A whirlwind romance and eight-month marriage between the world heavyweight champion and an actress set the media aflame in the late 80s. Described as ‘the Lady and the Champ’ by People Magazine, Mike Tyson and Robin Givens met in 1987 and became engaged within months. But after one of the most controversial celebrity couple interviews ever broadcast, the couple divorced – with Givens claiming she suffered physical and emotional abuse from Tyson, and Tyson deriding Givens as an ambitious gold-digger.
The media overwhelmingly sided with Tyson, dubbing Givens ‘the most hated woman in America’. The couple’s conflicting accounts of each other’s behaviour – not to mention financial settlements – fuelled the acrimony. Rumours of an affair between Givens and Brad Pitt added further to public curiosity about the divorce. Today we’re taking a closer look at one of the most high-profile celebrity splits of all time.
The ‘broke charlatan’
Following their split, Tyson would claim that Robin Givens was a “broke charlatan” when the couple first met. But Givens, two years Tyson’s senior, actually led an impressive life before her relationship with the boxer.
Raised in New York, Givens was a teen actress and model who was also an exceptional student. She graduated early from the private school New Rochelle Academy, and at the age of 15, she became one of the youngest ever students at Sarah Lawrence College. As a pre-medical major, Givens took courses at Harvard and graduated at 19, all the while performing in daytime TV dramas.
After she appeared as a guest on The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby became Givens’ mentor and promised he would help her to complete medical training if her acting career fell through. Soon afterwards, Givens won fame as the wealthy and stylish Darlene in popular ABC sitcom Head of the Class.
In contrast, Tyson’s early childhood in Brooklyn was filled with street fights, arrests and poverty. “I was fighting the kid, then fighting their fathers,” he told Valuetainment. “They were crying, went home and got their father. Then I would fight the father.”
Tyson’s father left the family when Tyson was a baby, and his mother passed away when he was 16. Tyson’s prodigious talent for boxing found him a new legal guardian: world-famous manager Cus D’Amato.
The young Tyson secured gold medals in the Junior Olympic Championships of 1981 and 1982, and famously knocked out Hector Mercedes in the first round of a 1985 fight. His mentor D’Amato passed away from pneumonia in the same year, but Tyson continued from strength to strength in the boxing world.
By the time he crossed paths with Givens, he was the youngest boxer ever to win a heavyweight title, and was the reigning world heavyweight champion.
“We were just two kids”
According to Tyson, he first spotted Givens on a TV show. The pair went out for dinner and dated for “a month or two” before Tyson proposed to her.
The pair wed in February 1988, when Givens was 23 and Tyson was 21. “I was too young to be married, she was too young to be married,” he’s since reflected, mentioning that Givens frequently caught him cheating during their relationship. “We were just two kids married and the whole world was in our business.”
Tyson has also since claimed that Givens faked a pregnancy, which motivated him to marry her. “Now it was June and she hadn’t gained a pound, so the next thing I knew she was in bed and claimed she had miscarried our baby,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir entitled Undisputed Truth.
Tyson further claimed that Givens and her mother had hatched a ‘gold digger’ scheme, saying that they were “on the prowl for a big black celebrity for Robin”.
What’s more, Tyson, who at the time was worth an estimated $40 million, has said that Givens and her mother pressured him into a gift of $10 million, plus a $5 million estate in New Jersey during their marriage.
However, when Tyson and Givens appeared together in a 20/20 interview with Barbara Walters, a very different picture of the couple’s power dynamics emerged.
“It was pure hell”
In an unexpected turn of events, Givens used the joint interview to voice disturbing allegations against her husband.
“It’s been torture,” she said of their marriage, while sat next to a mostly quiet Tyson. “It’s been pure hell. It’s been worse than anything I could’ve possibly imagined.”
“He gets out of control – throwing, screaming… he shakes, he pushes, he swings,” she added.
“There’s a time when he cannot control his temper, and that’s frightening to me and to my mother, and anyone around. It’s scary,” she said. “Just recently I’ve become very, very much afraid.”
To this day, Tyson has not fully denied these physical abuse claims. “That was the best punch I’ve ever thrown in my entire life,” Tyson once wrote about a time he hit Givens for “offending” him.
However, speaking to Oprah in 2009, Tyson claimed the violence in their relationship went both ways. “I have socked her before, and she socked me before, as well,” he said. “It was just that kind of relationship.”
“Brad’s got some swag”
Givens filed for divorce a month after that notorious interview. Her image in the media quickly soured, and she became a popular target for late-night comics, who characterised her as a ruthless gold digger. Amid Tyson’s claims of trickery and manipulation, Givens filed a $125 million defamation lawsuit against him.
While the couple were finalising their divorce, Tyson once encountered Givens and Brad Pitt – a previous flame of Given’s – pulling up into the driveway together after a movie screening.
According to the boxer, the legendary Hollywood actor was terrified and begged Tyson not to hit him, and so Tyson did not – although Givens has denied this conversation took place and denies having an affair during her marriage, saying: “Does that sound like Brad? Brad’s got some swag.”
Tyson and Givens had no pre-nuptial agreement, and Tyson claims that Givens received a $10 million settlement from him after their divorce, which took place on Valentine’s Day 1989. Givens, on the other hand, says she didn’t receive a penny.
Three years later, Tyson was convicted of raping an 18-year-old woman in a hotel room. He was sentenced to six years in prison, ultimately serving less than three. Immediately afterwards, he rebuilt his boxing career with huge success. Meanwhile, Givens found roles in Sparks and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and posed for Playboy magazine.
“I’d like to believe I’m a better person for it”
The explosive Tyson-Givens divorce rankles to this day. Tensions resurfaced in 2020 with the production of a proposed Mike Tyson biopic; set to star Jamie Foxx as Tyson, this planned TV series caused concern for Givens’ lawyers.
Promptly, Givens’ lawyers penned a “cease and desist” demand to Tyson, requesting that he does not engage with Givens while the biopic is researched and produced.
“[We] demand that Mr Tyson cease and desist from further defaming Ms Givens, and to put those producing, writing and/or directing the proposed Tyson biopic, and those producing Mr Tyson’s podcast, on notice that they are to refrain from portraying Ms Givens in a false, negative and defamatory light,” her legal team wrote.
“While [she] has attempted to move on, she still finds herself fighting the abusive, demeaning and false accounts of their relationship by Mr Tyson nearly 35 years later,” the letter noted.
Speaking to Wendy Williams in 2018, Givens said her life transformed for the better when she left Tyson. “I would like to believe I’m a better person for it, more compassionate and more loving. I hope.”
The actress, who today stars in Riverdale, Ambition and Batwoman, spent time as a spokeswoman for the National Domestic Violence Hotline after her divorce.
“Somebody told me you were ground zero of #MeToo and I pray that anything I’ve gone through, however difficult it was for me, helps someone else,” she said.