Published: March 8, 2005
Sunday March 6, 2005
The attachment of conventional morality to the workings of professional boxing has invariably required the most imaginative mental gymnastics. What applies in society at large does not always hold when men managed by clever businessmen collide in public for the entertainment of strangers, a truth Mike Tyson has known all his life but which seems to have been lost on Peter McGauran.
Mr McGauran is the acting immigration minister for the worryingly reactionary federal government in Australia. More entertainingly, he was the author last week of the best comic line of the year.
In countering the idea that Tyson might resume his career in Australia in June, Mr McGauran observed: ‘What we can say is that in the past, people seeking to come to Australia with serious criminal convictions have been denied entry on character grounds.’
Without wishing to be a purblind apologist for Tyson or the maker of cheap jokes (all right, ignore the last one), it is reasonable to point out that a country founded on the sweat of convicts might appear churlish in not affording a brother miscreant the minimum of Christian understanding.
This is not an entirely flippant point. In the days when the Prime Minister Bob Menzies drooled over ‘Her Majesty’ like a lovesick dog and Germaine Greer and Clive James viewed a trip to London as the ultimate cultural pilgrimage, many Australians were embarrassed to be even vaguely connected with those persecuted ancestors who endured scurvy and leg-irons in trips across the sea.
Now, in the new age of admirably assertive nationality, to be descended from the First Fleet (and many others that followed) is to walk like a king Down Under. There is a certain glamour in inherited rogueishness, a leavening, if you like, of an upright citizen’s otherwise dull respectability.
Yet, while it is fine to wallow in distant crimes and affect a cavalier disregard of hard days, real low-life is another matter. Redemption, apparently, is linked to nostalgia not justice.
Tyson raped a woman, and did the time; he bit an opponent’s ear, and was banned; he earned $500million and blew the lot. What more does life want from this man? Perhaps it would ease Tyson’s application for entry to paradise if he could trace the lineage of his biological father, Jimmy Kirkpatrick, back to the Old Sod, preferably to someone who had stolen a loaf of bread and was slung on a ship bound for Botany Bay.
We had this agonising before Tyson came to Manchester to beat up Julius Francis, and then to Glasgow to blow away Lou Savarese. There was much angst, not much blood and quite a lot of money generated. That’s boxing.
If Mr McGauran imagines that the fight game represents all that is holy in business propriety, that it is a haven of rectitude, he has obviously not learnt much from his own time in the equally grubby enterprise of politics, where the standard of lying would impress Don King.
Tyson has as his champion in Australia the former world champion Jeff Fenech, a no-nonsense son of Maltese immigrants who livened up the streets of Sydney with an extended childhood of delinquency.
Fenech put his life together but has not totally shaken off his past. Over the past couple of years, he had his face slashed in the street then had his house shot up by thugs, forcing him to move. Quite rightly, at no point did any of Mr McGauran’s colleagues consider taking away Fenech’s right to promote and manage fighters.
Fenech, who has been a friend of Tyson’s for many years, is not a saint; he knows he can make money with the former world champion in Australia. But he was right when he said last week: ‘My aim is to get him out of America for a while to train, I just want to give him a change.’
He might have said ‘give him a chance’. Certainly, Tyson has had plenty of those. But should there be a limit on them, a point where charity stops? Boxing almost certainly saved Fenech. It hasn’t been so kind to Tyson, but it’s all he’s got.
The fighting business has often played the dual role of bearpit and refuge. Young men from deprived backgrounds have seen it, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, as an escape route. And they know – or are soon told – that the rules are not so clearcut as elsewhere in society. This is not ideal, it is just the way it is. There ought to be safeguards, protection for guileless young athletes. Maybe one day there will be, but its arrival is not immediately apparent. Meanwhile, Mike Tyson would probably fight on the moon if they let him.
Ninety-seven years ago, another black heavyweight with a rap sheet was allowed entry to Australia and left Sydney with Tommy Burns’s world heavyweight championship belt.
Jack Johnson would go on to be further persecuted by white moralists, eventually hounded out of boxing and the United States. When he returned through Mexico after he had lost his title to Jess Willard in Havana, they threw Jack in prison, nailed under the Mann Act, legislation drawn up after he had eloped across state boundaries with a young white girl. The first black heavyweight champion of the world ended his working life dressed in jungle loincloth with a spear in his hand, his golden grin fixed in pain as he played out some daft circus tableau.
Johnson died in a car crash, speeding on his way to see Joe Louis’s rematch with Billy Conn. Tyson is constantly driving around his own hairpin curve and at least deserves to stop and rest now and again, even if it’s in a country whose government doesn’t want him.