Our fascination with Mike Tyson continues, undiminished by the
repellent spectacle of his fights. The opponents come and go,
pathetic in their false bravado, offering little or no
resistance. The outcomes are increasingly suspicious or at least
maddening, as contenders and champs alike gratefully suffer his
blows and bow before him. Eighty-nine seconds, a minute
forty-nine--whatever. There is no entertainment value and lately
even the pretense of honorable competition is absent. Yet
Tyson's hold on us only grows.
It doesn't seem to matter that his fights can no longer promise
a "show" in the usual sense of the word. Sprung from prison 18
months ago, he has been involved in some of boxing's worst
matches. The startlingly inept Peter McNeeley, Tyson's first
opponent following his release, stands as his gamest foe. The
more credible challengers that followed have actually suffered a
progressive decline in heart and nerve, culminating in the
shocking first-round face-plant of Bruce Seldon last Saturday.
It's disheartening, but the healthy pay-per-view audiences for
these fights suggest Tyson does not suffer any guilt by
If, as his promoters believe, the scheduled Nov. 9 bout with
former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield becomes a boxing
blockbuster, it is only because of Tyson's weird magnetism. The
Holyfield fight is a chance to chart Tyson's rehabilitation, to
gauge his grudging re-entry into society, to measure the evil
intent of his right hand. That's all. Nothing in his four-fight
comeback so far suggests it will be an actual athletic event.
Nobody's paying $39.95 to see a fight, are they?
So far, anyway, nobody's seen one. The fans at Las Vegas's MGM
Grand last Saturday weren't sure what they saw--a concussive
destruction or the splash of a fainthearted champion--but they
sure didn't confuse it with a championship fight. "Fix! Fix!
Fix!" they chanted after Seldon, the WBA titleholder, went down
from an invisible punch in the fight's second minute and then
succumbed to an actual blow seconds later. It is obviously
absurd to discount Tyson's punching power--"I myself am punching
pretty hard these days," he said afterward--but discernible
contact is not a lot to ask at these prices. Whatever happened,
it didn't encourage thoughts of legitimate sport, or good
business. One spectator surmised that Seldon had suffered an
electrocution. Another thought he might have gotten hit with a
"Wild Kingdom animal dart."
Few were genuinely pleased with Seldon's effort, put it that
way. After weeks of tough talk, promises of courage, pledges of
a blistering jab ("He's never eaten leather like this," said
Seldon), his resolve was ultimately disappointing. Tyson has
dropped many heavyweights and dropped not a few of them quickly.
Even in his post-prison dispatches of McNeeley and, more
recently, Frank Bruno, there was a flurry of violent activity to
account for the finishes. But here you had Tyson cutting off the
ring, collapsing Seldon's brave jab with his own swarming
punches and dropping him for the first time with...what?
A short left hook, most thought. "A right hand on the top of his
head," Tyson said. "More of an elbow that touched a nerve or
something," said Seldon. Replay after replay failed to show the
collision. Seldon's face-first fall was so mysterious that
referee Richard Steele first started to rule it a slip. "I was
attempting to wave it off," said Steele. "But he seemed hurt, so
I picked up the count. I've seen a lot worse, but then I can't
tell how hard Mike Tyson punches."
This is the charitable point of view to take. A fighter's
courage tends to evaporate at the whisk of Tyson's fists;
Bruno's terror last March certainly was palpable. In any event
the second knockdown, moments later, was realized with a genuine
left hook. Seldon, whose chin has been suspect ever since 1991
losses to Riddick Bowe and Oliver McCall, again fell face-first.
He bounced up in a neutral corner and then, as the count reached
eight, appeared to be performing the Macarena. He quickly
assumed the posture of a noodle, and Steele pinned him against
the post and stopped the fight.
All in one minute forty-nine. Let's see, Tyson ran his comeback
total to $80 million, roughly $10 million per round, and Seldon
made $5 million in offering up his title in Tyson's quest to
unify the division. In the ring immediately afterward, Seldon
professed his innocence. "He's a destroyer," he said of Tyson.
"He rattled me." Asked directly if he had tanked, Seldon said,
"I treasure that crown. It wasn't a fixed fight." He added,
"It's not that money meant anything. I'm already a millionaire."
