Mike Tyson: role model?

His autobiography shows why, despite his demonisation, so many love Iron Mike.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Books

You might have expected the big news at the recent Golden Globes awards to be the triumph of the movie 12 Years A Slave. Many media reports, however, seemed at least as excited by the appearance at the ceremony of one Mike Tyson, boxing legend-turned-actor-of-sorts, after his cameo role in the Hangover films. ‘Who’s that posing with the convicted rapist?’, demanded one headline, beneath pictures of Tyson alongside assorted smiling luvvies. ‘I was always the slave nigga’, Tyson observes in his new autobiography.

More than a quarter century after he exploded into public view as the youngest-ever world heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson remains an incendiary figure, the mention of whose name can still generate heat, if not necessarily light. The publication of his book, Undisputed Truth, has been marked by reviews and interviews, alongside outraged opinion columns and online comments decrying the fact that such a ‘vile’, unrepentant sex offender should be spoken to or given publicity at all.

That contentious 1992 conviction for rape has been central to Tyson’s long reign as a champion hate figure. A century ago, the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, was vilified by old-fashioned racists of every political stripe; it was the socialist writer Jack London who called for a ‘Great White Hope’ to put the uppity black boxer in his place. Johnson was eventually framed for the heinous crime of transporting a white woman across state lines for ‘immoral purposes’.

Tyson, by contrast, has long been demonised in a way that is acceptable to the PC culture of polite society these days – not as a nigger, but a misogynist, a homophobe, even a racist, a symbol of unbridled masculinity, proletarian brutalism, and what some moronic commentators called ‘testosterone poisoning’. By 2002, as I wrote in a magazine article entitled ‘Misogynist in the woodpile’, he had become the one black American Muslim whom it was respectable for liberals to brand as a violent animal. The consequence was to resurrect the spectre of the rapacious, brutish black male but in language deemed respectable in a university seminar, never mind a boxing stadium.

Now it seems Tyson has become more acceptable to some in the mainstream media and celebrity circles, partly no doubt because he is a self-confessed recovering addict who has become an advocate of rehab and 12-step recovery programmes, a sort of poster boy for the therapeutic culture. His book, written in ‘collaboration’ with experienced hack Larry Sloman, is at pains to distance the author from the Tyson of old (while simultaneously revelling in the wild tales that will sell it, of course).

There has always been, however, another side to the Tyson legend that they don’t like to talk about. It is the fact that millions have idolised him, not only in his boxing heyday, but through all the trials and tribulations of his imprisonment, demonisation and subsequent decline from champion to drug-addled loser. Pundits might have expressed their bitter disappointment at Tyson’s failure to act as a ‘role model’ for good behaviour to disaffected black youth. Yet he has impressed many as a symbol of something more than that, both inside and outside the ring – of arrogant rebelliousness, of refusing to conform and kowtow, of telling the authorities and their pimps to go screw themselves. Tyson has been a living fist shoved up the arse of the establishment in a way that makes the ‘anti-system’ quenelle gesture of that French comedian look like a pathetic joke by comparison.

That is the Iron Mike that many of us have always liked. It is why, when he came to fight in London in 2000 and went walkabout in south London, there was a mass celebratory riot that forced him to seek shelter from his fans in the notorious Brixton cop shop – ‘I think,’ he writes, ‘it might have been the first time in my life that I entered a police station voluntarily’. It is why he can still fill theatres for his one-man show.

And that Iron Mike comes alive in the first half of Undisputed Truth, a 550-page book as big as his ego and as powerful as his famous right upper-cut. It is the tale of a self-confessed, self-loathing depressive fuck-up, who became a contrary symbol of pride almost in spite of himself. It is a tour de force of brutal honesty, even if it cannot really claim to be the ‘undisputed truth’ (but which autobiography can?).

