By Joyce Carol Oates
22 November 1986. When twenty-year-old Mike Tyson enters the packed arena of the Las Vegas Hilton Convention Center, it is through a deafening wall of noise. A neutral observer would wonder: Is this young man already a champion?—a great champion? Of the nearly nine thousand people jammed into the arena—in seats as costly as $1,000 at ringside virtually everyone has come in expectation of seeing not merely a heavyweight title fight that promises to be unusually dramatic but boxing history itself. If Tyson takes away the World Boxing Council heavyweight title held by thirty three-year-old Trevor Berbick, as he has promised to do, he will become the youngest heavyweight champion in the sport’s recorded history. He will furfill the prophecy made by Cus D’Amato, his boxing trainer, mentor, and guardian, that he would one day break the record of another of D’Amato’s heavyweight prodigies, Floyd Patterson, who won the title shortly before his twenty-second birthday in 1956.
Mike Tyson, a boy warrior, has become legendary, in a sense, before there is a legend to define him. And never has the collective will of a crowd—the very nearly palpable wish of a crowd—been more powerfully expressed than it is tonight in Las Vegas. With his much-publicized 27-0 record as a professional boxer, of which twenty-five victories are knockouts (fifteen in the first round, several within sixty seconds), with so much expectation centered upon him as the “new hope” of heavyweight boxing, Tyson recalls the young Jack Dempsey, who fought his most spectacular fights before winning the heavyweight title. Like Dempsey in the upward trajectory of his career, Tyson suggests a savagery only symbolically contained within the brightly illuminated elevated ring, with its referee, its resident physician, its scrupulously observed rules, regulations, customs, and rituals. Like Dempsey he has the power to galvanize crowds as if awakening in them the instinct not merely for raw aggression and the mysterious will to do hurt that resides, for better or worse, in the human soul, but for suggesting incontestable justice of such an instinct: his is not the image of the Establishment-approved Olympic Gold Medalist Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard (indeed, it is said in boxing circles that Tyson was cheated of a gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games by way of the of the politics of amateur boxing), but the image of the outsider, the psychic outlaw, the hungry young black contender for all that white America can give. In a weight division in which hard punching is the point, Tyson has acquired a reputation for being an awesome fighter, as much admired and feared among his coevals as Sonny Liston, George Foreman, and Rocky Marciano were in their times: he has been called a “tank,” a “young bull,” a “killer,” a “block of granite”; a force primitive and irresistible as nature. As one observer noted, there is something of a comic-book quality about Tyson’s fights—the violence is so exaggerated it has a surrealist air. Opponents are propelled across the ring, fall insensible into the ropes, or, fully conscious, lose muscular control in their legs; they lie without moving for what seems a very long time. The violence may appear primitive and surrealist but it is thoughtfully administered: the result, as Tyson explains carefully in his soft, earnest, boyish voice, of punches thrown with a “bad intention in a vital area.” Cus D’Amato was, among other things, a “master of anatomy.”
Tyson himself has spoken of the phenomenon of Mike Tyson in gladiatorial terms: the warrior’s vow to fight to the death if necessary precludes and makes irrelevant all merely personal motives, all conventional rationalizations for what he does. Boxing is his life, his vocation; his calling. The Roman boast of munera sine missione in the gladiatorial games—no mercy shown—would be perfectly logical to him. And so mesmerizing has the young boxer become in his scant eighteen months as a professional, his appearance in the ring tonight in Las Vegas, his mere physical presence, captivates the crowd’s attention to the degree that the entrance of reigning WBC champion Trevor Berbick goes virtually unnoticed. Even the blazoning recorded music is abruptly and mysteriously silenced.
Mike Tyson—”Kid Dynamite” as he has lately been billed—exudes an air of tension, control, fierce concentration. At five feet eleven inches, he is short for a heavyweight and strikes the eye as shorter still; his 222 1/4-pound body is so sculpted in muscle it looks foreshortened, brutally compact. (Berbick, at 218 1/2 pounds, stands six feet two inches—not a large man by today’s heavyweight standards—and will have a daunting seven-inch reach advantage.) Indeed, Tyson is so muscular as to resemble a bodybuilder rather than a boxer, for whom upper-body flexibility is crucial; his neck measures an extraordinary nineteen inches—larger than any heavyweight champion’s since the circus strongman Primo Carnera. His hair is trimmed savagely short, Dempsey-style, along the back and sides, as if it were done with a razor; he wears not a robe but a crude white terrycloth pullover that looks as if he might have made it himself and, as usual, no socks—”I feel more like a warrior this way”; and though his managers Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton will be fined $5,000 by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for the privilege, Tyson is wearing the black trunks that have become his trademark. (Trevor Berbick, who usually wears white, preempted black for his trunks—very likely because he resents the extraordinary prefight publicity Tyson has engendered and the humiliating fact that, though the young challenger has never met an opponent of Berbick’s stature, he is a 3-to-1 favorite to win tonight.) Tyson remains the object of the crowd’s rapt attention. He is pumped up, covered in sweat, ready to fight. Though this is the hour—the very moment—to which the past six years of his life have been subordinated, he gives no sign of nerves and will say, afterward, that he was “calm” and “relaxed” in the knowledge that he could not fail.
