The one, truly real Dionysos manifests himself in a multiplicity of figures, in the mask of a fighting hero and, as it were, entangled in the net of the individual will.
—Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
In a ceremony on June 10, Mike Tyson’s Hall of Fame photo and plaque were unveiled. The lead-up to this event—along with a new reality show about Tyson’s intriguing passion for pigeon fancying—has brought him back into the media spotlight. Tyson was the last great popular champion of the twentieth century, the last of what may well have been the age of prominent public boxers, a period that extended from Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali, and saw its denouement with Tyson. Twenty-five years after he roared onto the scene we still speak of Tyson and not James “Buster” Douglas—the man who defeated Tyson—because we are, for some reason, still hungry to understand the particular life that this particular man was fighting for. And we’re still not getting it quite right.
Tyson received the traditions of boxing in two ways: by day, in the light of the gym, through the grueling regimen of his trainers, and at night, sitting alone in the dark, watching old boxing films. Every night, reel after reel of images, projected onto a white bedsheet in his room, washed over the young Tyson. These silent, dancing forms followed him into the world of sleep.
Before he became, at age 20, the youngest heavyweight champion in history, the most discussed boxer since Muhammad Ali, Tyson was a teenaged boxing geek. In a shy, high-pitched lisp, he could recite the date, place, and result of every canonical fight. He cited lesser known fighters, non-heavyweights like Ad Wolgast and Panama Al Brown. He could describe every clinch, slip, bob and weave, combination, dirty trick, and the angle of each significant punch thrown in the 20th century.
In those grainy images Tyson saw men not athletes. He would later say, “I never liked sports.” Sports were mere “social events.” Boxing, to Tyson, was different. It was authentic. The old films, and dozens of boxing books he studied, provided him with more than models for fighting—they taught him a sensibility for living, the manners and mores of the beautiful male: how to walk, dress, talk, smile, and shave. Like those men, both black and white, Tyson dispensed with the fineries of a robe or socks in the ring. He parted his hair like Harry Greb, wore black shoes and trunks like Jack Dempsey, gold teeth like Jack Johnson. Outside of the ring, he dressed in the baggy sweaters and newsie caps of his heroes from the ’30s.
The old images made him feel like an imposter. Early in his professional career, after a subpar victory, an 18-year-old Tyson assessed his performance, “I always give myself a zero, I’m never impressed.” When he was asked, “Have you given yourself an ‘A’ yet?” Tyson replied, “Never. Perhaps I never will.” Tyson’s cornerman beamed, and wrapped an arm around the prodigy: “That’s perfection,” he said, “that’s what we’re striving for.”
When the young Tyson was asked whether he hoped to surpass legendary 1950s fighter Rocky Marciano’s record of consecutive knockouts, he dismissed the premise of the question, “You can’t take something away from someone who originated it,” he said. As an earnest young man, an orphan, Tyson was preoccupied with origins and authenticity. Unlike Muhammad Ali, the young Tyson never staked any claims to radical American individualism. He didn’t boast of being “the greatest ever.” Even late in his career, after his crack-up, when his once-great skills had been replaced by threats to eat his opponent’s children, Tyson tellingly qualified his boasts: “I’m the best ever! There’s never been anyone as ruthless,” he said but then felt compelled to add, “I’m Sonny Liston! I’m Jack Dempsey!” He recognized his place in the hierarchy of tradition: an excellent copyist, not an original. At best, a perfect imitation. As he later put it, in an interview with the New York Times, he was resigned to be “a fake somebody” rather than “real nobody.” To Tyson, the prospect of becoming a “real somebody” was never a possibility.
An asthmatic, overweight, bespectacled child with a funny way of talking, Tyson was teased as a “fairy boy” and occasionally brutally beaten by other boys in Brownsville, Brooklyn. He lived in fear. He was knocked unconscious a few times as child–but not once in the boxing ring as an adult. When Tyson’s mother became an addict, the family fell into deep poverty.
He was occasionally homeless and learned to defend himself with his fists. (So goes his origin myth as a fighter: he first fought back when a bully killed his beloved pet pigeon.) By 12, he’d been arrested for assaults and armed robberies and landed at the Tryon Center for Boys, a juvenile detention center in the Bronx. Impressed by Tyson’s remarkable athleticism, “Irish” Bobby Stewart, an ex-fighter who worked at Tryon, brought the boy to meet master boxing trainer and guru Cus D’Amato.
