SI 60 Q&A: Richard Hoffer on Mike Tyson and his legacy
Few athletes in Sports Illustrated's history have been as captivating for as long -- and for as many different reasons -- as Mike Tyson. From his first cover appearance as boxing's new hero at age 19 in 1986; through his celebrity life and overpowering dominance of the heavyweight division in the 1980s; to his downfall and rape conviction in the early '90s; to his comeback in 1995; to his meltdown against Evander Holyfield in 1997; and to the end of his career and his continuing public transformation in the 2000s, Tyson has always been, if nothing else, a worthy subject. Richard Hoffer has witnessed all of it, first writing about Tyson for the magazine when Iron Mike was ruling as heavyweight champion and covering him every step of the way since, including in his 1998 book, A Savage Business: The Comeback and Comedown of Mike Tyson, that explored the once-fearsome boxer in even greater detail.
Perhaps at no other time in Tyson's career did his past and present as a celebrity and an athlete collide as interestingly as it did in the spring of 2002, as he prepared for what became his last heavyweight title fight, against Lennox Lewis. Hoffer, as always, was there to cover it for SI. His pre-fight story, "All The Rage," captured Tyson as he had been, as he was and, in many ways, as he would be.
SI: Did you think Tyson would be a serious challenger when he got out of jail in 1995?
HOFFER: I certainly was skeptical because the time away never augurs well for an athlete and certainly not for a boxer. There was a feeling that Tyson, even in his prime, was built for the short-run. Once we saw the trajectory of his comeback starting with Peter McNeely, and it was such a cynical enterprise, you sort of dismissed the whole comeback. It was such a charade.
He was the best there was going into the [first] Holyfield fight [in 1996]. My memory was that Holyfield was not the feared, vaunted boxer he was after the fight. He was kind of just another set up for Tyson, a name one, but a set up all the same. This wasn’t a glorious enterprise, as far as we could tell. Tyson was the best heavyweight out there, certainly the most entertaining.
When you consider everything that had gone before you realize this guy had hardly been anything more than a bully to begin with and [that second Holyfield fight] exposed him for what he was which was [someone] who crumbled quite easily. It fit with all that happened in the past. We couldn’t predict exactly what happened but it made sense.
SI: Did you think he was done as a fighter by the time he got ready to face Lewis?
HOFFER: There was no question he was done, and it was only the fact of Lennox Lewis being out there and being willing to cash a check that he even continued this long. Tyson was considered, boxing-wise, damaged goods ever since that Holyfield fight. Nobody was really taking him seriously as a fighter but the income opportunity of the two names was too big to ignore.
He was able to invoke his evil charisma enough for this fight that it almost seemed like an athletic enterprise when in fact it never could be. This was 100 percent promotion and 0 percent athleticism.
SI: Did you want to do the story?
HOFFER: We didn’t always do a run-up story but this was kind of special in terms of boxing coverage. We recognized that this would be a big event, not a good event but a big event. They arranged this goofy press gathering in Maui and kind of assembled everyone into this clusterf--- and I do remember this PR guy gathered us and set down the rules of engagement, but in my memory we laughed him out of the room.
SI: Did you get any one-on-one time with him then?
HOFFER: I asked for and was promised a one-on-one that I think turned out to be a three-on-one. If my memory is correct there was this general press conference feel of it where we were all in his room and then everybody left and a few of us slunk back in for our so-called private time with Mike. I don’t know that it mattered in the story.
SI: Was this the story you planned to write or was it influenced by what was going on at the time with Tyson's bizarre behavior, such as his outburst at the pre-fight press conference in January?
HOFFER: I don’t think I had any marching orders but I think this is the direction I would have gone no matter what. As a sporting event I don’t think I had much interest in this. I didn’t see much coming out of it and not much did. I thought this was sort of, I guess, our last look at Tyson and let’s kind of account for this strange career.
SI: Why did you feel that way?
HOFFER: Just by virtue of his age and by virtue of his past performance this was not going to be a bout for the ages. I don’t even remember a thing about it, which I guess goes to the performance.
SI: You've re-read the story at least. What is your impression of it?
HOFFER: It’s a lot funnier than I probably meant it to be, I’m sure of that. He had exhausted his reputation as a fighter by then and was just coasting on his notoriety. I was surprised at the tone of it and surprised and satisfied at the flippancy I brought to this.
SI: What did you make of his behavior around that time?
HOFFER: His behavior is very consistent with everything that came before. All he ever wanted was attention and he got it by playing this crazy, impulsive, dangerous idiot. Now he’s getting it by sort of being this likable buffoon. The attention matters to him. You go back in his history and he's always had these figures – Cus D’Amato, Jimmy Jacobs, Don King would have qualified at one time – that he looked to for respect and notice.
I think this was an unchecked id for much of his life. To some extent he was a wind-up toy for whoever was operating him, whether it was Cus, who wanted one last champion, or Don King, who wanted a 50 percent cut of his purses. This story got at how cynical this whole effort was and it got to how willing Tyson was to play along. At times he would act like he resented it but he really did want that walking around money.
SI: What did you think of him personally?
HOFFER: I liked him. We weren’t friends, but I enjoyed the experience of covering him. He was sort of predictably unpredictable, and he certainly gave you something to write about. His fights were often spectacular one way or another. I didn’t fall for his schtick as the most malevolent person in the world. My opinion always was that this was one of the greatest con men in sports. I never believed much of his backstory.
SI: In what way?
HOFFER: Just these stories he would tell of all the wicked things he had done, I just thought a lot of turned out to be BS. He sort of manufactured himself in that respect and it was a very cunning career in that way to create this persona which was based on very little. In fact, outside of the rape conviction, which was real enough, he was more a Gorgeous George type than a real force of nature.
I caught up with him before he had won the title but I had seen his story taking shape. I remember being on a private plane with him from Vegas to Los Angeles and he could be very childlike and winning. He was always interesting, but it was hard to tell what was genuine. I was always of the impression that self-destructive as he was, and I turned out to be correct in this, if he lived past a certain age and past his impulsive behavior that he might survive all this. Here he is doing one-man shows on Broadway.
SI: How will he be remembered as a fighter?
HOFFER: For entertainment value Tyson’s your man, that was a lot of bang for your buck. But I don’t think we’ll remember him as one of the 10 best heavyweights of all time. But that was a wild ride.
In his prime – which meant a carefully managed career – his fights were exciting. I’ve reserved judgment on him as a great heavyweight but they were exciting, whether because they were mismatches or not I don’t know. Today we have to deal with the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr., who hunts and pecks and bores you to death. Tyson wasn’t boring.
He was not nothing but he wasn’t one of the greatest of all time either. We can’t blame him for not existing alongside Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis, but looking back it wasn’t a career of substance, it was more a career of promotion and hype. He did bring a flair to it and he did bring some strange talents. We can’t disregard him entirely but in revisionist history the sense that he was kind of novelty is going to carry the day.
SI: He's still had some troubles in his personal life yet he's also emerged in popular culture as a somewhat beloved figure. You once said you didn’t think things would end well for him. Do you still feel that way?
HOFFER: I thought if he could just get past his youth, if that’s what you want to call it, he might make it, and I think that’s what we’re seeing. He’s outlived these dangerous times and now that he’s everybody’s favorite uncle, albeit with a tattoo on his face.