My Mike Tyson: Part Two
The Afterlife of a Champion; Boxing as Myth, Theater
Edited and arranged by Robert Friedman
This essay is an expansion of a review of “Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography,” by Mike Tyson, which appeared in New York Review of Books (December 19, 2013).
The afterlife of a champion boxer recalls Karl Marx’s remark about history repeating itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Though Mike Tyson’s first manager, Jimmy Jacobs, had determined that it wouldn’t be his boxer’s fate to wind up exploited, bankrupt, and publicly humiliated, like so many of his predecessors, not long after Jacob’s untimely death in 1988, after a series of misguided decisions by Tyson, exactly this fate befell Tyson, with the distinction that Tyson seems to have enthusiastically embraced the farcical aspects of his “afterlife.”
In his late teens in the 1980s a fervently dedicated old-style boxer under the tutelage of the legendary trainer Cus D’Amato, more temperamentally akin to the boxers of the 1950s than to his slicker contemporaries, Mike Tyson has come to look upon himself, or to present a public image of himself, in the 21st century, with the absurdist humor of a Thersites for whom loathing of self and of his audience has become a performance—indeed, Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography began as a riotously funny, if embittered act at Las Vegas. What has his professional life been, Tyson suggests, but that of the black gladiator performing before predominantly white audiences, crazed and dangerous, screaming in self-parody at press conferences:
“I’m a convicted rapist! I’m an animal! I’m the stupidest person in boxing! I gotta get outta here or I’m gonna kill somebody! I’m on this Zoloft thing, right? But I’m on that to keep from killing y’all…”
“I don’t want to be taking Zoloft, but they are concerned about the fact that I’m a violent person, almost an animal. And they only want me to be an animal in the ring.”
The aesthetics of boxing is crucially bound up with time. Where once prize fights were marathons that might involve as many as one hundred rounds of three minutes each—(the record is one hundred ten rounds in 1893, over seven hours; in 1915, in the blazing sun of Cuba, the black champion Jack Johnson fought his “White Hope” challenger Jess Willard for twenty-six rounds before Johnson collapsed)—the tempo of the ring was naturally much slower than it is today; with so much time ahead, boxers had to calculate how to use their strength, and sheer physical endurance was a high priority.
The marathon fight provided time for reflection for the rapt audience, as the balance of power might shift from one boxer to the other, in the way of a protracted play; when an abrupt knockout isn’t so very likely, qualities other than swarming, in-fighting aggression are valued. (Virtually unique in 20th century boxing is the legendary match between then-undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman and former champion Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974, in which Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy was simply to endure against his younger, more powerful opponent, who “punched himself out” on the older boxer’s body after seven brutal rounds.)
Fights scheduled to be marathons that ended quickly might be interpreted as mismatches, thus frauds; one of the most disappointing title fights in boxing history lasted only ninety-six seconds, in 1896, when boxing was outlawed in the United States and the heavyweight title fight was held on a sandbar in the Rio Grande River, four hundred miles from El Paso. And the most notorious heavyweight fight of the 20th century, Dempsey-Firpo, 1923, is also one of the shortest, ending with a victory for Dempsey in the second round after a succession of spectacular knockdowns of both fighters and Dempsey’s fall through the ring ropes onto a sports writer’s typewriter; it is clear to us today that Dempsey lost the fight, the beneficiary of the referee’s “long count” (an extra four seconds) that allowed Dempsey to recover after he’d been pushed back into the ring by reporters.
