|Taking a bite of a bad apple|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
A man needs an edge in a fight. Lennox Lewis seems to have every one as we move like cats-on-catnip toward Saturday night's bash down on the ground in Memphis. Lennox is taller, bigger, has a better trainer, and is not on medication.
Mike Tyson, on the other hand, has rep. Rep for hand speed, and so many counts of antisocial behavior we won't attempt to detail them. The latter rep kills him in opinion polls and PR. But it helps box office, our bottom line and his shot against Lewis.
Mike Tyson will make you hesitate. And he who hesitates gets hit on the button.
A man needs an edge, and upon landing in Memphis in June and being pounded by humidity, one realizes the three edges your correspondent needs are freon (and lots of it), creative freedom and music.
Tyson's the savage beast around here.
Us? We're cool now. At least we are by the time we get halfway to Tunica, Miss., heading south by southwest of Memphis alongside the westering deep curves of the brown Mississippi river; Tunica, where there was once nothing but the blues, where now casinos sprout like toadstools on fertile Delta muck.
Damn, the music is good down here. John Lee Hooker died this year in the Bay Area after a full breakfast at the age of nearly 90; B.B. King just goes along. Isaac Hayes lent his name to a restaurant in downtown Memphis. And upon landing, Lennox Lewis' mother had gone pretty much directly over to Al Green's church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, right down the street from Graceland, on Highway 51, a k a Elvis Presley Boulevard. "Aaron," the colored folks used to call him, "he's our ambassador to the white folks."
Elvis has left the building and is replaced by Tyson. Feel the shudder. On both sides. Anyway, Rev. Green sang "One Day At a Time," and Violet Lewis was in throes of ecstasy. She had an unabashed crush on Rev. Al back in the day when he wore hot pants and sang secular, and she's not ashamed of it now.
So I decide to see if music will work for me, since nothing in my hotel room had; the law of averages said something was bound to. I select 103.5 Soul Classics from a list of FM choices. On the 45-minute drive around the hook of I-240, a patch of I-55, then down Highway 61, the uninterrupted play list includes: "Hold On, I'm Coming," "I Stand Accused," "If You Don't Know Me By Now," "Uptight," "Dedicated to the One I Love," "Explain It To Her Mama ('Cause She Don't Understand How She Is Supposed To Act With a Strong Young Handsome Man)," Caught Up in Love's Maze," "For the Love of Money," "Mercy Mercy Me," "Betcha By Golly Wow," "When A Man Loves A Woman," "The Love I Lost." By the time I get to Fitzgerald's Hotel & Casino, I am almost hoarse from singing.
Steve "Crocodile" Fitch, the Bundini Brown of the Tyson camp, is in full throat, however. As a small crowd waits for a Tyson workout, "More a warm-up," admits Stacey McKinley, one of Tyson's handlers, Croc works the crowd like a fluffer.
"Two more days and a wake-up!" he bellows to the assembled curiosity seekers, flotsam, jetsam, and a few of the more unremitting media types. "Mike Tyson will be champion of the world once again! London Bridge is falling down, and taking Lennox with it, right into that Miss'sippi River!"
People laugh. That's Croc's job. To stir the pot, make people laugh, engender emotional response, then make himself scarce when the fighting starts.
A TV cameraman asks Croc to repeat himself; he does so dutifully. Cameraman asks him to amend his emotional, off-the-cuff sincerity, but to instead say, "One day and a wake-up!" "Just a wake-up!" so they can use the timeless Croc footage each and every day leading up to the fight (as if they would).
Croc dutifully repeats himself. He even holds up his 3-year-old son and asks him who is the world's heavyweight champion. Rest assured the tyke doesn't say, "Lennox Lewis!" I hear Croc was not needed in Hawaii, where Tyson trained, and apparently, from the looks of him, trained with a vengeance, for a well-off middle-aged prizefighter. He looks up to the mark, for a 35-year-old man who can afford most if not all of his indulgences. He has hints of love handles, loose meat available, the elastic tautness of youth is gone forever, but he seems quick, and that is his only way, and really always was. He is not a big heavyweight, but a smaller one.
Lewis has certain availabilities and soft spots, too. These are not young men we are talking about here. This just makes for more action. Older men are not as afraid of being hit. I did not learn this from anyone in Tyson's camp. I learned it from Emanuel Steward, long ago. Tyson could use a Yoda. Lewis has one.