As he gives Tyson final instructions, his trainer, Kevin Rooney—himself a D’Amato protege—touches foreheads with him and kisses him lightly on the cheek. (Strangers to boxing’s eerie combination of violence and childlike affection are invariably startled by such gestures, as by the abruptness with which, after the final bell, boxers often embrace each other in mutual gratitude for the fight. But such behavior, as spontaneous as it is traditional, and as natural as it is apparently contradictory, lies at the very heart of boxing.) As soon as the bell sounds, opening round one, Tyson rushes out of his corner to bring the fight to Berbick. In these quicksilver seconds, when far more happens than the eye, let alone the verbalizing consciousness, can absorb, it is clear that Tyson is the stronger of the two, the more dominant; willful. He pushes forward unmindful of Berbick’s greater age and experience; the fight is to be his fight. If boxing is as much a contest of psyches as of physical prowess, it is soon clear that Tyson, on the attack, throwing beautifully controlled punches, is the superior boxer; and he is fast—unexpectedly fast. “This kid don’t let you do what you want to do,” Berbick’s trainer Angelo Dundee will say after the fight. “He created the pressure and my guy didn’t react to the pressure . . . . He throws combinations I never saw before. When have you seen a guy throw a right hand to the kidney, come up the middle with an uppercut, then throw a left hook. He throws punches . . . Iike a trigger.” (This in significant contrast to Tyson’s less effective performances against Jose Ribalta in August 1986 and James “Quick” Tillis in May: the improvement, in so brief a period of time, is remarkable.) For those of us who have been watching preliminary bouts for the past two and a half hours, including a perfectly controlled but lackluster if not contemptuous performance by former WBC champion Pinklon Thomas, the quality of Tyson’s fighting—one might say Tyson’s being—is profound. The impact of certain of his body blows is felt in the farthest corners of the arena; the intensity of his fighting is without parallel. As an observer notes, Tyson’s punches even sound different from other boxers’ punches. In the ring, in the terrible intensity of action, Tyson is both sui generis and as stylized as the heraldic, struggling figures painted by George Bellows in such famous oils as “Stag at Sharkey’s” and “Dempsey and Firpo.” It seems suddenly possible that, as Cus D’Amato predicted, Tyson differs not merely in degree but in kind from his fellow boxers.
Early in the second round, Tyson knocks Berbick to the canvas with a powerful combination of blows, including a left hook; when Berbick manages to get gamely to his feet he is knocked down a second time with a left hook to the head—to be precise, to the right temple, a “vital area.” (As Tyson will say afterward, he had come to “destroy” the champion: “Every punch had a murderous intention.”) Accompanied by the wild clamor of the crowd as by an exotic sort of music, Berbick struggles to his feet, his expression glazed like that of a man trapped in a dream; he lurches across the ring on wobbly legs, falls another time, onto the ropes; as if by a sheer effort of will gets up, staggers across the ring in the opposite direction, is precariously on his feet when the referee, Mills Lane, stops the fight. No more than nine seconds have passed since Tyson’s blow but the sequence, in slow motion, has seemed much longer . . . . The nightmare image of a man struggling to retain consciousness and physical control before nine thousand witnesses is likely to linger in the memory: it is an image as inevitable in boxing as that of the ecstatic boxer with his gloved hands raised in triumph.
At two minutes thirty-five seconds of the second round, the fight is over and twenty-year-old Mike Tyson is the new WBC champion. “I am the heavyweight champion of the world,” he tells the television audience, “and I will fight anybody in the world.”
The post-Ali era has finally ended.
Boxing is our most controversial American sport, always, it seems, on the brink of being abolished. Its detractors speak of it in contempt as a “so-called ‘sport,'” and surely their logic is correct: if “sport” means harmless play, boxing is not a sport; it is certainly not a game. But “sport” can signify a paradigm of life, a reduction of its complexities in terms of a single symbolic action—in this case its competitiveness, the cruelty of its Darwinian enterprise—defined and restrained by any number of rules, regulations, and customs: in which case boxing is probably, as the ex-heavyweight champion George Foreman has said, the sport to which all other sports aspire. It is the quintessential image of human struggle, masculine or otherwise, against not only other people but one’s own divided self. Its kinship with Roman gladiatorial combat—in which defeated men usually died—is not historically accurate but poetically relevant. In his classic Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen speaks of sport in general as “an expression of the barbarian temperament,” and it is a commonplace assumption for many boxers, particularly for young boxers like Mike Tyson, that in the ring they are fighting for their lives. (As Tyson said excitedly, following the Berbick fight, “I refuse to get hurt, I refuse to get knocked down, I refuse to lose—I would have to be killed—carried out of the ring. I would not be hurt.”)
It should be kept in mind, however, that for all its negative publicity, and the sinister glamour of certain of its excesses, boxing is not our most dangerous sport. It ranks in approximately seventh place, after football, Thoroughbred racing, sports car racing, mountain climbing, et al. (It is far less systematically violent than professional football, for instance, in which, in a single season, hundreds of players are likely to be fined for the willful infraction of rules.) And in a time of sports mania unparalleled in our history, boxing remains the only major sport accessible to what is piously called “underprivileged” youth—the others are Establishment-controlled, sealed off from penetration by men with the backgrounds of Larry Holmes, Hector Camacho, Marvin Hagler, Mike Tyson.
It has always been, in any case, from the days of bareknuckle prizefighting to the present, the sport that people love to hate. Its image of men pitted against each other in man-to-man warfare is too stark, too extreme, to be assimilated into “civilized” society. “You’re fighting, you’re not playing the piano, you know,” welterweight champion Fritzie Zivic once said.
“Yes, I’m fighting for my life in the ring,” Mike Tyson tells me. And, “I love boxing.” And, a little later, “Am I a born boxer? No—if I was, I’d be perfect.”
In person Mike Tyson exudes the air of an intensely physical being; he is guarded, cautious in his speech, wary of strangers, unfailingly courteous. His intelligence expresses itself elliptically, as if through a mask—though not the death’s-head mask of the ring that so intimidates opponents. No doubt the referee’s classic admonition, “Protect yourself at all times!” rings in his ears in situations like this—an interview, one of numberless interviews, thrust upon him in the ever-burgeoning phenomenon of Fame. (It is difficult to believe Tyson will ever be fully—narcissistically—comfortable in his celebrity as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard are in theirs.)
