Word has it that Mike Tyson has emerged from his three years of
incarceration in an Indiana prison as something of a culture
vulture. Apparently Iron Mike used his leisure time in the slammer
wisely, boning up on the religion of Islam, the effusions of
Chairman Mao and, most significantly, the epic poetry of ancient
Greece. ``I read a guy by the name of Homer,'' Tyson said in a
television interview last May. ``And he wrote about a guy,
Achilles, and another guy, Hector. And he wrote about that war.''
If it hadn't been for the Iliad, the ex-champ suggested, prison
life would have been hopelessly ``mundane.'' Mundane! This from a
guy whose best-known remark had heretofore been about punching an
opponent's nose bone through his brain?
Let's give Tyson the benefit of the doubt and concede that he has
joined a very short list of pugilists with intellectual
pretensions. Glad to have him aboard, although there are
undoubtedly those in the fight racket who prefer the pre-Trojan
War Tyson to the bookish ex-convict they must now train. It's
reasonable to inquire, after all, if a boxer who quotes Homer and
uses words like mundane can still hook to the body.
Under any circumstances Tyson has many books to go before he
approaches the cultural standards set many years ago by boxing's
most celebrated litterateur, Gene Tunney. Exposure to belles
lettres never hurt Tunney's punching power or affected his
footwork. In fact, it worked to his psychological advantage. In
the weeks before he was to meet Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight
championship in 1926, Tunney's training camp was infiltrated by a
Dempsey spy. When this mole saw Tunney relaxing after the rigors
of sparring and roadwork, he could scarcely contain his
excitement. ``It's in the bag, Jack,'' he reported back to the
champ. ``The big sissy's reading books.'' Dempsey, of course, got
his block knocked off by the bookworm.
Tunney defended his title only twice, surviving the famous ``long
count'' to beat Dempsey again a year later and then flattening Tom
Heeney in July 1928 before retiring from the ring for good, a
wealthy man with all his marbles intact. Tunney even had the good
sense to marry money, and he lived thereafter as a Connecticut
country squire, hobnobbing with the like of George Bernard Shaw.
Lord knows he had plenty of time to improve his mind. And so he
In 1970 it was my good fortune to interview Tunney when he came to
San Francisco to visit his sons, one of whom, John, was then
running for the U.S. Senate, a race he would win. Tunney was also
in town to catch the local premiere of The Great White Hope, a
motion picture based loosely on the life of another heavyweight
champion, Jack Johnson. My curiosity about Tunney was boundless.
Was he really as well-read as reputed, or was his supposed
erudition a publicity gimmick? Did he really know Shaw? Could he
spout Shakespeare on command?
He dispensed with the bard business right off, quoting freely from
the sonnets as I entered the sitting room of his son Gene's
suburban house: ``For nimble thought can jump both sea and land.''
I must say I was mightily impressed. At 73, Tunney looked
positively Falstaffian, his considerable girth settled comfortably
in a plush easy chair. It was hard to picture this pink-faced gent
as the sleek 190-pound dancing master who twice left the great
Dempsey pawing the air in frustration. But fighting, he said, was
``compulsory'' on New York City's tough West Side, where he grew
up. And though he was ``damn good at it,'' he ``derived little
pleasure'' from busting up the neighborhood bullies. It was in the
Marine Corps during World War I that Tunney became serious about a
professional boxing career, and he returned from the war billed as
the Fighting Marine, not, as he might have preferred, the Slugging
His two battles with Dempsey gave him enduring fame, but it was
his five bouts as a light heavyweight with Harry Greb, the fierce
and unethical Pittsburgh Windmill, that tested his courage and
will. An expert eye gouger and head butter, Greb won only one of
those fights. Tunney described him to me as ``a terrific fellow,
afraid of absolutely no one.'' He might as well have been talking
about Shaw, who was also ``terrific'' and ``a very warm person at
heart.'' So, it struck me that day, was Tunney himself, a man who,
for all of his posturing, was generous and kindhearted. And
certainly, as Dempsey learned to his grief, no one to take
As it happened, Muhammad Ali -- Tunney called him by his given
name, Cassius Clay -- was making his comeback from three years of
ring inactivity the very week of our interview. Tunney spoke of
Clay in the past tense. Clay had been, he said, a ``very great
fighter, but I suspect the long layoff will raise Cain with him.''
I wonder what he might say today about Tyson. We'll never know
because the Fighting Marine died in 1978. But chances are that
anyone who has read Homer for pleasure, even in a jail cell, would
receive Tunney's endorsement.