by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published as “Failure in the Desert: Blood and Neon: Tyson, Smith, Las Vegas, and Boxing” in The Village Voice, March 24, 1987. Reprinted in (Woman) Writer : Occasions and Opportunities.
Other than boxing, everything is so boring.
Las Vegas, Nevada. 7 March 1987. In a ring still stained with blood from the desperately fought heavyweight match that preceded it, Mike Tyson, World Boxing Council champion, at twenty the youngest heavyweight titleholder in boxing history, brings the fight for unification of the title to James “Bonecrusher” Smith, World Boxing Association champion, at thirty-three an aging athlete, and, yet more telling, the only heavyweight titleholder in boxing history to have graduated from college—but Smith will have none of it. He clinches, he backs away, he walks away, he clinches again, hugging his frustrated and increasingly infuriated opponent like a drowning man hugging something—anything—that floats. Referee Mills Lane calls “Break!” repeatedly during the twelve long rounds of this very long fight but Smith seems not to hear; or, hearing, will not obey. For the most part his expression is blank, with the blankness of fear, a stark unmitigated fear without shame, yet shameful to witness. “Fight!” the crowd shouts. “Do something!” In the ringside seats close by me Smith’s fellow boxers Trevor Berbick (former WBC heavyweight champion) and Edwin Rosario (WBA lightweight champion) are particularly vocal, as if in an agony of professional discomfort. For it seems that the superbly conditioned Smith, who had performed so dramatically only three months ago in Madison Square Garden, knocking out Tim Witherspoon in the first round of his WBA title defense, is now, suddenly, not a boxer: though in that elevated and garishly spotlighted ring with another man, contracted for $1 million to fight him, performing in front of a crowd of some 13,600 people in the Hilton’s newly erected outdoor stadium, and how many millions of television viewers, he cannot or will not fight. His instinct is merely to survive to get through twelve rounds with no injuries more serious than a bleeding left eye and a bad swelling on the right side of his face; and to go back, professionally disgraced, to his wife, family, and plans for the future (“Being a champion opens lots of doors—I’d like to get a real estate license, maybe sell insurance”) in Magnolia, North Carolina.
Berbick writhes in the folding chair beside me, muttering, laughing, derisive, very nearly as frustrated as Mike Tyson, and clearly resentful—after all, he is the man who fought Tyson here last November, and so spectacularly (and humiliatingly) lost to him, in the third minute of the second round of that fight. He too had tried to clinch with Tyson, had gripped the young man’s arms and gloves in an effort to hold him back, slow him down, frustrate him, but Berbick had also fought him, or made a game attempt—”I wanted to prove my manhood,” he said afterward, ruefully, “that was my mistake.” In this match Smith’s manhood is not evidently an issue. He has no “machismo” to display or defend; if he is a boxer it must be by default. Minute follows minute, round follows grinding round, as Tyson tries to get inside to throw the rapid-fire combinations for which he is famous, and Smith falls upon him and hugs him, clumsily, defiantly, desperately. Mills Lane, exasperated, penalizes Smith by deducting points from him after rounds two and eight. (“I could have deducted a point from him after each round,” he said afterward, “but you don’t like to do that in a title fight.”) The 6-foot-4-inch 233-pound Smith is a zombie tonight, a parody of a boxer, so resistant to boxing’s visible and invisible rules, that complex of mores that make boxing at once the most primitive and the most sophisticated of contact sports, it is fascinating to watch him—to a degree.
“I wasn’t prepared for how strong Tyson is, how fast,” Smith will say after the fight. “Tyson has a devastating left hook.” And, defensively: “I did the best I could.” Of current heavyweights Smith has invariably been the most erratic in performance, the most unpredictable capable, under pressure, of boxing well, yet strangely and unprofessionally susceptible to vagaries of mood. Perhaps because he has no real vocation as a boxer—and no more instinct for fighting than one might expect from a man with a B.A. in business administration (from Shaw College, North Carolina)-he is easily demoralized in the ring, allowing childlike expressions of triumph, hurt, bewilderment, and acute unhappiness to show on his face, as boxers so rarely do; he boxes as an intelligent man might box whose intelligence is his only weapon in an action in which “intelligence” must be subordinated to something more fundamental. He draws upon no deeper reserves of self—no energy, imagination, emotion—beyond those of consciousness.
