On His Back


Here in Memphis, 70 miles north of where Robert Johnson supposedly came one midnight to barter his soul in return for playing the deepest blues, Mike Tyson lay on sky-blue floor beneath the blinding light trying to push his nose back in place. The former Brownsville mugger of old ladies, reader of Voltaire and Tolstoy, convicted rapist, hip-hop icon, and multimillion-dollar meal ticket, Tyson was bleeding from around both eyes, and the tattoo of Mao Tse-tung on his bicep bore a nasty scrape. Whatever bargain Iron Mike had struck with Master of the Crossroads (some call him the Devil, but then again some call Tyson the Devil) was over now.

Well, everyone said, at least Tyson took his beating like a man, whatever that means. Though he had sworn to eat his opponent Lennox Lewis’s children (even though Lewis has no children), Tyson didn’t bite anyone’s ears, try to break someone’s arm, punch the referee, kick, gouge, or even curse, at least not audibly. After an opening snarl and a couple of left hooks for old time’s sake, Tyson mostly just stood there, getting hit, over and over, by the towering Lewis. Only days before, Mike vowed to smear his opponent’s “pompous brains” across the canvas like a Jackson Pollock painting. Now, smiling through bloody lips, he said he loved Lewis and the Jamaican Brit’s mother too. This was called gallant, a public relations coup for Iron Mike, the potential beginning of his rechanneling into polite society.

Rationally, he never figured in this fight. Lewis, a half-foot taller, and nothing if not a highly proficient champion, might have beaten Tyson even on his best day. That day, of course, is long past. Already in decline at age 22, Tyson, now 35, has not beaten a decent fighter in more than 10 years. Evander Holyfield knocked him out in 1996, a year before the ear-chomp incident. During his four years in the joint he wasn’t allowed to train; outside, in a semi-thug’s life of near constant turmoil, he barely jumped rope. There were all kinds of stories about Tyson’s handlers slipping lithium and Zoloft into his mashed potatoes and oatmeal, because Tyson wouldn’t take the stuff voluntarily. The medicine was supposed to manage his rage, a chancy psychopharmacological regimen for a boxer. Plus, as any male who has taken a serotonin-reuptake drug knows, it can make it difficult to ejaculate. How that fucking without coming was supposed to assuage Mike Tyson’s rage is anyone’s guess.

On Memphis talk radio, callers white and black said he was a “hoodlum from hell,” “a gold-tooth punk” who “set civil rights back to some other century,” that he should be made “to wear a dog muzzle.” One DJ said Tyson would absolutely lose his mind if he lost. Some callers rebutted by saying Mike would go even more nuts if he won. But many more declared the point moot, saying Tyson was already crazy, and should have been committed long ago, for his own safety and everyone else’s.

This, of course, was the real selling point of the bout: the madman theory, the man-vs.-beast aspect. Florid race imagery was inescapable—Tyson as a latter-day King Kong doing really nasty shit to Fay Wray on the top of the Empire State Building. This was why the odds, which to the rationalist view should have been at least 6 to 1 for Lewis, hovered closer to even money at fight time. But when is the smart money really smart, or rational? Rationalism has little place in the ongoing text of Tyson. But there’s no denying the presence of the dark id in his squat and hulking frame. Lewis is merely a trained athlete—shave off the dreads and he’s a basketball player. Tyson is a passion play.

Boxing-cliché jockeys talk of “the puncher’s chance,” because, as they say, anyone will go if you hit them right. Tyson had the beast’s chance. In the primeval days of the early 1980s, when Cus D’Amato, the Dr. Frankenstein/philosopher-king of the Catskills, snatched the then pre-teen from a reform school, he had a vision. D’Amato’s fighter, the fast-fisted but fragile Floyd Patterson had been destroyed by Sonny Liston, union head-breaker and all-around bad-hat. Tyson—then a coachable fury who liked to raise pigeons like Brando in On the Waterfront and also had a burning desire to push other fighters’ noses up into their brains (as he would say after knocking out Jesse Ferguson)—would be Cus’s Liston.

