Mike Tyson: An IntroductionBy Brin Butler
August 13, 2012
“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.”—Hunter S. Thompson
Maybe the real subject of every interview is how you really can’t learn much of anything about anyone from an interview.
Back at his gym in Los Angeles, the only instruction Freddie Roach gave after offering Mike Tyson’s phone number was a warning: “Don’t blindside him. It doesn’t matter if I sent you. If you see Mike and you blindside him, he’s capable of attacking you.”
“I’m not looking to blindside anyone here,” I lied.
“Be careful, son.”
And then a couple months later I entered the front door of Tyson’s Vegas home through a thick cloud of marijuana smoke while he came down the stairs toward me with just one question:
“So how did this white motherfucker get inside my house?”
“Fighting to me is what theory was to Einstein or words were to Hemingway or notes were to Beethoven.”—Mike Tyson
On June 27, 1988, a 21-year-old Mike Tyson made in excess of 21 million dollars for 91 seconds of work. It took him just over 14 seconds to pull in more money than Michael Jordan, in his prime, made for an entire season of work that year. But maybe you never cared much about sports or athletes and preferred art instead. So maybe you’ll accept Warhol’s advice and measure the worth of an artwork by what you can get for it. At Tyson’s pay rate that night, after another round or so (227 seconds to be exact by my calculations), the work of art he displayed in the ring would’ve earned as much as Vincent van Gogh’s efforts on a canvas when Irises became the most expensive work of art in the world just several months before, selling for $53.9 million.
“Mike Tyson remains that rarest of all commodities. Instead of the human being sold as superhero, Tyson is the superhero who is selling himself as a human being.”—Wallace Matthews
At his peak, they used to giggle and tell you Mike Tyson never had a style, he just fought everyone as if they stole something from him.
“All things truly wicked start from innocence.”—Ernest Hemingway
Long before I ever had a chance to blindside him, Mike Tyson had blindsided me.
Even though we’d never met and I never saw it coming, the little boy in the photo booth saved my life. Mike Tyson as a destination didn’t mean anything to me until I’d gone back and packed some of his luggage to understand the journey. But I guess “Kid Dynamite,” like most boxers, was like any other powder keg made out of commonly found household items.
Start off with where the center of his universe is located: Brownsville, one of the most bleak dungeons of poverty and violence America could dish out. Install an abusive pimp for a father and have him abandon the alcoholic mother before Tyson’s third birthday. Make sure the mother fucks everyone in the neighborhood so the household and its inhabitants gain a glowing reputation from well-wishers in the community. Contaminate his soul with how worthless life is as people with faces he recognizes overdose or get robbed or raped or murdered. Make him an even more attractive target with no friends or any hope of protection in this milieu. Don’t let that kid walk in any direction without it feeling like a plank. Never let him turn a corner without being afraid for his life. And when anything catches up with him, make him too timid and sensitive to ever fight back. Hang cowardice as another millstone around his neck. And after you’ve torn his heart out, why not fan the scent? Best of all, when he begs for help, make sure his voice is the real Rosetta Stone to this kid. Make his voice so high and delicate he’ll be afraid to scream no matter how much he wants to. And if the pathetic little faggot everybody knows he is ever caves, why not go that extra mile and give him a lisp too. As far as he knows, he’ll be dead and forgotten before he blows out the candles for his thirteenth birthday.