Tyson is a young man, a phenomenon, one might say, of paradoxical qualities: more complex, and more self-analytical, than he has seemed willing, in public, to acknowledge. With his boyish gap-toothed smile and his earnest voice he has disarmed speculation about his future as a precocious titleholder by telling reporters repeatedly that his life is simple: “You wouldn’t believe how simple it is. I’m too young to worry about so many things. I let them worry.” (Meaning that his professional affairs are handled—and handled, it would seem, with consummate skill—by managers Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton of Big Fights Inc. and trainer Kevin Rooney.) He acquiesces to media descriptions of himself as a”boy champion”; he speaks, not, it seems, disingenuously, of being a “kid” whose career is a masterwork guided by others—primarily, of course, by the late Cus D’Amato. (“Cus laid the groundwork for Mike’s career,” Jim Jacobs tells me. “And when I say Cus laid the groundwork, I mean he laid the groundwork—for Mike’s entire future career.”) The young boxer’s relationship to his handlers and to his “family”—an intimate though not blood-related constellation of men and women linked by way of D’Amato—allows him the freedom-within-discipline of the child prodigy in music whose teacher and parents zealously protect him from the outside world.
And it is readily clear, speaking with Mike Tyson in the presence of Jim and Loraine Jacobs (my interview was conducted in the Jacobses’ apartment in the East Forties, Manhattan, surrounded by boxing memorabilia that includes an entire wall of films and tapes), that he is fully aware of his good fortune; he understands that his emotional-professional situation is close to unique in the notoriously unsentimental world of professional boxing. He is loved by his family and he loves them—it is that simple, and that enviable. If in one sense, like other star athletes of our time, Mike Tyson is a child, he is also a fully, even uncannily mature man—a twenty-year-old like no other I have ever encountered.
“I’m happy when I’m fighting. The day of the fight—leading up to it—I’m happy,” he says. In his black wool-and-leather sweater, black brushed corduroy trousers, a jewel-studded gold bracelet on his wrist, Mike Tyson looks very different from the man who “destroyed” Trevor Berbick seven days ago in Las Vegas; very different from the iconographic photographs of him that have appeared in various publications, here and abroad. (The Japanese are much taken with Tyson: his photograph has been on the cover not only of sports magazines but of movie and general-interest magazines. How to explain his popularity there, where he has never visited? Tyson smiles and shrugs. “Who knows?”) Loraine Jacobs shows me a remarkable photograph of Tyson by Ken Regan of Camera 5 in which, in his boxing trunks, eerily shadowed and outlined by light, Tyson looks like a statue, or a robot—a high-tech fantasy of sheerly masculine threat and aggression. I ask Tyson what he thinks of his image—does it seem strange to him, to be so detached from a “Mike Tyson” who both is and is not himself—and Tyson murmurs something vaguely philosophical, like, “What can you do?” Yet it is clear that he too is fascinated by the phenomenon of Tyson; he remarks, a little later, that it would be interesting if he could in some way be in the audience at one of his own fights, where the excitement is. In the ring, in the cynosure of action, the fighter does not experience himself; what appears to the crowd as an emotionally charged performance is coolly calibrated. If Tyson feels fear—which, he acknowledges, he does—he projects his fear onto the opponent, as Cus D’Amato instructed: but little emotion is ever visible on Mike Tyson’s own face.
If Tyson is happy in the ring, unlike many boxers who come to dislike and dread their own life’s work, it is perhaps because he hasn’t been hurt; hasn’t been seriously hit; has never met an opponent who was in any sense a match for him. (Do any exist? Right now? Tyson and his circle don’t think so.) At the age of twenty he believes himself invulnerable, and who, watching him in action, would deny it? One of the fascinations of this new young titleholder is the air he exudes of “immortality” in the flesh—it is the fascination of a certain kind of innocence.
Asked after the Berbick fight why he is so concerned with establishing a record “that will never, ever be broken,” Tyson said, “I want to be immortal! I want to live forever!” He was being funny, of course—he often is, making such pronouncements to the press. But he was also, of course, deadly serious.
Baptized Catholic, he no longer practices the faith but believes, he says, in God. As for life after death—”When you’re dead, that’s it.” He is quick to acknowledge the extraordinary good fortune, amounting very nearly to the miraculous, that has characterized his life beyond the age of twelve, when, as a particularly unhappy inmate of the Tryon School for Boys in Johnstown, New York, a juvenile detention facility to which he was sent after committing burglaries and robberies in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, he was brought to the attention of the elderly Cus D’Amato—a man who, judging by the testimony of numerous observers, seems to have had the mystical qualities of a Zen Master. But Cus D’Amato was a boxing trainer par excellence who had already cultivated another juvenile delinquent, Floyd Patterson, into a prodigy-champion heavyweight in the 1950s, and had discovered Jose Torres (world light-heavyweight champion 1965-66 and current head of the New York State Boxing Commission) as an amateur boxer in Puerto Rico. The story is that, having observed the untrained thirteen-year-old Tyson box a few rounds in the gym he ran above the police station in Catskill, New York, D’Amato said to a Tryon School boxing coach: “That’s the heavyweight champion of the world. If he wants it, it’s his.”
