Failure in the Desert: Blood and Neon — Tyson, Smith, Las Vegas, and Boxing
March 24, 1987
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA — In a ring still stained with blood from the heavyweight fight that preceded it, Mike Tyson, at 20 the youngest heavyweight titleholder in boxing history, brings the fight for unification of the title to James “Bonecrusher” Smith, an aging athlete at 33, and the only heavyweight titleholder in boxing history to have graduated from college. Smith will have none of it. Minute follows minute, round follows grinding round, as Tyson tries to get inside to throw the rapid-fire combinations for which he is famous, and Smith clinches, backs away, walks away, clinches again, hugging his frustrated and increasingly infuriated opponent like a drowning man hugging something — anything — that floats. For the most part Smith’s expression is blank, with the blankness of fear, a stark unmitigated fear without shame, yet shameful to witness. The referee, Mills Lane, exasperated, penalizes Smith by deducting points from him after rounds two and eight. (“I could have deducted a point from him after each round,” Lane said afterward, “but you don’t like to do that in a title fight.”) “Fight!” the crowd shouts vainly. “Do something!”
The pattern of the fight is immediately established: in the entire twelve rounds virtually nothing will happen that does not happen in the first thirty seconds of the first round. The spectator is gripped by stasis itself, by the perversity of the expectation that, against all evidence, something will happen. While my press colleagues to a man will report the match boring (according to the Los Angeles Times, “Two interior decorators could have done each other more damage”), I find it uniquely tense and exhausting; not unlike the first Spinks-Holmes fight in which the frustrated Holmes carried his right glove for round after round like a talismanic club waiting to be swung. This is the very poetry of masculine frustration — the failure of psychic closure.
In the ringside seats close by me, Smith’s fellow boxers Trevor Berbick and Edwin Rosario are particularly vocal, as if in an agony of professional discomfort. For it seems that the superbly conditioned Smith — who had performed so dramatically only three months ago in Madison Square Garden, knocking out Tim Witherspoon in the first round of his WBA title defense — is now, suddenly, not a boxer. Though in an elevated and garishly spotlit ring with another man, contracted for $1 million to fight him, performing in front of a crowd of 13,600 people in the Hilton’s newly erected outdoor stadium and how many millions of television viewers, Smith cannot or will not fight. His instinct is merely to survive — to get through twelve rounds with no injuries more serious than a bleeding left eye and a bad swelling on the right side of his face; and to retreat, professionally disgraced, to his wife, family, and plans for the future (“Being a champion opens lots of doors — I’d like to get a real estate license, maybe sell insurance”) in Magnolia, North Carolina.
Berbick writhes in the folding chair beside me, muttering, laughing, derisive, very nearly as frustrated as Mike Tyson, and clearly resentful — after all, Berbick fought Tyson here in November, and spectacularly (and humiliatingly) lost to him, in the third minute of the second round of that fight. Berbick too had tried to clinch with Tyson, to slow him down, to frustrate him; but Berbick had also fought him, or at least made a game attempt (“I wanted to prove my manhood,” Berbick said afterward, ruefully, “that was my mistake”). In this match, Smith’s manhood is not evidently an issue. He has no “machismo” to display or defend; if he is a boxer it must be by default. The six-four 233-pound Bonecrusher is a zombie tonight, a parody of a boxer, so resistant to boxing’s visible and invisible rules, that complex of mores that make boxing at once the most primitive and the most sophisticated of contact sports, that it is fascinating to watch him — to a degree.
Of current heavyweights Smith has invariably been one of the most erratic and unpredictable in performance; capable, under pressure, of boxing well, yet strangely and unprofessionally susceptible to vagaries of mood. Perhaps because he has no real vocation as a boxer — and no more instinct for fighting than one might expect from a man with a B.A. in business administration (from Shaw College, North Carolina) — he is easily demoralized in the ring, allowing childlike expressions of triumph, hurt, bewilderment, and acute unhappiness to show on his face, as boxers so rarely do. He boxes as an intelligent man might box whose intelligence is his only weapon in an action in which “intelligence” must be subordinated to something more fundamental. He draws upon no deeper reserves of self — no energy, imagination, emotion — beyond those of consciousness.
