by Joyce Carol Oates

Original version published as “Fury and Fine Lines” in The New York Times, July 3, 1997. Reprinted in revised form in Where I’ve Been, And Where I’m Going.

The American poet William Carlos Williams said it most succinctly and provocatively: “The perfect man of action is the suicide.”

That boxers are men of action for whom language, articulated motives, and that mode of behavior we consider rational are not primary qualities is self-evident. The boxer, more than any other athlete, is a phenomenon of lightning-quick reflexes and instantaneous judgment guided by conditioned, repetitive training. In an unexceptional fight, a well-trained boxer can operate almost by rote. It’s in exceptional situations that boxers exhibit their unique talents, or lack of talent. On its highest level, boxing is both an art and a craft; a remarkable display of human imagination, inventiveness, and what can only be called by the old-fashioned term “character.” (The classic fights of Marciano-Walcott, Ali-Frazier, Hagler-Hearns, Leonard-Hearns are of this caliber.) Controlled ferocity is the ideal. Where control is wanting, we are left with mere ferocity, inchoate rage. An aggrieved boxer or desperate boxer, sensing defeat, or wishing to be defeated, may strike out with fouls. As the notorious welterweight Fritzie Zivic once said, “You’re boxing, you’re not playing the piano.” Even a great champion like Roberto Duran has been known to thumb an opponent’s eye, and certain classic fights of Basilio, La Motta, Grazier, Zale, Pep, and Saddler, not to mention Jack Dempsey and Harry Greb, are notable for shameless low blows, rabbit punches, and other outlawed tactics. Savagely biting an opponent, Mike Tyson’s widely condemned act of aggression against his dominating opponent Evander Holyfield in their debacle of a heavyweight title fight, is less common but hardly unknown. It would seem to be a more primitive, crueler, and more destructive act than most fouls, a gesture of last resort; the sort of behavior that presages the end of a career. When, in his desperate apology for this desperate act, Tyson says he doesn’t know why he did it, his only explanation is that he “snapped,” we can take him at his word: If there’s any explanation, he doesn’t know it.

Yet how much more rational was Tyson’s boast of his motives after a 1989 fight with Carl Williams—”I want to fight, fight, fight, and destruct the world.” If Tyson had caused no scandal at the time, it was because he’d won the fight and retained his title. He hadn’t yet been put to the test. (That would come in the following year, when he lost ignominiously to a boxer of the second rank, Buster Douglas, and began the vertiginous downward spiral that has become his career.) The madness of boxing, most dramatically exhibited by boxers who publicly “snap,” is always there, like one of those underground fires that smolder for years undetected. In no sport more than boxing is the terrifying aphorism of Nietzsche appropriate: “What someone is, begins to be revealed when his talent abates, when he stops showing us what he can do.”

Like Jack Dempsey, whom Tyson in many ways resembles (including the early deterioration of his talent after winning the heavyweight title), Tyson has always generated that pre-fight anticipation we feel, as he approaches the ring, as “electricity”—a banal term for an ineffable sensation. Like Dempsey, Tyson has always seemed to irradiate a powerful, vengeful rage barely contained by the discipline of the sport; an air, embodied in the very flesh, particularly in their masklike facial scowls, of mysterious hurt and the wish to do spectacular hurt to others. The athlete as bearer of the crowd’s collective frenzy. Yet also, in time, and with equal “electricity,” the athlete whom crowds love to hate. What an iconic moment Tyson has provided us, to take its place alongside such images as that of Dempsey being knocked ingloriously out of the ring, legs flailing, in the notorious Dempsey-Firpo fight of 1923 (which Dempsey, who should have been disqualified by the referee, forged on to win) and the young Muhammad Ali snarling at his “knocked-out” opponent Sonny Liston in their second, absurdly truncated heavyweight title match of 1965—”Get up and fight!” Here in 1997 we have the image of Mike Tyson spitting out his mouthpiece and with the calm of a pit bull leaning to his opponent’s neck, in a clinch, to seize the man’s ear in his teeth and try to tear it off. (To call the injury a “bite” is to minimalize it. It was more than a bite, it was an assault. If you didn’t see the fight you may have thought that Tyson “snapped” in some visible way, overcome by fury at having been butted above the eye, from which he was bleeding profusely; in fact, this assault, no less than the second bite that followed five minutes later, was clearly premeditated. And Tyson chose not the most natural form of retaliation for a head butt, another butt, but biting, which sends a very different signal.) Boxing’s taboo secret—that the boxers are upright animals, restrained by “regulations” and by the third man in the ring, and that we, as spectators, are embodied in their mad struggle—has found its most vivid, poetic image.