This is the stuff of legend, of course. Yet it happens to be true. The precocious criminal-to-be Tyson’s earliest arrests were at the age of ten—is taken up by one of boxing history’s greatest trainers; is released into D’Amato’s custody and, two years later, is officially adopted by him; lives, trains, most importantly is nourished, in Catskill, New York, in a fourteen-room house shared by D’Amato and his sister-in-law, Camille Ewald—far from the corrosive atmosphere of the black ghetto, in which, judging from his record, the young Mike Tyson would have been doomed. “Cus was my father but he was more than a father,” Tyson says. “You can have a father and what does it mean?—it doesn’t really mean anything. Cus was my backbone . . . . He did everything for my best interest . . . . We’d spend all our time together, talk about things that, later on, would come back to me. Like about character, and courage. Like the hero and the coward: that the hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.” (Jim Jacobs tells me afterward that much of what Mike says is Cus D’Amato speaking; much of what he says is Cus D’Amato speaking.) Quite apart from his genius as a boxing trainer, D’Amato appears to have been a genius of a spiritual sort, if “genius” is not an inappropriate term in this context. Like a devoted religious elder he instilled in Tyson, and no doubt in others of his young boxer acolytes, qualities of an abstract nature: self-denial, discipline, will, integrity, independence, “character.” It was D’Amato’s belief that a fighter’s character is more important ultimately than his skill: a perception proven, in the ring, only in the most arduous of fights—one thinks of the virtually Shakespearean struggles of the first Ali/Frazier match, the 1941 Louis/Conn match, the Leonard/Hearns. Most importantly, D’Amato instilled in Tyson that most invaluable and mysterious of gifts, an unwavering faith in himself. “He said I would be the youngest heavyweight in history,” marvels Tyson. “And what he said turned out to be true. Cus knew it all along.”
Jim Jacobs, D’Amato’s devoted friend, a boxing manager of enormous reputation and prestige and the archivist of twenty-six thousand boxing films, says that D’Amato’s word regarding Tyson’s promise was enough for him: there was no one in the world whose judgment he trusted more than Cus D’Amato’s. “When Cus told me that Mike Tyson was going to be heavyweight champion of the world, that’s all I had to hear.” So internalized is D’Amato’s voice, and his instructions regarding the nurturing of the young heavyweight, Jacobs says that when he thinks about what he is doing, he has only to “press a button in my head and I can hear Cus talking to me. What I am doing is precisely and exactly what Cus told me to do.”
If Tyson looked upon D’Amato as a father—Tyson’s “real” father seems never to have figured in his life—it is evident that D’Amato looked upon Tyson as a son. In an interview for People shortly before his death, D’Amato told William Plummer that the boy meant “everything” to him. “If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be living today. See, I believe nature’s a lot smarter than anybody thinks. During the course of a man’s life he develops a lot of pleasures and people he cares about. Then nature takes them away one by one. It’s her way of preparing you for death. See, I didn’t have the pleasures any longer. My friends were gone, I didn’t hear things, I didn’t see things clearly, except in memory . . . . So I said I must be getting ready to die. Then Mike came along. The fact that he is here and is doing what he is doing gives me the motivation to stay alive.” Though D’Amato died of pneumonia in November 1985, aged seventy-seven, approximately a year before Tyson became the youngest titleholder in heavyweight history, he seems to be alive, still, in Tyson’s soul. One man’s faith in another can go no further.
Yet it would be imprecise to say that Mike Tyson is D’Amato’s creature solely. His initial social shyness masks a quick, restless intelligence; he is not without humor regarding even the vicissitudes of his early life. Of his years as a child criminal—during which time, as the youngest member of a gang, he was frequently entrusted with holding a gun during robberies—he has said, “Please don’t think I was really bad. I used to rob and steal but other guys did worse things—they murdered people.” At times Tyson lived on the Bedford-Stuyvesant streets, slept in abandoned buildings like a feral child. When he was arrested, aged eleven, and sent to the Tryon School for Boys, no one could have guessed how his life, ironically, had been saved. He was violent, depressed, mute; one of the most intractable of the “incorrigible” boys. When he broke loose it required several adult men to overpower him. One official recalls having seen him dragged away in handcuffs, to be locked in solitary confinement.
Mike Tyson’s story reminded me of those legendary tales of abandoned children so particularly cherished by the European imagination—Kasper Hauser of Nurnberg, the “wild boy” of the Aveyron. Such tales appeal to our sense of wonder, mystery, and dread; and to our collective guilt. These children, invariably boys, are “natural” and “wild”; not precisely mute but lacking a language; wholly innocent of the rudiments of human social relations. They are homeless, parentless, nameless, “redeemable” only by way of the devotion of a teacher father—not unlike Tyson’s Cus D’Amato. But even love is not enough to save the mysteriously doomed Kasper Hauser, whose story ends as abruptly and as tragically as it begins. And the “wild boy” of the Aveyron loses the freshness of his soul even as he acquires the skills of language and social intercourse.
There is nothing nostalgic, however, about Tyson’s feelings for his past. Many of his boyhood friends are in jail or dead; both his parents are deceased; he has a sister and a brother, both older, with whom he appears to be on friendly but not intimate terms. If he returns to his old neighborhood it is as a visitor of conspicuous dimensions: a hero, a “boy champion,” a Sports Illustrated cover in the flesh. Like Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Larry Holmes, et al., Mike Tyson has become a model of success for “ghetto youth,” though his personal code of conduct, his remarkably assured sense of himself, owes nothing at all to the ghetto. He is trained, managed, and surrounded, to an unusual degree, by white men, and though he cannot be said to be a white man’s black man he is surely not a black man’s black man in the style of, for instance, Muhammad Ali (whose visit to Tyson’s grammar school in Brooklyn made a powerful impression on him at the age of ten). Indeed, it might be said that Mike Tyson will be the first heavyweight boxer in America to transcend issues of race—a feat laudable or troubling, depending upon one’s perspective. (In the light of which, a proposed match between Tyson and the zealously overpromoted “White Hope” candidate Gerry Cooney would have interesting consequences: allegiances are likely not to break down along cursory color lines.)