A classic long fight divides into acts, or scenes, as in a play; it is virtually impossible to envision the entire fight but only to “see” it as a sequence of dramatic scenes, or possibly only its final scene, or round. Or the final seconds of the final round. The greatest of long 20th century fights—(a category that would include the Ali-Frazier trilogy of 1971, 1974, and 1975 as well as Leonard-Hearns, 1981 and 1989)—unfold as oscillating actions: now one boxer has dominance, and now the other; the outcome is unpredictable, and, if the fight goes the distance, can be disputable (as in the case of Leonard-Hearns II). By contrast, a fight in which one boxer is knocked out quickly is a very different aesthetic experience. There is no time for reflection or contemplation on the part of the audience, as there is no time for the boxers to “box” in a traditional manner; in such historic short fights as Hagler-Hearns, 1983, which ends after eight astonishing minutes in a knockout victory for Hagler, there is non-stop, escalating action as the aggressor moves inexorably forward with the finesse of an ax chopping at his opponent. (Of great short fights, Hagler-Hearns is likely to be the most memorized by boxing fans.) The fight that ends with a knockout is preferable to the fight that ends in a decision since decisions involve judges’ opinions, and opinions can be mistaken, as referees’ rulings can be mistaken, though usually indisputable. When a boxer is counted “out” it isn’t that he has been “knocked out”—that is, knocked unconscious—but rather that he has been counted “out of time”—he has failed to recover sufficiently to continue the fight within a space of ten seconds. Since the lethal boxing matches of the 1980s—(Mancini-Kim, 1982; McGuigan-“Young Ali,” 1983)—referees stop fights far more readily than they once did; Hagler-Hearns was stopped in the third round, when the referee determined that Hearns was too badly beaten to continue.)
Already as a young, ascendant boxer in his mid-teens Mike Tyson was drawing attention for the rapid-fire, non-stop aggression of his ring style even in amateur boxing matches in which points are scored by hits, as in fencing, without respect to the power of punches. He’d been trained by Cus D’Amato (a revered if controversial and contentious trainer whose previous world champions were Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres) to fight like a professional—“The whole amateur boxing establishment hated me… And if they didn’t like me, they despised Cus.” Typically, Tyson terrified his opponents by his very size and manner.
At the Olympics trials in 1983 the Tyson legend was beginning: “On the first day, I achieved a forty-two-second K.O. On the second day I punched out the front teeth of my opponent and left him out cold for ten minutes. Then on the third day, the reigning tournament champ withdrew from the fight… The next day we went to Colorado Springs for the U.S. National Championship. When I got there, four of the six other fighters dropped out of the competition. Both of my victories were first-round KOs.” To see Tyson’s early fights, both amateur and professional, is to see young boxers stalked, cornered, and swiftly beaten into submission by a younger boxer who pursues them across the ring with the savagery and determination of Jack Dempsey, whose nonstop, combative, and punitive ring style Tyson imitated under D’Amato’s guidance; to see these fights in quick succession, the shared incredulity of the boxers who have found themselves in the ring with the relatively short, short-armed Tyson, their disbelief and astonishment at the sheer force of their opponent as he swarms upon them, is to witness a kind of Theater of the Absurd, which is perhaps the most helpful key to understanding boxing.
“I began to fantasize that if I actually killed someone inside the ring, it would certainly intimidate everyone.”—Mike Tyson
By the time he turned professional in 1985, Tyson was modeling himself more conspicuously after Dempsey by adopting the iconic boxer’s black trunks and black ring shoes worn without socks; he would enter the arena without a robe, unsmiling, truculent and deadly-looking, to the terror of his opponents. Here was Iron Mike, D’Amato’s “antisocial” creation —“I began to fantasize that if I actually killed someone inside the ring, it would certainly intimidate everyone.” At nineteen, Tyson cultivated a media image as an avatar of the murderous Dempsey in an interview following his demolition of Jesse Ferguson: “I wanted to hit him on the nose one more time, so that the bone of his nose would go up into his brain…” With twelve first-round knockouts in his early career, some within seconds, no boxer has ever ascended more rapidly and more spectacularly through the heavyweight ranks than Tyson; with the genius for publicity of his managers Jimmy Jacobs and Bill Cayton, longtime associates of Cus D’Amato, and investors in Iron Mike’s future, no boxer has ever been more heralded and more excitingly anticipated as a title contender. Unfortunately, D’Amato was to die in November 1985, aged seventy-seven.