As for Tyson: unlike Dempsey, Marciano, and Frazier, those famously aggressive fighters to whom he is often compared, Tyson is not a reckless boxer; he is not willing, as so many boxer-fighters are, to take four or five punches in order to throw a punch of his own. His training is defensive and cautious—hence the peek-a-boo stance, a Cus D’Amato signature: for is not boxing primarily the art of self-defense? of hitting your man, and scoring points, without being hit in return? For two years, which must have been very long years, D’Amato trained Tyson to bob, weave, slip punches from sparring partners without throwing a single punch in response—a conditioning that has made Tyson an anomaly in the ring. His reputation is for power, speed, and aggression, but his defensive skills are as remarkable, if less dramatic. Confronted with an opponent like “Bonecrusher” Smith, who violates the decorum of the ring by not fighting, Tyson is at a loss; he hits his man after the bell, in an adolescent display of frustration; he exchanges insults with him during the fight, makes jeering faces; pushes, shoves, laces the cut over Smith’s eye during a clinch; betrays those remnants of his Brooklyn street-fighting days (Tyson, as a child of ten, was one of the youngest members of a notorious gang called the Jolly Stompers) his training as a boxer should have overcome. In short, his inexperience shows.
So the pattern of the fight is immediately established: in the entire twelve rounds virtually nothing will happen that does not happen in the first thirty seconds of the first round The spectator is gripped by stasis itself, by the perversity of the expectation that, against all expectation, something will happen. If this is theater, and boxing is always theater, we are in the slyly teasing anti-worlds of Jarry, Ionesco, Beckett; the aesthetics is that of fanatic tedium, as in John Cage and Andy Warhol. While my press colleagues to a man will report the match boring—”Two interior decorators could have done each other more damage” (Los Angeles Times)—I find it uniquely tense, and exhausting; not unlike the first Spinks/Holmes fight in which the frustrated Holmes carried his right glove for round after round, a talismanic club waiting to be swung. Poor Holmes! Poor Lear! This is the very poetry of masculine frustration—the failure of psychic closure. Such fights end, and are funny, in retrospect; but are never resolved.
Tyson’s predicament vis-a-vis “Bonecrusher” Smith brings to mind Jack Dempsey, similarly frustrated in his matches with Tunney, shouting at his retreating opponent “Come on and fight!” But, for all his renown, Dempsey was not a strategic boxer of the sort Tyson has been meticulously trained to be; his ring style was virtually nonstop offense with very little defense, which means that he was willing to take punches in the hope of throwing his own. Outboxed by the more cautious and more intelligent Tunney, he eventually lost both fights. In the Tyson/Smith match there is no question that Tyson is the superior boxer; he will win every round unanimously in what is in fact one of the easiest fights of his two-year career as a professional. But this is hardly the dramatic public performance he’d hoped to give, and the fight’s promoters had hoped to present. No knockout—none of the dazzling combinations of blows for which he is known; very little of what D’Amato taught his proteges was the boxer’s primary responsibility to his audience: to entertain. Winning too can be a kind of failure.
The fight recalls several previous fights of Tyson’s with opponents who, out of fear or cunning, or both, refused to fight him; yet more worrisomely it recalls Joe Louis’s predicament as heavyweight champion in those years when, after having cleared the heavyweight division of all serious contenders, he was reduced to fighting mere opponents—”Bums-of-the-Month” as the press derisively called them. Worse, Louis’s reputation as a puncher, a machine for hitting, so intimidated opponents that they were frightened to enter the ring with him. (“Enter the ring? My man had to be helped down the aisle,” one manager is said to have said.) For a sport routinely attacked for its brutality boxing has had its share of historically shameful episodes: Louis’s title defense against a long-forgotten challenger named Pastor, whom he chased for ten dreary rounds of running and clutching, running and clutching, is invariably cited. While Rocky Marciano/Jersey Joe Walcott I (September 1952) was notable for both fighters’ courage this was the fight that gave Marciano the heavyweight title the rematch eight months later ended with the first punch thrown by Marciano: Walcott sat on the canvas and made no effort to get up as he was counted out. (“After twenty-three years as a professional fighter, the former champion went out in a total disgrace that no excuses can relieve”—Red Smith, a former admirer of Walcott.) Both Muhammad Ali/Sonny Liston title matches were memorable for Liston’s surprising behavior: in the first, in which Liston was defending his title, he refused to continue fighting after the sixth round, claiming a shoulder injury; in the second, he went down with mysterious alacrity at one minute forty-eight seconds of the first round, struck by a devastating, if invisible, blow to the head. (This defeat disgraced Liston and effectively ended his career: he was never to be offered another championship fight. Even the circumstances of his death some years later at the age of thirty-eight were suspicious.) There was Dempsey’s notorious fight with Tommy Gibbons in Shelby, Montana, in 1923, which made money for Dempsey and his promoter, Kearns, while nearly bankrupting the town; there was the bizarre “Slapsie” Maxey Rosenbloom, world light-heavyweight champion of the early 1930s, a sort of pacifist of boxing, whose strategy was to hit (or slap, gloves open) and run—a boxing style as exciting to watch, it is said, as the growth of tree rings. While no one has ever questioned Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s integrity, his defense of his middleweight title against Roberto Duran some years ago left many observers skeptical—the usually aggressive Hagler seemed oddly solicitous of his opponent. But the most scandalous boxing incident of modern times still remains Duran’s decision, two minutes and forty-four seconds into the eighth round of his welterweight title defense with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, to simply quit the fight—“No mas!” No more! Leonard had been outboxing him, making a fool of him, and Duran had had enough. Machismo punctures easily.
