Being misunderstood is a chronic condition these days, one that many people—famous and not—richly enjoy. Indeed, the plaint that “nobody really knows me” may be the real national anthem in a land where navel gazing outranks TV watching as a source of mass entertainment.
Thus, it wasn’t surprising to hear Mike Tyson, the subject of a recent James Toback documentary movie that bears his name, deliver an opening monologue to his unseen (and unheard) interviewer that asked the question “Who am I?” and answered it by saying “Nobody really knows Mike Tyson.” The fact that “nobody” includes the ex-boxer himself is what gave the movie its punch. He’s always been as much a spectator as a participant in his chaotic life, and as morbidly curious as we are to learn what’ll happen next.
I first met Tyson in February, 1986, when I went to a college hockey arena in Troy, N.Y., to see him fight the journeyman Jesse Ferguson in his 18th professional bout. Tyson, then just 19 years old, had dispatched his previous 17 foes by knockouts, most in the first or second rounds. The tall Ferguson proved a tougher nut, but only because he dedicated himself solely to such survival tactics as running and holding, and in the sixth round was duly disqualified. Still, Tyson showed enough to make the trip worthwhile and presage the more-significant ring triumphs that were to follow.
Ask somebody today about Tyson the fighter and he’ll probably label him a primitive brawler who got by mostly on muscle. That simply wasn’t true. Even as a teen Tyson possessed advanced skills in all facets of his brutal sport. Moreover, he had the fastest hands of any fighter I’ve seen, in any weight class. In my view he’s the only man who could have given Mohammad Ali a good fight if both were in their primes.
At 5-foot-10 or -11 and about 215 pounds, the young Tyson was among the smallest heavyweights of his day, but punching upward from his powerful haunches he could deliver blows of unmatched speed and ferocity, and bobbing and weaving from the hands-high “peekaboo” stance taught to him by his mentor, Cus D’Amato, was hard to hit as well. Ali might put him away if he were able to hold him off for seven or eight rounds, but, by me, that would be a big “if.”
Alas, the Tyson most people remember is the wild man who bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in a fit of frustration during a losing effort, and the one who wrecked his life with choices so self-destructive as to suggest insanity. His downward spiral began with the death of D’Amato in 1985, just as his pro career was being launched, and turned into freefall when Jimmy Jacobs, the ex-handball champion who was his first manager and could speak to him athlete-to-athlete, unexpectedly followed D’Amato in 1988.
Unanchored, Tyson put his professional affairs in the hands Don King, a scoundrel without peer, and devoted himself personally to the scheming actress Robin Givens. The fact that everyone (literally) told him that King would rob him and Givens would use him seemed only to increase his commitments to them. Inside the ring he forgot the precepts that enabled him to unify the heavyweight title at the rare age of 21. Outside of it, problems with women, booze and drugs, and a three-year prison term for a rape conviction, stripped him of his dignity.
Gone, too, is just about all of the $300 milllion (no typo) he grossed during his fistic career. The subject of where it went concerns him so little that it’s barely mentioned in the Toback movie. While allowing that King took much or most of it—“He’s a wretched, slimy motherfucker. He’d kill his mother for a dollar”—he quickly absolves the electric-haired one of blame. “I loved leeches. I associated myself with leeches. I allowed that to happen,” Tyson says with an offhand shrug.
The “why?” of it all wasn’t asked or answered directly in the film, but it’s always been there for those who would listen. In interviews Tyson often would relate how just about all of his partners in crime during his days as a child street thug in Brooklyn were dead, in jail, or hopelessly hooked on drugs, and express the view that he expected a similar fate. Why plan for the future when there probably wouldn’t be one?
“My past is history, my future is a mystery,” the erstwhile Iron Mike tells Toback in conclusion. That’s one of those glib rhymes silly people love, but in this case it contained more truth than poetry.
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