Grieving for D’Amato, but determined to fulfill the trainer’s prophecy that he would become the youngest heavyweight title-holder in history—(the record-holder was Floyd Patterson, D’Amato’s previous champion, twenty-two at the time of his first title)—Tyson executed one of his stylish, rapid-fire dramatic victories against thirty-three-year-old title-holder Trevor Berbick on the night of November 22, 1986, at the age of twenty, before a wildly cheering crowd in Las Vegas. Stopped by the referee after two minutes and thirty-five seconds into the second round, moving swiftly to its conclusion like a malevolent ballet, the Tyson-Berbick fight is one not likely to be forgotten by anyone who has seen it, as its predominant image is an older man hammered into submission by a younger man, falling hard, managing to get to his feet and then falling hard again, helpless onto the canvas. It’s the new young generation defeating, devastating, humiliating the old, as in a graphic expression of Darwinian evolutionary theory; the bedrock of evolution being, not a peaceable passing-on of genes, but in fact “mutants”—it is only through “mutations” that evolution is possible. The great boxer of an era revolutionizes the sport, as Jack Johnson did in the early years of the 20th century, and as Muhammad Ali did at midcentury. For a while, in retrospect an abbreviated interlude, it looked as if the reign of Iron Mike might also “revolutionize” heavyweight boxing.
Reaction to the triumph of 20-year-old Mike Tyson on the night of his victory against Trevor Berbick was immediate, widespread, ecstatic.
Even Berbick’s trainer Angelo Dundee had to concede that “this kid” created the pressure of the fight to which his boxer could not react: “He throws combinations I never saw before. When have you seen a guy throw a right hand to the kidney, come up the middle with an uppercut, then throw a left hook. He throws punches…like a trigger.”
Though Tyson had entered sports history that night, exactly as Cus D’Amato had planned for him, he would one day declare:
“…the scariest day of my life was when I won the championship belt and Cus wasn’t there. I had all this money and I didn’t have a clue how to comport myself. And then the vultures and the leeches came out.”
The strongest and most moving memories in Tyson’s colorful autobiography are those of his childhood. Made familiar to many readers through countless retellings since his ascendency to fame in 1986, burnished with retrospective insight of a kind the young Tyson couldn’t have had as a boy, his recollections of his childhood in Brooklyn with his biological family and his boyhood in Catskill, New York with his “white” family—(Cus D’Amato and D’Amato’s longtime companion Camille Ewald, with whom he lived intermittently until D’Amato’s death in 1985)—are touched with nostalgia and a bittersweet sort of regret reminiscent of black and white bio-boxer pic films like Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) or the more somber Raging Bull (1980).
It isn’t so surprising to learn that Tyson’s sporadic career as a criminal began when he was less than ten years old—“I was running with a Rutland Road crew called The Cats… We didn’t normally deal with guns, but…we stole a bunch of shit: some pistols, a .375 Magnum, and a long M1 rifle with a bayonet attached from World War I. You never knew what you’d find when you broke into people’s houses” —as it is to learn, from Tyson, that Tyson’s criminal and drug activities evidently continued through his teens, when he was living upstate and being trained by D’Amato. (How much D’Amato knew of his young protégé’s ghetto life apart from Catskill isn’t clear. But the dubious pattern is established early on that Mike Tyson is “special” and when he gets into fights at his Catskill school, Cus D’Amato persuades school authorities that “allowances had to be made for him,” as D’Amato is loath to chastise Tyson for his coercive behavior with girls.)