‘Horrific, tough and gruesome’

Tyson was arguably the last of the great US ‘hungry fighters’ who punched their way out of the gutter to achieve fame and fortune. (Such hungry champions tend to come from Latin American or Asia these days.) His father having departed more or less as he was born, Tyson and his siblings were raised by their mother in a decent part of Brooklyn, but dumped in Brownsville – ‘a very horrific, tough and gruesome kind of place’ – after she was made redundant. The family squatted in one grim condemned building after another, their mother drinking and sleeping with men to get shelter and food.

Mike recalls this youthful experience as particularly traumatic. After ‘[I was] a momma’s boy when I was young…. I slept with my mother until I was 15’ – on at least one occasion while she was entertaining a strange man in the same bed. Tyson remembers himself as a shy, awkward, almost effeminate fat boy who was bullied at school, called names ranging from ‘Little Fairy Boy’ to ‘Dirty Motherfucker’, and who stopped going altogether after a bully stuffed his glasses down a car exhaust, aged seven. He turned instead to petty crime, and homing pigeons, under the tutelage of local criminals. ‘I was a little kid looking for love and acceptance, and the streets were where I found it’, he writes. I was just thinking this sounded rather like Dickens’ Artful Dodger, when Tyson beat me to it: ‘My life reminded me of Oliver Twist, with this old guy Fagin teaching me all this stuff.’

Then, aged 11, the chunky Tyson discovered he could fight, and grown men were soon travelling to Brownsville to take him on in the street while others laid bets on the outcome. Shipped off to a detention centre in upstate New York for his crimes, Tyson took up boxing and met the veteran Italian-American trainer Cus D’Amato, who apparently took one look at this Brooklyn kid getting bashed by an older boy in the sparring ring and declared that he would be a heavyweight champion of the world.

D’Amato, Tyson admits, was a paranoid ‘bitter, bitter, bitter man’, a follower of self-help gurus as well as Che Guevara, who wanted to turn the young fighter into the weapon of his revenge on the boxing authorities and the world that had screwed him. ‘Cus said “If you listen to me, I can make you the youngest heavyweight champion of all time”… I thought he was a pervert.’ The young Mike overcame those suspicions as D’Amato taught him to be ‘always training, thinking like a Roman gladiator, in a perpetual state of war in your mind, yet on the outside seeming calm and relaxed’. Mike was a changed boy-man: ‘I was this useless Thorazined-out nigga who was diagnosed as retarded and this old white guy gets hold of me and gives me an ego… I always thought I was shit. My mother had told me I was crap.’ D’Amato, on the other hand, told him he was destined for ‘immortality’.

‘You were our nigga’

When his mother died, Tyson became D’Amato’s ‘son’ and soldier. ‘All I did was jerk off and train, jerk off and train.’ When he drifted back to Brooklyn to indulge in his old criminal ways, he says his old criminal contemporaries told him to get back to Catskill and keep training with ‘that old white guy’: they had no prospects and were going to die young in Brownsville, but ‘[w]e’ve got to tell people before we die that we hung out with you, you were our nigga’.

D’Amato taught Tyson his famous ‘peek-a-boo’ style, always coming forwards with gloves high to close with his taller opponents and nullify their greater reach. His aggressive style did not go down well with the amateur boxing establishment, who still imagined their sport to be the noble art. Despite twice winning the Junior Olympics in 1981 and ’82, Tyson was kept out of the US team for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. ‘I hated those amateur bouts. “We are boxers here”, these stuffed shirts would say. “Well, I am a fighter sir. My purpose is to fight” I’d answer.’

Turning professional, Tyson was free to turn himself into Iron Mike. ‘I became that savage… I immersed myself in the role of the arrogant sociopath. But first I got a Cadillac.’ He also got a mean haircut and adopted the ‘Spartan’ style of his old boxing heroes – black shorts, no socks, no robe. If it sounds as if he was playing the part of a Hollywood villain, he was. ‘Cus wanted an anti-social champion, so I drew on bad guys from the movies’; ‘I wanted to be a cantankerous, malevolent champion. I used to watch these comic-book characters on TV.’

