A Civilized Veneer

BY Peter M. Carvill ON November 15, 2006
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They paid to watch him train in the lobby of a hotel. Later, even more people paid to watch him fight a four-round exhibition in Ohio against a beat-up fighter with only one fully functioning eye. Next year, even more people will pay to watch him take part in a kickboxing contest that has to be held in China and not Japan because of his criminal record. He’s still tabloid fodder for the press and arguably still the biggest name in the sport despite having been retired for two years. In a way, he’s following the same route as champions of old by exploiting his celebrity in shabby and cheap sideshows in the back-ends of nowhere. He’s Mike Tyson and his sustaining popularity says a lot about the rest of us.

It’s ironic that it’s nearly twenty years since Tyson took the WBC title from Trevor Berbick in Las Vegas. Jump forward two decades to 2006 and the question is why are we still watching Tyson when we couldn’t care less about his opponents from that earlier era? He’s become the aging warhorse, fulfilling Thomas Hauser’s prediction of him following the Leon Spinks route where people will pay just to watch him get beaten up.

The Tyson of 1986 threw punches like a catalogue of gunfire. He blasted his opponents with shotgun impact, each punch thrown with rifle accuracy and at a machinegun rate. Prior to Buster Douglas in Japan, it was not a question of if Tyson scored a knockout but when. Defensively, he was near impregnable in his prime because he used his short stature to bob-and-weave, duck, turn and roll away from danger. He had a good chin despite the stoppage losses in the latter part of his career. The mind was unsettled even in the early days and one sensed that the mayhem he wrought on his opponents was only barely controlled.

But most of all he brought ferociousness to his craft, a need to destroy his opponent, to launch his enemy into submission. There were no equals to test him until Douglas and Holyfield arrived. Every “opponent” was not truly an opponent or an equal but a sacrifice laid at the altar of Iron Mike.

And we didn’t come to see his boxing skills; in this Fast Food Nation mono-culture that the world has become, Tyson became famous because his fights were a convenient diet of knockouts, extreme in nature and total in their destructive power. Joyce Carol Oates reflected on the birth of the “Iron Mike” phenomenon, commenting: “A terrible beauty is born.”

In essence, a Tyson match was a return to ceremonial human sacrifice. The significance in the matchups was not a meeting of two world-class athletes for a championship but the guaranteed destruction by Tyson of his opponent. The price of admission paid for the subjugation of one man by a destructive force, not a contest.

“Iron Mike” was a projection of ourselves. Between four ropes, Tyson reflected back our own primitive nature and our instinctive need for bloodshed. He may have been the heavyweight champion of the world but he changed boxing and our perception of boxing because his ring persona mirrored our subconscious bloodlust. Ali and Leonard were more charismatic, more pleasing to the eye and they appealed to our higher instincts more with their skills and speed. Tyson – burly, squat and mean-looking – appealed to our animal instincts because, in essence, he was all about business in the ring: the business of rendering prone the opponent. Ali and Leonard wore white, the color symbolic of purity and grace; Tyson, the malignant, destructive force wore only black and left himself unadorned by accessories.

And because the character of “Iron Mike” fitted our projection, there was no real place for him outside the ring. If there was ever a place, we denied him it because we were only ever comfortable with the savagery he brought out in us when it was contained under the spotlights. To allow Tyson, even theoretically, to be like one of us was to admit that, at heart, we were also like him. The ropes not only limited him inside the ring, they served a barrier for his audience, lest we come into contact with Milton’s dark truth that “I, myself, am hell.”

If Mike Tyson ever wanted a space to exist outside of the ring, he was denied it not only by the society that had created “Iron Mike,” he was limited by the confines of his profession. Tyson was educated to smash his fists into the bodies of other men; to be a champion of rage, physicality and violence. But these are not qualities and achievements that transfer to the world beyond the ropes. These qualities are celebrated in the ring, but castigated and criticised when applied outside it. Tyson lacked the articulacy of Ali or Leonard; in contrast; he was a seemingly mute, destructive force incapable of expression with any other part of his body except his fists. Ali and Leonard added flair to fighting ability; Tyson, the polar opposite, was fighting ability escalated into the barely controlled destruction of “Iron Mike.”

If his in-ring activities were the main event, then his life outside quickly became the sideshow. A perverse delight was taken in watching his first marriage crumble, in his bizarre antics, the eventual rape conviction and subsequent jail times. It was as if the mainstream that had denied Tyson a place outside the ring then punished him by gloating on his misfortunes and crimes. It was a game of “I-told-you-so” we played as we delighted in his downfall. We pretended that there had only ever been one possible ending to the “Iron Mike” story. We saw his place as only being in the ring and when he appeared to reject that notion, we colluded with him in his downfall. Boxers are essentially alone in the ring and we used our “humanity” to reinforce that.

Post-Tokyo, post-Buster Douglas, Tyson’s life descended into the freak show that it now is. He fights in nowhere towns far from the bright lights of his youth, sparring fighters even more beat-up than himself. One senses that Tyson is now more aware of his celebrity role and comfortable with it. He is trading on the last, rough vestiges of his name, putting on lacklustre shows for those unable to have seen him two decades again when he was still “Iron Mike.” There are rumors of the Mike Tyson World Tour headed for China, of Tyson fighting women and other celebrities, of Superfighter, of further stops further and further from the limelight on a road to… who knows where? Tyson has no role outside the ring, no qualifications or experience that translates to a life outside fighting. Yet he cannot stay where he is. As Ralph Wiley once wrote “Progress is to be desired merely because it is progress. Men who stand still are lost.” Boxing’s beauty is when it is a young man’s game, boxing’s sadness is when old men trade in the last scraps of their health for a mirage of their better days.

History repeats itself. Names and faces change but the stories essentially remain the same. The older Joe Louis embarrassed his younger self when he wrestled for peanuts in his later years trying to pay off crippling debt; Muhammad Ali made similarly ignoble displays against Japanese wrestlers and refereeing at the first Wrestlemania. Tyson is now doing the same, working from the one image we keep of him, an image that is fading over time. It is still the one image we allow him to more and more unsuccessfully perpetuate. He reflects our uncontrolled savagery; we maintain our civilized veneer.

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