He will do what he can, Tyson says, to promote blacks, but he does not intend to become involved in politics. He will visit schools, make public appearances, do anti-drug commercials for the FBI and the State of New York. If his replies to questions about black consciousness—its literature, art, history—are rather vague, it should be said that his replies to most questions that deal with culture in a larger sense are vague. Tyson dropped out of Catskill High School in his senior year—”I hated it there”—to concentrate on his amateur boxing in clubs and Golden Gloves competitions under the tutelage of D’Amato; and at this point his formal education, such as it was, seems to have ended. He has virtually no interest in music—”I could live without music.” He shrugs aside queries about art, dance, literature; his reading is limited to boxing books and magazines. With Jim Jacobs’s library of twenty-six thousand fight films at his disposal he watches old fights with an almost scholarly passion—surely this is unusual, in a practitioner? (Jim Jacobs assures me it is.) For entertainment Tyson watches videos of karate movies, horror movies, occasionally even children’s cartoons: no serious dramas, and no movies about the lives of fictionalized boxers. I am spared asking him the obligatory question about the preposterous Rocky movies.
It should not be assumed, on the evidence of the above, that Mike Tyson is not intelligent; or that he is intellectually limited. On the contrary, I sensed in him the prodigy’s instinctive husbanding of the self: he dares not allow his imagination freedom in areas only peripheral to the cultivation of his talent. Because he is an unusually sensitive person—sensitive to others’ feelings, not merely to his own—he does not want to be forced to expend himself in feeling, or in thinking; except of course on his own terms. The awareness of life’s tragic ambiguity that serious art provides—the perception, as Henry James describes it in the preface to What Maisie Knew, that no themes are so human “as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connection of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us for ever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody’s right and ease and the other somebody’s pain and wrong”—would be disastrous for the warrior boxer. When, the story goes, Alexis Arguello (the great champion of the featherweight, junior lightweight, and lightweight divisions) met Roberto Duran (the great champion of the lightweight and welterweight divisions) and proffered his hand to shake, Duran backed away and screamed, “Get away! You’re crazy! I’m not your friend!” To acknowledge friendship, let alone brotherhood, always makes it difficult to kill—or to provide for spectators the extraordinary mimicry of killing that boxing of the quality of Mike Tyson’s involves. Life is real and painful, and steeped in ambiguity; in the boxing ring there is either/or. Either you win, or you lose.
The brilliant boxer is an artist, albeit in an art not readily comprehensible, or palatable, to most observers. The instruments of his art are his own and his opponent’s bodies. That it is, in a sense, a contemplative art contemplated, dreamt-of, for weeks, months, even years before it is executed—is a proposition important to understand if one is to understand the boxer. (“It’s a lonely sport,” Mike Tyson, who is surrounded by people who love him, says.) Obsession is not greatness but greatness is obsession, so it is no accident that, in his ambition to be not only the youngest titleholder in heavyweight history but (I would guess) the greatest titleholder of all time, Tyson is always, in a spiritual sense, in training. His admiration for past boxers—Stanley Ketchel, Jack Dempsey, Henry Armstrong, Kid Chocolate—and, not least, Roberto Duran, of whom he speaks with genuine awe is the admiration of the shrewd apprentice for his elders, not necessarily his betters. When I ask Tyson to assess his heavyweight contemporaries, men he will be meeting in the ring in the next few years, he again becomes purposefully vague, saying he doesn’t think too much about them: “That would drive me crazy.” Pinklon Thomas, Gerry Cooney, Carl Williams, Tyrell Biggs, Bert Cooper—he’d rather change the subject. And this instinct too is correct: the boxer must concentrate upon his opponents one by one, each in turn: in the collective, they cannot be granted existence. I am reminded of a diary entry of Virginia Woolf’s to the effect that she does not dare read her serious rivals. “Do I instinctively keep my mind from analysing, which would impair its creativeness? . . . No creative writer can swallow another contemporary. The reception of living work is too coarse and partial if you’re doing the same thing yourself” (20 April 1935).
Similarly, Tyson does not want to think overmuch about fatal accidents in the ring. He takes it for granted that he will not, indeed cannot, be hurt—”I’m too good for that to happen”; on the subject of an opponent’s fate at his hands he is matter-of-fact and pragmatic. He is a boxer, he does his job—throwing punches until his opponent is defeated. If, as in the infamous Griffith-Paret match of 1962, in which Paret, trapped in the ropes, was struck eighteen unanswered blows by Griffith, death does occur, that is no one’s fault: it can be said to be an accident. “Each of you takes the same chance, getting into the ring,” Tyson says in his soft, considered, alternately slow and hurried voice—one of the voices, perhaps, of Cus D’Amato. “That you might die. It might happen.”
I ask Tyson what he was thinking when the stricken Berbick tried to get to his feet and he says quickly, “I hoped he wasn’t hurt,” and adds, “It was a deliberate punch, to the head—a bad intention in a vital area.” The anatomical areas Tyson has been taught to strike with his sledgehammer blows include the liver, the kidneys, the heart, and, as in Berbick’s case, a certain spot on the temple which, if struck hard enough, will cause a man to drop immediately to the canvas. He will be fully conscious, as Berbick was, but paralyzed. Helpless. Down for the count.
And Tyson is confident that he himself cannot be hurt—in any serious, permanent way?
“That’s right. I can’t be. I’m too good.”
Following the accidental death of one of the Flying Wallendas some years ago, a surviving member of the family of famous aerial-trapeze performers told the press that none of them had any intention of quitting. “All of life,” he said, “is just getting through the time between acts.”
So too with the fighter who loves to fight; the man whose identity is so closely bound up with the ring that it might be said he has none, publicly speaking, outside it. His creative work is done only in the ring and only at certain designated times. Taped, it becomes permanent; it is himself—or all that posterity will know of him.