As for Tyson: unlike Dempsey, Marciano, and Frazier, those famously aggressive fighters to whom he is often compared, he is not a reckless boxer; he is not willing, as so many boxer-fighters are, to take four or five punches in order to throw a punch of his own. His training is defensive, and cautious — hence the peek-a-boo stance, a Cus D’Amato signature: a return to boxing as the art of self-defense, of hitting your man, and scoring points, without being hit in return. D’Amato trained Tyson to bob, weave, slip punches from sparring partners without throwing a single punch in response — a conditioning that has made Tyson an anomaly in the ring. His reputation is for power, speed, and aggression, but his defensive skills are as remarkable, if less dramatic.
Confronted with an opponent like Bonecrusher Smith, who violates the decorum of the ring by not fighting, Tyson is at a loss: he hits his man after the bell, in an adolescent display of frustration; he exchanges insults with him during the fight, makes jeering faces; pushes, shoves, laces the cut over Smith’s eye during a clinch; betrays remnants of his Brooklyn street-fighting days (Tyson, as a child of ten, was one of the youngest members of a notorious gang called the Jolly Stompers) that his training as a boxer should have overcome. In short, his inexperience shows.
Tyson’s predicament vis-á-vis Smith recalls Jack Dempsey, similarly frustrated in his matches with Tunney, shouting at his retreating opponent, “Come on and fight” (the subtext being, “Come on and fight like a man!”). But Dempsey was not a strategic boxer of the sort Tyson has been meticulously trained to be; Dempsey’s ring style was virtually nonstop offense with very little defense. Outboxed by the more cautious and more intelligent Tunney, he eventually lost both fights. In the Tyson-Smith match there is no question that Tyson is the superior boxer; he will win every round unanimously and triumph in what is in fact one of the easiest fights of his two-year career as a professional. But this is hardly the dramatic public performance he’d hoped to give, and the fight’s promoters had hoped to present. No knockout, none of the dazzling combinations of blows for which he is known — very little of what D’Amato taught his proteges was the boxer’s primary responsibility to his audience: to entertain. Winning too can be a kind of failure.
This fight recalls several previous fights of Tyson’s with opponents who, out of fear or cunning, or both, refused to fight him. Yet more worrisomely it also recalls Joe Louis’s predicament as heavyweight champion in those years when, after having cleared the heavyweight division of all serious contenders, he was reduced to fighting mere opponents — “Bums-of-the-Month” as the press derisively called them. Worse, Louis’s reputation as a puncher, a machine for hitting, so intimidated opponents that they were frightened to enter the ring with him. (“Enter the ring? My man had to be helped down the aisle!” one manager is said to have exclaimed.)
Though most of Mike Tyson’s twenty-eight fights have ended with knockouts, often in early rounds, and once (with Joe Frazier’s hapless son Marvis) within thirty seconds of the first round, several opponents have slowed him down as Bonecrusher Smith has done — making Tyson appear baffled, thwarted, intermittently clumsy. “Quick” Tillis and Mitch Green come most readily to mind; and, though Tyson eventually knocked him out in the final round of a 10-round fight, Jose Ribalta. Perhaps the ugliest fight of Tyson’s career was with Jesse Ferguson who, in a performance anticipating Smith’s, held on to Tyson with such desperation after Tyson had broken Ferguson’s nose that even the referee could not free the men. (Ferguson was disqualified and the fight was ruled a TKO for Tyson.) Such performances do not constitute boxing at its best moments, nor do they presage well or Tyson’s future: to be a great champion, one must have great opponents.
In the antebellum American South white slave owners frequently pitted their black slaves against each other in fights of spectacular savagery, and made bets on the results. The descendants of these slaves, and their black kinsmen from the West Indies, Africa, and elsewhere, freely fight one another for purses of gratifying generosity: the highest paid athletes in the world are American boxers, and the highest paying fights are always in Las Vegas.