Though most of Mike Tyson’s twenty-eight fights have ended with knockouts, often in early rounds, and once (with Joe Frazier’s hapless son Marvis) within thirty seconds of the first round, several opponents have slowed him down as “Bonecrusher” Smith has done, and made him appear baffled, thwarted, intermittently clumsy. “Quick” Tillis and Mitch Green come most readily to mind; and, though Tyson eventually knocked him out, in the final round of a ten-round fight, Jose Ribalta. Perhaps the ugliest fight of Tyson’s career was with Jesse Ferguson, who, in a performance anticipating Smith’s, held onto him with such desperation after Tyson had broken his nose that even the referee could not free the men. (Ferguson was disqualified and the fight was ruled a TKO for Tyson.) Such performances do not constitute boxing at its finest moments, nor do they presage well for Tyson’s future: to be a great champion one must have great opponents.
Incongruity, like vulgarity, is not a concept in Las Vegas. This fantasyland for adults, with its winking neon skyline, its twenty-four-hour clockless casinos, its slots, craps, Keno, roulette, baccarat, blackjack et al., created by fiat when the Nevada legislature passed a law legalizing gambling in 1931, exists as a counterworld to our own. There is no day here-the enormous casinos are pure interiority, like the inside of a skull. Gambling, as Francois Mauriac once said, is continuous suicide: if suicide, yet continuous. There is no past, no significant future, only an eternal and always optimistic present tense. Vegas is our exemplary American city, a congeries of hotels in the desert, shrines of chance in which, presumably, we are all equal as we are not equal before the law, or God, or one another. One sees in the casinos, especially at the slot machines, those acres and acres of slot machines, men and women of all ages, races, types, degrees of probable or improbable intelligence, as hopefully attentive to their machines as writers and academicians are to their word processors. If one keeps on, faithfully, obsessively, one will surely hit The Jackpot. (You know it’s The Jackpot when your machine lights up, a goofy melody ensues, and a flood of coins like a lascivious Greek god comes tumbling into your lap.) The reedy dialects of irony—the habitual tone of the cultural critic in twentieth-century America—are as foreign here as snow, or naturally green grass.
So it is hardly incongruous that boxing matches are held in the Las Vegas Hilton and Caesar’s Palace, VIP tickets at $1,000 or more (and the cheapest tickets, at $75, so remote from the ring that attendance at a fight is merely nominal, or symbolic); it is not incongruous that this most physical of sports, like the flipping of cards or the throw of dice, is most brilliantly realized as a gambling opportunity.