Born in Fort Greene, Brooklyn in 1966, Tyson would one day claim that he didn’t know much about his family background. His mother, a prison matron at the Women’s House of Detention in Manhattan at the time of his birth, had been born in Virginia; for unclear reasons, possibly related to alcoholism and drugs, Lorna Mae Tyson soon lost her prison job, was evicted from her apartment, and moved to Brownsville, a rougher neighborhood: “Each time we moved, the conditions got worse—from being poor to being serious poor to being fucked-up poor.” Tyson’s mother’s friends were now mainly prostitutes and her lovers inclined to violence—though Tyson recounts how his mother once poured boiling water over one of her male friends: “This is the kind of life I grew up in. People in love cracking their heads and bleeding like dogs. They love each other but they’re stabbing each other. Holy shit, I was scared to death of my family…” Tyson had been told that his biological father, who played no role in his life, was a pimp—but also a deacon in a church.
Difficult to believe that Mike Tyson, who would weigh two hundred pounds by the age of thirteen, was once “a pudgy kid, very shy, almost effeminate shy, and I spoke with a lisp. The kids used to call me ‘Little Fairy Boy.’” At the age of seven he is introduced to petty theft by an older boy, taught to pick locks and rob houses; his first arrest for credit card theft is at the age of ten; at eleven he begins street fighting. More frequently than he is beaten on the street, he is beaten by his mother: “That was some traumatizing shit.” That Tyson’s recitation of his impoverished childhood has become somewhat rote doesn’t lessen its poignancy: “I was a little kid looking for love and acceptance and the streets were where I found it…”
Continuously in trouble with the police, Tyson is remanded to Spofford Juvenile Detention Center and treated with the psychotropic Thorazine, the first of countless psychotropic medications to which he would be prescribed through the decades. By his account Tyson would appear to have been emotionally disturbed, prone to violence and impulsive behavior but he feels at home in Spofford where many of his friends are also incarcerated. One day, Muhammad Ali comes to speak to the boys and makes a powerful impression on Tyson: “Right then I decided I wanted to be great.”
Incorrigible at age thirteen, Tyson is finally sent upstate to the Tryon School for Boys near Catskill where in a boxing program for incarcerated boys he is introduced to Cus D’Amato. As in a benevolent fairy tale, this is the encounter that changes the lives of both the juvenile delinquent and the elderly boxing trainer who has despaired of ever finding again another prodigy like Floyd Patterson. As Tyson says, “I was this Thorazined-out nigga who was diagnosed as retarded and this old white guy gets ahold of me and gives me an ego.” It’s boxing lore that after D’Amato’s first encounter with Tyson in his Catskill gym in March 1980 he called his friend and associate Jimmy Jacobs in Manhattan to tell him: “I’ve just seen the next heavyweight champion of the world.”
In this way begins the metamorphosis of a clumsy, overweight adolescent who “always thought I was shit” into one of the most disciplined and accomplished athletes of the 20th century. Much has been written of D’Amato’s impassioned devotion to training young boxers and particularly of his training of Mike Tyson for virtually five years nonstop in his Catskill gym, a training that is as much, or more, psychological as it is physical. D’Amato teaches Tyson that boxing is a great tradition, that the boxer is a warrior: “My job is to peel off layers and layers of damages that are inhibiting your true ability to grow and fulfill your potential.” D’Amato is the Zen master whose teachings are to be internalized: “There is no difference between a hero and a coward in what they feel. It’s what they do that makes them different.” (46) Tyson becomes the apprentice willing to exhaust himself in the effort to obey his master:
“Cus wanted the meanest fighter that God ever created, someone who scared the life out of people before they even entered the ring. He trained me to be totally ferocious, in the ring and out.”
And: “We fought to hurt people; we didn’t fight just to win.” (In the assimilation of the individual into the quasi-mystic discipline of training, there is no “I”—there is only “we.”)
Time not spent at the gym is spent talking avidly about boxing and watching fight films and tapes:
“When I started studying the lives of the great old boxers, I saw a lot of similarity to what Cus was preaching. They were all mean motherfuckers. Dempsey, Mickey Walker, even Joe Louis was mean, even though Louis was an introvert. I trained myself to be wicked… Deep down, I knew I had to be like that because if I failed, Cus would get rid of me and I would starve to death.”