The stink of a bad fight hung in the air long after Seldon had
disappeared into the desert night, speeding away in a white
hotel courtesy van. As Seldon was returning to anonymity,
promoter Don King was leveraging the occasion to announce
Tyson's next bout in the postfight press conference, complete
with an unfurling banner (finally!) and a short TV promo that
promised there is at least one man left who's not afraid of
Tyson. (Finally!) It was as if the Seldon fight had been an
inconsiderable preamble to the night's true order of business.
Without question Holyfield, a two-time champion who is
nevertheless regarded as a spent bullet, will offer heart. He
too often has had heart in excess; his fights have been much
rougher than they needed to be, and he has suffered because of
that. Just the same, Holyfield is a cash cow for Tyson. His
appeal as a game opponent, and his proven power as a box-office
draw in bouts against Bowe and George Foreman, presell this
fight in ways the last four guys never could.
Otherwise it's a one-man show, a Tyson appearance, another
opportunity to examine his growth in a society he says confines
and betrays him. The purity of his effort and desire in the ring
is no longer suspect. He really does want to fight and to fight
well. He is driven by a historical imperative to join the ranks
of the truly great and, maybe more important, to fulfill the
hopes and dreams of the people closest to him. The heavyweight
championship is something Cus D'Amato, Tyson's late mentor,
dreamed of long ago when Tyson was just a ward of the state. And
after Saturday's bout, having added the WBA belt to his WBC
belt, he looked skyward and said, "Cus, two down and one to go."
As Tyson continues to consolidate his fame and fortune, concern
has been voiced over what use he might put them to. The Reverend
Jesse Jackson, a Tyson friend who baptized him a religion ago
and who was at the Seldon fight, doubts that the fighter has the
"penchant for social awareness" that Muhammad Ali had. Still, he
seems to gape at the forum Tyson is building. "Mike can defeat
anyone. That is an awesome statement among four billion people,"
said Jackson last Saturday, pointing out Tyson's tremendous
potential "to engender a feeling of conquest and heroism."
If Tyson does not have Ali's interest in being a leader, he
seems less and less interested in playing the victim. In a
confab with a group of writers last week, remarkable in itself,
given the furtiveness of his comeback campaign, Tyson seemed
less suspicious of others and more at ease with himself. He was
his natural contradictory self, at one point boasting of his
ability to generate $30 million with one punch, at another
saying he might give up his possessions in the near future. But,
even as he was proclaiming his misery--"In 30 years of life I
have never been happy"--he still seemed to be much more serene
than ever before, even pleased with himself. "I didn't think I
would make it this far," he said. "I was drinking every day,
fighting guys on the street, hanging out with bizarre women. But
those days are gone. That guy is dead."
Stewing about the parole conditions that keep him caged only a
little less than his $250,000 white tiger, Kenya, he said, "I
would like to go to Europe and explore different situations.
Before, I'd go and visit dens of inequity, stuff like that.
There are places I could explore that are very positive, like
the Louvre." Reminded that his very fame is a kind of
prison--that a visit to a nightclub makes him vulnerable to all
manner of charges--he said, "I got to get me another route now.
They are going to have to catch me in the library."
He seems very self-aware, both as a person and as a fighter, but
he is skeptical of the game that provides him fame and fortune.
"I love a game that doesn't love me," he says. And he knows his
Muslim religion prevents him from being boastful, but he is true
enough to himself to acknowledge the terror he strikes in his
opponents: "I give them reason to feel that way." Yet Tyson also
knows he is not the horrifying apparatus he used to be. "I'm a
better fighter than I was back then," he told ESPN the week
before the fight, "but I couldn't beat that guy back then. That
guy was awesome, a wild man."
In this introspection there is a sort of taunting, a reminder
that he has been dangerous and can be again. One day he's
remarking on the calming influence of religion, the next he's
saying he's "dealing with some situations" and wouldn't be
surprised to find himself back in prison. "This is not to be
taken personally," he told the writers, "but I am just pissed
off all the time."
This is purposefully vague, and intriguing. His fascination with
rebellious characters like Jack Johnson is not supposed to make
us sleep well at night. It's what makes him interesting, this
primitive force trying to be true to himself in a society that
would like him to be threatening, but at a distance, and with
limits. Like a pet tiger, say.
Perhaps the consequences of such a life ought to fall to us, not
him. He's a fighter, and that's what we ask him to be, pay him
to be. So why be anxious if he refuses to tamp his personality
into some little hole but tries instead to find his manhood in
orchestrated violence. "I'd rather suffer than tolerate being
dictated to," he said the other day, which is something none of
his opponents can say.