|Tuesday, February 25
Man in the mirror
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Oddly, and we do mean oddly, Michael Jackson recorded what should be Michael Gerard Tyson's theme song:
"Man In the Mirror."
As in, how can either one of them bear to look in one?
How can we? Well, easier than them, sure, but still ...
Like it or not, apparently, the world is a more interesting place with Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson in it. We will concentrate on Tyson here. Jackson is much too scary to contemplate, even for a boxing writer accustomed to facial disfigurations of all kinds. But it is Tyson who continues to amuse, entertain, frighten and horrify, and -- oh, by the way -- reflect us. Royally. Mike Tyson is the man in our mirror.
"I don't want to get beat up again," Tyson said Saturday night. Even in the post-bout thrill of a classic Tyson KO victimization of one Clifford "The Black Rhino Inside A Tomato Can" Etienne, Tyson was still not that crazy.
He still fascinates us, without us actually realizing we are being fascinated. Tyson says (knowing all the while it's not true) he'll "fade into Bolivian" after the Lennox Lewis loss, cracking us up again and again, every time we loop the tape, like the carefree frat boys we like to think we are.
On the way to Bolivian, Tyson is stopping by the bank first. Nine mil for Lewis. Five mil for Etienne, with about 15 mil still out there. So Tyson is actually a pretty smart guy.
Even without education, he's figured us out.
Now if he could only do the same for himself. Of course, as red-blooded men, the last person we usually figure out is the guy in the mirror. We don't want to think about that. Look what the mirror did for Tyson, a guy who, much worse than actually being ugly, believes he is ugly.
Mike Tyson makes Jake LaMotta's Raging Bull seem no more fascinating and anti-social than one of the Osbourne kids. We could talk about him and write about him and watch him hit people so hard our own jaw hurts all day.
Why is that?
Well, you can win a certain way, and nobody cares. But that KO punch, that Hot Rod, has for years brought in the customers and frightened the villagers and made boxing the big, ugly business that it is. Tyson seems uncivilized, and that appeals to the uncivilized part of his civilized audience.
And he has a captive audience. Us.
There are people who have never wanted Mike Tyson to lose, and others who have never wanted him to win, and people in between, who say they don't care, but watch anyway. If you say, "Mike Tyson fought last night ..." nobody says, "Who cares?" To a man or woman people say, "Yeah? Wot hoppened?" and sit all glazed over until you tell them. Why, I'm nearly hyperventilating right now, just writing a column about Iron Mike Tyson, because there are so many ways and directions to take the discussion, so many ways to speak of him while also speaking of us.
Mike Tyson. Yeah, baby!
Tyson, retire? We'd never let him. And don't blame Shelly Finkel. He's betting on the come. Us. Tyson's good to go until he's finally on the slab somewhere. We have a feeling when he's around that somebody's close to the slab. Him, or the guy he's fighting, or maybe, deep down ... us.
Sounds strange? It is strange. So are mouth-breathing rubberneckers tying up traffic by rolling slowly by a five-car pileup, peering inside, hoping so see what a mangled human being looks like, as a rush, and a cautionary sight, so they can go home to their meat loaf and string beans and tell the little woman and brats what carnage really is.
Tyson is strange? Yeah, he is. Like we're not.
Tyson has spoken of eating children?
We've got priests and "scout leaders" and AAU youth basketball coaches and rock stars who can top that, easy.
Tyson would pronounce hyperbole "hype-bowling"?
Probably. But if he could pronounce words correctly and conjugate verbs, then what would people need us for?
In the infamous words of Richie Pryor, on Leon Spinks: "Leon ain't no etymologist. I don't expect that from him. 'Hey, Leon, can you explain to us what it is you do?' 'Uh, Rich, I knock m%f&%*%s out.' Period."
Checked the amount of column inches devoted to Tyson's one-punch windfall over Clifford Etienne in the New York Times, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times and USA Today last Monday; Tyson got more column inches than Saddam Hussein. I checked all the newspapers and what did I see? Tyson! Tyson! Tyson! looking back at me.
So who's more obssessed? Him? Or us?
Right now, I'm voting us. We put him in the opening block, don't we? We lead with him, don't we? We line up for more like pigs at the trough, don't we?
Sure we do.
Don't we at least want to know why? Probably not.