Then in 1985, D’Amato died, leaving Tyson more or less alone to take on the world. The first hint of how the world would react came when Iron Mike told reporters he had wanted to drive an opponent’s nose back into his brain. It provoked a media storm about ‘The Real Tyson – A Thug’. But ‘I didn’t think I said anything wrong. Cus and I always used to talk about the science of hurting people.’

Tyson the scientist bludgeoned his way through the heavyweight division, while making up for lost time by having sex with every woman he could get his hands on. He won his first world title in November 1986, at the tender age of 20 years and four months, stopping Trevor Berbick in the second round despite, he says, suffering from a dose of ‘the clap’. It was mission accomplished. ‘And I was lost. By the time I won the belt I was truly a wrecked soul because I didn’t have guidance. I didn’t have Cus.’

‘Fake fucking Uncle Tom’

Tyson quickly became the undisputed world champion, uniting the various titles, pouring a bottle of champagne over D’Amato’s grave after each victory. But he was as unhappy as ever, torn between the two worlds of his new celebrity and his Brownsville roots. His managers wanted to promote a more positive image by ‘stripping away all the Brownsville from me’. Tyson was not having that. ‘I had come from a detention home. Now all of a sudden I was a good guy? No, I was a fake fucking Uncle Tom nigga. I felt like a trained monkey.’ While they put him in adverts for the police and the Drug Enforcement Agency, Tyson continued financing his old friends’ lifestyle of drugs and guns: ‘I paid for a lot of funerals.’

Then came his ill-fated marriage to the actress Robin Givens. Tyson arranged a date after seeing her on TV. ‘I should have known things weren’t going to work out when I walked into the restaurant and Robin was sitting there with her sister, her mother, and her publicist.’ It was not exactly a match made in heaven. ‘[S]he just wasn’t comfortable being around normal everyday people. But to me, the neighbourhood heroin dealer was normal everyday people.’ He continued his lecherous ways. ‘I wasn’t too suave. She’d find lipstick on my sweatpants.’

Tyson is convinced that Robin and her mother Ruth – the ‘Ruthless Twosome’ – wanted to have him declared mentally incompetent so that they could control his new millions. His wife claimed that he secretly beat her without leaving any marks – ‘Yeah right, when my whole career was built on me being a bone breaker’ – and their pet psychiatrist declared him to be manic depressive. When this diagnosis was challenged by a leading expert, claims Tyson, the first psychiatrist backtracked and said he was only suffering from ‘something he called “Boxer syndrome”. That was a new one for Freud.’

Trial, prison and Mao

Tyson jumped out of the marital frying pan, and straight into the fire of being managed and manipulated by ‘this other piece of shit’, the infamous promoter Don King – ‘a wretched, slimy, reptilian motherfucker’. Tell us what you really think, Mike! Then he took a one-two to the chin. First, he lost his title. Then he was convicted and jailed for rape.

Tyson’s controversial knockout defeat by the lumbering James ‘Buster’ Douglas in Tokyo was a shock that had been waiting to happen. He recounts how sloppy he had become without D’Amato’s iron hand on his shoulder, putting on weight, hardly training, going through the motions in the ring: ‘All I was interested then was partying and fucking women.’ He prepared for the Douglas fight by having sex with the maids in his Tokyo hotel.

No longer the champ – except in his own ‘sick, megalomaniac mind’ – Tyson remained a big star. So it was that he came to be surrounded by the contestants at a Miss Black America beauty pageant, and ended up having sex with one of them, Desiree Washington, in his hotel room. She said he raped her, and a judge and jury agreed with her and sent him to prison.

Tyson says in the UK edition of his book that he cannot tell his side of the story here, because of our wonderful English libel laws. But it is clear that the truth of what happened in that hotel room remains highly disputed. Tyson was certainly always awkward and blunt with the women who flocked around him (he admired his father, a ‘deacon-pimp’, for his skills in controlling the opposite sex). Few would have welcomed him dating their daughter. For many, however, that rape trial was a showtrial.