The extraordinary upward trajectory of Mike Tyson’s career—twenty-eight professional fights in eighteen months—has been the result of discipline and concentration so fierce as to resemble monastic devotion. Now that he is a tideholder, and a celebrity, and no longer a hungry young contender, Tyson’s sense of himself has irrevocably altered; though he has yet to unify the heavyweight title—to do so, he will have to beat “Bonecrusher” Smith for the WBA title and the elusive Michael Spinks for the IBF title—he is already being called, and, in excited moments, calls himself, the heavyweight champion of the world. He has outdistanced his contemporaries—the new young generation of boxers that includes such Olympic Gold Medalists as Tyrell Biggs, Mark Breland, Paul Gonzales, Meldrick Taylor, and Pernell Whittaker; he is the first among them to win not only a title but enormous popular success. “When I was a kid I wanted to be famous—I wanted to be somebody,” Mike Tyson says. And: “If someone right now is going to be famous, I’m glad it’s me.” But fame and the rewards of fame are, in a very real sense, the counterworld of the boxer’s training: they represent all that must be repressed in the service of the boxer’s real, as opposed to his merely public, career. When boxers retire it is primarily because of the terrible rigors of training, not the risks of defeat, injury, or even death in the ring. (The boxer who is generally credited with having trained hardest is Rocky Marciano, who commonly spent upward of two months preparing for a fight. And when Marciano decided to retire, undefeated, at the age of thirty-three, it was because the sacrifices of the training camp outweighed the rewards of celebrity: “No kind of money can make me fight again,” Marciano said.) The existential experience of the fight itself—spectacular, amplified, recorded in its every minute detail—is not only the culmination of the formidable training period but, in its very flowering, or fruition, it presents the boxer-as-performer to the world. Very likely this physical expenditure of the self (Tyson typically refers to it as “matching my boxing skills against my opponent’s”), this bedrock of what’s real, casts the remainder of life into a light difficult to assess. Life outside the ring is real enough-yet is it really real? Not public display as such but the joy of the body in its straining to the very limits of ingenuity and endurance underlies the motive for such feats of physical prowess as championship boxing or aerial-trapeze work. The performer is rewarded by his performance as an end in itself; he becomes addicted, as who would not, to his very adrenaline. All of life is just getting through the time between acts.
Since Mike Tyson is a young man gifted with a highly refined sense of irony, if not a sense of the absurd, it cannot have escaped his attention that, much of the time, in public places like the expensive midtown restaurant in which our party has dinner following the interview, or the reception two weeks later in a private suite in Madison Square Garden before the Witherspoon-Smith elimination match, he is likely to be the only black in attendance. He is likely to be the youngest person in attendance, and the only man not dressed in a suit and tie. Above all he is likely to be the only person with a gold tooth and a homemade tattoo (“Mike” on his right bicep); and the only person who, not many years before, was so violent and uncontrollable (“I went berserk sometimes”) he had to be forcibly restrained. But when I mention some of this to a fellow guest at the Garden reception the man looks at me as if I have said something not only bizarre but distasteful. “I doubt that Mike thinks in those terms,” he says. Not even that Tyson is the only black in this gathering of well-to-do white people, an observation that would appear to be simple fact? But no, I am assured: “Mike Tyson doesn’t think in those terms.”
Following a brief speech by the gentleman who runs Madison Square Garden, Tyson is presented with a ceremonial gift: a glass paperweight apple symbolizing New York City. He is photographed, he smiles genially, expresses his thanks for the paperweight, stands looking at it, for a moment, with a bemused expression. When, afterward, I ask Tyson how he likes being a celebrity—since, after all, he wanted to be famous—he says, “It’s okay.” Then: “Most of the time these things drive me crazy.” I observe that he has learned to smile very nicely for photographers, and he responds with a violent parody of a celebrity smile: a death’s-head grimace that is fierce, funny, self-mocking, inspired.
Four weeks later, still being photographed—this time by photographers for two magazines simultaneously—Tyson is back in training in Catskill, New York, in a third-floor walkup gym above Catskill Police Headquarters on Main Street. The gym is small, well-weathered, romantically shabby; owned and operated by the city of Catskill but leased for $1 a year to the Cus D’Amato Memorial Boxing Club, a nonprofit organization. In the spareness of the gym’s equipment as in the sentiment that so clearly accrues to its homeliest features, it is the very antithesis of today’s high-tech high-gloss athletic clubs. It contains only a single ring and a few punching bags; its ceiling is high and blistered, its lights antiquated. Its peeling walls are covered with newspaper clippings, announcements of the Catskill Boxing Club, photographs and posters of great champions (Louis, Walcott, Charles, Marciano, Patterson, et al.), reproductions of magazine covers. Mike Tyson’s entire career is recorded here, in miniature, and, beneath the legend WE MOURN HIS PASSING, there are numerous clippings and photographs pertaining to the late Cus D’Amato, who once presided over the Boxing Club. Tyson prefers this gym to any other, naturally: it was here he began training, aged thirteen, and here that D’Amato’s spirit still resounds. The gym is as indelibly imprinted in Tyson’s imagination as any place on earth, and one must suppose that his prodigious youthful success has consecrated it in turn.
No athletes train more rigorously than boxers, and no present-day boxer is more serious about his training than Mike Tyson. Indeed, for the first eighteen months of his career he seems to have kept in condition more or less as the legendary Harry Greb did—by fighting virtually all the time. Today Tyson has done his morning roadwork—”three to five miles; I like it then ’cause I’m alone”—and is now going through the exercises that constitute “preliminary” training. (In Las Vegas he will work with at least five sparring partners. As Jim Jacobs explains, the sparring partners need time to recover.) Dressed in a black leotard and blowsy white trunks he moves from “work” station to station, closely attended by his trainer, Rooney, whom he clearly respects, and for whom he feels a good deal of affection, perhaps, at least in part, because Rooney is himself a D’Amato protege—a welterweight who once boxed on the U.S. Boxing Team—and even shared one or two cards with Tyson, when he was already Tyson’s trainer.
