Mike Tyson: The One Title Which Eluded Him

mike tyson15.07.06 - By Michael Klimes - The Issue: For better or for worse, Mike Tyson has been the most influential presence on his sport since the lofty days of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. In fact, influence may be a weak word when we are discussing Tyson because his influence was such that we might say he impacted. He has been such a colossal figure that boxing has not been the same since he thankfully left it last year and finally retired. The area where Tyson had the most impact and some say did the most damage concerns the outer perception of the sport he forged, not only among the die-hard fans which have boxing as part of their everyday lives, but also among the more peripheral onlookers and finally the people who couldn’t care about it at all.

I would also bet that many people still think Mike Tyson is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. It is hard to think but I was born twenty years ago and when Tyson was at his formidable peak was twenty years ago as well. Memories of friends, places and events, which make up a vital part of our identities, make time seem deceptive.

It is frightening how quickly it can go. We treat it like water from a tap if we want a drink, we try to catch all of it in our hands but most of it flows away without us knowing where or how. I can remember growing up in the 1990s and watching some of the iconic films from the 1980s (most of them being silly) that had as much significance to me as much as (I am sure) Mike Tyson did to children who are now fully grown adults well into their thirties.

I am still enchanted by movies like Back to the Future, Beverly Hill’s Cop I and II, The Goonies and the India Jones Trilogy. However, can you believe it? Eddie Murphy is in his forties, so is Michael J. Fox, Harrison Ford is… well let’s not go there and Tyson is forty! I am confident this article will vanish and in twenty years, if I have the fortune to still be living as we never know what can truly happen and the Internet still exists in some form I will stumble onto my own words here.

It is hard to write anything new on one of the most controversial, divisive and dissected sports personalities of any era. Whether it was his hurling punches, unbridled aggression, famous one liners, biting Evander Holyfield’s ear off, his celebrity marriage with Robin Givens and rape of Desiree Washington or other notable episodes we have always been given something from Tyson. Conversely, what has Tyson got after all of the mayhem in his life? This is something important because so many fighters are forgotten once they have retired and it something I will come back to later.

Defenders vs. Attackers

One of the fascinating facets about Tyson and boxing in general is the historiography of the debate. A boxer’s all time standing is very much like a yoyo. Interpretations of a fighter’s overall accomplishments alter with different perspectives, subjectivity and varying criteria of greatness. Some will place more emphasis on heart as being an indicator of a fighter’s worth, others will vaunt skill as the measuring stick and there will those who emphasise combinations of factors. There are many ways to attack the status of a fighter and with Tyson it is even more mind boggling.

His defenders, the biggest ones who have been on the precipice of fanatical, were so enamoured by his qualities that they failed to see the darker side of his character and claimed that he was a prisoner of his circumstances. The defenders of Tyson are on safe ground when they say Tyson did not have an easy life but their arguments that he was not responsible for his actions are nonsensical. I prefer to use the word ‘action’ instead of ‘choice’ because ‘choice’ is a hairy word with many shades of grey. Discussing its general definition and then applying it to an individual case opens a philosophical hole which I do not want to step into. Whatever, Tyson or anyone else has done in their lives, whether good or bad, it is their action and he/she has a duty to take responsibility. Another point in Tyson’s case is he was on the receiving end of a lot of condemnation but let us remember he also received a lot of adulation. In my eyes, the defence of Tyson at times resembled that of a messianic cult which could not see the other end of the debate.

Equally, some of his fiercest critics have been just as dogmatic. Tyson has been wrong many times in his life and done some unforgivable things but a lot of the analysis of Tyson; his motivations and so on were very crude and manufactured the image of a terminator like robot with no feelings. He was antagonised and vilified to large degrees. This fostered a love-hate relationship between the media and Tyson that developed into a vicious circle with both throwing taunts at the other. Tyson, although he made some to very profuse comments like, ‘I want to rip out his heart and feed it to him [Lennox Lewis]. I want to kill people. I want to rip their stomachs out and eat their children.’

He could be incredibly charming, he cast a shadow on his more evil half when he congratulated Lewis (after their title fight in 2002), ‘He was splendid, a masterful boxer,’ and ‘He's a magnificent, prolific fighter.’

These two rival and contradictory tendencies in Tyson are what make him such a polarizing enigma. When we judge Mike Tyson’s career can we really be even remotely detached from a man who has stirred such passions in the most tumultuous boxing career in modern history? Can we solely assess his career and ring accomplishments without thinking of Desiree Washington, the three years in prison and his history of violence? Probably not because it was Tyson’s lifestyle outside the ring which exorcised his awe inspiring talent. Tyson, like John McEnroe is remembered for his skills and artistry that he brought to his game but ultimately this will be eclipsed by other actions. McEnroe had the infamy in his tantrums and Tyson had the infamy in his volatile temperament.

The Problem of Judgment

We as fans, writers and historians cannot subscribe to this crap argument that we cannot judge Mike Tyson. His legacy and importance cannot be ignored and swept under the carpet. Judgment is one of the most important assets in life. The problem with judging someone like Tyson is not that judging itself is wrong but how we do it potentially is. There is a universe of difference between judging Tyson through long reflection, consideration of evidence, consultation of other opinions through research and a proportional sensitivity. If these requirements are not carried out then the evaluation is bound to be substandard and highly slanted.

The Wish

I think we can only begin to gain a proper appreciation of Tyson now. Although his skills were sent to the morgue after the announcement of his prison sentence I think there was too much hype and speculation surrounding the ongoing Tyson rollercoaster from his release to his much delayed retirement. Hindsight is a necessary prerequisite to measure anything of historical significance and we just need to wait for the dust to settle, which is happening now with less two bit articles popping up in the world press about the world’s ex ‘Baddest Man on the Planet.’

In USA Today, he was reported as saying (in the June 3, 200r edition), ‘My whole life has been a waste - I've been a failure. I just want to escape. I'm really embarrassed with myself and my life. I want to be a missonary. I think I could do that while keeping my dignity without letting people know they chased me out of the country. I want to get this part of my life over as soon as possible. In this country nothing good is going to come of me. People put me so high; I wanted to tear that image down.’

In time, when we have achieved some distance I think we can talk about Tyson with a greater and much needed clarity. I don’t know if I have been ‘objective’ in this article but one wish I have is that Tyson does not go the same way as Sonny Liston and Carlos Monzon. I believe Larry Holmes famously observed of Tyson, ‘He will end up dead or in prison.’ One has already transpired and for all his wrongdoings I do not think many people wish for the other. Pain was inflicted by Tyson and pain taken by Tyson. We have a chance, all of us to move on and he needs it more than anyone. The one title that eluded Tyson was happiness, may he capture the title one day, not for his fans or Cus D’Amato but himself.

Article posted on 16.07.2006

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