He became champ at 20, but the monster in him went unchecked. Aesthetically, and perhaps spiritually, Tyson ruined himself by going with Don King, and none of his early supporters in the New York writer crowd will ever forgive him. The standard line is, things might have been different if Jimmy Jacobs, the millionaire fight-film collector who bankrolled D’Amato and managed Tyson, hadn’t died early. Things might have been different too, if Tyson hadn’t married Robin Givens and her Dracula mom, if Mike had a better lawyer in the Desiree Washington case, if he hadn’t gotten into that Maryland fender bender, if . . . if . . .

So now it was down to this: unprepared for an unwinnable fight in Memphis, the down-and-out, enjoyably miscegenated home to W.C. Handy and Elvis, which got the bout only because no one else wanted it. Memphis seemed as good a place as any to play it out. Only last week the town medical examiner had been found wrapped in barbed wire with a bomb strapped to his chest. Attempts to blame this unsolved crime on Tyson, in order to build up the what-will-he-do-next factor of the somewhat flagging gate, proved unsuccessful, but no matter. It was the most fun here since the Church of God in Christ bought and bulldozed the old Stax/Volt theater for playing that devil music.

There was a lot of bitching about no-show celebrities, people like George Clooney and Jack Nicholson. But why care about that when, at any given moment, you might be stuck in the Peabody Hotel elevator with Russell Simmons, L.L. Cool J, Dikembe Mutombo, and Alonzo Mourning. It was like being inside an issue of Slam magazine. Bushwick Bill was there too, late of the Geto Boys, whose Willie D once rhymed, “Fast as lightning, punch like Tyson, got a whole toolbox that need tightening.”

“He’s a sick fuck, but Mike Tyson be getting people laid, getting people paid,” shouted one reveler on packed Beale Street. “He’s a one-man economic boom.”

It got a little surreal. The night before the fight, the fire alarms at the Peabody, the recently renovated old manse with the famous ducks, began sounding at about 3 a.m. Everyone was supposed to leave the building, “immediately.” A slow-motion panic ensued, with 1000 sleeping drunks trying to decide whether or not to get out of bed or just burn up alive. (As it turned out, some lunatic swinging from the chandelier at the top-floor party had set off the sprinkler system.) Downstairs, 100 firemen in heavy gear mingled with a like number of fabulously underdressed, extravagantly tattooed prostitutes. “Come on, do it for Mike,” one hooker said, propositioning a firefighter.

The drunker people got, the more they pushed and shoved; the closer they came to the desperate brink, the more they believed Tyson would win—and they wanted him to win. There would be some redemption in that. But from the second round on, when evidence of the mismatch became clear, the energy went out of the Pyramid, which is supposedly modeled on a similar structure in Memphis, Egypt (although the old one probably has better air-conditioning). As Lewis ran through his studied repertoire, thudding jab after inevitable jab into Tyson’s face, Iron Mike had nowhere to go but down. Villain and victim both, he’d traveled a long road, full of misdirection and double crosses, mindful and mindless violence. As he lay on the floor, there seemed little doubt Iron Mike had reached his rightful, destined place.

After the fight, inside his silent dressing room, displaying the strange innocence that has always disarmed even his most severe detractors, Tyson said he had no particular plans for the future. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just fade into oblivion, go back to New York, be with my birds.” Then peering at his interviewer, he said, without the usual rancor, “I’m a street guy. I’m not in your world.”

The next morning, Sunday, I took a ride past the pawnshops and Piggley Wiggley’s on Elvis Presley Boulevard. I wasn’t going to Graceland, but was headed toward Hale Street, home of the Full Gospel Church, the Reverend Al Green, pastor. The voice, still the finest, most idiosyncratic instrument in American song, poured forth. “Joy!” Reverend Green shouted. “I’m talking about joy!” Whereupon a man in a green suit began spinning in circles and the band, a great wailing band, broke into big gospel chords. Soon enough, however, the Reverend Green was talking about Mike Tyson. “Everybody saw it,” he said. “The mighty Mike Tyson, down, knocked out. Blood running down his face like tears. But was he really defeated? If Mike Tyson was thinking about God, those tears would be tears of joy. It would be his greatest moment. But we don’t know what Mike Tyson thinks. Only he does.”