But before you finish him off, give him one place to hide. Offer one place where he can run away and take refuge from the world. Let him stumble onto the rooftops of those abandoned tenements and fall in love with the pigeons up there. Watch him spend every dime he can scrape together for feed so he can reward the pigeons from his coop for doing everything he can’t, flying away and escaping all that suffering below. Make the relief of this experience something that marks him forever and leaves a trail that others can find and hunt down. Then some rapacious, observant monster in the neighborhood can notice the change on Tyson and follow him up there. He can trespass undetected into Tyson’s most private world and savor the pillage to come. Let him see the fully exposed scene of Tyson feeding and caring for his birds and allow him to grasp the whole story behind it, the whole pawnshop of broken dreams in his heart. Let him playfully hatch a plan to finish off another boy’s life that’s better than just pulling a trigger or pushing him off the roof. That way, when Tyson returns the next day to the rooftop and discovers one of his pigeons being choked inside the fist of this sadistic fuck he’ll beg him not to hurt it. Tyson can helplessly watch as the bully takes his time soaking up the pleas and enjoys the unraveling process of a shattered human being before casually twisting off the head of the pigeon and laughing at the heartbreakingly predictable outcome.
But instead, for the first time in his life, Tyson stood up for himself and used everything that held him down to unleash the first bars of his own Ninth Symphony with his fists.
I used to wonder how long after that moment, when the world first heard that melody, it took Tyson to realize whatreal problems were in store for him now. I used to wonder how long it took Tyson to get a whiff of us, and how, as Norman Mailer once said of a previously nightmarish boxer America had a fetish for, “…anyone is supposed to prepare to defend himself against the thoughts of everyone alive.”
At a certain point Mike Tyson and I reacted to violence a little differently. I was afraid to leave my house for three years while he became the heavyweight champion of the world. The thing was, at first, we reacted to it the same way and our cowardice and trauma defined us.
In the summer going into tenth grade, back in 1994, I wrote a letter to inmate number 922335, inside the Indiana Youth Center in Plainfield, Indiana. I’d never mailed a letter to anyone before. Up to that point the only letter I’d ever written had been a suicide note.
The week before, totally by accident, my mother had seen an interview with Tyson from prison and at the end of it she was crying. I only caught the last few minutes. My mother had hated Mike Tyson for the same reasons everybody hated Mike Tyson––yet, by the end of the interview, she loved him. I could see by her face that it made her heart sore. All I’d heard him talk about was reading books in the hole and his childhood. He was reading books my mother had always wanted me to read. She filled me in on the rest.
I was writing a convicted rapist a thank you letter. It’s true that I didn’t know whether or not Mike Tyson was guilty of raping an 18-year-old beauty contestant in Indiana. But I did know without a shadow of a doubt that he was responsible for sending me two places I’d never been on my own before: a boxing gym and a library. And, more importantly, I knew as clearly then as I do now those places saved me.
And, later on, those places led me to Cuba, something else that created its own catchy and mysterious melody standing up to a bully. Cuba led me to make a film about the role of boxing in that society since Castro’s design made it impossible to illuminate anything about a boxer in Cuba without illuminating life in Cuba for everyone else. And Cuba had taken me to America following the lives of defected boxers tired of living Castro’s broken dream only to be held even more hostage by the American Dream. One of those boxers, Guillermo Rigondeaux, had been trained by Freddie Roach. When I’d asked Freddie about how to get in touch with Tyson he shrugged and reached into his pocket and held out his phone, “I have no idea, but you could start with his phone number.”
So, once Mike Tyson got down the stairs, I answered his question about how this white motherfucker got inside his house.
“You brought me here.”
And after I’d unpacked how I’d ended up in Tyson’s living room, we both sat down opposite each other and he shook his huge head and smiled before asking:
“Is that all true?”
“What do you think?”
“So I’m guessing you being here, in my home, sitting across from me right now––I’m guessing this is pretty intense for you right now, huh?”
On Easter of 2010, the day I interviewed him, Mike Tyson’s boxing career had been over for nearly five years. Tyson had been more famous as a national punchline for biting off someone’s ear than any career achievement or even squandered potential. Besides that, a country 16 trillion in debt looked down upon and remained endlessly fascinated by the spectacle of how someone like Tyson could possibly have pissed away his fortune. The last picture I’d seen of him, taken a couple months before, showed a man who had ballooned to well-over 300 pounds. While he had miraculously dropped most of it since then, he looked deflated from his championship days. Tyson lived in a gated community just outside Las Vegas in the town of Henderson, Nevada. At the front gate a guard let me in just as I noticed Tyson’s assistant roll down a tinted window from his Range Rover on the other side of the entrance, pointing down the driveway for me to follow.
