By Chuck Mindenhall
June 30th, 2016
Mike Tyson is celebrating his 50th birthday, which is a strange thing to happen to somebody who is still affectionately talked about as “Kid Dynamite.” Maybe it’s the distinction of becoming the youngest ever heavyweight champion, of beating established men and rearranging established order in the prize ring so thoroughly that he shut down eras on both sides of his times, but in some ways, Tyson is forever 20 years old — fascinating, fierce, ruthless, wild. A time bomb ticking away live on pay-per-view. A paradigm shift. “Iron” Mike took his audiences into states of collective hysteria; into tranquil centers of compulsion; into the fearful eyes of his opponents.
A common thing to talk about when Tyson took center stage back in the day was, “how much money would it take to try and last a round against Mike Tyson?” Kids from suburbs had long, drawn out existential dilemmas over that question, which usually ended with somebody saying they’d run for three minutes, a reverie made better by the fact that it wasn’t going to happen. Such was the almost mythological impact force of Tyson’s punches, which seemed to generate from depths most of us couldn’t understand nor want to. Such was the unfathomable idea of standing in there across from him, with his shark’s eyes following your every move.
Mike Tyson was fascinating.
I think about him in the mid-1980s, back when he was a kid from the streets of Brooklyn, who had that comical high-pitched voice and accompanying lisp, who dabbled in pigeons (!) and put the Catskills on the map as some hallowed place on earth, where an old sage, Cus D’Amato, transformed troubled boys into supermen — that was the feeling of true exhilaration.
Tyson was cracking bones, too, man. He made everybody before him seem outdated, like relics of the old days — things that were invented for him to tear through. Tyson rendered the ring’s most dangerous people moot. Trevor Berbick, who was a dozen years Tyson’s elder when they fought, was trounced in six minutes. Just a mouse dropped in the snake hatch. Tyson was 20 years old and a flash from hell when he won that title from Berbick in 1986. Tony Tucker was 29 years old when Tyson got him in 1987. Larry Holmes, who was the blood-dimmed tide of reality when he beat Muhammad Ali in 1980, became that version of Ali in 1988 when Tyson, only 21, caught up to him in Atlantic City.
When Tyson beat Michael Spinks to become the lineal heavyweight champion at 21 years old in 1988, Spinks could only withstand 91 seconds of such merciless punishment. It was the first time Spinks had ever been knocked down in 31 professional fights. He never fought again.
Tyson was the second part of that karmic equation, the one that says, “what goes around comes around.” He was, for the boxing world, what came around.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, Tyson was the perfect fighter. If you were white, black, Asian, Mexican, a girl, a boy, a lawyer, a street vendor, a school teacher, a priest, a cabbie or a doctor, if you were young or old, educated or not, from the streets or from the 'burbs, rich or poor, into boxing or not, you knew Tyson. The affect of his early days in the ring, when his every fight became a cultural happening, was that became part of the same spellbound collective. We became a community drawn by awe.
As Ali did back in his day, Tyson became a muse for artists of every stripe. Even the writer Joyce Carol Oates couldn’t stay away, and perhaps she came closest to encapsulating his essence in those early days:
“As with the young, pre-champion Dempsey, there is the unsettling air about Tyson, with his impassive death’s-head face, his unwavering stare, and his refusal to glamorize himself in the ring — no robe, no socks, only the signature black trunks and shoes — that the violence he unleashes against his opponents is somehow just,” she wrote. “That some hurt, some wound, some insult in his past, personal or ancestral, will be redressed in the ring; some mysterious imbalance righted. The single-mindedness of his ring style works to suggest that his grievance has the force of a natural catastrophe. That old trope, ‘the wrath of God,’ comes to mind.”
Part of what made Tyson’s loss to Buster Douglas in 1990 seem like a seismic shift in the sports world was that it seemed impossible. Like it couldn’t happen, and never would. Even though invincibility is never anything more than a fool’s notion, Tyson had us rapt as just such fools. To this day, whenever there’s an upset that catches us by surprise, we refer to Buster Douglas, a name that has become synonymous with shocking the world. That term itself — shocking the world — came to life because Douglas beat the great Mike Tyson in Japan.
Douglas shares a history book with the iceberg that sank the Titanic.
He proved that Tyson was mortal, and Tyson himself proved over the years that he was mortal in many ways, too. He spent time in prison in the 1990s, and endured the backlash of his fame. Yet he began collecting titles again when he returned against Frank Bruno (WBC) and Bruce Seldon (WBA) in 1996, 20 years ago this year. His subsequent fights with Evander Holyfield became some of the most watched, talked about, and puzzled over bouts in boxing history. Tyson was a master of not only drawing attention, but of holding it. His career remains a marvel.
And what a career it was
Tyson, who burst on the scene as a teenager in 1985, racking up 15 knockouts that year en-route to becoming the youngest heavyweight champion in history just a year later, became the most feared boxer the world had yet known.
And he was a lot of things at once. “Iron” Mike said it best after taking out Lou Savarese in just 38 seconds in 2000. He dished up his whims, his religious beliefs, his mania, his confidence and his mean streak, all in less than 100 now famous words.
“I’m the best ever,” he told Jim Gray in the ring after, carrying over in his own momentous fervency. “I’m the most brutal and vicious, and most ruthless champion there’s ever been. There’s no one can stop me…Lennox [Lewis] the conqueror? No, I’m Alexander, he’s no Alexander. I’m the best ever, there’s never been anybody as ruthless. I’m Sonny Liston…I’m Jack Dempsey. There’s no one like me. I’m from their cloth….there’s no one that can match my style…my style is impetuous, my defense is impregnable, and I’m just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat his children. Praise be to Allah.”
That was Mike Tyson, one of the greatest that ever was, who is turning 50.