D’Amato persuaded the State of New York to permit him to relocate the troubled 13-year-old to his home in Catskill, New York. Tyson’s mother, already out of his life for years, died when he was 16, and D’Amato became his legal guardian, substitute father, trainer, and Svengali.
D’Amato’s training emphasized speed, precision, and defense. Tyson would spar against fast middleweights, instructed not to punch but to simply evade their assaults. D’Amato inculcated his disciples in his psychological, mystical view of boxing. He believed that a fighter could enter the ring only when he was trained so thoroughly that his body could not fail him; on the other hand, ultimate victory in the ring depended on the fighter’s ability to transcend this training, and rise to a level of courage attainable only in live battle, and only by “the individual struggling against himself.” Only through the trial of combat could an individual achieve full personhood.
To D’Amato, who was known to be paranoid, the governing principle of boxing, and life, was fear. Fear was elemental, and could never be conquered: a fighter either thrived on his own fear and used it against his opponent—a trait D’Amato called “character”—or he was dominated by it and folded. D’Amato’s disciples, who included fighters, trainers and, significantly, boxing writers—from local beat reporters to high-profile dabblers like Norman Mailer—made constant use of his nomenclature and propagated his view of the sport.
Pete Hamill described D’Amato’s view of Tyson in a 1985 Village Voice article. “Sometimes late into the night,” he wrote, “sitting over coffee, he’d talk about the fighter that didn’t exist: the perfect fighter, the masterpiece . . . ‘the thing that puts it together,’ [said D’Amato], ‘it’s mysterious, it’s like making a work of art.’” According to Hamill, and many others, D’Amato believed he had discovered “the perfect heavyweight, at last, in young Michael Tyson.”
There is a specific context for this talk of D’Amato’s drive for the fighting masterpiece. If D’Amato was staying up nights imagining the perfect fighter, he had something, or someone, in mind: the failed project that was Floyd Patterson. Decades earlier, seventeen years before Tyson was born, D’Amato had trained and managed Patterson. Like all of his fighters, Patterson wasn’t simply a boxer but a prototype of D’Amato’s philosophy, a young teenager cast in his trainer’s image—in other words, D’Amato’s first would-be masterpiece. Under D’Amato, Patterson captured the heavyweight title at 21-years-old—at the time he was the youngest heavyweight champion ever. But his rise became a cruel joke to D’Amato and his team. Patterson was unable to defend his title against Sonny Liston, and what was worse he was terrified of him, too scared to enter the same room. For D’Amato, Patterson was a case study for his view of fighting in which a man “projects his fear” onto the body of his opponent, forced to discover his true self in the ring. In two blockbuster fights in 1962 and 1963, Patterson was more than defeated—he was thoroughly crushed in the first round. D’Amato and Patterson himself believed the defeat had occurred before the fight began.
D’Amato, deeply disappointed that Patterson, his star disciple, “lacked the courage” to fight Liston, for decades was in search of his own Liston. In Tyson D’Amato believed he’d finally found him. Tyson’s technical strengths, his relentlessly forward-driving legs, his devastating left hook were all echoes of Liston’s ring style. But it was Tyson’s readiness to conquer himself, to project his fear onto any opponent that would, D’Amato believed, make him a Liston and not a Patterson. This was what D’Amato meant by the perfect fighter, the masterpiece: a man with Liston’s courage, ability and instincts but molded by D’Amato’s thinking and discipline. At the D’Amato camp in upstate New York, Tyson was raised to be a new and improved Liston—and not to be a Patterson. This model took hold in the impressionable mind of the child Tyson.
D’Amato overlooked Tyson’s continuing disciplinary problems. The boy was emotionally frail. At 15, when he returned to the US Junior Olympics to defend his title, Tyson burst out crying before the fight. He was caught on tape repeating a mantra through his tears, “Everybody likes me, I’m proud of myself.”
After turning professional at 18, Tyson stormed the heavyweight division, often ending fights with resounding first-round knockouts. The carefully crafted myth of “Cus and the Kid”—a story retold in countless media reports—took a dramatic turn when D’Amato died in 1985 at 77 (a loss that Tyson still has difficulty discussing). To many observers, Tyson became, as writer Jack Newfield wrote at the time, D’Amato’s “unfinished masterpiece.” The young contender vowed to finish his teacher’s work.
A year later, Tyson, burning up with untreated gonorrhea, knocked out then-champion Trevor Berbick at the Las Vegas Hilton. At 20, Tyson was the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of boxing (at the same age, Marciano and Liston hadn’t yet debuted).