When Mike Tyson was only 18, his managers used to market him on posters, reminding you that if your grandfather had missed Joe Louis, or your father Muhammad Ali, don’t you miss Tyson. But what they didn’t mention was that Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali were a boy’s dream of a fighter. Before long Tyson understood his customers a little better and modified the sales pitch. Tyson figured out, in his era, that America really craved a nightmare.
“People are full of shit. They want to see something dark. People want to feel close to it and in on it, but, of course, only from the distance of their suburban homes. They want to have the benefit of comfort, security, safety, respect, and at the same time the privilege of watching something out of control––even promote it being out of control––as long as we can be secure that we’re not accountable for it… We wanted to believe that Mike Tyson was an American story: the kid who grows up in the horrible ghetto and then converts that dark power into a good cause. But then the story takes a turn. The dark side overwhelms him. He’s cynical, he’s out of control. And now the story is even better.—Teddy Atlas, Mike Tyson’s former trainer
“Okay,” Tyson glared, leaning forward in his chair across from me. A Sandra Bullock rom-com was muted on the flat-screen TV beside us while some of his children’s toys were scattered by my feet. “You said I was your hero growing up. I wanna know who your other heroes are then.”
“They’re all suicides.”
“Is that a prerequisite or something?”
“For a while there, to be honest, I never thought you’d ever live long enough that I’d have a chance to meet or say thank you.”
“Me neither,” Tyson said under his breath, looking over at his wife in the kitchen and then back at me. “I was sure I’d be dead by now, too.”
“On the way over here I drove through Las Vegas for the first time. I’ve never had a desire to see Las Vegas. I hate everything about it. Joe Louis was a hero of mine. And even more depressing than a whole city built up by all the loss and suffering of ruined lives, it’s the idea of someone like Louis, after all he did for this country, ending up broke and strung out on drugs working as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace that—”
“You,” Tyson said, and pointed his finger at me. “You know what your problem is? You’re too sensitive. You probably don’t think you had enough pain in your own life so you take on the pain of other people to make up for it. Taking on the pain of my life or Joe Louis’ life doesn’t help us. It doesn’t help you either.”
Tyson scratched the tattoo of Arthur Ashe on his shoulder while his mother-in-law scurried into the kitchen with Tyson’s baby in her arms.
“What was the next book you read after all those biographies on me?” Tyson asked.
“Days of Grace by Arthur Ashe,” I shrugged.
“Didn’t anyone warn you that it’s dangerous meeting your heroes?”
“You’re not a very easy person to have as a hero, Mike.”
“That’s true,” he smiled. “But how am I doing so far today?”
I smiled back at him.
“That Jewish proverb is true, man. ‘The brighter the light, the darker the shadow that’s cast.’ Whatever people think of me, most countries in the world that I visit, it’s kings or presidents that want to greet me. I’ve been the most famous face on the planet. Why do you think that is? I’ve met anyone you can meet. And we’re all part of the same club. The feeling of worthlessness is what drove us to greatness. Content people don’t strive for anything. They don’t have to. I never walked out to the ring without having dreamt the night before of losing.”
“When I mentioned to Freddie Roach that you were one of the most knowledgeable boxing historians in the world he interrupted me. He said, ‘Not one of, Mike Tyson is the greatest boxing historian who ever lived.’”
“So what’s the connection with you and Cuba? That’s what my assistant mentioned you wanted to talk to me about.”
“I know you were in Cuba back in 2002.”
“How the fuck do you know that?”
“I was in Havana when you arrived.”
“Okay,” Tyson conceded. “I was there.”
“What were you doing there?”
“I wanted to meet Teofilo Stevenson.”
“Did you have a chance?”
Tyson shook his head. “I got in some trouble and had to go.”
