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Mike Tyson's Truth

I recently finished Mike Tyson's 2013 autobiography, Undisputed Truth, which impressed me as one of the best sports autobiographies I have encountered, up there with Andre Agassi's Open and Ty Cobb's My Life in Baseball, among others. Above all else, what the book best captures is Tyson's self-awareness and self-destructiveness, a potent combination that imbues the narrative with a profound sense of tragedy, in the original sense of that term. Tyson belongs up there with all the majestic and suffering immortals of great literature, a rise, fall, and redemption that plays itself out in the racialized demolition of urban America in the late twentieth century.

Reading this book reminded me what a central cultural icon Tyson was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This period covered my own adolescence, and so perhaps I took for granted that the heavyweight champion of the world should be larger than life, the object of endless admiration, fascination, revulsion, and controversy. In retrospect, however, it is clear that Tyson was one of the last of a dying breed, and that no boxer has held anywhere close to the same cultural significance since.

When Tyson was at the peak of his powers, I was not much of a fan. Much of this is because I have always rooted for the underdog, and Tyson's 91-second destruction of Michael Spinks in June of 1988 conclusively demonstrated that Tyson was the undisputed champion, and light years ahead of his rivals. Thus I celebrated the shock of Buster Douglas's knockout of Tyson two years later, was happy to see Iron Mike in handcuffs following his rape conviction, and pulled for Evander Holyfield in their two seismic showdowns in 1996 and 1997. After Tyson's disqualification for biting in the latter bout, I mostly ignored the rest of his career, regarding him as a cartoonish sideshow who deserved to be relegated to the celebrity reality show circuit. But I was a different person then: largely trusting in the criminal justice system, and largely blind both to the unique pressures that Tyson faced early in his career as the youngest heavyweight champion in history, as well as the racist lens through which much of his actions were filtered. Indeed, at the time of his heavyweight reign, my image of him was of an overpowering bully. But when I watch his fights again now, I see something very different: a short yet explosive supernova who outboxed and outworked his taller opponents, never afraid to go after the biggest fighters, and driven by an extremely traumatic childhood to impose himself on the world. All the while, as Undisputed Truth makes clear, he became a self-taught student of history--both modern and ancient, both in the ring and outside of it. In retrospect, Tyson was sui generis, a one in a million combination of talent and circumstance that achieved heights of fame and glory matched by a vanishingly small number of athletes, let alone boxers. It may be that my newfound appreciation of Tyson is rooted in my own contrarian inclinations. When he ruled the world, I perceived him as a villain. When the world labeled him a criminal, I began to better understand his humanity, his vulnerability, and his courage in confronting his own demons. Maybe I needed to see the bully beaten down a few times to appreciate the depths of pain that pushed him to the top of the mountain, and then off it. Or maybe I just like my big punchers to be vulnerable to countershots. I don't know. Since Tyson's retirement from the ring, a school of thought--motivated in part by malice--has emerged, arguing that Tyson was weak-willed in the ring, that he, as Teddy Atlas once put it, "lost every fight he was ever in," meaning that he only won when he could dominate his opponent and always lost when he faced a serious challenge. Like all things, there's probably some truth to that, although if it is true that Tyson lost every real fight he ever had, the only reason is because so few had the ability to fight him at all. As for me--a writer who has never thrown or taken a punch--I try to stay out of the business of questioning the heart of fighters, regardless of record or reputation. Tyson's tome clocks in at well over 500 pages, a size completely justified by the incredible ordeals he has endured. Indeed, I could imagine the book being even longer. There's just so much to cover: the early life of poverty and criminality in Brownsville; the few years of relative peace under the tutelage of Cus D'Amato; the spectacular rise to the heavyweight title in 1986; his legendary destruction of Michael Spinks; the brief and bizarre marriage to Robin Givens; the shocking loss to Buster Douglas; the rape accusation, trial, and conviction; the years in prison; the return to the ring and the doomed partnership with Don King; the two fights against Evander Holyfield; and the final humiliations of his last fights. And through it all, an endless catalog of addictions, abuses, neuroses, and catastrophes of various shapes and sizes. After a 450-page litany of carnality, violence, ego, and confusion, the book concludes with his road to recovery, his relapses, and his possible redemption, although that is a story still being written. Through it all, Tyson emerges as an incredibly introspective figure, one who has somehow managed to survive more than 30 years of fame despite coming from absolutely nothing and being given the world and all its temptations because of the damage he could wreck with his fists. Since I don't often get the chance to reflect on Tyson's major controversies, I want to say a word about the two biggest scandals that have marred his reputation: his rape conviction and his actions in the second Holyfield fight. In both cases, Tyson's narrative reinforced reservations I've had about the public perception of these incidents. On the rape conviction, I think there is reason to believe that Tyson was a victim of injustice. In retrospect, thinking about this case and how central the glare of the media and Tyson's celebrity was to how it played out, I have little doubt that Tyson would have been acquitted (and perhaps never even charged) if he had been, say, a Kennedy rather than a Black kid from the gutter. I don't know if Tyson was guilty or not (and neither do you), but it is remarkable to me that in a book that often reads as a long admission of guilt, Tyson remains firm and unwavering that he is innocent of the rape charge. This is perhaps an unpopular opinion to hold in the #MeToo era, but a review of the case shows significant inconsistencies and gaps in the prosecution's narrative. And, of course, we can never entirely escape America's long history of criminalizing Black men through false or dubious rape allegations, not even in Tyson's case. With regard to the Holyfield fiasco, Tyson was obviously deeply, deeply wrong to bite Holyfield's ear. But the casting of Holyfield as a Jesus-loving man of honor has never sat well with me, for two reasons. First, Holyfield could be a very dirty fighter, and often used his head as a weapon to neutralize his opponents. Tyson has a point when he notes the damage that these headbutts can do, even though they are viewed as part of the routine, and therefore acceptable, violence of boxing. Second, Holyfield is now a known steroid user, a serious offense in a sport in which extraordinary strength and endurance can result in severe injury or even death. Tyson obviously should not have bitten the man's ear, but considering the continuum of violence and even dirty tricks that boxing tolerates and often celebrates, it no longer seems to my mind to be a particularly serious transgression.

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