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Before a room filled with boxing fans, officials and names like Morales, Tszyu, Hagler and Angelo Dundee, a short burly black man wearing an open neck loose fitting pink shirt, complete with large circles of sweat under each arm, makes his way towards the podium for the 2011 Boxing Modern Hall of Fame acceptance speech. It is a short distance from his seat to the podium, but the lively Tyson almost bounces pass the audience who have risen to applaud him, and towards the MC.
This is the 22nd annual International Boxing Hall of Fame ceremony, held in
Canastota, New York. With some of the irony that has marked his career, the
distinctively tattooed left face, which from a distance could be mistaken for a
nasty black eye, takes a few animated steps from his seat to reach the podium.
But for those old or fanatic enough to remember, the actual journey from the
all-boys reform school in upstate New York to this moment, has been a long and
controversial. A journey marked with unparalleled achievements in the ring,
scarred by family tragedies and soiled with personal disgraces and professional
lows. But standing before the audience, giving his acceptance speech, was
certainly no journeyman.
“Look, I've got to be goofy about this or I'll get emotional up here”, he starts off saying.
For a young man who rose to fame with the fascinated eyes of millions on him in the ring, it is hard to watch the older Tyson struggling, internally, to stand before those same fans and talk about his achievement in the sport.
His body language is bordering on erratic; reflective perhaps of his own unorganised thoughts, as if the recognition was just sprung on him and he had not the chance to reflect. It’s difficult to tell whether this once animal of the ring is nervous, or excited or anxious. He is unable to remain still, waves his arms jerkily as he speaks, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, his body moving constantly to the rhythm of his restless mind as he tries to conjure up the words to an anticipatory audience. There is no prepared paper speech. This is Tyson speaking, seemingly, off-the-cuff.
He jokes a little, pays tribute to Cus. There is a mention of the local social worker who discovered him, some ad hoc and incomplete comments about the other inductees and wanting to be a great fighter. And then, abruptly, he says, „Hey guys, I can't even finish this stuff. Thank you. Thank you,“ and returns to his seat.
This is not the first time in recent years that Tyson has lost his composure in public and allowed his emotion to overwhelm him. It is refreshing, almost beguiling to our collective sense of moral good, that this sometimes contemptible man could be so raw and overwrought. This is a man of contradictions – with one breath he will say with intent ferocity and seriousness, „I want to kill people. I want to rip their stomachs out and eat their children“. And with another, he will utter something surprisingly enlightening, like telling you that fear is „like fire“. „If you can control it, it can cook for you; it can heat your house. If you can't control it, it will burn everything around you and destroy you. If you can control your fear, it makes you more alert, like a deer coming across the lawn”.
And controlling the fire is something that has defined much of Tyson's outward persona; control not only of fear, but the public struggle of a man desperately trying to exert, and at times lose, control of personal rage, of desire, of strength, of emotion.
Tyson’s story and his character is the stuff of Shakespearean tragedies – powerful and wasteful, moving and calamitous, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can feel the inauspicious boding that burdens the awesome highs and the pathetic lows. And looking at his story in retrospect, there is a sense that we are witnessing one of boxing's tragic heroes – a bewilderingly talented fighter who had skill and fight intelligence beyond his years, but who squanders this talent and a large part of his life (he openly admits).
It can be argued that one of most powerful tools of a Shakespearean tragedy is not the use of literary techniques, the lyrical old-English language or the rhyming couplets. The power of a tragedy is its power to connect with the sense of tragic within us.
As individuals, we love Tyson's flawed genius and his magic and sheer power in the ring and yet there is so much about his character outside the square circle that can be despised: his vulgar barbarity in Holyfield-Tyson II spoke volumes about the man's underlying savagery and rage and we turned our heads in disgust at the utterly unsportsmanlike behaviour on display. But when the fight begins, when you see the unadorned fighter and his plainly dressed entourage march towards the stage, when you see the man silently and methodically pace around the ring in an anticipatory marking of his territory, and when the shoulder muscles tense, the gloves go against his head and the fighter's legs tighten ready to pounce, we cannot look away.