“I interviewed Felix Savon over there who turned down a lot of money from Don King to fight you. He won three Olympic medals. From 1986 until 2000 he won just about every amateur competition he entered. He told me he would have beaten you. How do you think you would have done?”
“Please. Next question.”
“If you had to choose between Fidel Castro or Don King, who do you think would be worse fighting for?”
“Cubans aren’t fighting for money. They’re fighting for glory. They’re saying they’re better than money by turning it down. They’re better than us as human beings. All that stuff.”
“If you were born there and could only make money by leaving your family. If that was the choice you had to make. Could you do it?”
“Where I’m at now. No. I couldn’t leave my family. But I was born here. They’ll put me in the ground here. Those Cubans like Stevenson or Savon represent all that insane stuff over there, I represent all our insane stuff. You have to think that boxing is just narrative. Stories. Why was everyone willing to put more money in the cash register for mine than anyone else? Was I the best? Maybe. But I had the story they cared about most. They saw themselves the most in me, whether they admit it or not.”
“I heard you answer that question once by saying it was because you were angelic and scum. Is that America too?”
“I saw an interview with you once where you were crying. You were young. You weren’t champ yet. But you were upset because you said how much you missed fighting when it wasn’t just about the money.”
“Listen, man. I can’t really believe this because I still can’t figure out how you got in my house today. And I can’t believe I’m going to talk about this to a stranger but listen. You said the first book you ever read was about my life. Whatever. At least then you probably know what human being brought me more pain than anyone. And that woman, my mother, she was dead before I was 16. I’m the son of a pimp and an alcoholic. But if I ever brought anything home of value into my mother’s house, she knew I’d stolen it. I never saw her proud of me in my entire life. Not once. And somewhere, somewhere I always had that in my mind. I was fighting to make this woman who caused me more pain than anyone in my life…” Tyson cleared his throat and wiped his face a couple times. “Deep down, I was always fighting to make that woman… I wanted to make that woman proud of me. That’s what I was always fighting for.”
Right then a clock next to us tolled, then once more for two o’clock. Tyson cradled his face in his hand and cleared his throat. The moment was gone and the assistant entered the room and told Mike Tyson they had appointments to meet.
“You like F. Scott Fitzgerald, man?” Tyson asked.
“He said something like, ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’ Some shit like that. Maybe I’ll prove him wrong.”
Brin… this is such a tease!!! Only because you and I have been talking Tyson for months now and I’m on the edge of my seat for the interview. Some good background perspective here.
“one of the most bleak dungeons of poverty and violence”
“Don’t let that kid walk in any direction without it feeling like a plank.”
I wonder how many people consider Tyson the kid when they think of Tyson the man.
I know, I know, you’re right. *But*, if you look at the last digits of the link to this story, you’ll notice a series of numbers that are in fact the secret password to fighting Mike Tyson on Mike Tyson’s Punchout.
I’m so very glad to see this. You paint such masterful strokes with your words.
This piece is gorgeous.
Gentle, brutal, insightful, compassionate, raw.
The piece about the pigeons was wonderful. You lent him such sympathy with those paragraphs. It gave me more insight than any other interview/article I have ever read on him.
I loved the way you made the comparison with the Van Gogh painting and Tyson in the ring. The juxtaposition between the two arts was perfect.
You know I love your writing. This piece is just another example of why.
Please don’t leave us hanging on for the next installment.
Better Van Gogh than the Karl Marx angle I was seriously considering.
Thanks for the kind words Zara. As always I remain available for adoption.
The papers are in the post…
This is a different one for you, Brin, and I like the change of pace. I didn’t know this about you, and I’m intrigued to see how Tyson stood out for you as a guiding light of sorts – and Jesus, it must have been weird to write a letter to him in prison.
I think Lisa’s point is a good one. It’s important to consider the kid inside the man, but also, you have to balance out the actions of the man as well.
Fascinating stuff. I didn’t know that about Tyson’s upbringing and the pigeons.
