Living with a heavy weight, Mike Tyson struggles to find his feet in the real world.
Let’s start up in the airplane. It’s late April. A JetBlue red-eye flight from San Francisco to Florida. In a few moments, Mike Tyson is going to punch someone a bunch of times. In the 57-second phone video that tmz would release hours later, we first see a youngish guy who you might commonly consider a dickhead, swollen and dishevelled with arrogance. He is making cartoon faces for a friend who is filming and narrating from across the aisle, he’s squirming for the camera, he’s holding a plastic cup of something with a garnish lying at the bottom. He is leaning over the seat in front of him incessantly wagging a finger at the clean-shaven head of Mike Tyson.
We see the punishing artificial light of the cabins of commercial planes, still like some humming grey plastic purgatory, the tense and quiet misery of everyone wanting to be literally anywhere else. The dickhead sits back down and says, at full volume: ‘He is pissed. pissed.’
He has found himself with his own arena and in front of him is a once-terrifying man with a greying beard, a man who spoke his whole life of death and pain, Mike Tyson, that is what his name alone conjured, a kind of cyclonic, deranged violence that he would aim at either his enemies or himself and now he was in front of you, on the same plane as you, a plane you could also afford, you, the guy in a cheap T-shirt.
For all Tyson’s life he has been something to either worship or vandalise and here the dickhead seems at first annoyed and confused and then almost angry that Tyson had deprived him of an encounter, of the myth in his mind, a confrontation with God, of what you might consider a Mike Tyson Experience – and then one suddenly materialised.
The footage cuts next to Tyson bent over the seat and wailing away, every punch compact and quick and landing on the dickhead in a way that makes him look, almost, like he has been thrown from a moving vehicle. Another cut to him looking across the aisle to his friend and making a pretend sad face for the camera. His shirt is torn and some blood is dripping down his forehead.
June 27, 1988. Atlantic City, New Jersey. The hbo broadcast of Mike Tyson’s fight against Michael Spinks begins from a helicopter. There is music that is just maudlin horns, what sounds like a military funeral, and here in addition to dickheads plumbing for Engageable Content is another quintessentially American feature: an empire that cannot resist celebrating itself, mourning itself, dazzled by itself; we want the glory but also the pity, we love dignity but are obsessed with rebels, we love modesty but are grabbing our balls. We see from the helicopter a golden beach, waves crawling up to a boardwalk. Beyond it there is a casino and inside is every kind of freak. The delusional, the hungry, the suckups and dreamers, the acolytes, the frauds and strivers, the grovellers, starlets with immaculate done-up hair and the egg-shaped men who teeter beside them. Around the ring, men in white jackets, men in tuxedos, women in red sequin dresses perched around the ring next to doughy slobs like rare birds sitting on the shoulders of pirates, everyone wide-eyed with the glimmer of anticipation and horror.
In the centre of it all is Mike Tyson, three days before his 22nd birthday and rippling in silence, with gentle eyes, dripping enormous bulbs of sweat.
Spinks walks out in a pristine white robe to This Is It by Kenny Loggins, a song that is tight and polished, with synthesizers and Michael McDonald’s delicate voice. Tyson walks out bare-chested to a song with no lyrics, only a noise that sounds like the rattle of chains and a reverberation that is almost like the purr of a mechanical lion. He’s guided through the crowd and into the ring by cops with their hands in the chiselled cavern in his back muscles.
Spinks stands by the turnbuckle and his name is listed on a graphic on the screen; next to his name is his age, 31 years old, and it feels for a moment like these 31 years have spanned the history of the planet. He looks not only 31 but like some kind of ancient man. The broadcast cuts to Tyson, who we are told is 21, but who seems younger than that somehow, like the cellophane has just been peeled off of him. He is immaculate, his spirit is electric and he cannot stop bouncing. Spinks looks like he is waiting for a bus in the rain. The bell rings. Tyson knocks him out in 91 seconds. Spinks never boxes again.
Tyson walked the streets in those days indestructible in heavy denim, with Don King squinting at him and sinking his teeth in; Tyson with a soft expression behind Cazal sunglasses. Beside him were fat-necked cops with moustaches, doing crowd control, catching reflected uv rays of celebrity, these proud, round idiots tugging their gun belts, turning down crackling walkie talkies to hear the champ, the champ as cameramen and maniacs and curious children gathered into constricting circles around him, in front of jewellery spots in Brownsville, in Japan, in London and all over the world.
We raided his life for slogans, montages, symbols of menace, excess and lmao-insanity. He talked about pigeons like people talk about their infant children and we took pictures as he cradled them and we said, ‘ha! ha! – look at this weirdo’. We used him to satisfy all our appetites. When he relapsed, we marvelled at the authenticity of his trauma and when he got sober again we mourned this now-tranquilised king, the death of the real and destructive spirit. He seemed to salivate at confrontation, interrogation, threats of any kind. He was more than that but we didn’t want him to be, and we loved him for making it so easy to draw it in such simple shapes.
This year, a few days after the plane event, Tyson is seen in Las Vegas, trailed by an assortment of Vegas barnacles. Fresh haircuts and fitted hats, the distinct fog of sweaty desperation, bald men in button-downs who look like the anonymous ‘ambassadors’ for mid-level vodka brands or nightclubs called Prey, all trying to escort Tyson toward an escalator somewhere. Eventually too many of them have congregated and he stops to pose.As they’re waiting for the phone camera to load, a woman, who is not with the guys but is also very much there to be in the commotion of Mike Tyson’s loose orbit, reaches her hand through the crowd from behind it all and holds her finger under Mike’s nose. He bobs around with a sudden twist and raises a hand as the woman retreats to the back of the room, almost catatonically frozen. He turns back to the cameras and holds for the shot. He even pretends to smile for them all.
