When news of Mike Tyson’s arrest in Arizona became public knowledge, the media’s response was entirely uniform and entirely predictable. There was no sense of either shock or awe but the coverage was permeated with a steady sense of inevitability. And, as is usual with any gambit involving Mike Tyson, it was not reported on the sports pages but amidst the mainstream news.
If accounts of Tyson’s life are reported with the shrug and salaciousness of inevitability, then it’s because Tyson’s fate has been inevitable.
His early life is a textbook case of a dysfunctional adult being produced by a dysfunctional family. Within two years of his birth, Tyson was left with no father after Jimmy Kirkpatrick fled the family home and his mother, amid her own problems, struggled to raise her family on welfare.
Born in Brownsville, New York, there was nothing in Tyson’s earlier years that did anything to soothe his growing rage; when teased for his lisping voice, he would respond with sudden and brutal violence. He was feared by the age of ten, a street thug who carried out muggings. Arrests led to stints in juvenile institutions. In Brownsville, crime was worn as a badge of honor rather than a cloak of shame.
Enter Cus D’Amato. D’Amato saw in Tyson a future heavyweight champion and a fighter who could make the old master great again. In this respect, D’Amato was the first in a long line of smarter, older men for whom Tyson’s success was bound tightly into their own interests.
D’Amato was better than what had come before but his affections were tied up in the achievements of his boxing protégés. D’Amato took Tyson into the ring almost immediately by entering him in smokers and although the competitions were for trophies their significance to Tyson was much deeper, profound and ultimately disturbing – he felt loved only when he won.
There is a videotape of Tyson in his teenage years that belies his emotional state at the time. It’s shot from a distance, focused on the back of him and a trainer as they stand outside. Tyson is about to compete in the Junior Olympics. Up to now, he has been destroying every opponent that has been put in front of him. One fight hasn’t lasted thirty seconds before the opposite corner pull their man out. The rumor going around the boxing teams – a rumor encouraged, if not started by D’Amato – is that Tyson is the nephew of Sonny Liston. But in the video, Tyson is crying. He’s scared that if he loses no one will love him. The trainer tells him not to worry; he’s going to win.
The course of his teenage years taught Tyson that if he could control what happened in the ring, he could also control what happened outside it. If this dynamic was true in the relatively safe enclave of D’Amato’s camp and home in the Catskill Mountains, it was quickly proven false when Tyson was let out onto the world.
Boxing was in one of its periodic lulls since the decline and retirement of Muhammad Ali and its landscape was a multitude of mediocre and underachieving heavyweights attempting to coast from one payday to another. The fragmentation of the world championship, an ugly, short-sighted process that still harms the sport, lined pockets and alienated the public. Without a central, dominant figure, boxing looked both anachronistic and, most worryingly, boring. The linear champions were Larry Holmes and then Michael Spinks. Holmes was viewed as dull and plodding, reigning in the wake of the effervescent Ali and the glorious heavyweight decade of the seventies. The transfer of power between Ali and Holmes had occurred when Ali was a shadow of himself and, in beating an aged Ali, Holmes only fostered the feeling among fight fans that the prime Ali would have beaten the younger pretender. Spinks was a blown-up light-heavyweight who gained the linear title in disputed fashion was too skittish for the mainstream. The fact that a relatively small man was ruling the heavies deepened the public conviction that the division was in a mire. The fragmented title was passed around like snacks at a party as each paper champion tried to make the most of the last vestiges of prestige that came with the title of “world champion.”
Tyson was both born of and suited for his times. He not only seemed invulnerable, but invincible. He didn’t just fight his opponents; he destroyed them, and seemed to take delight in it: Michael Spinks went in one round, Trevor Berbick in two, Larry Holmes in four. Seemingly overnight, the Iron Mike era began. Tyson, due to his dominance, found himself compared not to the peers that he was destroying but to the great fighters of yesteryear. The question was not who was good enough to beat the young champion but who was good enough merely to survive against him.
Even before he became a champion, Tyson was a celebrity, a status that has for him been a double-edged sword. His inner circles and the masses loved him although, as before, the love was conditional. Some people wanted and got fame by association, some wanted money and some just wanted the buzz that came from being around celebrity. Tyson welcomed them in with his obscene wealth. For money and love, there was always tomorrow’s promise of more to come and, for a while, it did.
