Mike Tyson: The Champion Who Came In From The Cold
By Leonardo D’Onofrio
When Mike Tyson quit on his stool against unheralded Kevin McBride back in 2005 his legacy as a legendary fighter and cultural icon was suddenly under siege and his future seemed stark and foreboding. His career, so longer spluttering and careering across the rarefied spheres of superstardom, had finally crashed into the mountain.
Without question by the time he faced McBride ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson was a spent force. At the end of the 6th round a push sent him to the canvas and he could barely get back to his feet, looking to all the world like a fat kid who had his chair pulled out from under him.
It was a sad and pathetic end for a man who, at his peak, had taken only 93 seconds to obliterate the previously unbeaten Michael Spinks. McBride wasn’t even in the top ten – if he couldn’t compete at this level there was nowhere left for him to go. And no one knew this better than Mike Tyson.
‘I don’t have the fighting guts no more…,’ he said, soft-spoken and vulnerable in the post-fight interview. ‘I’m sorry I let everybody down… I don’t have it in my heart anymore… I don’t have that ferocity, I’m not an animal anymore…’
There was an awkward silence:
‘What will you do Mike?’ asked the interviewer.
‘I’m sure I’ll find something to do….boxing doesn’t define me…. I’m in dire need to take care of my life…’
Tyson looked lost and bewildered. What did this uneducated, barely literate man know accept fighting? He appeared doomed to the same fate of his great hero, Sonny Liston, a spiraling twilight world of crime and addiction was surely waiting in the wings.
Outside of the ring his was a life with no moral compass or governing force: without boxing to keep him on track what hope was there? The words ‘under mysterious circumstances’ seemed destined to play a part in his obituary – there could surely be no happy endings waiting for Mike Tyson.
If I have to live at the top of the world, I also have to live at the bottom of the ocean. I don’t know how to live in the middle of life – Mike Tyson
Perhaps no fighter has navigated the peaks and troughs of celebrity quite as tumultuously as Michael Gerald Tyson.
From winning the title at 20 as a ferocious, untouchable, boxing prodigy, to biting a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear as a desperate and suddenly aging fighter, Tyson had covered a lot of cultural terrain and had thrilled and disgusted the sporting world in almost equal measure.
In retirement though he was largely a disgraced figure, losing three of his last four fights, with a public image that was soiled and tattered. If his time served for rape was not bad enough the biting of Evander Holyfield was perhaps the most infamous sporting incident of all time, driving a stake through his iconic status and reducing him to a cartoon figure of ridicule and scorn.
Things were never the same for Tyson after Holyfield. His career transformed into a travelling freak show with all the morbid fascination and drama of a motorway pile-up. The Tyson of the late nineties was more famous for his rambling outbursts and unpredictability outside the ring than any athletic prowess he exhibited inside it.
The list of his misdemeanours piled up almost too quickly to process by the end: another prison term for a road rage attack, biting Lennox Lewis at a press conference, hitting after the bell, no contests, failing drug tests, reducing reporters to tears with lewd and vitriolic attacks.
As he neared the end of his career Tyson was a bankrupt, out-of-control sociopath, and the public’s dark fascination with him was fast running out.
He had messed up time and time again. How many chances did one man need?
If you’re not humble life will visit humbleness upon you – Mike Tyson
Perhaps the first inkling of a turn in the tide regards public sentiment towards Tyson was the James Toback documentary in 2008.
The vintage clips of a glistening Tyson at his peak reminded everyone what an enthralling and compelling presence he was, sweeping through the heavyweight division like a great tsunami. Here again was the Mike Tyson that had shook up the eighties, no robe, no compassion, stalking his prey like some relentless primordial force; the familiar parade of victims, Berbick, Spinks, Holmes, all blown away in a deluge of almost cartoonish violence, a Clubber Lang knock-out reel made flesh.
And then there was the other side of Tyson, always an emotional and relentlessly candid man, choking back sobs when he talked about his mentor, Cus D’Amato. Of course, the Tyson phenomenon had always been about more than his impressive string of knockouts. The ‘old man and the kid’ narrative played a huge part in the commercial packaging of the young Tyson and had helped propel him into the hearts and minds of mainstream America.
But clearly for Mike Tyson, Cus was more than a mere marketing tool. After all that had happened to him, it was hard not to be moved by the husky-voiced reverence he still had for the old man that had adopted him all those years before: D’ Amato had taken a brutalised boy, ravaged by fear and insecurity, and moulded him into a champion, and Tyson could barely even whisper his name without tears streaming down his tattooed face.
But if Toback reminded us again how truly great a fighter Mike Tyson was, and the vast, complex layers of his multi-faceted personality, perhaps the real re-branding of Tyson occurred in his bizarre role in ‘The Hangover’ a year later.
If the fool would persist in his folley we would become wise – William Blake
If boxing fans once found the picture of Sonny Liston dressed as Santa Clause a jarring image of cultural juxtaposition, it quickly faded into insignificance compared to Mike Tyson air drumming to ‘In the air tonight’ in The Hangover.