Tyson became the highest paid and most popular athlete in the world. Not since Ali had a heavyweight champion achieved the status of a cult figure whose fame extended internationally, far beyond the boxing world. Men like boxing promoter (and convicted murderer) Don King and Donald Trump booked Tyson at $6 million, plus many times more than that for TV pay-per-view revenues, for appearances in the ring that often didn’t last more than a few minutes. A 1990 article in Sports Illustrated recalled that Tyson’s appeal was “no longer as a fighter, since it had become clear that nobody in this world was capable of defeating him, but as an expensive novelty act.” Tyson’s “aura of invincibility far transcended even his considerable boxing skills.” He was a 1980s bull market embodied in a single man.
King convinced Tyson that his all-white training team had been taking advantage of him. At his behest, Tyson fired his long-time trainer, Kevin Rooney, thus severing his last connection to the school of D’Amato. He was suddenly surrounded with men whose qualification was not boxing expertise but paid-for loyalty to King. Tyson’s discipline declined considerably. Images of his car crashes, binges, street fights, his tumultuous marriage, multimillion dollar expenditures, and parties were played and replayed on television.
In 1990, Tyson was knocked out by 41-to-1 underdog James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo; the stunning loss was regarded as among the most startling upsets in sports history. Two years later, Tyson stood trial for raping a beauty pageant contestant in an Indianapolis hotel room, and was sentenced to ten years in Indiana State Penitentiary. The verdict was controversial, and the case became one of that decade’s hotly debated race/class/gender legal dramas.
Whatever happened in Indianapolis and whatever its cultural significance, Tyson emerged after three years in prison as Malik Abdul Aziz and was ushered directly into King’s limousine. Within a year he regained the heavyweight title, an impressive achievement for a fighter inactive for three years, but he was now acutely nervous and paranoid. When heckled—an ever more frequent occurrence—he would rage, often to the point of tears. Again his training discipline faltered, and again he lost the title. He began to rely on clownish threats and vicious acts of desperation. In a 1997 title rematch, Tyson twice bit Evander Holyfield during the fight, the second time removing a piece of his left ear. The fight, which had been promoted as “The Sound and the Fury,” ended in a near riot. Although Tyson was able to brawl through a few more bouts, he could not match other top-tier heavyweights.
Tyson also lost his fortune; he couldn’t account for hundreds of millions of dollars. As it turned out, King had siphoned off much of his money and Tyson had spent the rest on cars, parties, clothes, drugs, jewelry, houses, lawyers, children, pet tigers, and his pigeon colony. To pay his debts, Tyson appeared in a traveling show of “exhibition fights” against a half-blind giant who wore a helmet during fights. Like other great boxers, Tyson ended up declaring bankruptcy, and was pressed into a life as a sideshow act.
Tyson’s post-fight career has followed the path one might predict for the last great boxing culture champ of the 20th century: from miserable scenes of media scandal to a polished recovery effort. The most notable attempt at recovery was Tyson, a stylish 2008 documentary directed by James Toback, a life-long chronicler of self-destructive men. In rehab at the time, the former champ was the film’s only narrator.
Tyson has always been known for generating exciting speech acts. In the past he sometimes spoke as though reading subtitles for a Kung Fu movie (“How dare they challenge me with their primitive skills”) or like a character from the Epic of Gilgamesh (“I will fight any man or animal”) or like a preacher (“Every head must bow and every tongue must confess, this man [Ali] is the greatest ever”). Discussing human frailty, his autodidact’s vocabulary becomes expansive—“iniquity,” “malevolent,” “heathen,” “skullduggery,” “impetuous,” “wretched,” and “fornicate.” He has, on occasion, divided society into three, surprisingly handy categories: boxers, the bourgeoisie, and “the erudites.” Tyson has always been full of useful formulations (“I don’t know nothing about being the heavyweight champ, the only thing I know about is how to fight”).
Mostly, though, the film dramatized Tyson’s long-forgotten ringside allure. In one monologue, Tyson narrated, with precise emotional detail, old footage showing him at his peak, surrounded by a giant entourage and ringed by police officers as he trotted, scowling and half-naked, through a fight night crowd toward the ring. In the voiceover, Tyson rehearses the hero’s emotional voyage through the raging sea of the arena. “I am afraid of being humiliated but I am totally confident,” he says. “As I get closer to the ring, I become more confident. When I step into the ring, I am a god.” This would seem like hyperbole were it not an accurate description of both Tyson’s emotional experience and of the public’s ecstatic reception of him at the time. The 1980s arena held the full range of Tysonness, from his solitary terror in the frenzied world of screaming strangers to his apotheosis in the stagelights.
