A Look Back At "Iron" Mike Tyson
I've had Mike Tyson on my mind a lot lately. If you know anything about the history of boxing, you'll know that it's been 20 years since James "Buster" Douglas stunningly knocked out the undefeated world champ.
ESPN commemorated this by producing a very good documentary that aired a couple of weeks ago.
I also just recently watched James Toback's gripping documentary (simply titled Tyson). And to top it off, I read a bunch of old Sports Illustrated stories about the guy.
Like a war veteran, the last couple of weeks have opened up some old wounds.
I was born in 1976, so I was 10 when "Iron" Mike made history, becoming the youngest champion ever. From that moment on, I was one Tyson's biggest fans. In fact, he was the first professional athlete that I became a die-hard fan of.
But here's the problem with being a die-hard fan of somebody. You can become so smitten with that person that you lose your ability to think rationally.
Instead of criticize, you romanticize. And if someone makes a disparaging remark, your fandom kicks in to such an absurd level that you take it personally.
That was me with Mike Tyson. But as I look back, I think its time for some revisionist history.
These are the things that I have (painfully) come to accept.
1. Not only is Mike Tyson NOT one of the greatest fighters of all time, he's barely in the discussion.
2. He was already washed up by the time Douglas knocked him out in Tokyo.
3. He was always more hype than substance.
When I was younger, I argued bitterly that Mike Tyson was one of the 10 greatest fighters of all time. But was he really?
If you want to say that Muhammad Ali is the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time, you have a compelling argument. Look at who he beat (Sonny Liston, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Joe Frazier).
If you want to say that Sugar Ray Leonard was pound-for-pound the greatest boxer, again, you have a compelling argument. Look at who he beat (Roberto Duran, Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns, "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler)
Mike Tyson was at his apex in the late 80s. But the reality is that he beat a bunch of stiffs (Trevor Berbick, James "Bonecrusher" Smith, Pinklon Thomas, Tony Tucker, Tyrell Biggs, a washed-up Larry Holmes, Tony Tubbs, Frank Bruno, Carl "The Truth" Williams).
Not exactly a murderer's row.
There was one fight in Tyson's career in which he was truly magical, his 91-second destruction of Michael Spinks. Tyson was already seething before the fight because factions within his camp were at odds with each other.
When his legendary trainer Cus D'Amato died in 1985, he left Tyson in the care of his close friend Jimmy Jacobs. It was a smooth transition. But when Jacobs died three years later (when Mike was atop the boxing world), all hell broke loose.
In one corner was Bill Cayton, the man who was Jacobs' partner and who had a signed contract with Tyson that ended in 1992. In the other corner was Tyson's wife Robin Givens, who behind the scenes was Lady Macbeth, the boxing equivalent of Sherry Palmer from the hit TV show 24.
There were three things I remember about Robin Givens: She starred on that cheesy TV sitcom Head of the Class, she looked like a black Barbie doll, and everybody I knew HATED her!
As a black kid growing up in North Carolina (who religiously read Jet Magazine, and who listened to the radio for hours at a time), I can assure you that Black America could not stand her! We all thought she was nothing more than a gold digger.
Perhaps it was not a coincidence that Eddie Murphy would cast her, four years later, as the villainess in Boomerang.
And to further complicate matters, Tyson was being wooed publicly by the lying, loathsome, and loquacious Don King, a man whose personality was as outrageous as his hair.
So with multiple people fighting for the richest athlete in America (and the third richest TV entertainer behind Bill Cosby and Johnny Carson), Tyson, stuck in the center of a maelstrom, turned his anger toward Michael Spinks, a highly decorated light heavyweight champion who moved to the heavyweight division and knocked out Larry Holmes.
Watching that fight now, you see a man (Tyson) who is all controlled rage. Have you ever been so angry and frustrated at home that you go to work and deliver the finest performance of your life?
Then your boss hits you with the old, "WOW! I am impressed. How in the world did you do it?"
Well that was Mike Tyson on the night of June 27, 1988, and nobody on the planet was going to beat him.
But just 20 months later, he was done. James "Buster" Douglas, a journeyman, beat him in Tokyo to become one of most unlikely heavyweight champions in history.
To this day, it is still the biggest upset I have personally ever seen (although Shakespeare In Love winning Best Oscar over Saving Private Ryan is a close second).
The Mirage Casino in Vegas had Douglas as a 42-1 underdog!
I was 14 at the time and I remember walking around in a state of shock. Mike Tyson was my Superman. He wasn't supposed to lose, especially to some dude named James "Buster" Douglas.
If you're reading this and you're too young to remember, I can assure you that Tyson, searching for his mouthpiece after Douglas knocked him down in the 10th, and grotesquely shoving it in his mouth, while the ref counted him out, is one of the most indelible images of the 90s.
It was an incredible upset at the time but looking back, we should have seen this coming. Tyson (at the tender age of 24) had already begun to slip.
He had begun to look bored and uninterested and it was obvious that he cared more about partying than training.