Tyson’s portrait of the eccentric, controversial, slightly paranoid and easily infuriated D’Amato is intimate and affectionate without being sentimental; Tyson perceives that D’Amato is exacting revenge for real or imagined slights against himself by way of his ferocious young boxer, but never judges him harshly.
“I was madly in love with Cus. He was the first white guy who not only didn’t judge me but who wanted to beat the shit out of someone if they said anything disrespectful about me… If he told me to kill someone, I would have killed them… I was happy to be Cus’s soldier; it gave me a purpose in life.”
More coolly, Tyson observes of himself and D’Amato: “You give a weak man some strength and he becomes addicted.” (But this is retrospective: Tyson wasn’t a man when D’Amato plucked him out of obscurity, and this description of their relationship is harshly reductive. And he’d acquired an extended “white family” through D’Amato, his manager Jimmy Jacobs and Jacobs’s wife Lorraine, to whom the young Tyson was something of a son for years, a mutually nourishing relationship ended abruptly and, for Tyson, terribly, Jacobs’s sudden death from leukemia in 1988 at the age of only 58.
Though the death of Cus D’Amato (in 1985, aged 77) would be devastating to Tyson, the young boxer continued his succession of winning bouts for several years afterward with such opponents as James “Bonecrusher” Smith (1987)—so terrified of Tyson, Smith grabbed the young champion and clinched for dear life to lose each of twelve rounds in arguably the only boring fight of Tyson’s career (which, ironically, I’d “covered” for the Village Voice); Pinklon Thomas (1987)—knocked out in six rounds; Tony Tucker (1987); Tyrell Biggs (1987)—whom Tyson could have knocked out in the first round of their title fight at Atlantic City but chose to knock out slowly “so that he would remember it for a long time. I wanted to hurt him real bad” (another fight which I’d “covered”—I am not sure for which publication); Larry Holmes (1988)—a former world champion who’d once defeated an aging Muhammad Ali, and who had never before been knocked out in seventy-five professional fights; Tony Tubbs (1988)—in two rounds; Michael Spinks (1988)—in ninety-one seconds, the defeat of the former light-heavyweight champion who had never before been knocked down; Frank Bruno (1989)—in five rounds; Carl Williams (1989)—in one round. In retrospect, Tyson-Spinks would be considered the most spectacular fight of Tyson’s career, along with Tyson-Berbick. (“Tyson is so destructive,” TV commentator / former middleweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard said in awe, “he ought to be locked up.”) It is possible that Tyson’s dazzling career would have begun to self-destruct shortly, given the admission in his memoir as early as 1987 (“The truth is… I was sick of fighting in the ring. The stress of being the world’s champ and having to prove myself over and over just got to me. I had been doing that shit since I was thirteen”) and his self-destructive behavior between fights, but with the unexpected death in 1988 of Tyson’s manager Jimmy Jacobs, who had been Cus D’Amato’s longtime friend and associate, and a part of his “white family,” Tyson was devastated anew, and left with no close advisors whom he could trust. “With Jim gone the vultures were circling for the fresh meat: me.” We can see the deterioration in Tyson’s boxing skills, shockingly displayed for the first time in public in the Frank Bruno fight of Feb. 1989, which Tyson managed to win despite his poor showing; though few could have guessed it at the time, Tyson’s career had begun to implode.
By this time Tyson had married TV actress Robin Givens, having been informed that Givens was pregnant with his child; in one of the two worst mistakes of his young life, Tyson gave his new wife, to whom he would remain married a scant year, his power of attorney. (Shortly after their marriage Givens reputedly had a “miscarriage.”) Tyson’s other disastrous mistake was to sign contracts with the controversial boxing promoter Don King, a former convicted felon who’d served time in an Ohio prison for manslaughter (“’I got three bodies, two on record,’ Don bragged”) and whose exploitive treatment of Muhammad Ali, among other fighters, should have alerted Tyson that this might be an unwise decision.