Incongruity, like vulgarity, is not a concept in Las Vegas. This fantasyland for adults, with its winking neon skyline and its twenty-four-hour clockless casinos exists as a counter-world to our own. There is no day here — the enormous casinos are pure interiority, like the inside of a skull. Gambling, as Francois Mauriac once said, is continuous suicide. There is no past, no significant future, only an eternal and always optimistic present tense. Vegas is our quintessentially American city, a series of hotels in the desert, shrines of chance in which, presumably, we are all equal as we are not equal before the law, or God, or one another. One sees in the casinos, especially at those acres and acres of slot machines, men and women of all ages, races, types, degrees of probable or improbable intelligence, as fiercely attentive to their machines as academicians are to their word processors. If one keeps on, faithfully, obsessively, one will surely hit The Jackpot. (You know it’s The Jackpot when your machine lights up, a goofy melody ensues, and a flood of coins comes tumbling into your lap like a lascivious Greek god.) The ready dialects of irony — the habitual tone of the cultural critic in 20th century America — are as foreign here as snow, or naturally green grass.
So it is hardly incongruous that boxing matches are held in the Las Vegas Hilton and Caesar’s Palace, VIP tickets at $1000 or more (and the cheapest tickets, at $75, so remote from the ring that attendance at a fight is merely nominal, or symbolic); it is not incongruous that this most physical of sports — like the flipping of cards or the throw of dice — is most brilliantly realized as a gambling opportunity. Since Tyson’s victory is a foregone conclusion, the bookmakers could offer only one proposition: that the fight will, or will not, go four rounds. (Which accounts for the outburst of ecstatic cheering, the only cheering of the fight, when the bell rings sounding the end of round four and Smith, bleeding down the left side of his face and freshly admonished by the referee for holding and refusing to break, nonetheless walks to his corner.)
Mike Tyson will earn a minimum of $1.5 million for this fight (to Smith’s $1 million) and if his spectacular career continues as everyone predicts, he will soon be earning as much as Hagler and Leonard, if not more. Though Tyson lacks Muhammad Ali’s inspired narcissism, he is not handicapped by Ali’s brash black politics and Ali’s penchant for antagonizing whites: for all his reserve, his odd, even eerie combination of shyness and aggression, his is a wonderfully marketable image. (See the iconic “Mike Tyson” of billboard and newspaper ads, a metallic man, not a 20-year-old, but a robot of planes, angles, inhuman composure: “Iron Mike” Tyson.)
Yet how subdued the real Tyson appeared, following the inglorious fight, and the noisy press conference in a candy-striped tent in a corner of the Hilton’s parking lot. One caught glimpses of him that night at the jammed victory party on the 30th floor of the hotel, being interviewed, photographed, televised, and, later, being led through the hotel’s crowded lobby, surrounded by publicity people, still being televised, wearing his preposterously ornate WBC champion’s belt around his waist and his newly acquired WBA belt slung over his shoulder. His expression was vague, dim, hooded, very possibly embarrassed (“It was a long, boring fight”), like one of those captive demigods or doomed kings recorded in James Frazer’s Golden Bough.
To the boxing aficionado the sport’s powerful appeal is rarely explicable. It seems to be rooted in a paradoxical nature — the savagery that so clearly underlies, yet is contained by, its myriad rules, regulations, traditions, and superstitions. It seems to make quotidian that which is uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean: it ritualizes violence, primarily male violence, to a degree which makes violence an aesthetic principle. In this, men’s bodies (or, rather, the highly trained employment of their bodies) are instruments and not mere flesh like our own.
That a man as a boxer is an action, and no longer a man, or not significantly a “man,” puzzles those of us who feel ourselves fully defined in any of our actions. The romantic principles of existentialism in its broadest, most vernacular sense, have much to do with one’s will in creating oneself as an ethical being by way of a freely chosen action. Boxing, more than most contemporary American sports, clearly inhabits a dimension of human behavior one might call metaethical or metaexistential. There is no evident relationship between the man outside the ring and the man inside the ring — the boxer who is, like Mike Tyson (or Joe Louis, or Rocky Marciano, or any number of other boxers of distinction), “courteous,” “soft-spoken,” “gentle,” in private life, and, in the ring, once the bell has sounded, “brutal,” “awesome,” “murderous,” “devastating,” “a young bull” — and the rest. The aim is not to kill one’s opponent but to render him temporarily incapacitated, in a simulation of death. “It’s like a drug,” Mike Tyson has said. “I thrive on it. It’s the excitement of the event, and now I need that excitement all the time.” Tyson has also said, “Other than boxing, everything is so boring.”
