just like Mike Tyson, and I stopped him and I said, 'I know you're not him, but you've got to come back to our tent,'" Murphy-Burke says. "We were about to do the movie Don King: Only In America and we'd been looking for a Tyson look-alike, and we had just happened to fly in our filmmakers to that De La Hoya fight. Ving Rhames, who was going to be Don King, was there, and so was the director, John Herzfeld. They took one look at him and they said, 'You're coming to L.A.'

"So he was our Tyson. We had to re-create the bite incident with Holyfield and we had a lot of extras on the set for the crowd scene, and the people couldn't believe it. They'd say, 'Where did you find that guy? Is he related to Tyson?' And he would consistently say he was Tyson's half-brother, but that he had no documentation. These people, they were so struck by him.

"What did I think? Well, he seemed a little lost to me. I didn't think he wanted Tyson's money or that he had money on his mind. I just thought it was more of a longing, a longing to be part of the Tyson myth."

Mike Tyson saw the movie, all right, but it didn't possess him to send the shoes, and Couser's bitterness wasn't healing. People on the movie set had noticed the anger in him, and it rubbed some of them the wrong way, including the film's boxing technical adviser, Phil Paolina.

"You have Cher imitators and Michael Jackson imitators, and he was just a Tyson imitator," says Paolina, a boxing trainer in Los Angeles. "It's ridiculous that he says he's related to Tyson. Come on. And I didn't think he could fight at all. He has a lot of bad habits as a fighter and yet he thinks he knows what he's doing. His punches were off-balance and you'd tell him so, and he'd take the attitude that he didn't want to hear it."

Clearly, Couser (whose pro record is 17–52) was raging by then. He dyed his hair blond after the movie and contemplated shaving his eyebrows so there would be no more Tyson resemblance. But then he snapped out of it and turned back into a faux Tyson. "It's amazing: He does look uncannily like Tyson," says Bruce Trampler, the matchmaker for promoter Bob Arum at Top Rank. "He came to one of our weigh-ins once, and I'm thinking how flattering it is that Tyson came -- well, for three seconds, I'm thinking that. He fooled me. But really, I've seen him walk around arenas and take bows. He's great."

It occurred to Trampler then that Couser could be a novelty act in the ring, a sort of Butterbean. "He was better than Butterbean but never a serious contender," Trampler says. "We just wanted to put him in there so people would start talking about him. I mean, he has the Tyson thing down. All the nuances. Obviously he studies his subject well because he slumps his shoulders like Tyson and leans forward and just has all the mannerisms."

But Couser dismissed Trampler's idea -- "I thought he was just another faker," Couser says -- and focused on Tyson. This was while Tyson was applying for reinstatement by the state of Nevada after his suspension for biting Holyfield. Couser decided he would attend the hearing to make one last attempt at reconciliation. He says he maneuvered to within five feet of Tyson at one point that day and started spouting things. "I said, 'Forget these people who are dogging you, Mike,' and all Mike said was, 'Chill, chill, chill,'" Couser says. "He kept telling me to chill, and I was like, 'I miss you, I love you.' He said, 'I miss you, I love you, too. We're gonna talk.'"

Couser was suddenly encouraged, and at the next intermission, he returned to see Tyson. But a bodyguard stiff-armed him and then scolded him. "He told me, 'Leave Mike alone,'" Couser remembers. "He said, 'You claim you're his brother, we're always hearing this. But half is not better than whole, so you're not. I'm sick and tired of you bothering Mike. I'm not letting you near him.'"

This is when Couser got an idea, a horrible, helpless, sadistic idea: He wanted a piece of Tyson. He wanted to fight Tyson in the ring. "What would happen if they fought?" says Trampler. "If Tyson didn't freak out and didn't think he was hitting himself, it'd be a mismatch. It'd be over quick."

To this day, Couser pines for that fight, a fight that will be hazardous to his health. He wants to be Tyson's comeback fight, and he says, "If they don't think I'm good enough to fight him, then they don't know how angry I am." Tyson, meanwhile, has just completed a three-month jail term for kicking two men in the family jewels, and it appears he wants no part of this Couser's charade, whether they are half-brothers or not.

"He ain't kin to Mike, Mike's always said that," says Steve "Crocodile" Fitch, a member of Team Tyson who has had a number of run-ins with Couser. "Everyone knows Cliff's running around saying he's Mike's half-brother, just cause he looks like him, but a lot of people look alike. Everybody wants to join Mike's bandwagon. Some people just like to steal another's identity. Trampler's reaction to that is, "Oh yeah, Crocodile, that noted genealogist." And there are some who believe Couser and Tyson are related. "They've got the same legs, the same build -- they're brothers," says Faye Miller, who owns the Golden Gloves Gym in Las Vegas and knows both of them. "And Mike Tyson needs a brother but he's afraid Cliff's trying to use him. Just like the other guys used him, Don King and so forth. But let me tell you, Mike needs Cliff more than Cliff needs Mike. Mike needs family. Actually, they both do."

"Listen, now that he's out, Mike's going to have to address this," Crocodile says."They ain't kin, and you know that if Mike thought they were kin, he'd have investigated it by now. But the truth won't come out from what I say. You got to ask Mike Tyson. The only guy who knows is Mike Tyson." Tyson, though, won't comment; it seems the subject of Couser is off-limits. Shelly Finkel, Tyson's adviser, says, "I haven't gotten around to asking Mike about it, and I don't know if I will." Finkel claims he has never even heard of Couser, and says Tyson's wife, Monica, hasn't either. "It's a joke," Finkel says.

In the meantime, there is a confused soul wandering Las Vegas. He has nearly spent a decade now making a living out of another man's life, and it is no way to exist. His only source of self-esteem is when the tourists ask him that question, that never-ending question: "You Mike?"

"Listen, I just saw Cliff the other day and he had two new tattoos," says his current trainer, Jacob Duran. "And the first thing I thought was, 'He's trying to be like Mike.' I mean, one of the tattoos was on the right side of his belly button, which is just where Tyson has one. And the other was on his forearm, right where Tyson has one. I mean, no one gets a tattoo on the right side of their belly button, and lo and behold Cliff had one there. I'm thinking, oh my god, he's carrying this too far.

To a degree, Couser knows he has a problem, which is why he has finally scanned the Yellow Pages and found a psychiatrist and dialed him up. His doctor's first move was to put him on lithium, and when lithium didn't control his rage the doctor put him on the potent Zoloft. The drug turns him into a zombie at times, but it seemed to be helping until he heard the news that had him staring again at his wonderful, terrible face. Tyson was getting out.

"I'll give him three days to call me," Couser was saying the day of Tyson's release. "Three days, if he doesn't call, it's on. I'll kick his ass."

But Tyson did not call in three days, just like he hasn't called in eight years, and Couser is torn between being Tyson's brother and Tyson's opponent. "Can't you see how this has messed my life up?" Couser says. "Makes me wish I'd never found out about Tyson. I mean, I get confused sometimes."

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