Photos by PunkAss
I discovered Mike Tyson the year I discovered porn.
It’s still clear as yesterday: limping through the bookstore, three copies of Penthouse Forum and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology stuffed down my jeans, and passing the magazine rack, fuzzed out in the periphery there’s this gap-tooth black kid raising a red boxing glove, and when I lean closer, the byline, “Mike Tyson: The Next Great Heavyweight—And He’s Only 19.”
Damn, just a few years older than me.
So, glancing over my shoulder, I slipped the Sports Illustrated in with my plunder, and beaming big-wide I lurched past the clerk.
That night, no shit, after reading the article I tore off the cover and tacked it to my bedroom wall. A few months earlier I’d been kicked out of high school and sent to a reform deal in downtown Vegas, so reading about this delinquent Tyson handcuffed and led across the grounds of the Tryon School for Boys, I’m nodding away because, like, here's this kid from the ghetto, thoroughly ensnared in the system, and six years later he’s on the cover of S.I. A millionaire.
A lifetime later, or rather, a few weeks ago, I entered the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood with Bas Rutten, mixed martial arts legend and first-ever UFC heavyweight champion, to see Tyson’s Spike Lee-directed one-man show, Undisputed Truth. This time I smuggled in my pants a flask of whiskey and a camera.
Settling in, Bas and I talk Tyson: the power, the speed, the raw aggression. Perhaps the last great heavyweight boxer of our lifetimes, given boxing’s decline and the rise of MMA. Yeah, yeah, the Klitschko brothers stand atop the heavyweight mountain, holding every heavyweight belt (WBA, IBF, WBO, IBO, WBC, IBF, The Ring), neither having dropped a loss in nearly a decade—but outside Eastern Europe, really, who gives a fuck? I never missed a single Tyson fight, yet I’ve suffered through maybe three rounds of Klitschko boredom before switching the channel.
It’s no secret: the Klitschkos got no flair. Sure, they dominate the ring, but outside (say, for instance, at a press conference) can’t you just see Vitali covering Wladimir’s microphone and whispering, “No, brother, we never swear, bad for public image …”
Fuck that. This is the fight game, not politics. Just look to Muhammad Ali, the undisputed Greatest for so many reasons. After defeating Sonny Liston and seizing the belts, Cassius Clay changed his name to honor his newfound Islam, and who cares if he thoroughly pissed off the white establishment because three years later, after nine title defenses and attaining near myth-status in the public consciousness, Ali started crowing about the Vietnam War: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong ... they never called me nigger.”
That sounds courageous now, but imagine 1967, pre summer-of-love war protests, and taking on the military industrial complex and civil rights at the same time. To most Americans this was madness, career suicide. And the blowback came quick: titles stripped, boxing license suspended, arrested, and found guilty of draft evasion. Bad for public image? For four years Ali wandered the desert, a penniless outcast, reduced to accepting handouts from rival Joe Frazier.
It’s a cliché and rather boring to state that every generation needs a hero, that is until with 20/20 hindsight you analyze the times each hero served in. Take the 60s: widespread social unrest, a generation rebelling against institutionalized bigotry and escalating war. Enter Ali and before it’s fashionable, he’s out front leading the charge.
Now flash forward to the 80s: rampant materialism, Wall Street run amok (the S&L scandal), political fuckery (the Iran-Contra affair)--the national compass gone haywire.
“So just how the hell,” I hear the whispering, “are you proposing that Mike Tyson served as de facto spiritual leader?”
I’m getting there, I promise, but for now the lights in the Pantages dim. The crowd smashes hands. Tyson crosses the stage. Bas stands, and from the other side my boy Jesse stands, so I follow. Eight years into retirement, the middle-aged champ--shoulders a bit narrower, the iconic mug a bit larger--looks good, happy, somehow in his element.
Confession: Backstage at UFC events I’ve met Mike several times, and it’s always the same. He’s quiet, humble, and I’m so awed, recalling the infinite potential described in that Sport’s Illustrated article, I manage a few nods, and after he leaves I berate myself for not telling him, “Mike, shit bro, you were such a hero to us all, especially after Cus D’Amato, your mentor and father-figure, died, and you still persevered and consolidated the belts, then you married that gold-digger Robin Givens and on national television she turned on you …”
Like the Kennedy assassination, from ’86 on Tyson’s triumphs and failures have served as personal/historical markers: the brutal first round KO of Michael Spinks ... that disastrous Barbara Walters interview ... the from-nowhere loss to Buster Douglas ... the dubious rape conviction and prison stint ... the tribal facial tattoo ... the chomping on Holyfield’s ear ... the threatening to eat Lennox Lewis’ children ... The Hangover ... the tragic death of his young daughter ...
And that’s the script for the performance. No, Tyson isn’t a trained thespian. No, the simplistic slideshow isn’t Avatar. But like with everything Tyson, his recounting is so raw, so real. At one point Tyson, recalling why he partnered with promoter Don King, who, it's said, embezzled hundreds of millions from his fighters, shakes his head and laments, “I don’t know, sometimes it feels good when you’re being used.”
The night I heisted the Sports Illustrated magazine, back in my bedroom I read the article, tacked the cover to the wall, skimmed the Penthouse letters, rubbed one out, then started a book report on Hercules. Now, you probably recall this hero for his feats of superhuman strength, but that’s not why the Romans worshipped him as a god. Sure, he killed the nine-headed hydra and captured the Cretan boar, but they revered him for his defects--like the time, in a fit of rage, he killed six of his sons and for decades sought redemption via the “twelve labors.”
What the Klitschkos don’t get, and what most marketing gurus don’t get, but what Homer (of The Odyssey, not The SImpsons) got better than anyone, is that we love people for their defects. Those perfect Nike ads: They’re just gloss and hype. Breaking news: We all fuck up. Say dumb shit, do dumb shit. Trip and stumble face-first in the mud while bystanders laugh.
Watching Mike bound across the stage, slaying his personal hydras, I realized that a hero shows us what it means to be human, and like it or not, that means to fail.
Mike is our Hercules. Thanks, homie.
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