Contemporary accounts reflect Tyson’s description. In a 1987 article for Life, Joyce Carol Oates wrote:
Never has the collective will of a crowd—the very nearly palpable wish of crowd—been more powerfully expressed than it is tonight in Las Vegas . . . like Dempsey he has the power to galvanize crowds as if awakening in them the instinct not merely for raw aggression and the mysterious will to do but for suggesting incontestable justice of such an instinct: his is not the image of the Establishment-approved Olympic Gold Medalist Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard . . . but the image of the outsider, the psychic outlaw, the hungry young black contender for all that white America can give . . . One of the fascinations of this new young titleholder is the air he exudes of “immortality” in the flesh—it is the fascination of a certain kind of innocence.
After decades of grim news segments, Toback’s film did a fine job reminding his audience what a beautiful, terrifying fighter Tyson once was. With careful use of split screens, punctuated by still shots, Toback created a marvelous, hip-hop boxing kabuki. We saw, as if for the first time, Tyson bob and weave like a expert D’Amato student, every part of him dancing in a different direction; at one point, he managed to shrink into a ball that seemed to hover impossibly close to the canvas—somehow underneath the other fighter—directly in front of his opponent yet entirely out of reach. The knockout punches were only the final touch of his early masterpieces.
Toback allowed Tyson’s disarmingly gentle voice and evident vulnerability to appeal directly to the viewer. It was an exercise in visceral sympathy, not quite illumination. Toback wanted the audience to feel Tyson’s humanity—which routinely has been brought into question—but not necessarily to understand him. Through constant close-ups, the audience was brought into uncomfortable proximity with one of America’s most notorious pariahs. This intimate appeal to the senses culminated in the film’s final shot, its closing argument for Tyson’s humanity: a close-up portrait of Tyson’s face, his head shrouded in shadow. The only sound heard was Tyson breathing. It sounded like a ventilator.
A more illuminating portrait emerged around the periphery of the cinematic release of Tyson. At promotional events and in countless interviews, Tyson appeared diffident and repeatedly expressed his fears about reemerging into the public. He said that he did not desire nor expect this level of attention. The ten minute-long standing ovation at Cannes left him mortified; the attention at the film festivals, the applause, chic premieres, cameras, and accolades were, he said, “frightening and intimidating,” a trigger for his familiar cycle of self-destruction.
During an appearance on the Charlie Rose Show, Tyson offered a more nuanced version of his story than Toback had given us. D’Amato was a “control freak,” “a cold man,” “he never wanted to be loved or give love.” Of prison, Tyson said, “I took a totally different path once I was in there—I became one of those guys [i.e. the inmates].” These more thoroughly unscripted exchanges were as revealing, and sometimes more so, than much of the artfully rendered Tyson.
Perhaps the most useful view of Tyson we get in Tyson is the close visual study of the ex-fighter’s curious new incarnation as a masked man. For many, the film was an introduction to the tattoo that extends over the left side of Tyson’s face like a stylized black eye. On the movie poster, this mask was the most prominent visual element, glowing black through an orange-yellow fog that blurred the rest of Tyson’s face. The tattoo is arresting, and has become the icon of late-period Tyson. In Toback’s film Tyson didn’t give much of an explanation beyond describing it is as an intimidating Maori warrior tattoo.
But back in 2002, when Tyson sat for the tattoo—after losing his last title shot—he offered a more pointed explanation for the dramatic change. In reference to his own face, Tyson told an ESPN interviewer, “I didn’t like the way it looked. I just wanted to change it.”
It was not the first time Tyson wore a mask. In 1988, when he was at the height of his fame, as the undefeated champion and highest paid athlete in the world, he would occasionally sneak away, put on a ski mask and tattered clothes, and wander the city streets begging for quarters. As Tyson put it at the time, this beggar act made him feel “truly free.”
Nor was Tyson the first champion from his fight school to wear a mask. Cus D’Amato’s other great heavyweight protégé, Patterson, was also a wearer of masks.
After losing his heavyweight title to Ingemar Johansson in 1959, Patterson made a point of never showing up to a fight without a professional-quality fabricated beard and glasses stashed in an attaché case. In 1962, after losing his title to Sonny Liston—in one of the quickest losses in history—Patterson sneaked out of Chicago’s Comiskey Park in his mask, drove to New York, and boarded a plane to Spain still wearing it. For days, he wandered around Madrid in his mask, affecting a limp, playing the role of a wounded old man. He would sit in cafes in disguise and order soup because “that’s what old people would order.”