He’s got a TV show coming out soon exclusively devoted to the pigeon thing. No idea how they’ll string a whole season along about it, but there you go.
Looking forward to the actual interview, enjoyed the piece.
Did you see the documentary about him?
I think it’s just called “Tyson,” but I’m not positive.
You do end up loving him in spite of everything.
Interestingly, the man who passed along Tyson’s phone number said from top to bottom the film was a sham and nearly every story a lie.
Which I think is particularly interesting given how so many people who didn’t know much about Mike Tyson shared your reaction and were moved. Tyson seldom gets credit for how successfully he manipulates people to think him evil or, in this case, some redemptive case etc. While people always seem to be left guessing about him, he always seems to have a pretty good idea where we’re coming from.
All Tyson talked about during the interview was books.
Do you believe this man who gave you Tyson’s number?
This is all very confusing.
Now I don’t know what to think.
I absolutely do believe him. He said what Tyson had told him privately contradicted nearly everything said in the film.
Brin, your writing is awesome,thanks for writing about boxing which I love, and Cuba which I care about very much, I look forward to everything you write.Keep up the good work brother. May God bless you,your family and friends,your writing talent is amazing. best wishes, Lazaro(Laz)Izada.if you are ever in Miami
let me know 305-772-3068, [email protected].
Appreciate it Laz. Might be in Miami sooner than you know for the book. Best wishes to you and yours.
Good lead in. Can’t wait to hear the interview.
I know it’s a tease, Brian. But how else is one to entice female readership to the given subject at hand?
How else? With a shot of your bare torso glistening with perspiration.
Perspiration due to losing that chess game.
I didn’t think I could deal with reading another thing about Iron Mike. I started watching the early Cus fights, one a month practically. I remember seeing him literally knock the nose off this big hulking turd named Sammy Shaff in a bus-driver bar we used to sneak into cause they never carded. All through the trials, the Mao tattoo, the bankruptcies, the interviews, the comeback, the biting, the last sad bouts, the guest spots, scaring Robert Downey half to death, Tobeck, and now the Hangover. It’s like we grew up together. Which I guess is true….and yet, I’m totally interested to see where this interview goes. Very nicely written piece.
You actually *went* to the “smokers” Tyson fought in upstate back in ’85?
Nah, saw them in a bar. I guess the early days of pay-per-view? They sure weren’t on TV. And they didn’t last long, so we usually could blend into the crowd before getting noticed and kicked out. Must have done that at least 5 times.
It must have been pretty special to watch him on his way up. I loved reading about how sports writers (including Mailer) used to describe seeing Tyson at 14 or 15 as giving them a fair idea what it would’ve been like to meet Mozart at 6. Just so *obviously* a genius…
yeah, I guess that’s true, although I can’t really say why we were hip to it. Just the sheer carnage, I guess. I mean, my dad was a big fight fan, and I skipped my Jr. prom to go see the Cooney/Holmes fight at some place in Manhattan with him, possibly the biggest event of that year, but I don’t think it was me who clued into Tyson. There were just these couple of guys who would meet after math class and be like “TYSON!” and we’d all slap five, and one of them had a cable directory or something and always knew when a fight was coming, so we’d pound Molsons in the back alley and sneak in for the fight.
A poster that caught my eye early on said something like this, “Your grandfather missed Louis, you dad missed Ali, don’t miss TYSON.” I think he was 18 or so when they ran it.
God, I hate to draw the parallel but the arc of Tyson’s public life seems so similar to that of Michael Jackson. What do you think? It’s probably foolish to compare sports and music–
Anyhow, I look forward to the next part. Went back and YouTubed some Tyson footage and…goddamn.