Tyson enters the 80-degree ballroom minutes later, with S. McKinley strapped up with sock-me gear and trainer Ronnie Shields in the ring offering advice and M. McCallum standing silently on the ring apron, looking like Jack Blackburn, but not really. Tyson skips some rope first, and three rows of children, most of them black, sit and watch him, after, of course, having been properly exhorted by Croc.
This is not an official press function, but the press has a habit of showing up where they're not wanted. It's sort of what they do. And that's the royal "they."
The Hit Man enters the room. Tommy Hearns, the immortal Motor City Cobra, the boxing Nosferatu who held five different world titles and had fights in four different decades, '70s, '80s, '90s and aughts.
He would be drawn here. The Lewis-Tyson fight figures to be all action until the bomb goes off. Will Tyson implode or explode? Figures to be the most action in the briefest time since Hearns vs. Hagler.
When I ask Hearns who he likes to win, Hearns is cryptically clear. "You know who I like."
The hot rod. The puncher. Once the action starts, it's not morality that moves people to make inarticulate, guttural roars -- "OHHhhh, OOOO! AHHHH! AHHH! AH!! AWWW! EEEEEE!" -- of appreciation; it's who hits the home runs; it's who falls out of the skies with a one-handed tomahawk over a bigger man; it's who knocks the other guy out. That's who moves people. That's why, come Saturday night, you will either be here, or you will want to know what's going on here, or you will want to hear what happened here, in detail if it went the way you think it should. You don't care? Hm. In some way, everybody cares about the outcome. As long as it goes their way. Everybody cares about this outcome, one way or another.
Say what you want (and Tyson has said plenty that has been dutifully recorded, clucked over, replayed, and engendered outrage, loathing and fear in a lot of people who have zero chance of ever encountering him), but Tyson had not said a word the day earlier, when an actual press conference was held, and most people, including us, were disappointed. That day was mostly given over to Croc. Today was supposed to be for the children, an idea from the owner of the hotel and casino, Don Barden. Tyson is only going to talk to them for a while. But the Fourth Estate is, if nothing else, relentless, including in its pursuit and exploitation of the feral, the disgusting ... and Tyson.
If it bleeds, it leads.
"Have you had any distractions this week."
Everybody laughs, and Mike smiles, but there is just a hint of a warning in the smile; the questioner is a Wet-Dry TV type, a bit down on his heels, with a ruddy complexion, and a hint of eager desperation. This is his chance; if he can get Tyson to go on a remorseless and spell-binding rant that would lead SportsCenter, it would get more work for him, maybe even get him out of this unholy backwater, not to mention hook up more consultations for everybody from the boxing analyst and amateur psychologist Teddy Atlas, who also once made a few paychecks with Tyson, to Dr. Joyce Brothers.
It's the thing to do; if the Wet-Dry Guy down on his heels in the teeny-tiny market TV guy could get into Tyson's kitchen off of a question he asked, well, Tyson would still be a bad guy but it wouldn't be a bad thing.
You know what I mean?
Sure you do.
And Tyson does, too. And therein lies the continuum. He sees our hypocrisy just as clearly and as assuredly and intractably as we see his pathology.
Nothing can alter our collision course. Except Lewis.
"What do you think of the people of Memphis?"
"I haven't been to the South before, but I went to the inner city of Memphis, and they all look like me. Everybody has gold teeth!"
Laughter from us all, including the media. We are sycophants in that we treat Tyson like Jay Leno when it comes to laughing at his jokes, but we get home, we murder him, and he is a willing accomplice in that crime. But really, for all of our outrage, how much different is Tyson than, say, Jake LaMotta? It's not like he's got his finger on the nuclear button, or setting the interest rate.
"There's been a lot of ill will between the camps ..."
"All these camps can talk, his guys my guys, but when we get into the ring, it'll just be me and him fighting." (Actually, it's just one guy -- while Tyson has this hydra-headed Cerebus Dog trainer, Lewis has only the counsel of Emanuel Steward. If the situations were reversed ... well, the situations couldn't be reversed; no way for Lennox Lewis to relate to Tyson's three trainers, and even to separate out their voices; Emanuel Steward could train Mike Tyson, though, I'm sure, and would, if the price was right.)
"Are you a role model?" insists Wet-Dry Guy.
"I don't know ... learn basically from watching me. I can't put a philosophy out there; all you kids, if you have determination and will power you can succeed."
"Should you be a role model. Are you a role model?"
"Of what not to do ... probably."
Another boxing question about how close he is to being what he was when he was the youngest heavyweight champion in history. An admission that he isn't, but a reminder that Lewis isn't that either.