Tyson quotes approvingly one author’s conclusions that he faced ‘a pro-prosecution judge, prosecutors who may have withheld critical evidence, a borderline incompetent trial defence attorney whose bumbling defence may have been more responsible for the guilty verdict than everything else combined, and a jury that paid more attention to Tyson’s bad-boy public image than to the incompleteness of the case’s facts’. The accused did himself no favours in the witness box, he now admits, by acting the ‘arrogant asshole’. The decisive factor, however, was surely that the defence attorney himself reinforced rather than challenged Tyson’s ‘bad-boy public image’, effectively arguing that Desiree Washington should have realised what she was in for because he was a vulgar, boorish animal who did not know any better. The jury understandably drew their own conclusions.

Facing a possible 60 years in prison, Tyson was sentenced to 10 years (four of them suspended) on each of the three counts of assaulting Washington – with his penis, two fingers, and his tongue. That last assault, he wryly recalls, had lasted 20 minutes, probably ‘the longest cunnilingus performed during a rape’. Many fair-weather friends immediately fled from Tyson, but others (especially in the black community) came out in support. Even as doubts about the evidence mounted, all of his appeals were rejected. Tyson refused to acknowledge any guilt, even when it would have earned him early parole from prison.

He spent three years in jail, alternating between spending time in ‘the hole’, having sex with a (female) drug counsellor, selling other inmates the naughty pictures and letters he was sent by women, and reading every ‘anti-establishment’ book from Dumas to Mao: ‘I was angry at society to begin with, and I began to see myself as a martyr…. So when I read Mao and Che I became even more anti-establishment. I dug Mao so much that I had his face tattooed on my body.’ In typically contradictory Tyson style, he also began studying Islam in prison. He says that being sent to jail may have saved his life, yet that it also destroyed part of him and meant he could not trust people – including himself – ever again.

Boxing, not ballet

Tyson emerged from prison and went straight back to chasing boxing titles and women, but this was a fading caricature of Iron Mike. He won two championship belts basically because his opponents – including Frank Bruno – collapsed from fright at the thought of facing him. Then he lost twice to Evander Holyfield, the second time after biting off part of Holyfield’s ear. Tyson claims that this was a response to Holyfield’s constant head-butting, but the headlines deemed it further proof that he was a ‘MONSTER’. It is a mark of that monster’s enduring public appeal that when Holyfield appeared in the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother recently, all the other ‘celebs’ wanted to talk to him about was Tyson.

Tyson went through some more meaningless fights before being banned from boxing for biting Lennox Lewis during a brawl at a pre-match press conference. As I wrote at the time, however, it is hard to get moralistic about what goes on in a blood sport such as boxing: ‘What is all the fuss about? Yes, Tyson is a freak show, and the Lewis fight, if it ever takes place, will undoubtedly be a circus. But this is professional boxing we are talking about, not ballet. The head of boxing at the American television company HBO says, “We don’t want to be tied to any event that tarnishes the image of boxing.” Tarnishes the image of boxing? That could happen only if Tyson bit Lewis’s head clean off on live television, and then ate his brains with a spoon.’ Like the latter part of his career, the second half of the book is hardly worth bothering with, cataloguing a spiral of decline into drugs and degradation, his fortune gone thanks to King and Co, until he is dragged back up as a rehab-ed, reconditioned celebrity. He ends with an Epilogue about how he is now so happily married that his wife and he weep together over romantic poetry in bed – and then has to add a ‘Postscript to the Epilogue’ about how he is back on drugs and taking it ‘one day at a time’.

The impact of therapy

In one sense Mike Tyson is surely the ultimate argument against trying to turn sportsmen into ‘role models’ teaching young people how to live a good life. He is a sporting hero in the ring, not a lifestyle coach out of it. But like a few other sporting heroes, he also came to represent something more to his fans. He became a kind of ‘role model’ not in good manners or grace, but in how to stand up for yourself, never bend the knee, and not let the bastards grind you down.