When the boxer enters the ring, ceremonially disrobes, and answers the summons to fight, he ceases being an individual with all that implies of a socially regulated ethical bond with other individuals; he becomes a boxer, which is to say, an action. When, as the story goes, Alexis Arguello met Roberto Duran and proffered his hand to shake, Duran backed away and screamed, “Get away! You’re crazy! I’m not your friend!” To touch another man in friendship, let alone in brotherhood, would make it difficult to kill; or to provide for spectators the extraordinary mimicry of killing that boxing of the quality of Roberto Duran’s, and Mike Tyson’s, customarily provides. Life is real and painful, and steeped in ambiguity; in the boxing ring either/or prevails. Either you win, or you lose.
It might be argued that America’s fascination with sports — if “fascination” is not too weak a word for such frenzied devotion, weekend after weekend, season after season, in the lives of a majority of men — has to do not only with the power of taboo to violate, or transcend, or render obsolete conventional categories of morality, but with the dark, denied, muted, eclipsed, and wholly unarticulated underside of America’s religion of success. Sports is only partly about winning; it is also about losing. Failure, hurt, ignominy, disgrace, physical injury, sometimes even death — these are facts of life, perhaps the very bedrock of lives, which the sports actor, or athlete, must dramatize in the flesh; and always against his will.
Boxing as dream-image, or nightmare, pits self against self, identical twin against twin, as in the womb itself where “dominancy,” that most mysterious of human hungers, is first expressed. Its most characteristic moments of ecstasy — the approach to the knockout, the knockout, the aftermath of the knockout, and, by way of television replays, the entire episode retraced in slow motion as in the privacy of a dream — are indistinguishable from obscenity and horror. In the words of middleweight Sugar Ray Seales, 1972 Olympic Gold medalist, a veteran of more than four hundred amateur and professional fights who went blind as a consequence of ring injuries: “I went into the wilderness, and fought the animals there, and when I came back I was blind.”
In Clifford Geertz’s classic anthropological essay of 1972, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” the point is made that, in Bali, the now-illegal cockfighting obsession is wholly male, and masculine. The “cock” is the male organ, as the Balinese freely acknowledge, but it is more than merely that; it is the man, the maleness, codified, individualized, in a context of other individuals — which is to say, society. The cockfight is utterly mindless, bloody, savage, animal — and ephemeral: though a Balinese loves his fighting cock, and treats him tenderly, once the cock is dead it is dead, and quickly forgotten. (Sometimes, in a paroxysm of disappointment and rage, Geertz notes, cock owners dismember their own cocks after their fighting cocks are killed.)
Boxing in America is far more complex a cultural phenomenon than the Balinese cockfight. It has much to do, for example, with immigrant succession, and with the ever-shifting tensions of race. But some of the principles Geertz isolates in the cockfight are surely operant: men are fascinated by boxing because it suggests that masculinity is measured solely in terms of other men, and not in terms of women; and because, in its very real dangers, it is a species of “deep play” (an action in which stakes are so high that it is, from a utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all) that seems to demonstrate the way the world really is and not the way it is said, or wished, or promised to be. The boxer is consumed in action, and has no significant identity beyond action; the fight is a convulsion of a kind, strictly delimited in space (a meticulously squared circle bounded, like an animal pen, by ropes) and time. (Jack Dempsey, in whose honor the term “killer instinct” was coined, once remarked that he wasn’t the fighter he might have been, with so many rules and regulations governing the sport: “You’re in there for three-minute rounds with gloves on and a referee. That’s not real fighting.”) The passions it arouses are always in excess of its “utilitarian” worth since, in fact, it has none.
As the bloody, repetitious, and ephemeral cockfight is a Balinese reading of Balinese experience — a story Balinese men tell themselves about themselves — so too is the American boxing match a reading of American experience, unsentimentalized and graphic. Yes, one thinks, you have told us about civilized values; you have schooled us in the virtues, presumably Christian, of turning the other cheek; of meekness as a prerequisite for inheriting the earth — the stratagems (manipulative? feminine?) of indirection. But the boxing match suggests otherwise, and it is that reading of life which we prefer. The boxers make visible what is invisible in us, thereby defining us, and themselves, in a single consecrated action. As Rocky Graziano once said, “The fight for survival is the fight.”