The drills are fierce and demand more concentration, strength, and sheer physical endurance than any fight Tyson has yet fought. Rooney has set a timer made up of two bulbs, red and green, to monitor each drill, the red telling Tyson to pause, the latter to resume. First he jumps rope, as if in a kind of trance, the rope moving too swiftly to be seen; the spectacle of a man of Tyson’s build, so light on his feet, so seemingly weightless, has a preternatural quality. Next the heavy bag: Rooney wraps his hands with white tape, Tyson puts on gloves, pushes the bag with his left, then pummels it with combinations as it swings back to him. Rooney stands close and after each flurry the two confer, even as the heavy bag still swings treacherously in and around them. As he launches his hooks Tyson leaps from point to lateral point with extraordinary agility—as if his upper body remains stationary while his lower body moves in sharp angles out of which solidly anchored punches are shot. These are blows of such daunting power it is difficult to comprehend how they could be absorbed by any human being . . . any fellow creature of flesh, bone, and blood.
Rooney is game to try, at least for a while, wearing padded mitts over his hands and forearms; then they move on to the “slip” bag, where Tyson bobs and weaves, eluding his invisible opponent’s best-aimed blows to the head. Last, the speed bag. In the blurred and confusing action of a fight it is not so readily clear, as it is in the gym, that Tyson’s relative shortness (he is considered a “little” heavyweight) is really to his advantage. Most of his opponents are taller than he, if not invariably heavier, so that they are obliged to punch at a downward angle, utilizing only their shoulder and arm muscles; while Tyson can punch upward, utilizing not only his shoulder and arm muscles but his leg muscles as well—and these muscles are massive. By crouching, he can make himself shorter, and yet more elusive. (As Jim Jacobs has explained, “People speak of a ‘height advantage’ when what they’re really referring to is a ‘height disadvantage.’ If a boxer is good, and shorter than his opponent, the advantage is his, and not his opponent’s. The same thing holds true with the fallacy of the ‘reach advantage’—a boxer has a ‘reach advantage’ only if he is superior to his opponent.”) But the strangest, most dazzling thing about Tyson’s boxing style is really his speed: his incredible speed. How, one wonders, can he do it? Weighing what he does, and built as he is? And will he be able to keep it up, in the years to come?
“Eat, sleep, and train,” says Kevin Rooney. “Mike loves to train.”
But: “I’m tired,” Tyson says several times, in a soft, nearly inaudible voice. (He is still being photographed.) In his black leotard, towel in hand, he is literally drenched in sweat; exuding sweat like tears. One can see how much easier fighting has been for him than the regimen Rooney has devised—so many of Tyson’s fights have lasted less than five minutes, against opponents lacking the skill to so much as raise a welt on his face, or cause him to breathe hard. And this training session is only the beginning—on February 3 he leaves for Las Vegas and four weeks of “intensive” training.
He showers, dresses, reappears in jeans, a white tuniclike jacket, stylish tweed cap, brilliantly white Gucci sports shoes—surely the only shoes of their kind in Catskill, New York? When we’re photographed together in a corner of the ring he complains in my ear of the hours he has endured that day alone, facing cameras: “You can’t believe it! On and on!” Fame’s best-kept secret—its soul-numbing boredom—has begun to impress itself upon Mike Tyson.
Catskill, New York, is a small town of less than six thousand inhabitants. Its well-kept wood-frame houses have that prewar American look so immediately appealing to some of us—the very architecture of nostalgia. Like Main Street, with its Newberry’s Five-and-Dime, Joe’s Food Market, Purina Chows, the Town of Catskill town hall a storefront facing the police station, and the village offices—clerk, treasurer, tax collector—in the same building as the Catskill Boxing Club. Parking here is five cents an hour.
Mike Tyson lives two or three miles away, in one of the largest and most attractive houses in town, the home of Mrs. Camille Ewald, Cus D’Amato’s sister-in-law. The house is at the end of an unpaved, seemingly private road, immaculately kept outside and in, yet comfortable—”I’ve lived here for seven years now,” Tyson says proudly. He leads me through a kitchen and through a parlor room gleaming with trophies he doesn’t acknowledge and we sit at one end of an immense living room while, from varying distances, a photographer (from Japan) continues to take candid shots of him he doesn’t acknowledge either.
Life in Catskill is quiet and nourishingly routine: up at 6 A.M., to bed at 9 P.M. Daily workouts at the gym with Rooney; a diet of meat, vegetables, pasta, fruit juice—never any alcohol or caffeine; a modicum, in this semirural environment, of monastic calm. But there are numerous distractions: last week Tyson addressed a junior high school in New York City, under the auspices of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and tomorrow he is due to fly to Jamaica for a boxing banquet at which, however improbably, Don King is going to be given a humanitarian award—”But I’m not going; I’m too tired.” He speaks soberly of the responsibility of celebrity; the fact that fame requires, of its conscientious recipients, a degree of civic servitude. The awareness weighs upon him almost visibly.
With equal sobriety, and a mysterious conviction, Tyson goes on to say that friends, certain friends—”some of them the ones you like best”—can’t be relied upon. “They want to be your friend, or say they do, then the least thing that goes wrong—” He makes a dismissive gesture. “They’re gone.” I suggest that this can’t be the case with people he has known a long time, before he became famous, like Jim and Loraine Jacobs, and Tyson’s face brightens. The Jacobses will always be his friends, he agrees. “No matter if I lose every fight from now on, if I was knocked down, knocked out—they’d always be my friends. That’s right.” He seems momentarily cheered.
Tyson’s prize possession in Catskill is a young female dog of an exquisite Chinese breed, Shar-Pei, with an appealingly ugly pug face, rippling creases of flesh on its back, a body wildly animated by affection. He’d always wanted one of these dogs, Tyson says, but hadn’t been able to afford it until now. “In China they were bred to hunt wild boars—that’s why they have those wrinkles on their backs,” he explains. “So when the boar bit into them they could twist around to keep on attacking.” As Tyson speaks fondly of this uniquely evolved creature I am reminded of Tyson’s own ring strategy—his agility at slipping an opponent’s blows, ducking or leaning far to one side, then returning with perfect leverage and timing to counterpunch, often with his devastating right uppercut. The “little” warrior dramatically overcoming the larger . . . . He loves this dog, he says. For the first time today he looks genuinely happy.
