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It is always perilous to predict the end of anything (ask Francis Fukuyama), but it was surely an adequate sign of boxing’s eclipse that, among the fifteen thousand people who paid to see Mike Tyson fight a very tall tomato can named Kevin McBride the other night at the MCI Center, in Washington, many more knew the details of Iron Mike’s credit record (more than twelve million in arrears to
Internal Revenue) than they did the current and parlous state of the heavyweight division.
As an athlete, Tyson misplaced his dark cloak of invincibility fifteen years ago in Tokyo, when a wan and pillowy pug named Buster Douglas knocked him out. Ever since, the pattern has been the same. Those whom Tyson could intimidate quickly with thudding left hooks and the memory of his criminal reputation were soon safely dispatched, but the game opponents who could brave two or three
rounds of the Tysonian whirlwind profited by the desperate rages that inevitably followed: the ear-biting, the head-butting, the attempts to break a limb. Tyson would unravel, fall down, or be disqualified.
And so no one in Washington was paying for athletic display. Tyson was everyone’s freak show, a grotesque and guilty entertainment at once violent, unpredictable, haunted, thrilling-but truly dangerous only to himself, to his opponent, and to those who, like Desiree Washington, the beauty queen, ended up testifying in court. People paid to see Mike Tyson, one ex-wife suggested, in the same spirit in which they went to horror movies or rode the roller coaster.
And yet Tyson also provided his audiences and chroniclers with a kind of three-penny Raskolnikov and Bigger Thomas. He asked to be pitied, adored, and despised; above all, he pitied, adored, and despised himself. He reeked authenticity. John McEnroe was outrageous to the extent that the son of a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison can be outrageous. He never bit Bjorn Borg, never threatened to eat the spawn of Jimmy Connors. Tyson was unschooled in the niceties. He didn’t know his father or who he might have been.
His mother, Tyson once said, died in a cardboard box, and he was sure he would end up the same way. As a kid, he was a thug, following old ladies into elevators and beating them up and stealing their groceries. When he became champion, his renunciation of poverty was absolute. During one thirty-three-month period in the mid-nineties, he spent $4,477,498 on cars and motorcycles. (Over the years, he owned a red Lamborghini Countach, a Bentley with a bumper sticker reading “I heart Allah,” and a Lamborghini “jeep” that had been built for the Saudi king.) He spent ninety-five thousand dollars a month on
jewelry and clothing, $411,777 on pigeons and cats, and an untold amount on pet lions, tigers, and “royal blood” Shar-Peis. When he was not training, he redirected his energies. For one erotic marathon, a satrap lined up twenty-four women for the night. His cultural influences were various. When all the tattooing was complete, his face was that of a Maori warrior; Mao smiled murderously from one biceps, and the pacific tennis ace Arthur Ashe was portrayed on the other. Ashe’s widow, Jeanne, once said, “If I could sue a body part, I would.”
That was the Tyson that all had come to see in Washington. But he was no Kid Dynamite now. Before the fight, Tyson told McBride that he would “gut him like a fish,” but he said it gently and without conviction. All the indulgences are, for the most part, sold off, a memory. He lives now in a brick ranch house in a middle-class neighborhood in Scottsdale, Arizona, with a girlfriend and their
two children. He refuses to be a monster. “I don’t want to be that guy anymore,” he said a few days before the fight.
The fight was the usual chapter in Tyson’s late-mannerist phase. He was generous in referring to McBride as a “C fighter.” McBride’s physique suggested a taste for Guinness and idle afternoons in a lawn chair. And yet, in the first three rounds, he absorbed whatever simulacra of the old power Tyson could project. Tyson would hit him square on the jaw and McBride merely stepped back and blinked a few times, looking more confused than pained. Confused, perhaps, that he was not more in pain than he was. By the fourth round, McBride was
emboldened to try some punching of his own, and Tyson was chewing on the thumb of his glove, a sure sign, to experienced observers, that he was tired and looking for a way out.
In the corner, Tyson’s trainer had only survivalist counsel to offer: “Breathe, Mike, breathe!” And in the sixth Tyson tried everything. He tried to break McBride’s arm in the clinch, and, when that led to no conclusive injury, he cocked his head to the right and slammed it leftward into McBride’s brow, opening a bloody cut. The referee penalized Tyson two points and gave McBride a moment to clear his head. Defogged and unfazed, McBride bullied Tyson into the ropes and belted him a few times and then, like a man looking for a boost from a friend, pressed down on Tyson’s shoulders. Tyson couldn’t bear the weight. He slumped to the canvas. And it was there, on his backside, that Tyson (if ensuing vows can be trusted) concluded his career. Once on his stool, he declined a seventh round. He had quit.
In the sweaty aftermath, Tyson was gracious to his opponent and stayed around to browse his own psyche one last time. “I’m a peasant,” he said. “At one point, I thought life was about acquiring things. Life is totally about losing everything.”
Asked what he might do next, Tyson said, “I’m going to look into doing missionary work.” Maybe in Africa, maybe Bosnia. He was unsure how he would pay his bills. Maybe he just wouldn’t. He was sure, he said, only that the ferocity was gone. “I don’t have it in me anymore,” he said. “I can’t even kill the bugs in my house.”
David Remnick – The New Yorker
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