In the elaborately equipped sports rooms of the big casinos, where television screens monitor various sporting events, sans sound, and betting statistics are constantly being posted, like stock market reports, one can bet on virtually any sport provided it is “professional” and not “amateur.” The favorites are naturally baseball, football, basketball, boxing, and, of course, horseracing, the sport that seems to have been invented purely for gambling purposes. In these semidarkened rooms gamblers sit entranced, or comatose, drinks in hand, staring up at the television monitors and the hundreds, or is it thousands, of postings. Red numerals against a black background. A dozen or more television screens in an electronic collage. The upcoming “fight of the century”—Marvelous Marvin Hagler/Sugar Ray Leonard for Hagler’s undisputed middleweight title, 6 April 1987 at Caesar’s Palace is the casinos’ dream: as of 7 March odds are posted -3.25 Hagler, +2.25 Leonard, with these propositions: (1) the fight does not go twelve rounds; (2) Hagler by KO; (3) Hagler by decision; (4) Leonard by KO; (5) Leonard by decision. The Mike Tyson/”Bonecrusher” Smith odds are Tyson -7.00, Smith +5.00, which means that you would make a good deal of money betting on Smith, if Smith would only win. Since Tyson’s victory is a foregone conclusion the bookmakers offer only one proposition: that the fight does, or does not, go four rounds. (Which accounts for the outburst of ecstatic cheering, the only cheering of the fight, when the bell rings sounding the end of round four and Smith, bleeding down the left side of his face, freshly admonished by Mills Lane for holding and refusing to break, nonetheless walks to his corner.)
While in the antebellum American South white slaveowners frequently pitted their Negro slaves against each other in fights of spectacular savagery, and made bets on the results, in Las Vegas the descendants of these slaves, and their black kinsmen from the West Indies, Africa, and elsewhere, freely fight one another for purses of gratifying generosity: the highest paid athletes in the world are American boxers, and the highest paying fights are always in Vegas. Marvin Hagler, for instance, earned a minimum of $7.5 million for his April 1985 title defense against Thomas Hearns, who earned $7 million; in April 1987 he is guaranteed a minimum of X11 million against Leonard’s $10 million in a fight that boxing promoters anticipate will make more money than any boxing match in history. (“I’m sure there will be $100,000 bets on both fighters,” says a casino proprietor, “and we’ll be right here to take them.”) Mike Tyson will earn a minimum of $1.5 million for his fight with Smith (to Smith’s $1 million) and if his spectacular career continues as everyone predicts, he will soon be earning as much as Hagler and Leonard, if not more. Though Tyson lacks Muhammad Ali’s inspired narcissism, he is not handicapped by Ali’s brash black politics and Ali’s penchant for antagonizing whites: for all his reserve, his odd, even eerie combination of shyness and aggression, his is a wonderfully marketable image. (See the iconic “Mike Tyson” of billboard and newspaper ads, a metallic man, no twenty-year-old but a robot of planes, angles, inhuman composure: “Iron Mike” Tyson.)
Yet how subdued the real Tyson appeared, following the inglorious fight, and the noisy press conference in a candystriped tent in a corner of the Hilton’s parking lot: one caught glimpses of him that night at the jammed victory party on the thirtieth floor of the hotel, being interviewed, photographed, televised, and, later, being led through the hotel’s crowded lobby, surrounded by publicity people, still being televised, wearing his preposterously ornate WBC champion’s belt around his waist and his newly acquired WBA belt slung over his shoulder, his expression vague, dim, hooded, very possibly embarrassed (“It was a long, boring fight— twelve rounds”), like one of those captive demigods or doomed kings recorded in Frazer’s Golden Bough.
What is “taboo” except that aspect of us that lies undefined, and inaccessible to consciousness: the core of impersonality within the carefully nurtured and jealously prized “personality” with which we are identified, by ourselves and others. In his speculative essay Totem and Taboo Freud meditated upon the ambivalent nature of taboo: its association with the sacred and consecrated, and with the dangerous, uncanny, forbidden, and unclean. All that one can say with certitude about taboo is that it stands in perennial opposition to the ordinary—to the quotidian. Taboo has to do with the numinous, with the ineffable, with utter indefinable mystery: with something not us. Or so we tell ourselves.
To the boxing aficionado the sport’s powerful appeal is rarely exponible. It seems to be rooted in its paradoxical nature—the savagery that so clearly underlies, yet is contained by, its myriad rules, regulations, traditions, and superstitions. It seems to make the quotidian that which is uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean: it ritualizes violence, primarily male violence, to the degree to which violence becomes an aesthetic principle. In this, men’s bodies (or, rather, their highly trained employment of their bodies) are instruments and not mere flesh like our own. That a man is a boxer is an action, and no longer a man, or not significantly a “man,” puzzles those of us who feel ourselves fully defined in any of our actions. The romantic principles of Existentialism in its broadest, most vernacular sense have much to do with one’s volition and one’s will in creating oneself as an ethical being by way of a freely chosen action. Boxing, more than most contemporary American sports, clearly inhabits a dimension of human behavior one might call meta-ethical or meta-existential. There is no evident relationship between the man outside the ring and the man inside the ring—the boxer who is, like Mike Tyson (or Joe Louis, or Rocky Marciano, or any number of other boxers of distinction), “courteous,” “soft-spoken,” “gentle,” in private life, and, in the ring, once the bell has sounded, “brutal,” “awesome,” “murderous,” “devastating,” “a young bull”— and the rest. The aim is not to kill one’s opponent, for one’s opponent is after all one’s brother: the aim is to render him temporarily incapacitated, in a simulation of death. “It’s unbelievable,” Mike Tyson has said of boxing. “It’s like a drug; I thrive on it. It’s the excitement of the event, and now I need that excitement all the time.”