I'm in a speculating mood, though, so here goes:
At the very least, it's the human fascination with the KO puncher, which is the set-up for the societal fascination with boxing. You can no more eliminate it than you can elimnate the desire to eat. It is pure human survival instinct.
If a T-Rex was on our ass, what could we do about it? If an attacker, a villian, a Lecter, a Beast, a Grendel, a Liston, a Foreman, a Tyson, had us cornered, what could we do about it? Well, maybe we -- more likely our proxy -- could outbox him. That reflection of our Ego, in the form of the Master Boxer, is what made the Sugar Rays and the Peps and Tunneys and Alis great. To be really great, they needed a foil, that KO puncher, that Beast, to overcome, and the more villianous, the more anti-social he seemed, the better.
Tyson was elected. He seems to understand this. We are apparently willing to put up great sums of money to keep him in this position, and for this he should be glad, and frankly, he is. "I've won," he said, instructively, to the man who is becoming his electronic Boswell, Jeremy Schaap, some months ago. "I have some beautiful children, I've been with some lovely women, I have money." And then he shrugged.
I thought to myself, "The lucky bastard -- he's finally figured it out." When you come from where Tyson came from, with his set of circumstances, only a man of resolve, fortitude ... yes, and luck ... could not just avoid a permanent mailing address on Riker's Island, but do better than what seemed best-case scenario for such an unlucky class -- 20 or 30 thou a year as a security guard.
Tyson has done a little bit better than that. As have we.
I mentioned years ago that Tyson had the curse of self-awareness, was much more intelligent than, say, Ali.
Like Ali was human Ego run amok (and the first black American heavyweight champion to determine his destiny -- as much as one can in life), Tyson is human Id run amok.
As such, he is no less than the reflection of the savagery that is in all of us, just as Ali was a reflection of the nobility in us.
"Noble" fighters fight through broken jaws, do not go down or stay down as Cliff Etienne or Sonny Liston did after one punch.
(It's funny, Etienne taking out his mouthpiece was his little way of saying, "I'm not hurt; I'm not out." He was aware of doing this. Had it been life or death he could've gotten up, but he quickly decided, "If I do that, I'm going to end up right back down here, so why bother?")
Noble fighters like Rocky take the beating nobly, to prove something (to who? Us), and end up staggering around, not being able to talk, with a bad case of Dementia Pugilistica.
"Savage" fighters quit on their stool, or say "No mas," or take a big punch and then say, "Bleep it, I'm staying down here. Why would I get up and take more of that?" And then they live to be able to tie their own ties and to do bad comedy at strip clubs, and eventually come back into vogue in their dotage as charming, sweet old men who were once savages.
If you watch, say, "Bowling for Columbine," or "Ed Gein," there are no mentions of any Mike Tyson, or any other of the savage breed of men like Duran, Liston, LaMotta, Tony Soprano -- they are a personifaction of what's in us. Most of the time these savage fighters are blissfully unaware of what is actually happening to them and around them. They are more pragmatic than the heroic breed.
Tyson is the bull in the china shop who then sits among the broken dishes and shocked patrons and asks himself, then them, "What did I just do?" Then breaks into song like "Pagliacci." If you had taped his post-fight interview, then played it back, late at night, you'd be more astounded than scared ...
"... I'm just here, brother, trying to exist in a world where nobody knows what they're doing. We don't know what's going on. ... I'm tyrannical, because I'm not happy with myself. I don't care if I live or die. I don't give a &%$# about any of you all -- but I do. ... I don't know if I've ever loved anybody. I definitely don't think anybody will ever love me. ... I've got serious demons I'm fighting."
Whistle past the graveyard all you want, but tell me that doesn't sound the slightest bit familiar, like Late-Night Silent Conversations I Can't Admit I've Had With Myself. Is it really foreign? Tyson is not the usual dese, dem and dose fighter. Roy Jones, for all of his scientific boxing skill -- and he is the Sugar Ray Robinson of his generation -- at his post-fight pressers will put you (if not John Ruiz) to sleep. Robinson himself was not really memorable for things he said. He was beautiful while moving like a mythic human panther in the ring, yet totally forgettable speaking of it.
