Mike Tyson (1986)
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 . . .
Blood, Neon, and Failure in the Desert (Mike Tyson: 1987)
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.
Tyson/Biggs: Postscript (Mike Tyson: 1987)
As with the young, pre-champion Dempsey, there is an unsettling air about Tyson, with his impassive death’s-head face, his unwavering stare, and his refusal to glamorize himself in the ring—no robe, no socks, only the signature black trunks and shoes—that the violence he unleashes against his opponents is somehow just; that some hurt, some wound, some insult in his past, personal or ancestral, will be redressed in the ring; some mysterious imbalance righted. The single-mindedness of his ring style works to suggest that his grievance has the force of a natural catastrophe. That old trope, “the wrath of God,” comes to mind.
Rape and the Boxing Ring (Mike Tyson: 1992)
The dazzling reflexes were dulled, the shrewd defensive skills drilled into him by D’Amato were largely abandoned: Tyson emerged suddenly as a conventional heavyweight like Gerry Cooney, who advances upon his opponent with the hope of knocking him out with a single punch—and does not always succeed. By 25, Tyson seemed already middle aged, burnt out. He would have no great fights after all. So, strangely, he seemed to invite his fate outside the ring, with sadomasochistic persistence, testing the limits of his celebrity’s license to offend by ever-escalating acts of aggression and sexual effrontery.
Tyson, it’s now clear, has no such resources, of either a physical or psychological nature; he has no “character” once his rote strategy of nondefensive aggression is thwarted, as it would be thwarted by any shrewd opponent like Holyfield. Where Tyson erred was in fouling, not fighting better; he’d believed that he was going to lose because of the gash above his eye, and he may have been correct, but, lacking the character, or “heart,” of a true champion, who will fight even when he knows he might lose, he didn’t try.
The extraordinary career of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali is one of the longest, most varied and sensational of boxing careers. Like Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robison and Archie Moore, among few others in so difficult and dangerous a sport, Ali defended his title numerous times over a period of many years; he won, he lost, he won and he lost; beginning brilliantly in 1960 as an Olympic gold medalist and ending, not so brilliantly, yet courageously, in 1981. What strikes us as remarkable about Ali is that, while as the brash young challenger Cassius Clay he’d been ready to quit his first title fight, with Sonny Liston, in an early round (with the complaint that “something was in his eye”), he would mature to fight fights that were virtually superhuman in their expenditure of physical strength, moral stamina, intelligence and spirit: the long, gruelling, punishing fights with Joe Frazier (which, in turn, Ali lost, and won, and won); and the famous Rope-a-Dope match with then-champion George Foreman in Zaire, in 1974, which restored Ali’s title to him. Never has a boxer so clearly sacrificed himself in the finely honed, ceaselessly premeditated practice of his craft as Ali.
See also JCO’s book, On Boxing, which includes essays on the historical-philosophical significance of the sport, and, in the expanded edition, essays on Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson.
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.