In 1991, Richard Hoffer of Sports Illustrated wrote a devastating column that, when looking back now, eerily foreshadowed Tyson's fall from grace.
As fate would have it, a month after that article was released, Tyson went to the Black America Pageant in Indianapolis, met a young woman named Desiree Washington, and found himself accused of rape.
The ensuing trial became a media circus. Everybody had an opinion on it.
It is true that Ms. Washington had a sketchy past (she had previously lied about being the victim of a rape back when she was in high school), but it is also true that Tyson's defense team delivered an F-minus performance that made it easy to convict him.
His lawyer looked totally unprepared and should have been disbarred after he incredulously put Tyson on the stand.
I was a Tyson disciple so, naturally, I was devastated. We all reach that moment in our formative years when we realize that our heroes are flawed, some tragically so. This was the second moment for me.
The first occurred just three months prior when Earvin "Magic" Johnson stepped to the podium at the Great Western Forum and announced to that the world that he was HIV-positive.
The fandom died for me the day Mike Tyson was found guilty. All the excuses I had made for his abhorrent behavior faded into oblivion (or as Tyson would say: "it faded into Bolivia"). The time had come for me to mature as a sports fan.
When Tyson was sent to prison, he was, unquestionably, the biggest athlete in the world. In all of my life I have only seen two athletes reach the absurd pinnacle of fame that Mike Tyson enjoyed from 1986-91.
Michael Jordan (who took over immediately after Mike went to the slammer) and Tiger Woods (whose fame has skyrocketed in the last three months due to his extracurricular activities).
Prison changed Mike Tyson. He came out of the joint with new tattoos and he embraced the Nation of Islam.
In the ring, the fury was gone. He joylessly pounded a few stiffs (Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., once-again Frank Bruno, and somebody named Bruce Selden).
He recaptured the world title, but his fights were a bore. The reason his fights continued to make Showtime, Don King, and Tyson so much money was because of his reputation.
Watching Tyson after his comeback was, for me, like watching the comeback of another one of my fallen childhood idols, Eddie Murphy.
Eddie was the biggest box office star of the 80s. 48 Hours, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, and Coming to America weren't just funny movies, they were great movies.
But by 1989, vanity and laziness took over and the next thing I knew, Murphy was directing the misfire Harlem Nights, showed up fat and disinterested in Another 48 Hours, made the unforgivable Vampire In Brooklyn, followed by the equally forgettable The Distinguished Gentleman, and finally, out of sheer desperation, he made another Beverly Hills Cop movie.
There was one thing that drove Murphy and that was money (He basically admits to it. In fact my favorite quote is when he said, "Yeah, I know Beverly Hills Cop III was a piece of crap, but they were paying me $14 million! That's worth having Siskel and Ebert's thumb stuck up my ass!")
And you know what? People were STILL going to see his movies hoping that he would reach down and pull out a performance that reminded them why they loved the guy anyway.
That's exactly how it was with Tyson after his prison stint. Just a guy going through the motions, solemnly awaiting his next paycheck, with fans paying top dollar hoping to see him reclaim his past greatness.
Even the Evander Holyfield fight wasn't supposed to be a great test. Holyfield was past his prime and we all expected another boring and unwatchable fight.
But Holyfield was always a proud man, and he knew that defeating Tyson would be the biggest moment of his career.
On that unforgettable night in Vegas, Evander Holyfield beat Mike Tyson like he stole something from him. This is how Tyson describes the last few seconds:
"All of a sudden I'm getting hit. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! I'm rocking all over the ring. I couldn't feel the punches but I could hear them. Pa-Pow! Pa-Pow! Pa-Pow! And the next thing I'm thinking is 'What the (expletive).' And the next thing I know, the fight is stopped and I'm the ex-heavyweight champion. He must have a fought a ferocious fight. He must have been brilliant."
Yes, he was.
Tyson didn't just lose the fight but his cloak of invincibility was completely shattered. Every since he was an amateur knocking out opponents with his powerful right hand, he had this aura of menace and danger.
When he stepped into the ring with his trademark black trunks and black boots with no socks, there was always a hint of real violence in the air. I remember how hard my heart used to beat as the seconds drew nearer to the sound of the bell.
Tyson never played to the crowd, there was never any showboating. I'm telling you it was mesmerizing. You didn't need a Ph.D. in body-language in order to spot the look of fear in a man. Most of us will tip our hand with a nervous smile, a quick look away, or a small stutter in our speech.
If you look at Tyson's old fights you will get a crash-course in fearful body language. Before the opening bell, Tyson and his opponent stand in the middle of the ring as the referee barks instructions at them.
Tyson's expression is malevolent and he never averts his eyes. But his opponents do. After a couple of seconds, some of them nervously look away because Tyson's icy glare makes them anxious. Some of them smile.
In other words, they tip their hand. Tyson had already defeated them, before he even landed his first punch.
But there was no fear in Holyfield. And just like the neighborhood bully, Tyson was exposed. If you stood up to him, you would see he was a fatally flawed boxer.