I don’t think you have to compare music or sports in the case of Jackson or Tyson because in both cases it’s as much their personal narrative as their work that drew us in (somewhere along the way the narrative became more compelling than the work). Which is why I threw Van Gogh into my piece in regard to Tyson. If Vince hadn’t sliced off his ear and had a public who ignored him while he devoted those 10 years to slavishly prodigious production despite his mental unbalance he wouldn’t be anywhere near as romantic a figure. Ditto JD Salinger’s work can’t be separated his publishing suicide. You can’t separate the personal narrative from the work and nobody bothers to try removing the enchantment of that from imbuing the product. And Jackson’s narrative is even more spooky than Tyson’s (which is saying something) in terms of how addicted we are to them as our drug pusher. Here we are saying that the “King of Pop” is the world’s biggest entertainer (or drug pusher if his drug is distraction) despite how obvious his muse is, “Keep It in the Closet”, “Human Nature” etc. And if he didn’t molest any kids it’s even *more* interesting. A *repressed* pedophile peddling love songs to an adoring public eager to mainline all that energy… I dunno. There are always freaks out there, that we’re talking about two of the most mainstream people in history seems pretty amusing.
Oh my gosh, this is such an amazing piece. I didn’t know anything about Mike Tyson’s past. Awful and it makes so much sense that it would lead him on the path it did. The connection between you two is incredibly compelling also and I’m really looking forward to reading the next installment. (I’ll be passing this along to some folks.)
First off, thanks for the heads up. Good eye.
Secondly, really appreciate the kind words, Rachel.
Sure thing. Also, loved all the quotes and how you put his life into a more relatable context for anyone who isn’t steeped in the world of boxing or sports. Good thinking!
I’m very glad it’s reached any of the people you describe. Nothing Tyson did in the ring meant anything to me until I knew more about his life outside of one.
I read a piece awhile back about
the Lennox Lewis and Tyson
thing that was just fascinating.
He’s such a great character.
A trainer in Vegas told me
loaded up on PCP right before
fights back in the day.
Never heard that one about the PCP. Yikes.
Phenomenal lead-in. Well-crafted to grip the reader and open them up to the full spectrum possibilities of the actual interview. I can’t wait for it.
I’ll do what I can deliver on the tease. Thanks Uche.
I’ve been waiting for this since… whenever you told me. Feels like a long time ago.
And it certainly didn’t disappoint. As always, this was a beautiful, brilliant piece of writing. Different pace than your usual efforts, but magnificent nonetheless.
Also, I assume you used the Hunter S. Thompson quote in the knowledge that it would have been his birthday had he not blown his brains out? Anyway, it’s a particular favourite of mine, so I was taken from the start.
The bit about his money-making art was fantastic, too, and I loved how it all came together in a big fucking tease at the end… leaving us salivating for the dialogue.
I had you mind with that Thompson quote. I’m glad you liked it.
We’ll see what we can do with the meat of the story now that sauce is available for sampling.
Brin, I’m so salty at you that I can hardly type. It’s like I’ve spent an hour mowing the lawn on the hottest day of the summer, my lungs baked and crispy from breathing dust and grass, and you’re standing there with a pitcher of iced tea, smiling and saying, “Uh uuuuhhhh… not yet!”
I can’t wait to read the rest of this. You’ve managed to turn a familiar story into a fresh one, and I think it’s because of the way you’ve woven your personal experience into it. Though I’ve heard the popular accounts of Tyson both anecdotally and in the mainstream media, I had largely forgotten much of it.
A couple months ago NPR ran a piece on the Tyson documentary, during which the director noted that there were a couple of times when he asked Tyson a question, and Tyson took upwards of several minutes to reply. The director noted that far from being a sign of analytical struggle, Tyson was actually thinking before he spoke, providing him with very sincere, thoughtful, and insightful answers.
I for one am glad that the Tyson story has not yet ended. Whiffs of bankruptcy and personal demons should not spell the end of the road for one of the most powerful, complex, and transformational athletes of our time. Stoked for the second half.