"Do you feel pressure to be a role model?" Security begins to move in ...
"Nah, I don't feel pressure, Listen, I just live my life, the way I want to live my life ... it's just not in me to say, 'Yes sir, no sir.'"
"Jack Johnson! Jack Dempsey! Henry Armstrong! Rocky Marciana!" Croc pronounces it "Marciana" and his wails stick to the walls.
"Do you feel you have anything to prove on Saturday night?" a female reporter asks.
Mike Tyson does not attempt any sarcasm about fornication that can and would be taken strictly at face value. There is no need for that now; it will not help him hit Lewis. He can use his hands. Win, lose or draw, boxing is how he can express. There he can hit back. Here he seems almost pacific. Maybe it's the medication. Surely without it, two or three people would be dead now.
"No, listen, reality of the situation is, we're just two young men, or middle-aged men, however you want to say it, who are able to fight for the championship of the world. All this talk who says what, it doesn't mean anything now. It doesn't matter now. It's just a question of who can back up what he says."
Wet-Dry Guy "... if you are a role model ..."
"Can we just stick to Saturday night," pleads Shelley Finkel, the promoter. Shelley will be so glad to see this Saturday dawn.
Actually, backing up is key here. Nobody else has ever been able to successfully fight Tyson backing up. As Buster Douglass and Evander Holyfield proved, you must step to Tyson, overwhelm him with your own physicality, drape yourself over him like a dropcloth or attach yourself to his chest, or have a head like a bowling ball, and keep it dropped. Of course, your earlobes are at risk then; so is everything else, once you step in there.
Nobody would know the aspects of combat tactics better than Emanuel Steward. We'll detail his plans and analysis in more detail next week in a space similar to this, or maybe in ESPN the Magazine.
Let's just say, to agree with the promotion, it's on. Lewis has every edge but one. He's not Mike Tyson. He does not have the puncher's charm and chance. He's older, much bigger, has a better corner, and a mom who loves Al Green. He can smother Tyson's punches after landing his, walking in behind them. As long as his arms are outside of Tyson's and he is moving at forward angles, he should win going away.
And if he does win, Tyson goes away, only not in our heads, until his next incarnation, or until someday in the future when somebody recognizes the whole story of our morbid fascination and need for him. We need the nigger. We need him to lose. If he does, things are good, they go back to satisfied normal -- that is to say, dead -- in boxing. And maybe that's for the best.
But if Tyson wins ... tickticktickticktick ...
Tyson is sitting on a metal folding chair in the ring, near the apron, behind the ropes, which block out portions of his face from view, like horizontal prison bars. I reach in through No Man's Land, shake hands like I know him or something, which I do -- in a way, I know them all. Tyson, yeah, I've met him before. I know him, and I know of him ... well.
"JACK JOHNSON ...!"
The handshake? We hold it throughout the following brief conversation. None of this dainty fingers-only crap, the handshake you get from fighters whose hands are busted up, bones mended and fragile, the type given by Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali. Tyson shakes hands deep, to the hilt, firm, his hand not feeling like a brick like some fighters' do either. Not small. Big hands. Supple. A wide, even plane for a fist. Just a straight handshake, none of the cultural righteous black-man triple-move and finger pulloff snap to show how down you are. How can you be down and 35, or 50? Simple firm handshake.
You know where that tradition comes from? The Saxon dogs, I think; and they got it from the Vikings. They grabbed each other's right hand to keep the other guy from hitting you first ... or grabbing his sword and delivering upon you a mortal blow. They kicked ass in them days. Not like now. We're civilized now.
I say one word to Tyson:
He does not take that to mean the line favoring Lewis 2-to-1, even though we are in a casino.
"That Harvard professor, he has one out, right?"
Totally throws me, even though I should know better by now. I click on current publications icon in my brain; don't have gigabytes for this kind of work.
"Hmm ... say, you don't mean that novel by the law professor, Stephen L. Carter ("The Emperor of Ocean Park," or something like that? The woman is USA Today slobbered over it. Kakutani, the Times critic, gave it half-a-loaf -- said she liked the family aspects but hated the derivative pot-boiler intersticing) ..."
"No, no ... you know, the one titled 'NIGGER' ..."
"Oh yeah. Randall Kennedy ..."
"Funny that I wouldn't think of it just now."
"That is funny," he says. "Where're you from?"
"Funny. From here. Right here on the ground."
Lennox Lewis should win the fight going away.
But that's not why we're here, is it?
So I'm not picking him. I'm picking all of us, instead.
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."