No working the body, no technique, no discipline, just throwing haymakers trying to knock you out.
The emperor had no clothes.
The next year came the infamous rematch which ended with Tyson munching on Holyfield's ear. It was both sad and comical. And it was the act of a desperate man, who deep down knew there wasn't a chance in hell that he was going to win.
The last few years of his career were an abomination.
He finally fired King, who he accused of cheating him out of millions of dollars. But the ugly truth was that if Mike Tyson was the circus, King was his P.T. Barnum, the flamboyant loudmouth who could sell ice to an Eskimo. Without King, Tyson had to promote his own fights.
Left without someone as savvy as King, the man-child turned into the beast that he assumed everybody thought he was. He turned the dial all the way up to 10 on his crazy-meter.
He basically adopted the mantra: "If it's a show they want, then it's a show they're gonna get."
He began saying stupid stuff like, "I wanna eat Lennox Lewis' children." And he memorably taunted a female reporter by dropping this crass-tastic line on her:
"The only time I talk to women is when I fornicate with them so you should stop talking because...you know."
He fought in weird places like Scotland and Denmark and looked absolutely terrible. During one ugly fight, Tyson was pounding Lou Savarese "into Bolivia" when referee John Croyle stopped the fight just 38 seconds into Round 1.
Enraged, Tyson swung wildly, knocking Croyle to the floor.
His last meaningful fight was against Lewis in 2002. The fight was preceded by an incredible skirmish between the two at a press conference in New York City to promote the fight. During the melee, Tyson famously bit Lewis on the leg.
Lewis would knock Tyson out in the eighth round five months later. After the fight, as Lewis was being interviewed, Tyson graciously wiped the sweat off of Lewis' brow.
Was it all an act? Was he a "manic-depressive" as Robin Givens famously called him in that Barbara Walters interview? Or was it a little bit of both?
In the end, who the hell knows. Mike Tyson was easily one of the most fascinating personalities in sports history. I can't think of another athlete who has been the butt of more jokes.
I can't think of another athlete who made just as much news away from the arena, as he did in it. I can't think of another athlete who has blown more than $300 million.
How many people do you know who have tattoos on their face? How many people do you know who, when they talk, sound like Spongebob Squarepants on acid?
How many people do you know (other than Sarah Palin) who have famously created their own alien malapropian language?
(My favorite: At one point during the James Toback documentary, Tyson said that he defeated his opponents by "using the most skullduggery of tricks.")
He rose to the top at an impossibly young age, succumbed to the trappings of wealth and fame, went to prison, and became champ again, only to disgrace himself and his sport.
His devious deeds were defended time and time again by most of the black community. As was the case with O.J., with Michael Jackson, with Michael Vick, and with R. Kelly, black folks rushed to absolve Tyson of any wrongdoing.
The only thing he was guilty of (in the minds of A LOT of African-Americans) was "being a rich black man in a white man's world." He was also found to only be guilty of "trusting the wrong people."
I thought the exact same thing. But revisionist history forces you to adapt a new perspective. And a part of me feels slimy for defending a guy who said:
"I didn't rape Desiree Washington. I may have forced myself on, you know, a few other women, but not her."
"The best punch I ever landed was on Robin Givens."
To hundreds of women at Central Ohio State where he received an honorary doctorate (???) in 1989: "I don't know what kind of doctor I am but watching all these beautiful sisters up here, I'm debating whether I should be a gynecologist."
To a freelance journalist at the Lennox Lewis press conference: "Come up here and say that to my face, white boy! I'm going to make you love me (the f-word that rhymes with maggot)!"
Or somebody who could get into this much trouble.
When you cheer for somebody who has committed a heinous act, you are subconsciously saying to yourself that you're okay with what he did.
By buying a ticket to his movies, or buying his CDs, you are condoning his actions. And If someone dares to bring this to your attention, you will get angry with that person.
But that person is right.
It took me a long time to fully understand that. My dad used to tell me that I had "blinders on." He was right. It seemingly took forever, but I removed those blinders.
Tyson's life has played out like a Greek tragedy. My old English professor once defined the phrase Greek tragedy as a form of art based on human suffering that paradoxically offers its audience pleasure.
Tyson did just that. His personal and professional life was our entertainment, a sordid form of pleasure that made us giggle and gossip, the way reality TV stars do today. And it says just as much about us, as it does about Mike.
He's now 43 years old and I sometimes I wonder, what's next for "Iron" Mike Tyson?
Will his life have a second act?
Muhammad Ali, who was once vilified for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, is now one of the most beloved athletes of all time.
George Foreman, a mean-looking intimidator in his heyday, changed his image, became a lovable and bighearted family guy who always smiled and made millions.
Oscar De La Hoya became a super successful businessman.
What will Tyson do next? We've already seen glimpses of it. First with his documentary, and then followed by his unforgettable cameo in last year's blockbuster The Hangover. After a few years out of the limelight, is Mike Tyson making a comeback?
Or perhaps I should be asking: "Will America be ready for the Mike Tyson comeback?"
Now that's the million-dollar question.
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