Published: June 6, 2005
Despite a declining career, fighter continues to bring in money
By William Gildea
WASHINGTON ?? On June 27, 1988, in Atlantic City, three days before his 22nd birthday, Mike Tyson reached the peak of his boxing career. His opponent, Michael Spinks, walked terrified to the ring, a gentle man wearing a mask of fear. You could feel the heat of the crowd. You had to shout to be heard. White lights flashed, and photographers, desperate to have their film developed, struggled against one another inside a darkroom with a ferocity one said he had never experienced. They had it, from one angle or another: Spinks stretched on the canvas, Tyson still the heavyweight king. It happened in 91 seconds.
There would not be another night like it in Tysons time.
Seventeen years later, having lost most of his ring skills, bitten off part of Evander Holyfields ear, served a prison sentence for rape, exhibited repeatedly bizarre behavior and squandered almost $300 million before declaring bankruptcy in 2003, Tyson, almost 39, comes to Washington to do battle Saturday night at MCI Center. Contradicting his decline as a boxer, Tyson can still sell tickets; a crowd of more than 12,000 already is assured. Although his scheduled match with one Kevin McBride is a far cry from that memorable night in Atlantic City, thousands more tickets are expected to be sold, and tens of thousands will watch on pay-per-view television.
But virtually no one is anticipating a classic boxing match.
What then is the attraction for the paying customers? Are they undying fans of Tyson? Rubberneckers to a crash? The impetuous? The curious? Fight fans hoping to enjoy a decent card? Those who want to take a last look at a heavyweight who once gave promise of being ranked with the likes of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and maybe even Muhammad Ali?
In his last fight 11 months ago, Tyson (50-5) was left on his backside by the little-known Danny Williams in Louisville. Before that he knocked out the undistinguished Clifford Etienne in Memphis. Washington seems to be the latest stop in a road show of minor talents. The 6-foot-6 McBride (32-4-1) was beaten by a British heavyweight who was in the process of losing 17 of his last 18 fights before retiring. The Tyson-McBride kind of matchup used to be regular fare in fight clubs and circus tents, a hoot that broke lifes monotony for thirsting crowds. These days, in a sport without strict governance, it goes on under a sprinkle of glitz and the cloak of modern buildings.
A handful of explanations can account for Tysons enduring attraction, but none would be in order if this were not boxing, where the participants can linger about as long as they care to, and have never wanted for witnesses to their ignominy.
Most good fighters hang around far longer than they should,? said Gerald Early, author of The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture,? responding recently by e-mail to questions about Tysons enduring lure. Perhaps this is true of elite athletes in general. The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, to use the title of the famous Anthony Newley musical from the 1960s. But there is more to it.
Tyson is interesting,? said Early, who is a professor of English, and African and Afro-American Studies, and director of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis, because he has such an act, a persona, that accompanies his athletic achievement. In a sense, he seems trapped by the persona that has enabled him to make money and has been a source of great disruption and distress for him, although his self-absorption borders on the pathological, even more so than most successful athletes.
Tysons descent has lasted longer than that of any once-great athlete. The deaths of his original trainer, Cus DAmato, in 1985 and later co-manager Jim Jacobs began Tysons downward spiral. He sued his other co-manager, Bill Cayton, at the time of the Spinks fight and broke off with his trainer, Kevin Rooney, after the fight. From that point, Tyson seemed to heed no ones advice, and although he knocked out Carl Williams in 93 seconds only two fights after ending Spinks career, he already was evolving into an aimless swinger and short-cutting his training. On Feb.11, 1990, Buster Douglas left him groping on the canvas for his mouthpiece. In years to come, Holyfield and Lennox Lewis would keep him reeling.
Tyson discarded the demands and the art of the sport, taught to him in the tradition of Jose Torres and Archie Moore and such greats. Worthy successor to Ali? Unbeatable like Marciano? The beginning of Tysons greatness also was its end. His jackknifed career and its remains have peen painful to observe, strewn over nearly two decades and exceeded in frightfulness only by the wreckage of his life as he seemed to act out his baddest-man-on-the-planet persona.
His vile rants against Lewis precluded that fight from being held in Las Vegas and continued up to fight time in Memphis. Since then, Tyson has been more docile ?? although he had his face tattooed shortly before fighting Etienne, taking the risk of having his skin ripped open by a punch. Like a lot of things Tyson has done, it made no sense. Yet over the years, for one reason or another, he has remained a compelling figure and, to some extent, a popular one.
His mystique, however that might be interpreted, and an empathy among ardent supporters, some of whom, perhaps, experienced troubles of their own that lead them to identify with Tyson, certainly account for part of his following. Whatever Tyson has done in a spotlight shone on him since his dramatically quick rise from ghetto to glory and brief dominating presence as champion, and through his troubles, people want to stand by him.
In the African-American community, we believe in forgiveness and redemption,? said James Cooks, a Washington lawyer and former boxing manager who considers himself a friend of Tyson. Hes a folk hero, as hard as it is to believe. There is some sense of the hero about him because of where he came from, to where he rose, to where he has fallen.?
Budd Schulbergs is another sympathetic voice. Its amazing the hold he still has on the public,? said Schulberg, a boxing authority who wrote the script for the 1954 film On the Waterfront,? in which Marlon Brando played a former boxer who could have been a contender.? It doesnt matter to the public whether he wins or loses, and hes not really won a (major) fight in a long time. Hes still the hottest ticket. He has that magic, or whatever you want to call it.?
Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, takes more into account Tysons disordered personality that in itself attracts an audience, enabling his appeal to outlast his ability. Theres a certain segment of the population that has had kind of a morbid fascination with him. Theres also a core of people who like him because of what he was, what he could have been, and some empathize with what he has gone through, to what he is now ?? a sad figure, is how I would characterize it,? Lapchick said.
There is the memory of Tyson the unstoppable and that attracts people,? Early said, the sheer memory of how overpowering he was as a fighter, but there is also the mythology of Tyson, constructed self-consciously and inadvertently, that attracts as well.?
The mythology can still help bring in money as long as Tyson doesnt have too many more losing fights. He will continue as long as there is someone willing to put up the dollars,? Lapchick said. He added: I dont think theres anyone who has endured for so many years without a glimmer of hope, without a chance of reversal of fortune. Ultimately, theres no good end to this story.?