On our way out of the house, Tyson shows me the dining room in which he ate so many meals with Cus D’Amato. The room is handsomely furnished, flooded with sunshine on this clear winter day. “Cus sat here,” Tyson says, indicating the head of the table, “—and I sat here. By his side.”
When Santayana said that another world to live in is what we mean by religion, he could hardly have foreseen how his remark might apply to the sports mania of our time; to the extraordinary passion, amounting very nearly to religious fervor and ecstasy, millions of Americans commonly experience in regard to sport. For these people—the majority of them men—sports has become the “other world,” preempting, at times, their interest in “this” world: their own lives, work, families, official religions.
Set beside the media-promoted athletes of our time and the iconography of their success, the average man knows himself merely average. In a fiercely competitive sport like boxing, whose pyramid may appear democratically broad at the base but is brutally minuscule at the top, to be even less than great is to fail. A champion boxer, hit by an opponent and hit hard, may realize the total collapse of his career in less time than it takes to read this sentence. Boxing is not to be seized as a metaphor for life, but its swift and sometimes irremediable reversals of fortune starkly parallel those of life, and the blow we never saw coming—invariably, in the ring, the knockout blow—is the one that decides our fate. Boxing’s dark fascination is as much with failure, and the courage to forbear failure, as it is with triumph. Two men climb into a ring from which, in symbolic terms, only one climbs out.
After the Berbick fight Tyson told reporters he’d wanted to break Berbick’s eardrum. “I try to catch my opponent on the tip of the nose,” he was quoted after his February 1986 fight with the hapless Jesse Ferguson, whose nose was broken in the match, “because I want to punch the bone into the brain.” Tyson’s language is as direct and brutal as his ring style, yet, as more than one observer has noted, strangely disarming—there is no air of menace, or sadism, or boastfulness in what he says: only the truth. For these reasons Mike Tyson demonstrates more forcefully than most boxers the paradox at the heart of this controversial sport. That he is “soft-spoken,” “courteous,” “sensitive,” clearly thoughtful, intelligent, introspective; yet at the same time—or nearly the same time—he is a “killer” in the ring. That he is one of the most warmly affectionate of persons, yet at the same time—or nearly—a machine for hitting “sledgehammer” blows. How is it possible? one asks. And why? Boxing makes graphically clear the somber fact that the same individual can be thoroughly “civilized” and “barbaric” depending upon the context of his performance. “I’m a boxer,” Tyson says. “I’m a warrior. Doing my job.” Murder, a legal offense, cannot occur in the ring. Any opponent who agrees to fight a man of Tyson’s unique powers must know what he is doing—and, as Tyson believes, each boxer takes the same chance: matching his skills against those of his opponent.
The fictive text against which boxing is enacted has to do with the protection of human life; the sacramental vision of life. Thou shalt not kill (or maim, wound, cause to suffer injury) and Do unto others as you would have them do unto you are the implicit injunctions against which the spectacle unfolds and out of which its energies arise. The injunctions are, for the duration of the “game,” denied, or repressed, or exploited. Far from being primitive, boxing is perhaps the most highly regulated and ritualistic of sports, so qualified by rules, customs, and unspoken traditions that it stands in a unique, albeit teasing, relationship to the extremes of human emotion: rage, despair, terror, cruelty, ecstasy. It is an art, as I’ve suggested, in which the human body itself is the instrument; its relationship to unmediated violence is that of a musical composition to mere noise. There may be a family kinship between Bach and aleatory “music,” but the kinship is hardly the most significant thing about either.
But what, one wonders, is the purpose of so extreme an art?—can it have a purpose? Why do some men give themselves to it so totally, while others, as spectators, stare in rapt fascination—and pay so much money for the privilege of doing so?
Wallace Stevens’s insight that the death of Satan was a tragedy for the imagination has no validity in terms of the curious aesthetic phenomenon that is professional boxing. In the boxing ring, elevated, harshly spotlighted, men are pitted against each other in one-on-one mirrorlike combat in order to release energies in themselves and in their audience that are demonic by the standards of ordinary—or do I mean noncombative?—life. The triumphant boxer is Satan transmogrified as Christ, as one senses sitting amid a delirium-swept crowd like the one that cheered Mike Tyson on to victory. Yet, even before Tyson began to fight, even before he entered the ring, the crowd was fixed upon him emotionally. (As the crowd was fixed, more evenly, upon Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns in their April 1985 match, shrieking as soon as the men appeared and scarcely stopping until the fight itself was stopped after eight very long minutes. Ecstasy precedes stimulus and may, indeed, help bring it into being.) For many, Mike Tyson has become the latest in a lineage of athletic heroes—a bearer of inchoate, indescribable emotion—a savior, of sorts, covered in sweat and ready for war. But then most saviors, sacred or secular, are qualified by a thoughtful “of sorts.” In any case, it’s Tyson’s turn. A terrible beauty is born.
Materials used in the preparation of this article: Elliot J. Gorn, “The Manassa Mauler and the Fighting Marine: An Interpretation of the Dempsey-Tunney Fights,” Journal of Ameriran Studies, Vol. 19 (1985); Nigel Collins, “Mike Tyson: The Legacy of Cus D’Amato,” The Ring, February 1986; Jack Newfield, “Dr. K.O.: Mike Tyson—Cus D’Amato’s Upfinished Masterpiece,” Village Voice, 10 December 1985; John McCallum, The Heavyweight Boxing Championship: A History (Radnor, Pa.: Chilton Book Co., 1974); and articles in The New York Times by Dave Anderson and Phil Berger.
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.