Published: June 7, 2005
By Matthew Hurley
It’s almost hard to believe that it has been nearly twenty years since Mike Tyson first won a heavyweight championship belt. And yet so ingrained in the public consciousness is Michael Gerard Tyson that it would be even harder to imagine him never being amongst us. Still, who could have anticipated the nightmarish reality circus Tyson’s life would become that glorious night in 1986 when he kayoed Trevor Berbick in the second round and returned heavyweight prize fighting into must see TV. As the Grateful Dead would lament, “what a long strange trip it’s been.”
On June 11 Tyson will fight yet again at age 39 against Dorchester based Irishman Kevin McBride. Looking for some form of redemption once more, Tyson has returned to New England to dig up another Peter McNeely. McNeely, you may remember, was Tyson’s comeback opponent after being released from prison in 1995. He made quick work of the hapless McNeely and such was his remarkable popularity that this ridiculous mismatch became a pay per view bonanza.
His fight with McBride, a lumbering heavyweight who seems to stumble when he walks, has also been turned into a pay per view event. But now most fans, if they decide to shell out the fifty bucks, will only be tuning in to see if something absurd happens. A quick knockout won’t truly suffice because Tyson is more of a carnival act now than heavyweight contender. His fanatical fan base will deny that but even Tyson himself has accepted his position and his place in the boxing world. He is weary of these comebacks and has sadly resigned himself to the reality of a career unfulfilled.
“I know I’ve screwed up,” he said recently, the famous lisp still a bit disconcerting coming from the intimidating presence with the tattooed face. “Sometimes I look back and realize what I’ve done and I just want to turn it off and walk away. It hurts me. I’m the biggest fool in the room. I know that.” He shakes his head and smiles, adding quietly, “I know I’m going to die alone. That’s the way it has to be for me. I’m all alone now. That’s the way it should be.”
Feel or say what you will about Mike Tyson but his is a tragic story, one that he participated in making but also one that he never truly had any control over. Even when he had the anchor of his mentor and father figure Cus D’Amato guiding him there were alarming instances of the thuggish street kid aching, demanding to rear its ugly head. Most of these moments had to do with the opposite sex and his sexual aggression, and perhaps a mask for his own fears of sexual inadequacy, was fueled by D’Amato’s long leash.
Tyson, painfully insecure about his appearance and the way he spoke, was given carte blanche by D’Amato. This was never more apparent than when he grabbed at trainer Teddy Atlas’s 12-year-old niece. A confrontation between D’Amato’s star trainer and his last shot at heavyweight glory resulted in a gun being put in Tyson’s face. The next day Atlas was gone and the seeds of entitlement were planted in Tyson’s teenage mind.
Then D’Amato died and before he had even won the title at twenty years of age the man-child that Tyson was doomed to always be slowly began to mentally unravel. The fissures in his psyche went mostly unnoticed by an adoring public, as long as he was knocking people out. All that followed, an alliance with Don King. And then the break up of the remaining members of the original D’Amato camp, including trainer Kevin Rooney, the dismal marriage to Robin Givens that became fodder for gossip columnists, the heavy partying and the eroding of his once indomitable boxing skills now seem inevitable.
Still, when Tyson lost his title in 1990 to 40 to 1 underdog Buster Douglas the world sat up in shock and collectively gasped, “What!?!” He had been champion for a little over three years. He was supposed to rule for so much longer than that.
After the loss to Douglas his fall from grace only became more depressingly dramatic. Convicted of rape in 1992 he served three years in prison. He won back a belt upon his release by knocking out previous opponent Frank Bruno, he of the weak chin and who remained terrified of Tyson. Then Evander Holyfield beat him from pillar to post and TKO’d him in the eleventh round. Once again he would seek to redeem himself, but instead he would be disqualified in the rematch for biting Holyfield’s ears. The caricature was now nearly complete. It would be fully drawn at the 2002 press conference for his challenge of champion Lennox Lewis.
In a profanity laced rant that bordered on a tearful mental breakdown Tyson, after biting Lewis on the thigh, seemed desperate to psych himself up for a fight he no doubt was having second thoughts about. He entered the ring in Memphis that night subdued and after a brisk opening round took a sustained beating for the next seven until Lewis knocked him out in the eighth. Yet in defeat he handled himself with a measure of dignity. As his trainer Aaron Snowell remarked, “He took his beating like a man.”
That should have been it. There was a sense of redemption in that loss. He went out on his shield and with yet another much quoted malapropism when he said he would probably fade into “Bolivian.”
But it can never be that simple for Mike Tyson. In 2003 he filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection citing debts of $27 million, in spite of earning nearly $300 million in his career. With no options left to him, and all the hangers on turning their backs because they could no longer steal from a dead cash cow, this tired, world weary former champion decided to fight on. He had to and deep in his heart Tyson always seemed to know it would come to this. His hero is Sonny Liston after all. It doesn’t matter anymore that he gets no joy out of the sport; his participation is now a fiscal necessity. In his last bout he was knocked out in the fourth round by unheralded Englishman Danny Williams. His fistic fall from prominence was now complete.
But he realizes, with marked melancholy, that it doesn’t really matter if he wins or loses anymore. He is Mike Tyson, a name as familiar as Coca Cola and his fans will always pay to see him. Like Elvis Presley in his final, sad days the fans still believe in the glory of the past and will shell out big money if only to reminisce about the good old days when their hero was primed and regal. Tyson, no dummy, understands this so now he will step into the ring against Kevin McBride for another pay day.
And the fans will be right there with him. But it’s a testament to how far removed he is from his prime that against an opponent who was recently mocked during an ESPN performance by broadcasters Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas for his alarming lack of skill that respected trainer Freddie Roach remarked, when asked if McBride has a chance, “Yeah, he does. If he shows a little bit of stones and gets by the first one or two rounds, he could win it. Tyson has always had trouble with tall guys.”
It’s been nearly twenty years since a fistic phenomenon named Mike Tyson stormed onto the scene and transcended his sport to become a major celebrity. Now all that remains is the stifling constraints of that very celebrity. It helped ruin a once great fighter and nearly destroy a complicated, painfully fragile human being. Tyson fights on because he has to, but the fight has long since been beaten out of him. When he climbs through those ropes yet again on June 11 his fans will cheer and they, perhaps along with the man himself, will think back to 1986 and wonder why it all went so wrong.