We can wonder what would possess a man to tattoo his face, and we wonder what goes on behind those sometimes empty eyes as he struggles to find the startling high-pitched lisping voice in response to the hard questions about his despicable behaviour. We denounce his disparaging treatment of women in the early 90s and yet we are touched by his dependence on, and love of, family. We watch in delight as his hands tear down giant opponents; the same fat hands of a man who gently strokes cooing pigeons. We stare as he vehemently denies (and to this day continues to deny) that he raped Desiree Washington, and with our mouths gaping, listen as he goes on to say, "I may have took advantage of women before, but I never took advantage of her“.
There is a beautifully shot scene in the first of a three-part documentary series created by the Discovery Channel called „Taking on Tyson“. Tyson is standing in the middle of a small pigeon coop, his tired face serene, watching the birds attentively as they flutter around him. It's a late summer's afternoon. Tyson is wearing a long black shirt, seemingly unaffected by the heat, or presumably by the distinctive smell of the common bird in confined spaces. Slivers of warm orange sun arrow through small caged nooks of the shed. Occasionally, he reaches out to catch a bird as it flutters by, but his huge body is largely still, he says nothing, as if having a private conversation with the animals in his head.
„What we get from these birds is what we can’t get from human beings, and that's loyalty, and that's what the connection is“, he tries to explain. It is almost at odds to watch this burly creature stand contently in a cramped pigeon coop extolling the human connection with an otherwise ordinary fowl. For a man who spent most of his life in explosion, you almost expect him to wind up in a ball, break out and smash himself through the wooden enclosure, with feathers and pigeons flying amuck.
Odder still perhaps, is that the young Tyson realised his natural punching power at the age of ten when he threw his first punch in a dispute over a dead pigeon. Hot head boys are known to throw punches to win the pretty neighbourhood girl, in despites about turf, in football matches, over any argument which may nudge their ego. But, for the love of pigeons?
Growing up, Tyson was constantly bullied. He was the frightened, fat, bespectacled kid with breathing difficulties and that high-pitched voice who never retaliated.
„Every time I went to school people would just kick the crap out of me“, he recalls. And on a day in 1976, the „little fairy boy“ carrying a sackful of pigeons was confronted by a street thug who grabbed one of the pigeons – a tippler – from Tyson. As the story goes, when Tyson demanded the pigeon be returned to him, the thug allegedly said, “You want it, you can have it”, and then wrung the bird’s neck, throwing the dead bird back in Tyson's face. Something snapped that day and the previously subdued victim responded with his fists: „it was my first fight and I kicked the living crap out of him. When I started hitting him, I was loving it. I let so much frustration out.“
Ten years after the slaying of that English tippler pigeon, Mike Tyson becomes the youngest man to win the heavyweight title.
Time may have changed Tyson, but world champion or not, there are some things time cannot change. In May 2009, Tyson was faced with the pain that „never stops“. Exodus Tyson, Mike's then 4 year old daughter, was found hanging from a cord on a treadmill in her family's Phoenix home by her 7-year brother. It remains unclear how she became tragically injured – it seems that she either slipped or put her head in the loop of the cord hanging under the treadmill’s console and was suffocated. At the time of the accident, Tyson, who has seven children by three different women, was at his Las Vegas home. A day later, the 4 year old was taken off life support and pronounced dead. Tyson married his third wife 10 days later.
If adversity is supposed to give us strength, we may wonder why Tyson's golden years did not last longer. But his strength, like his life, seemed to come in ebbs and flows.
Opening up to US TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres in 2011, Tyson recalls, " When I went to the hospital when she was on the machine, I was anticipating…that I'm going to go to the hospital and raise hell".
Understandably so. Unless personally touched by such tragedies, it is difficult to comprehend the bewildering grief that can swallow a father who has just lost his child. But, as we know, this a man who doesn't follow any script. When he arrived at the hospital to see his daughter on life support, Tyson had the courage to allow his outrage to be tempered by a forbearance that was, until then, sparingly used.