There are some memorable stories in Undisputed Truth that show Tyson as different and apart from the celebrities with whom he has mixed. One such is the time he approached Michael Jackson backstage: ‘”How are you doing Mr Jackson? It’s a pleasure to meet you” I said. He paused for a second and looked me over. “I know you from somewhere don’t I?” he said. He shat on me that night. He knew who I was. But I couldn’t be mad, I thought it was beautiful. I couldn’t wait to try that line on someone.’ Another is the time he was waiting outside his estranged wife Robin’s house (they were still having ‘quickie’ sex during divorce proceedings), when she drove up with Brad Pitt in the car. When the star of Fight Club saw the real thing standing there, ‘he looked like he was ready to receive his last rites’. Both actors begged Tyson not to hit him. ‘But I wasn’t going to beat no one up. I wasn’t trying to go to jail for her, I was just trying to get in some humps before the divorce.’

One striking theme of the book is the influence of the US therapy culture on Tyson’s later life. He has spent years in all sorts of counselling, and it shows. His memories of his early days are often set down in therapeutic language about being ‘traumatised’ and ‘addicted’, and how his hard childhood shaped his ‘dysfunctional’ attitude to sex (though to be fair, an upbringing like something out of The Wire gives him more excuse than most to see it that way). Describing his inflated opinion of himself at the time of the rape trial, Tyson reflects that ‘I was a titan, the reincarnation of Alexander the Great… It’s amazing how a low self-esteem and a huge ego can give you delusions of grandeur.’ Before adding, with typical non-therapy-speak humour, ‘but after the trial, this god among men had to get his black ass back in court for sentencing’.

Yet Tyson, an advocate of 12-step recovery programmes, is not naïve about the influence of therapy on his life. He makes a powerful observation about how it impacted on his ability to fight and to terrorise opponents. During his defeat by Lennox Lewis in 2002, Tyson notes, he was so sluggish that his friends thought he had been drugged. In fact he was under the influence of another sedative altogether: ‘The whole purpose of my therapy was to curb all my appetites, including my appetite for destruction, the one that made me Iron Mike… Each punch I took from Lewis in the latter rounds chipped away at that pose, that persona. And I was a willing participant in its destruction.’

‘Wussification of boxing’

Where does Tyson stand now in the pantheon of champions? It might be easy to say that he was the best of a bad generation of heavyweights, but in truth it was Tyson who made them look like pushovers. Watch the video of him pulverising Michael Spinks in 1988 in barely 90 seconds, or knocking out assorted opponents with his trademark combination of right hook to the body and right uppercut to the chin, and you can almost feel the force of nature that was Iron Mike. There are good judges who think that, had they met in their respective heydays, Tyson could even have got under Ali’s guard.

As a toe-to-toe fighter, he bears comparison with anybody. He says that people always assumed he wanted to emulate Muhammad Ali, but Tyson thought Ali too tall, handsome and eloquent to be compared to him – ‘short, ugly and with a speech impediment’. His real boxing heroes were all the ‘mean motherfuckers’ from the past – like Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. From the present, he idolised Roberto Duran, the rock-hard trash-talking middleweight who threatened to maim, rape and kill his opponents. Tyson fought and lost to good champions such as Holyfield and Lewis far too late in his career. At his peak, he would surely have bulldozed them both. He certainly brought an excitement and a fear factor into the ring that had not been seen for a long time before him, and has never been seen since. Near the end of the book he complains like an old soldier about the ‘wussification of boxing’ by those more interested in money than immortality. That is probably a bigger issue for those who love boxing than all the familiar complaints about its violence (which is the point, after all).

At the end of all the sordid, funny and horror stories, the self-loathing and brutal admissions, I still liked Mike. On the Hackney council estate where I lived in the late 1980s, before the Tories brought in their Dangerous Dogs Act, it seemed every youth had a pitbull terrier called Tyson. Let us hope they don’t succeed entirely in neutering him, too.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever, is published by Societas. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

Picture: Douglas C. Pizac/AP/Press Association Images

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