By Jason Keidel
It’s a shame he waited until he left the stage to become so damn interesting.
Despite his barbaric impulses, Mike Tyson never was a caveman. He knew more about boxing than almost anyone east of Max Kellerman.
He spent so much time trying to become boxing’s ancient, jailhouse archetype, nurturing his inner thug at the expense of his other, obvious charms, that he never became the hero that he should be today. Forgive the cliche, but Mike Tyson is not a book to be judged solely by the cover.
Not that Tyson needs sympathy. No one made him hemorrhage his millions on tigers and sports cars and sycophants. No one forced him to munch on Holyfield’s ear. No one made him marry Robin Givens – perhaps the most perilous move of all, in and out of the ring.
Few celebrities were more aptly branded than Kid Dynamite – a moniker and metaphor of epic contours. Indeed, fewer stars have imploded with Tyson’s frequency or ferocity. But as evidenced by his recent run of good luck – including a hit one-man Broadway show and multiple appearances on the silver screen – it seems Mike Tyson is as close to peace as he has ever been and, perhaps, will ever be.
Born to wretched poverty, his mom on drugs and his dad a pimp, with dozens of arrests before puberty, Tyson was destined to become a silent statistic, one of countless kids who fell through the cracks of the ghetto. Brownsville in 1979 makes today’s Brooklyn look like Beverly Hills.
But with some luck and the unbending loyalty of Cus D’Amato, Tyson became the most feared man on the planet.
So when boxing was a most important sport, Mike Tyson was its most important boxer. And a boxer he was, at first, under Kevin Rooney. Tyson was a master of his craft, armed with every punch in the catalogue, with lightning-fast hands and thunderous power. His story is amply archived, the meteoric rise and epic fall from the highest orbit in sports – the heavyweight champion, back when it mattered.
Now Iron Mike has won the irony prize of the decade. Tyson has been chosen to present Evander Holyfield for his induction into Nevada’s Boxing Hall of Fame on August 9, in, of course, Las Vegas, the scene of many crimes, factual and fictional. And Tyson would like to think he’s left many of his in the cold, dark dessert. Indeed, few icons have reached the top, bottom, and returned to some median the way Tyson has.
It’s perfectly dysfunctional, beautiful, and boxing. Only professional pugilism could stir up such an incongruous cocktail, with archenemies softening like their bellies over time, turning a blood feud into a family feud, a charming bromance that makes us smile with nostalgia, perhaps the last remnants of a sport on life support.
Between corruption, a dearth of decent talent, and the reality that a gifted athlete can play other sports for the same money and half the head trauma, the sweet science relies on relics to keep its relevance.
Buried in the back alleys of the sports section, nestled between horse racing and high school wrestling, the former sport of kings has very little royalty anymore. After Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, the casual boxing observer probably can’t name four fighters, in any weight class.
The adage is that boxing is as strong as the heavyweight division. By that metric, it’s barely got a pulse. We know the Russian brothers Vitaly and Vladimir, and Vodka. (Just kidding.) Their last name is a constellation of consonants, like all the Ivan Drago clones dominating the division with endless names, thick accents, and all the moxie of a mortician. Or are they Ukranian? Sadly that distinction is defining these days, if not deadly.
And leave it to Tyson to head the marquee of an event devoted to Holyfiend. After their first fight – during which Holyfield pummeled Tyson for ten rounds before the fight was stopped in the 11th – the Tyson apologists swarmed around his carcass, assuring us he took Holyfield too lightly, and would surely square things in the rematch. The humble Holyfield just spoke in religious bromides, framing their bout as a holy war and a referendum on their respective gods, which are as different as the two men who bowed before them.
And as only boxing and Tyson can do, the rematch was more surreal than the original, with Tyson famously chomping the champ’s ear – twice – before Mills Lane sanely stopped the bout, disqualifying an enraged Tyson. Looking back, you could say that was the peak and the end of Mike Tyson the fighter, the man, and the myth. At that point all three were so intertwined Tyson himself probably didn’t know which mask he was wearing at a given moment.
He had reached the most toxic time in his life, always at odds with some internal monologue. He was at the peak of his physical and financial powers, which was probably the most dangerous confluence possible for a man with Tyson’s tortured ego. And he acted accordingly, flushing it all down the symbolic latrine. Tyson mutated from champ to chump, the classic bully exposed by the first guy who hit back; a caricature, the transparent tough guy who relied on his reputation more than his actual arsenal. While Buster Douglas dented Tyson’s facade, Holyfield vaporized it. And without the mirage of invincibility he’d crafted all those years, he was useless in the ring.
No one could say what’s in Tyson’s head. And who would want to? To dwell in that cauldron would render any of us inert, what with his conflicting and destructive impulses, herculean appetites, and enough anger to fuel an F-16. Perhaps it’s a cliche to say his urban freefall was the very thing that made him great and grotesque. But it fits.
Holyfield was the perfect foil for Tyson, as he was everything Mike was not – quiet, respectful, and religious. Yes, he spawned a village of children from a phalanx of women who weren’t his wife, belying his christian mores. But Holyfield approached his craft, his fights, and other fighters with the hard-hat ethic of his predecessors and the old-world ethos that summoned boxing’s most robust epoch, back when young men literally fought to eat, and old men wore suits and fedoras and you heard the hard, clicking percussion of ringside typewriters, and the layer of cigar smoke formed a crown over the ring.
Only the chatter matters now – stories, some true, some churned through the meat grinder of time, passed like a baton down the generations. When I was ten my pops took me to see Roberto Duran fight Carlos Palomino in the old Felt Forum. Love at first sight and scent. Oddly enough, Duran is being inducted during the same ceremony. As is Sonny Liston. Come to think of it, the inductees are a conga line of luminaries. For better or worse, Tyson belongs. And he belongs with Holyfield, for the symbolism, the rivalry, and the newfound respect they have for each other.
For his part, Mike Tyson is suddenly svelte, with none of the retired fighter’s enmity for fitness. The man most renowned for his cannibalism on canvas, is now a vegan. He’s also clean, sober, and sane. At least as much as Mike can be, with those wild tattoos swathed across his face, his childish spasms of laughter and profanity. Since he never had the chance at a childhood, it’s like he’s suddenly become the teen he was never allowed to be. It’s charming and fitting. Indeed, the man who turned convention and physics on its ear, defying odds and defining oddities, deserves to live his life in retrograde.
Even if he’s just the opening act, Mike Tyson always had a way of closing a show.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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