Before The Hangover
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.