It was, for those who remembered Tyson at his destructive best, a scene as surreal as it was hysterical and in many ways kick-started the rebirth of Tyson’s public image, plugging him again into the mainstream of popular culture.
This was no longer ‘the baddest man on the planet’: this was an aging, overweight, ex-champion, shedding the skin of his previous incarnation, and not afraid to make fun of his larger than life image. It turned out to be a stroke of marketing genius.
Nothing could have shattered the Tyson mystique quite like his ridiculous, out of tune, attempts to sing along to Phil Collins. No longer the ‘Iron man’ of boxing Tyson appeared relieved to be rid of the scrutiny of his previous superstardom and was finally learning to enjoy his life.
After The Hangover Tyson became a ubiquitous cultural presence, his public persona ever-shifting and expanding into every aspect of the media, be it TV shows, cartoons, podcasts, advertising campaigns, or searingly confessional interviews with Oprah and Joe Rogan.
Tragically, shortly after finishing the film, he lost his four-year-old daughter Exodus in a freak accident, but the incident only seemed to strengthen his resolve to turn his life around. The raw and courageous way he spoke about his daughter’s death endeared him to a public that was becoming disenchanted with lofty, corporate entities like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.
There was an unflinching honesty about Tyson that resonated with people – he was far from perfect but no one could ever question his authenticity. He seemed genuinely contrite about his checkered past and when he said he was now committed to becoming a better person it was hard not to believe him.
Real freedom is having nothing. I was freer when I didn’t have a cent – Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson was always a walking contradiction.
Even in his brutal heyday there was tenderness and compassion lurking in him – he would threaten to put opponents in body bags one minute, and be kissing and hugging them the next. Attempting to reconcile the soft-spoken and sensitive man with the ruthless killer he became inside the ropes was always what made him such a polarising and compelling figure.
In retirement though he proved he was not the two-dimensional thug that many had dismissed him as. He may have had a fighter’s heart but the man had the wounded soul of a poet. His rambling podcasts revealed a probing intelligence and a relentless curiosity. He was quirky, funny, and full of the courage and determination to try new things.
In 2012 his one-man show, The Undisputed Truth, garnered almost universally positive reviews, and further evidenced the tenacity and hard work that had made him a champion in the first place.
By 2021 the rehabilitation of Mike Tyson was complete.
At a time when most of his previous critics thought he would either be dead or in jail he was instead preparing for his exhibition fight with Roy Jones Jnr, losing an astonishing 100 pounds, shaving off his grey beard , and rolling back the years. Incredibly, at 54, he looked as fast and as powerful as ever, clearly winning the fight and entertaining a new generation of fans in the process.
The Jones fight racked up an incredible 1.6 million pay-per-view buys, becoming the biggest boxing pay-per-view event of 2020, and proving that even 16 years into his retirement, that legend of Mike Tyson showed no signs of abating. He had perhaps never been more popular in his career.
I feel unstoppable now. The gods of war have reawakened me, ignited my ego, and want me to go to war again. I feel like I’m young again – Mike Tyson
The realm of myth is a strange and seductive thing, a cinematic take on history, where any inconvenient and ungainly truths are often air-brushed aside to protect the populist narrative. Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis had both knocked Tyson out (be it later in his career) and had arguably achieved more in boxing than Tyson ever had.
But, for whatever reason, their legacy had dimmed with time – Tyson’s seemed only to have grown. No one remembered his struggles with Francois Botha or the knock-out loss to the unremarkable Danny Williams. Instead, it is the Tyson of the eighties that still reigns supreme in the public consciousness.
It was always the same familiar mosaic of images: Berbick stumbling all over the ring, the chilling menace of his entrance against Spinks, the great Larry Holmes falling at his feet in an explosion of flailing limbs.
Like it or not Mike Tyson has saturated down to the roots of popular culture like no other fighter since Muhammad Ali. To this day anyone battered and bruised will say ‘they feel like they’ve gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson’. No one has ever gone on record as saying they feel like they’ve gone 12 rounds with Wladimir Klitschko for instance. And they never will.
Tyson connected with the zeitgeist of his era in a way remote, guarded figures like Larry Holmes or Lennox Lewis never could. Like George Bellows’ painting of Jack Dempsey he is forever frozen in time, a conquering hero of a bygone age. And for a legend to linger in the public consciousness there is no room for subtlety or a muted pallet: heroes need to be painted with vivid bright colours and bold strokes, there needs to be struggle, and tragedy, and glory and defeat; there needs to be humility and redemption, and clawing back from the brink.
The Tyson story encompassed all of that. And more. He has become a sporting legend the likes of which a Floyd Mayweather will never be, the avalanche of cheers that accompany his name when announced at any boxing event always drowning out those of his contemporaries.
Incredibly Tyson was right all along– boxing didn’t define him, and away from the trappings of his overwhelming celebrity he was able to rebuild his shattered life and career. He proved he was able to turn his back on boxing. He perhaps never anticipated that boxing could never turn its back on him.
Leonardo D’Onofrio is the author of ‘Old Country’, currently available on Amazon