Patterson’s wearing a mask came from an impulse toward literal self-effacement. The same year as his monumental loss to Liston, he published an autobiography with a D’Amato-inflected title, Victory Over Myself, in which he described a childhood experience of scribbling out his face in a photograph and telling his mother, “I don’t like that boy.” It isn’t hard to hear an echo of Patterson in Tyson’s post-tattoo comment years later. “I didn’t like the way [my face] looked.”
Something in the boxing school of Cus D’Amato encouraged this self-effacement. Maybe it was D’Amato’s theatrical sense of the “true character” emerging in the drama of the ring, his harshly binary philosophy of Cowardice and Courage, his psycho-mystical project of self-realization through self-annihilation, or his approach of “projecting your fear onto your opponent.” Maybe it was reflected in D’Amato’s defense-centered approach, in which a fighter is trained to hold both gloves over his faces in a posture known as the “peek-a-boo style.” Something, anyway, drove D’Amato’s two great heavyweight champions, both unusually sensitive black youths drafted from juvenile prisons, into actual masks.
It is perhaps a tribute to the strength of D’Amato’s myth-making abilities that despite the strong biographical link between Tyson and Patterson, an affinity between the two has rarely, if ever, been drawn. On the contrary, the comparison of Tyson to Liston, which began as D’Amato’s effort to exorcise the losing specter of Patterson, has over time become the conventional view of boxing history. In boxing’s great archetypal opposition of Liston vs. Patterson, the consensus has been that Tyson belongs firmly in the Liston column. In interviews, Tyson himself has confirmed the Liston categorization. Liston was the “bad guy,” the bogeyman, the unrepentant outlaw, the addict, the man without a family. In the words of Amiri Baraka, Liston was “the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in.” Patterson was the opposite: the good guy, the pleaser, reformed delinquent, the sweetheart, the reluctant champion, and church-going, suburban family man. Patterson was the fighter whom middle-class black and white society, and newly ascendant liberals fervently endorsed as nothing short of civilization’s great hope for progress, an end to the plague of the atavistic American forces behind Listonism.
The popular interest and significance attached to boxing and to specific boxers in the mid-20th century is hard to appreciate now. It is hard to believe, for example, that the NAACP and President Kennedy both lobbied Patterson not to fight Liston, fearing that a Patterson loss would cast a blow to the civil rights movement. It was precisely these weighty expectations, along with years of D’Amato’s apocalyptic training philosophy, that caused Patterson to experience profound shame for losing twice in humiliating fashion, to the villain Liston. And it was precisely this dynamic that makes Patterson Tyson’s true if unacknowledged forbearer.
Despite D’Amato’s wishes—or perhaps because of those wishes—Tyson’s life and career turned out to be a sad 1980s sequel to the early 1960s Patterson saga, the story of the troubled boy who had enough talent to be champion but not enough D’Amatoesque “character” to hold the title, the young man who cracked under massive pressure. D’Amato’s twin child champions, Patterson and Tyson were bound by a shared experience of displacement, confused personhood, emotional vulnerability, and consuming fear, by a desperate desire to be accepted and adored, and ultimately by shame and disgrace, by their curious habit of hiding in masks.
It is difficult to imagine Liston donning a mask. Liston was a hard-boiled man, an adult; Tyson and Patterson, on the other hand, never quite shed their scared-child personas, their desperate need for make-believe. Liston became a boxer later in life, as an afterthought, as means of making money, not as a way to shape his identity. A fully formed man like him could not have submitted to D’Amato’s regime. Liston wasn’t a stage child, a boxing geek. It is, ultimately, the childlike craving to be understood that separates Tyson from Liston. Tyson, then and now, is a talker, an endless explainer—quite unlike the laconic Liston, who didn’t indulge in self-justification. It was fitting that Tyson, wearing a mask, sat down for a cinematic apologia at 40 years old, the same age at which Sonny Liston died mysteriously in Vegas: this marked the end of Tyson’s Sonny Liston act and the beginning of Tyson’s quiet, sober post-fight life in the suburbs with his young family. A retirement not unlike Patterson’s.
Now that a plaque of Tyson has been unveiled in the Hall of Fame—as Tyson himself witnessed his own image placed among those he so studiously emulated—perhaps the mask is finally off.
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