When the boxer enters the ring, ceremonially disrobes, and answers the summons to fight, he ceases being an individual with all that implies of a socially regulated ethical bond with other individuals; he becomes a boxer, which is to say an action. It might be argued that America’s fascination with sports—if “fascination” is not too weak a word for such frenzied devotion, weekend after weekend, season after season, in the lives of a majority of men—has to do not only with the power of taboo to violate, or transcend, or render obsolete conventional categories of morality, but with the dark, denied, muted, eclipsed, and wholly unarticulated underside of America’s religion of success. Sports is only partly about winning; it is also about losing. Failure, hurt, ignominy, disgrace, physical injury, sometimes even death—these are facts of life, perhaps the very bedrock of lives, which the sports-actor, or athlete, must dramatize in the flesh; and always against his will. Boxing as dream-image, or nightmare, pits self against self, identical twin against twin, as in the womb itself where “dominancy,” that most mysterious of human hungers, is first expressed. Its most characteristic moments of ecstasy—the approach to the knockout, the knockout, the aftermath of the knockout, and, by way of television replays, the entire episode retraced in slow motion as in the privacy of a dream—are indistinguishable from obscenity, horror. In the words of middleweight Sugar Ray Seales, 1972 Olympic Gold Medalist, a veteran of more than four hundred amateur and professional fights who went blind as a consequence of ring injuries: “I went into the wilderness, and fought the animals there, and when I came back I was blind.”
In Clifford Geertz’s classic anthropological essay of 1972, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” the point is made that, in Bali, the now-illegal cockfighting obsession is wholly male, and masculine: the “cock” is the male organ, as the Balinese freely acknowledge, but it is more than merely that—it is the man, the maleness, codified, individualized, in a context of other individuals: which is to say, society. The cockfight is utterly mindless, bloody, savage, animal—and ephemeral: though a Balinese loves his fighting cock, and treats him tenderly, once the cock is dead it is dead, and quickly forgotten. (Sometimes, in a paroxysm of disappointment and rage, Geertz notes, cock-owners dismember their own cocks after the cocks are killed.) Boxing in the United States is far more complex a cultural phenomenon than the Balinese cockfight—it has much to do, for example, with immigrant succession, and with the evershifting tensions of race—but some of the principles Geertz isolates in the cockfight are surely operant: men are fascinated by boxing because it suggests that masculinity is measured solely in terms of other men, and not in terms of women; and because, in its very real dangers, it is a species of “deep play” (an action in which stakes are so high that it is, from a utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all) that seems to demonstrate the way the world really is and not the way it is said, or wished, or promised to be. The boxer is consumed in action, and has no significant identity beyond action; the fight is a convulsion of a kind, strictly delimited in space (a meticulously squared circle bounded, like an animal pen, by ropes) and time. (Jack Dempsey, in whose honor the term “killer instinct” was coined, once remarked that he wasn’t the fighter he might have been, with so many rules and regulations governing the sport: “You’re in there for three-minute rounds with gloves on and a referee. That’s not real fighting.”) The passions it arouses are always in excess of its “utilitarian” worth since in fact it has none. As the bloody, repetitious, and ephemeral cockfight is a Balinese reading of Balinese experience, a story Balinese men tell themselves about themselves, so too is the American boxing match a reading of American experience, unsentimentalized and graphic. Yes, one thinks, you have told us about civilized values; you have schooled us in the virtues, presumably Christian, of turning the other cheek; of meekness as a prerequisite for inheriting the earth—the stratagems (manipulative? feminine?) of indirection. But the boxing match suggests otherwise, and it is that reading of life that we prefer. The boxers make visible what is invisible in us, thereby defining us, and themselves, in a single consecrated action. As Rocky Graziano once said, “The fight for survival is the fight.”