How thin and fragile the veneer of civilization is in such iconic moments. “Boxing” is civilized, mere “fighting” belongs to an earlier, atavistic world that predates civilization as it predates what we call rational, responsible behavior. Acts are always prior to motives. Acts are always prior to theories. There is a horrific thrill in the spectacle of a man tearing at another man with his teeth—what a forbidden image. As any display, or hint, of cannibalism is forbidden. The symbolic use of one’s teeth is far more primitive-seeming than the boxer’s artful employment of the “boxing glove” (not the bare knuckles, as in the past—to spare not the boxer’s chin but his knuckles, which break easily) and arouses shock, revulsion. One commentator for “Showtime,” which broadcast the bout, spoke of Tyson’s behavior as “despicable” and did in fact looked stunned by it. Yet is there, upon reflection, any significant moral difference between the boxer intent upon slamming his opponent’s head with his fists to knock him out (i.e., to induce a brain concussion) and biting him? As a young, immensely popular ascendant heavyweight contender in the mid-1980s, Mike Tyson spoke of trying to catch his opponent on the tip of his nose to “drive his nose into his brain.” To have done so would be to have performed within the legal parameters of the sport; to have bitten the nose would have been in violation of the sport. Yet surely a brain injury is more serious than a facial laceration? Boxing is a blood sport whose very existence in our society isn’t in violation of our society but an expression of its fundamental ruthlessness and hypocrisy, its unnamed, because unspeakable, atavistic rage.

Mike Tyson has been universally condemned for his behavior, and will be suitably punished. Since the rapid, to some observers tragic, deterioration of his talent in the early 1990s, his loss of those defensive skills and quicksilver aggressive tactics that had made him as promising, at the outset, as the very different Cassius Clay at the outset of his career, Tyson has been a lost individual, seemingly lacking, in both life as visibly in the ring, a coherent core of being. Far from being the outcast he has been rendered by the media, a freaky being on the margins of our collective coherence, Tyson is in fact a more accurate mirror of our time than his stalwart opponent Evander Holyfield. This is certainly not to defend Tyson, whose behavior is indefensible, but consider: Holyfield has so cultivated a persona of pious rectitude, that of a self-proclaimed “warrior” for Jesus, the gospel-singing heavyweight to set beside Mike Tyson (who prefers rap music, like “Public Enemy”), most commentators take him at his own estimate. Yet head-butting would appear to be a strategy of Holyfield’s, no less despicable in terms of its potential for outlaw injury than biting. If you watch the fight carefully you will see how Holyfield, moving in for a body punch, lowers his head for an “unintentional” butt to the vulnerable bridge of the eye. In the heat of the fight, to Tyson, as to any boxer, the difference between “unintentional” and “intentional” may be a subtle one. Of course Tyson was justified in wanting to retaliate; he wouldn’t have been a champion fighter if he wasn’t fueled by such emotions. The best retaliation would have been winning the fight: The greatest boxers are those who, when hurt badly, bleeding profusely from the face like Marvin Hagler (in his brief, brilliant fight with Tommy Hearns) and Rocky Marciano (in his protracted, blood-drenched agony of a fight with Ezzard Charles), are inspired to fight bravely and more dangerously than before. 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. A boxer disqualifies himself in a fight for which he is being paid a good deal of money, under contract ($30 million for Tyson’s exhibition), because he has no self-respect, and thus no respect for others. Tyson says, “Don’t be surprised if I behave like a savage. I am a savage.”

Most boxers’ sense of themselves is shaky, undefined, and inchoate, as that of actors. (Boxers are actors, in fact. Boxing is “entertainment” depending for its existence upon the fickle, wayward will of a crowd.) Since early childhood, Tyson’s sense of himself has always been low, if not damaged, as biographers like Montieth Illingworth have noted (Mike Tyson: Money, Myth and Betrayal). No amount of money and celebrity, even, apparently, such outward signs of grace as a world heavyweight title, can atone for such a deficiency. Tyson’s mother (whom he recently denounced in interviews as an “alcoholic”—as if any mother, bringing up children in desperate poverty in Brownsville, Brooklyn, abused by the fathers of her children, would not be more than merely an “alcoholic”) is said to have passively accepted abuse from men, but then to have flared up in violence herself, upon one occasion boiling water to throw at a lover. This model of the long-abused, passive victim suddenly turned violent aggressor would seem to be imprinted upon Tyson’s psyche, for he speaks repeatedly of having been “abused” and “exploited” through his life—an odd notion for one who has earned more than $100 million in a little more than a decade. (Of which two years were spent in prison.) Tyson is, in the ring, a curious amalgam of the passive, or impassive, and the demonically active; his “snapping” is in response to real or imagined wrongs committed against him, which allow for excessive, even savage retaliations. Most people, unfamiliar with boxing, assume that it’s an aggressive, sadistic sport; in fact, it’s deeply masochistic, and all fighters, with no exceptions of which I can think (including even Marciano, who retired undefeated), are injured in the ring. To dole out hurt, you must be willing to absorb hurt; even to train for doling out hurt, you must be willing to absorb hurt from sparring partners. The best fighters fight brilliantly when they’ve been hurt, and so it’s hurt they must seek. As a young child, Tyson was routinely beaten and mocked for his high, girl-like voice; he was said to have been strangely passive despite his large size. Only after he learned to erupt, and lose control, at about the age of ten, did he begin to assert himself against bullies. The profile of his life has been one of “losing control” at climactic moments, a curious form of self-punishment.

The scandal of Holyfield-Tyson II forces admirers of boxing to consider: Why is biting any more demonic than fighting itself? Its demonism isn’t conventional, that’s all. This dissolution of the veneer of civilization, the calling into question of publicly sanctioned and rigidly maintained divisions between what is “moral” and what is “legal” is a taboo subject, painful to consider and too emotional for most of us to discuss. Where taboo is violated, reason itself is fractured. We fear and dread the violation of taboo and yet, as Mike Tyson once said, “Outside of boxing, everything is so boring.”

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