Tyson, for all his physical maturity, was still not much more than a boy, and he would continue to be drawn to older men, all of whom made money off him. Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs led him after the death of D’Amato and made a lot of money for themselves. Don King swayed Tyson with rhetoric and promises, took him from Cayton and Jacobs, and turned him into a global superstar. Needless to say, King, for whom benevolence towards his fighters has never been seen as one of his attributes, saw healthy profits from the partnership. A wife and her mother came, left with a lot of money, and then things really got out of hand.
If Tyson has been suckered by the fallacy of keeping everything ordered within the ring, its hard truth began to become more apparent. As his life beyond the ropes lurched, like a staggering drunk about to go down, from one crisis to another, his control within the ropes started to deteriorate and he relied on his natural attributes to bring him through as his skills slipped.
Consciously or unconsciously, everyone was prepared for a car crash. What they got instead were two. The first was in a ring in Tokyo, the second was a hotel room in Indiana. No matter what had been happening before, Tyson had always managed to control one facet of his life even if the other looked about to descend into chaos. What happened in those two places blew the wheels off the bandwagon.
When Tyson could fight again, the bandwagon rolled once more but most people wanted and expected the wheels to be blown off again. Tyson, quite simply, never looked as invulnerable as he had during his prime years. As a boxer, he was finished by the age of thirty. If people knew it, they looked away. If Tyson had chosen to leave then, he lacked the skills to make a life away from boxing. His education, non-existent in Brownsville and ruthlessly focused in the Catskills, prepared him solely to hurt others, gaining him a set of skills that are useless outside boxing. So he stayed where he was and instead he went from an elite athlete to a celebrity one. A few people noticed but most, again, looked away. The magic had gone, draining away as the main attraction became the sideshow.
No one told him when he’d had enough. No one had ever told him “no” before. If they had, he would have gotten rid of them. Trainers came and went, as did another wife, as did his money. He remained big box office because of his past but the last few fights he had weren’t supposed to be competitive and he still lost most of them.
Lennox Lewis bolstered his own reputation by beating him in Memphis. Clifford Etienne put up a nominal resistance, laid down in the first and then spectacularly screwed up his own life. While the winds howled outside, Danny Williams, a fighter who a peak Tyson wouldn’t have let leave the ring alive, survived an early onslaught in Kentucky, made Tyson quit and now lives off that moment of reflected glory when the fighter formerly known as “Iron” Mike was ripe for the taking. The final end, which came long after he was finished as an athlete, occurred on a stool in Washington D.C. when he quit ignominiously against Kevin McBride.
For now Tyson lives in an exile of his own choosing, hiding away somewhere in Arizona. He’s washed-up, used-up and damaged. When he was arrested in Scottsdale, he told the officer during the interview that he was unable to roll a joint and had to rely on others to do it for him. Rewind a few years to a medical report completed in Nevada. The doctors reported that Tyson had difficulties in fine motor function and short-term memory. It’s not a big leap of the imagination to suggest that his former profession has physically damaged Tyson if he lacks the coordination now to roll a joint. Factor in the years of exploitation, pain and physical damage that followed his childhood and can it any surprise that Tyson has ended up where he is? Everybody sensed that this was inevitable, destined to happen and now we’ve been proven right.
Going from rags to riches and then back again is a narrative typical of boxing. It doesn’t take much research to prove this point: Joe Louis reduced to being a greeter at a Vegas hotel; Jimmy Young, forever scuffling, fighting here and there in ever decreasing circles running towards oblivion; or Jerry Quarry who took pride in always coming forwards, left as defenseless as a child with nothing of his winnings. Even Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest of the greats, couldn’t escape this conclusion of having less money at the end of his career than he deserved for the beatings he took through it.
Boxing, like all sports, crosses the social boundaries of wealth. Traditionally and historically, it draws its participants from the working- and under-classes. Historically, it was a symbol of opportunity, a way out of poverty but with the advent of social security, of “no child left behind,” it has become an anachronism, a remnant of an earlier age.
Thirty-five is a young age but the majority of boxers are spent by the time they reach this point. Muhammad Ali was as was Tyson, Joe Louis and countless others. And yet they carry on in the ring long after they should have left. After the fighting, holding onto their money becomes the boxer’s final round.
Gloves, ropes and rounds add a civilized veneer to a savage art. Such measures make boxing more palatable on the surface but implicit savagery is left untouched and consequently unquestioned.
Tyson, for all his mistakes and transgressions, is as much a victim of this as any other fighter, maybe even more so.
“A sport? If there was headroom, they’d hold these things in sewers.” Requiem for a Heavyweight