ON MIKE TYSON

Mike Tyson vs. Trevor Berbick, 1986

In honor of Mike Tyson’s birthday last week, here is a piece I wrote about him last year:

On May 5, 2009, Mike Tysons’ 4-year-old daughter, Exodus Tyson, died. It was an accidental death. She was strangled by the power cable of the treadmill, which they say happens more than people realize. Like the other pivotal events in Mike Tyson’s life, this one is senseless and sad. Unknowable.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that Tyson’s last chance for redemption was probably Tyson-Holyfield II. It could have been a professional redemption, at least, if not a total absolution. That fight was after his divorce, his prison term, his first loss to Holyfield. Even after all that, Tyson was still young then. Capable of winning.

But he didn’t win. During a clinch, Holyfield head-butted Tyson, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. It doesn’t matter. Tyson had complained that Holyfield threw head-butts in their first fight, but no one had cared. Tyson himself had been known to throw an elbow from time to time. Tyson knew that he had no recourse, as always. Even if it were shown, somehow, that Holyfield had thrown the head-butt deliberately, it would not have made a difference, because of what happened next: Tyson, sensing the senseless, bit Holyfield twice in the head, thereby forfeiting the fight, and basically the rest of his career.

It must be said that Muhammad Ali would have endured the head-butt, would have encouraged more head-butts, and then, furiously, would have gone on to defeat Evander Holyfield anyway. That’s how Ali has always fought. Nothing stoked his passion like having the deck stacked against him. His victories were useless unless they were carried off against all odds. And for that reason Ali remains golden to us.

But Mike Tyson has never operated that way. He was a chubby kid with a lisp who cared for pigeons and robbed drug dealers. When he was still a teenager, Cus D’amato, a benificent old man, plucked him from the streets and taught him to box.

Tyson was found to be prodigious. Gifted. And yes, intelligent. He was a student of the sport, one who would watch D’amato’s old fight films before going to sleep at night, educating himself in the sweet cruelty of boxing.

But the fog of senselessness found its way back to him. D’amato died. Tyson found his marraige with Robin Givens to be a disaster. Don King, a man Tyson says he once loved, lied and cheated him. By 19, Tyson told reporters that he didn’t trust people. “Nobody really knows Mike Tyson,” he said.

Then there was the Barbara Walters interview he gave with Robin Givens in the final days of their marriage. She said that she had grown afraid of him, very very afraid, that he gets out of control, while he sat next to her in silence. You might have expected to see Mike Tyson go apeshit on 20/20, but he didn’t. He only sat there, inscrutable. If he was tempted to beat his wife on live television, he resisted that urge, but he was no more sympathetic for having done so. The Baddest Man on the Planet sat still, and left us all to wonder.

So, in the ring with Holyfield, Tyson obeyed the senseless logic that had written his life. The bite was appropriate in its inappropriateness—consistent with the forces of entropy that launched him. The bite was a reminder that Tyson is claimed by the darkness, and the same darkness that took Holyfield’s ear has now taken Tyson’s daughter.

On November 22, 1986, Mike Tyson beat Trevor Berbick and became the youngest heavyweight champion in history. He would remain undefeated for the next 3 and a half years. In 1988, he fought Michael Spinks, who had never lost. Tyson knocked him out in 91 seconds. Bill Barich wrote for The New Yorker, “One reason Tyson is so dangerous is that he fights to protect a sweetness inside him.” Tyson was 22 then. My age.

June 16, 2009

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