Tyson has always been deprived of the noble dignity of journeymen and anonymous lifers – the boxers who were not quite great enough and were forced to devote their lives not to celebrity or fame or wealth but to duty and precise mathematics of this ridiculous sport.
At 13, Tyson left for the Catskills to become a student of boxing to save his own life; he grew up and become a champion and we paid to see the animal, but the animal horrified us so he found sobriety, but the posters they hung of him were not of the student or the sobriety but of the animal still, snarling and tense-muscled, making threats.
Tyson does podcasts now. So many podcasts. Episodes of his show HotBoxin’ doing half-baked interviews with a defanged and placating Eminem about narcissism, the terror of being alive, bumping into the Olsen twins at a Vegas club. An episode with Joe Rogan where everyone is wearing a shirt that has an advertisement on it for either an app or something in this same grim tech/start-up vicinity. Rogan is wearing ankle socks. Mike: ‘George Washington had the biggest ego in the world, he thought he was God’. An hour and a half of this. Tyson sitting there with shorts riding up his ridiculous thighs. Rogan asks, referring to Tyson’s recent fight against Roy Jones Junior, if he’s ever going to compete again and Mike says, ‘I was gonna stop but they started offering some real dough.’
And so he’ll drag himself into the ring again and again, because there are always bills to pay and always the howling rafters trying to make sense of you, aching for the days where you are ferocious forever.
There is his Twitter account trumpeting fortune-cookie platitudes about resilience, links to podcasts with ‘tech pioneers’, nft launches and giveaway promotions for investment apps. Appearances at memorabilia conventions with stooges mime-punching him in the face with pale doughy hands. Branded posts on Instagram for ‘Data Marketplaces’ that ‘punch way above their weight class’. Tame scenes in a mansion in Vegas playing Mortal Kombat with two of his kids. Jake Paul, lightning-blond professional deviant, declaring that he would beat Tyson in a boxing match and saying ‘Everybody has a time-limit best version of themselves.’ The cartoon series, Mike Tyson Mysteries, where in one episode Charlie Rose is killed by robot warriors and Tyson has to replace him as host of his talk show.
There was a moment during his one-man stage act on Broadway when a photograph of Robin Givens – who alleges Tyson raped her – is projected on to a screen behind Tyson and he looks up at her and sings the Minnie Riperton song Lovin’ You before using his finger as a pretend gun and sticking it in his mouth. Everything is going great, but it feels that he is always on the precipice of one last exorcismic purge and the crowd can’t decide if they want the rage or the redemption. The man on the plane can’t and maybe Mike can’t either. There’s so much sweat on his shirt the fabric is a different colour and clinging to his collarbones. He’s out of breath. The crowd on Broadway laughs at the Riperton number. Through all of this it feels on some subterranean level like they are saying, ‘We are happy for you, your rehabilitation, your sanity, but still you belong to us and we may provoke you for the thrill of it or scoff at your unwillingness to do so. Your tragedies and euphorias and modest triumphs, every rise and fall and anecdote in your life is some taxidermied artefact for us to examine.’ It has always been this way and his choice has been either to swing at it with hyperventilating rage or shrug at it and appreciate the social engagement numbers.
There is one Tyson scene I return to all the time. He’s 19 and training with Kevin Rooney. Around the gym: busted folding chairs tipped at peculiar angles, no windows, crumpled bags, a machine selling soda. Tired, bearded men hunched over in the corners wearing clothes that don’t fit. The limp normalness of everything else in this room, how bleak and small, next to Tyson in the patchy light, rearranging his body in imperceptible ways, learning angles, religiously shaving off layers of himself so that he is a honed and microscopically superior version tomorrow. Rooney’s shirt is tucked in, his back pocket is hanging out. Tyson is watching him, sizzling in all black, body knotted, following Rooney in slow motion, trying to get closer, paying attention, start again, same combination.
‘I never saw my mother happy with me and proud of me for doing something.’ He said that when she died.
He was in these gyms for months, years of this, always this. There are dozens of videos that you can watch, grainy vhs transfers, eight minutes of Tyson rehearsing nearly identical footwork. He disappeared to do this, he did this in the dark, running in the streets in thick fabrics, on the Atlantic City boardwalk. He ran for miles, no one called him home, his shoulders are gorgeous. Boxing is meant to play on pay-per-view with the fury of Satan stuck in traffic but for Tyson it sometimes seemed more like a blend of architecture and cumming. Spasms of mayhem and ecstasy but otherwise a Zen calm derived from crisp lines and formula. Once, in an interview, he nearly cried when he was talking about washing dishes.
In the scene he moves slowly toward Rooney, creeping, waiting for his moment and then there he goes, every punch sharp and absurd and coming from directions you could not imagine, his torso snapping like elastic from side to side. His feet are moving for real now and he’s skidding on the canvas. He’s found you in the rafters and on the planes and in Las Vegas, in Brooklyn and in helicopters, the people who don’t recognise him anymore and want to know why, all of us staring at him with wet bug eyes, whispering about where he came from. He has found us in this gym and he’s heard what we’re saying and he’s come to kill us all.