Tyson, on the other hand, is a walking psychological salon and seminar. He has shrewdly learned to be very honest, scaldingly, brutally, over-the-top honest, giving voice to every thought that crosses his mind. He feels he not only has the freedom to do this (one of my producer friends calls it having "Bleep You Money" -- that is, enough money not to care what anybody thinks), but almost the obligation to do it, as it just draws the paying audience further in, and thus helps to insure him making payroll another day.
He's the Wonderful Tar Baby as Cash Cow -- wherever we hit him, we get stuck, and money comes pouring out, and a little of it sticks to him. It is a deal with the devil, both ways, and pays off, both ways -- pays the bills for Tyson, pays the bills for various media, and pads the psyche for the "fight fans." This way he can give us all what we so obviously want.
We really should not act so very shocked or appalled, although I understand that's part of the play, the game. Brutal, savage honesty, with occasional zingers of humor, whether intentional or not, and hyperbole and histrionics are sort of what we do here, particularly on Page 2, and sports in general, but all over. It's a Letterman thing as much as it's a Tyson thing. It's totally us. These are things we purport to understand and employ. So why do we act like a Mike Tyson is such a big horrifying mystery to us?
If that was the case, why do we insist on re-entering the cave where he dwells, again and again and again? Why? We can't resist. On any level -- fiscal, physical, psychological -- we can't resist. We are human. And this is one time when it's questionable whether that's a compliment or not.
The world is actually more understandable with Tyson in it. His presence actually comforts us, makes life more bearable, because no matter how bad things might get, it could be worse. You could be Tyson instead. When we look in the mirror, we don't see Mike Tyson. So aren't we lucky? Call it revulsion, if you like. I see a need there.
Young people, those of the generation who grew up when Tyson was "the baddest man on the planet," are unabashed in their rooting yen for him. When he clocks an Etienne, they leap up in recognition and, oddly, in the safety of the moment. Their young lives and pasts and hopes and dreams and, yes, fears are validated. To them, Tyson is a constant, a force of nature, part of their lives, their nostalgia.
Sure, some people really are repulsed by Mike Tyson, yet over 15,000 showed up in the Pyramid for the Etienne dispatching only months after Tyson was knocked out by Lennox Lewis.
Repulsed, yet Showtime has got their number.
Repulsed, yet they will look when -- not if -- Tyson fights Lennox Lewis again.
Tyson has all but adopted Schaap, calling him over at pre-fight pressers to give him interviews, giving Jeremy a cachet as The Man Who Tyson Talks To On Television. Jeremy told me in the past that Tyson unnerved him, and he'd just as soon not interview him again. I said "Pshaw," or words to that effect, and suggested Jeremy go back and talk to him again. Facing being unnerved is part of the making of a man.
Normally, I wouldn't care a tittle, but Jeremy is Dick Schaap's son, and I figured this was the least I could do for Dick. So, Jeremy went back and Tyson told him his late father was a fine man and brought him inside Tyson's tent, and now, look at them. Jeremy is Tyson's conduit, talking as easily as a man asking directions of a cabbie.
Recently, I went on the radio with Jason Whitlock, Sumo Love God of Page 2 and the Kansas City Star. He asked if I found Tyson to be a suitable book subject. And how, boy, do I, I said. Whitlock said, Geez, he didn't see how he could do that, he'd be frightened of Tyson. "Maybe that's part of it," I said, "dealing with that fear ..."
All the years I'd known Tyson, all the KOs that made him an indispensible commodity to us in the first place, all the bad experiences he'd had, the hellish depths he'd plumbed, he'd won.
Well ... almost.
The Maori tattoos he had applied to his face, because he "didn't like the way I look," are not as instructive as the fact that Mike Tyson, at age 36, a full 18 years after he first made the sporting scene as a viable heavyweight boxing contender, the very same position he holds now, still has a face, and is still sticking it in there for cash.
He's not on any slab, as Teddy Atlas had predicted. Somehow, he has endured. He's still out there. In his own way, in the way of the pure survivor, he's won.
Which means there's hope -- a faint hope -- for us.
I half expect Captain Ahab to be Mike Tyson's trainer for the next fight. And there always will be another fight, another Hot Rod, another bull, another matador ...
Ali was the Ego, Tyson is the Id -- indispensable, unique, horrifying, unbalanced, and yet, somehow, essential.
Utterly, utterly human. Totally us.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."