For boxing purists, Tyson’s ignominious loss of the heavyweight title in 1990 to the 42-1 underdog James “Buster” Douglas marks the end of the Tyson era—that is, the end of iconic Iron Mike whom Cus D’Amato had carefully crafted as a fighter with extraordinary defensive skills as well as an extraordinary offense. No one who has seen this fight, one of the great upsets in boxing history, and truly traumatic for anyone who’d seriously believed that Mike Tyson might have been on his way to being the “greatest” heavyweight in boxing history, is likely to forget the sight of Tyson knocked to the canvas by Douglas in the tenth round, groping desperately for his mouthpiece to fit back into his mouth—a futile gesture. But for the lackluster performance of the titleholder, there would be something Shakespearean in such a fall. Tyson would say negligently of this fight that he hadn’t taken it seriously, had scarcely trained and was thirty pounds overweight, had been “partying” virtually nonstop (in Tokyo, where the fight took place)—but the fact would seem to be simply that the reign of Iron Mike Tyson was over. The posthumous glory of Cus D’Amato was over. It was still the Post-Ali era, after all.
However Tyson would continue as a boxer with an erratic public career and a yet more erratic private life as a celebrity exploited by others as by himself, it would be a champion’s afterlife he would inhabit, deconstructing his achievement and reimagining himself as a character in an absurdist narrative. He would be a prison inmate for six years—the first time for rape, the second time for assault; he would be divorced from Robin Givens, and remarry; again divorced, and remarried; he would father children, and he would lose a four-year-old to a grotesque accident involving a treadmill, in his Las Vegas home; he would continue to drink, and to take drugs, and indeed his memoir Undisputed Truth is a melancholy chronicle of narcotics and the sordid-sad consequences of a life no longer disciplined, no longer purposeful but rudderless and wayward.
“I was a slave addicted to the chaos of celebrity.”
On the occasion of acquiring the Maori tribal tattoo that now covers nearly half his face: “I hated my face and I literally wanted to deface myself.”
The most widely publicized scandal in the afterlife of Tyson’s career is the ear-biting fracas of Holyfield-Tyson 1997. Provoked by his opponent’s head-butting which opened gashes in his forehead (and which referee Mills Lane unaccountably ruled “an accident” ), Tyson lost control and bit one of Holyfield’s ears—and then, as the fight was resumed, when Holyfield butted Tyson’s forehead again, Tyson bit Holyfield’s other ear. “I just wanted to kill him. Anybody could see that the head butts were so overt. I was furious, I was an undisciplined soldier and I lost my composure.” The referee stopped the fight, with Holyfield declared the winner. Though Tyson’s behavior was roundly condemned as poor sportsmanship, an examination of the video does show clearly that the referee behaved with unwarranted leniency toward Holyfield, and prejudice against Tyson. (Ironically, in a Golden Gloves tournament, Holyfield himself had once bitten an opponent.)
Following this public debacle Tyson has largely presented himself as repentant, as in the somber concluding passages of Undisputed Truth. Dutifully he notes that he attends AA meetings. He concludes his memoir in a reflective mood contemplating his Muslim faith and the “old-time fighters” like Harry Greb, Mickey Walker, Benny Leonard, John L. Sullivan. His mood is nostalgic, remorseful—“Now I’m totally compassionate...I’ve really come to a place of forgiveness.” But, “Sometimes I just fantasize about blowing somebody’s brains out so I can go to prison for the rest of my life.”
The afterlife of the boxing champion reminds us that boxing is about failure as much as it is about success: the failure that success keeps at bay. We recall the ancient Greek inscription—“A boxer’s victory is gained in blood.”
Special thanks to Ron Levao.