Saturday, October 21, 2006

Mike Tyson: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma Wrapped in a Boxing Robe

Mike Tyson has to be one of the most intriguing public figures of the past 25 years, inside or outside of sports. I’ve never been a big fan of boxing, partly because I don’t like physical violence and partly because I’ve lived through the sport's most ridiculous phases. It’s a game with a silly present and a dismal future, but it has a rich history, and chances are that Tyson will be the last-ever heavyweight champ who was arguably the most famous athlete in the country at his peak. His first loss, to unheralded Buster Douglas on February 11, 1990, in Tokyo, is still the most stunning upset I can remember happening in any sport.

Of course, since then, Tyson, who grew up without a father in a tough part of Brooklyn, has gotten into all kinds of trouble, and his boxing career has become the kind of toothless joke that would have been inconceivable sixteen years ago.

Last night, he fought an exhibition match in a less-than-grand setting:
Tyson entered the ring at 12:23 a.m. to a rousing ovation from about 4,000 fans in the 6,000-seat Chevrolet Centre, home of the Youngstown (Ohio) SteelHounds, a minor league hockey team.
But as is so often the case with Tyson, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of, and deep respect for, boxing’s history, the ridiculous is joined by a bizarre thoughtfulness:
(Tyson) and the tour's promoter, Sterling McPherson, selected this blue-collar town to launch the tour partly because of the area's rich boxing history. Gene Tunney, Ezzard Charles and Primo Carnera were among the sport's greats who fought exhibitions in the area...
The only reason Tyson is on my mind for more than two seconds today is because a friend sent me this link to a storehouse of Tyson quotes. And it would be difficult to find a scarier, unintentionally funnier, more poignant collection of thoughts. “Iron Mike,” with his gentle, lisping voice, frequently undisguised ferocity, wounded past, and mangled-but-kind-of-high-level vocabulary, has always seemed like the world’s largest eight-year-old, accountable for what he does but essentially child-like in disposition.

Many of the quotes are the brief, scary kind that Tyson was so good at dispensing, like these:
My main objective is to be professional but to kill him.

I could have knocked him out in the third round but I wanted to do it slowly, so he would remember this night for a long time.
But some of them are just plain incisive:
Everyone in boxing probably makes out well except for the fighter. He's the only one that's on Skid Row most of the time; he's the only one that everybody just leaves when he loses his mind. He sometimes goes insane, he sometimes goes on the bottle, because it's a highly intensive pressure sport that allows people to just lose it [their self-control].
Then the next three combine to show how complex he can be in his expression, veering in these first two from flat-out offensive to disingenuously self-analytical for the sake of apology:
[To a female reporter] It's no doubt I am going to win this fight and I feel confident about winning this fight. I normally don't do interviews with women unless I fornicate with them. So you shouldn't talk anymore... Unless you want to, you know.

People [are] going to say what they say. It has to be for a reason. It's just for a reason. I know sometimes I say things; I offend people. I ask this lady a lewd question because I'm in a lot of pain, too. I have some pain I'm gonna have for the rest of my life. And Lewis, I'm trying to give some of that pain to y’all.
(If you were Lewis about to fight Tyson in his prime, how terrifying would that last sentence be, on a scale of 1 to 10? I’d give it a solid 29.)

But then there’s this, about his mother, who died in 1982, when Tyson was a teenager:
I never saw my mother happy with me and proud of me for doing something: She only knew me as being a wild kid running the streets, coming home with new clothes that she knew I didn't pay for. I never got a chance to talk to her or know about her. Professionally, it has no effect, but it's crushing emotionally and personally.
But really, and mostly, you can’t beat this hilarious, frightening quote to sum up a guy who was routinely bullied as a child and became an unhinged bully himself:
I paid a worker at New York's zoo to re-open it just for me and (wife) Robin (Givens). When we got to the gorilla cage there was one big silverback gorilla there just bullying all the other gorillas. They were so powerful but their eyes were like an innocent infant. I offered the attendant $10,000 to open the cage and let me smash that silverback's snotbox! He declined.


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