Fighters often flirt with the spotlight and then disappear inconspicuously into the shadows. Others leave such an indelible imprint that they forever ingrain themselves in boxing vernacular.
Ali, Foreman, Marciano, Louis, Robinson, Leonard.
Names that become the measuring sticks for successive generations.
On Sunday, Mike Tyson will become the last man on that list to be inducted and immortalised in the Boxing Hall of Fame.
In spite of all of Tyson’s transgressions he was, for five years, inimitable. Like the aforementioned others he was beyond replication.
A phenomenon that defied science and conventional logic. Heavyweight Champion at the age of 20. Destructively dominant despite his 5'11" frame.
Innate speed, power and athleticism collaborated with Cus D’amato instilled technique to form one of the most intimidating, destructive and evasive fighters that ever lived.
We paid $50 time and time again to see Tyson vaporise opponents in 120 seconds. Fighter after fighter fell under his spell and eventually toppled under his power and aggression. In Tyson’s era, curiously unlike today, customer satisfaction was not predicated upon value for money but bang for our buck.
For five years Tyson vanquished every pretender to the throne and established an ‘iron’ grip on his Heavyweight boxing kingdom. Yet, often, when assessing Mike Tyson’s legacy we approach it with supposition.
What if Cus D’amato had survived five more years?
What if Mike hadn’t sacrificed three years of his prime in an Indiana correctional facility?
Both have credence, and legitimately incite curiosity, but what if Tyson was jettisoned on a fateful trajectory that would inevitably span the heights of gratified success but also the depths of utter despair?
A troubled childhood spent in crime-ridden neighborhoods of Brooklyn, New York. The experience of losing a single parent at the age of ten. Time in youth detention centres.
Events that undoubtedly mold a person’s character and outlook on life. Tyson was frustrated, angry, unfulfilled. All traits that propelled him into the centre of the ring at the first bell, hunched under a smog of angst and unmatched aggression.
One mission consumed Mike.
To become the youngest undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World. Accomplishment of such left him without direction or guidance. The tangible aspiration that drove his desire vanished the night he obliterated Michael Spinks.
A haze had descended upon Tyson’s vision and from the fog emerged a galvanised Buster Douglas.
Cus D’amato had crafted a technically proficient fighter purely with the sole objective to be the World Heavyweight Champion. It was to be a prize that half blessed, and half ruined Tyson’s life.
"The youngest man to ever win the Heavyweight Championship, and also the youngest man to ever lose the Heavyweight Championship." Bert Sugar
The "Baddest Man on the Planet" was a comic book hero—or villain, depending upon your own perspective—plucked from Tyson’s destructive intimidating style by the media, in an attempt to garner maximum mainstream attention.
Tyson bought into media/fan perpetuated hype, but unlike Superman’s seamless transition from fighting super-hero to Clark Kent, "The Baddest man on the planet" never grasped what it was, just to be "Mike."
Monster. Man. Mike.
Thankfully Tyson post-boxing career has delivered to us, but more importantly to him, a character he is comfortable with. Even if he needed to cycle through a number of reinventions that included, a drum banging lunatic and pigeon-cherishing dope, to get there.
My own personal memories of Mike were in the second stanza of his boxing career. Early-bed times unfortunately precluded me from enjoying Tyson in the 1980’s.
I remember the 4am start—as is the eight-hour time difference between Las Vegas and the UK—the palpable excitement that was always incompatible with pre-fight sleep.
Again and again, my Father and I returned despite disappointment, in the vain hope ‘The Baddest Man on the planet’ would light up our screens. He did, on occasion, but it was fleeting and against much inferior opposition.
Then Tyson had his Ali moment, only it was repeated three times over.
Lewis, Williams, McBride.
My boxing hero carted out in the back of a dumpster. It would have, perhaps, been sacrilege to see Tyson in white shining armour riding off into the sunset but he deserved more dignity in final defeat.
Tyson combined the darkest side of our cultural/sporting palate. Our sport became the sweet and sour science. We craved the brutal and destructive dominance inside the ring yet we could not comprehend or contemplate the depraved activity outside of it.
Our own desire fed the pugnacious bluster inside of the ring, we eulogised man’s worst traits, providing they were confined to the ring. Legitimately we condemned the more deplorable of Tyson’s extra-curricular activities but we never took time to understand our own relevance in his indiscretions.
Mike Tyson was, and perhaps is, a flawed man outside of the ring, but inside, for that short, magnificent period in the 1980’s, he was flawless.
That brutal punch, the speed, the belligerent aggression, the youthful exuberance and that element of unpredictability.
Mike Tyson was a fighter carved for our wildest dreams and it is our duty to savour him for being just that.