„Once I got there and saw other people who had children who already died or were dying, they were handling it with dignity and I didn't want to be the psycho parent. I wanted to handle it with dignity as well. Their kids were dying too so I didn't have any right to be a psycho. I just had to handle it like everyone else and be humble and be at ease.“
Looking back, there is a starkly humanistic morality about his story. It is easy to feel emotionally ambiguous about it. But as we re-watch the always abridged fights of the young Tyson, we cannot help but reach for the rewind, play, rewind, replay, slow-mo button to determine which punch caused the knock-out blow. It's like watching streamed footage of a tornado rip through a town thousands of kilometres away in another country. You can see the fury, the destruction, the horror – but the human impact on the ground takes a little longer to fully understand. We are in awe of him as much as we despise him, we praise him as much as we denounce him, we feel contempt for his story as much as we feel for his loss.
His flaws make him believable. Perhaps, sometimes, too much so. But there is a confronting humility when you hear this monster of a man openly declare that he is „scared“ every time he goes into the ring – „what you have to do is plant your feet, bite down on your mouth piece and say ‚Let‘s go'“. There is a sense that we share a common humanity with this creature before us.
And his flaws force us to connect with his narrative, as unpalatable as it, at times, may be. As Tyson said in June 1990 in the midst of his trial for alleged rape of the 18-year-old Sunday School teacher on her way to becoming the Miss Black America, „I believe a lot of people want to see me self-destruct“. People almost expect that their heroes are fallible – that every now and then they too lapse, and operate on our playing field, only to rise above it again.
We may never understand the inexpressible pain endured by him, and the kind of demons that clearly haunts the man, but it is almost equally as difficult to understand how the same man can inflict this sort of pain onto others.
When asked about how he deals with his daughter's death three years after the fact, he says, „I have become a member of an exclusive club no one wants to join.…I don't know how to handle it. I don't know what to do or say“. We know that no parent should have to outlive their child. Just as we know that no child should have to endure neglect. Just as we know that no person should have their dignity taken away.
As the Hall of Famers newest inductee, Tyson is now, rightly or wrongly, a member of another exclusive club. Whether this is a club that Tyson deserves to join is a separate question whose answer is coloured by the lens through which we view this man's story. Is this the last great heavyweight champion to draw unmatched interest in the sport, or just a „fat crack head“ who stumbled onto the boxing stage?
And another question remains: who are we to know the man that he is, if the man himself does not know who he is?
Because standing before the crowded room in New York, was a man who, despite the test of time, still does not know who he is. To say this is to not condone his wilful acts of violence, the drug abuse, the unsportsmanlike behaviour. But to say this is to acknowledge Tyson's internal struggles – struggles that have manifested themselves and affected the boxer more furiously than it has others. So, umming and arring, shifting and stirring, using humorous digressions to conceal a complicated matrix of emotions, here stood the rambling Macbeth looking out from his castle at Dunsinane, watching Malcolm's advancing army, awaiting the fall of his Camelot.
Tyson’s speech lacked the polished-ness and finesse of the actor and boxing scriptwriter, Sylvester Stallone, who was also inducted into the Hall of Fame under the „Observer“ category on 12 June 2011. Where Tyson was circular, Stallone was direct. We knew what Tyson was trying to say, he just could not seem to say it. And just as Stallone penned and touchingly captured the story of one man's struggle inside and outside of the ring in a manner that has touched boxing and film aficionados alike, it seemed that his brief speech also spoke what Tyson's ramblings tried to convey.
„I've never pretended to be a boxer. I don't possess those skills. What I do think I have is an understanding of what goes on outside the ring. Outside the ring is sometimes maybe an even bigger struggle than what goes on inside the ring…“
And love him or hate him outside the ring, we are aroused. Because as any fan of the sport acknowledges, it's never really about how hard you can hit. It's about how you pull yourself up from the canvas after the hit, and keep on moving, that matters. We sense Tyson’s inner battle – perhaps more moving than even his greatest moments in the ring. And looking at the man now, you could say that a part of him has well and truly died.
And unlike his fights, there is no need for the viewer to stop, rewind, replay. We have seen the hero rise, we have seen him fall and now, with calm stoicism, we see a man – a husband, a father, almost an ordinary human being – frankly and virtuously accepting his errors.
And this is enough. Because there has been a catharsis, a cleansing of the boxing fan's soul. The animal has died and the man left behind, the man who does not know who he is, may spend the rest of his life trying to figure that out.
written by Sarah Ngo
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