Well it appears your revenge impulse zeroed in on me yesterday as it was hot as hell outside and I tried twice to fight it off unsuccessfully by picking up some iced tea followed by lemonade from little kid worked stands down the street. The filthy little bastards charged “by donation” (“Grownups pay more that way, hehehe” it was explained to me) and yet the stuff was undrinkable due to 9 parts sugar and one part tea/lemons.
Soon enough I’ll make amends to you with the 2nd half and you can fix those kids with a donated recipe for some refreshing fare rather than their backwashed sugar water and we’ll be even.
Man oh man this was DELICIOUS. I adore how you manage to turn boxing and its players into art. No, that’s not it – you expose it as art. This was tingly hot fabulous and I can’t wait to read more. Great to see you here today. ( :
Nice to find you on here too and being so kind as always. I’m glad you liked it.
This is it? I mean, it’s fluid and well written and all that, but where’s the interview? I kinda feel like I did at the end of No Country for Old Men when the Coens so artfully (and arguably with huge pretension) skipped what was the climax of McCarthy’s book. Went straight past it to the denoument. ‘Cept of course here you’re doing something of the inverse, skipping the interview or the story (as we the readers thought we were getting into) and revealing everything that built up to it. As I said, it’s all very well and good.
If there’s a second part, I definitely want to read it, but then again, maybe, as you alluded at the beginning, “Maybe the real subject of every interview is how you really can’t learn much of anything about anyone from an interview…”, in which case it’s absolutely brilliant that you stated this up front, went through setting such an elaborate and personal scene, and that was it.
What we learned was more about you and how Mike formed a huge part of who you are.
So please do tell, Brin, if you are going to publish the interview. (You might’ve already stated this on the c-board, but I don’t read comments.)
It’s a good question and all that.
The commodification of leisure, in this case professional sports, necessitates the creation of a mythos that sustains the exchange value of the commodity. This leads to the commodification of the hero.We call it celebrity. In an extrapolation of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism Walter Benjamin summarized that the commodity, beyond it’s original significance (it’s use value), retains an almost trancendent presence through mystifications necessary to improve it’s exchange value-a ‘value’ which cannot be determined by any objective measurement (the sum total of labour involved in it’s production for example).Devoid of any objective standard of value the commodity must attain and sustain a mythology that (re)produces, enhances and promotes it’s exchange value and thereby it’s meaning as commodity and artefact. This mythologizing, this re-coding, this inverse signification was, to Benjamin, a process of allegorization. In his studies of Baudelaire Benjamin notes that “the allegorical emblems return as commodities”. Now with allegory any one thing can stand for or represent almost anything else and the process of allegorization requires emptying a thing of it’s original meaning and context and reinvigorating it with another meaning or context -just as the life of the commodity is invigorated by the layering of myth and meaning to produce desire beyond it’s original use value. So Tyson the commodity becomes Tyson the allegory. But of what? Tyson as Eternal Child. Tyson as the symbol of the veracity of redemptive violence?. Tyson as Savant; as Sphinx? Tyson as sublimated masculine Desire? Tyson as allegory would tell me nothing of Tyson the man because he was necessarily emptied of all essential meaning and agency through the process of commodification/allegorization. Tyson as allegory would tell me more about the allegorist and herein lies the rub. Tyson as allegory is….Brin.
Somebody just won comment of the year prize in my book.
That’s a fascinating appraisal, Simon.
I’ll say. We need to get Simon writing on TNB.
I have this feeling that were I to give Simon Limbert a hammer and a nail, and go away for an hour and come back, the damn painting would still be leaning against the damn chair, and the damn wall would still have a damn empty spot.
But the hammer and nail would have resolved their iconographic difficulties and be well on their way to a more fulfilling sex life.
You just might be onto something.
fascinating read, and i’m not into sports at all. hoping to read more.
Wasn’t me who labeled it under sports. Thanks, Angela.
Appreciate it, Dan.
Can’t wait until there’s another installment.
Working on it.
One question: “What was the most surprising thing that you found out when you met Tyson”. I’d be interested to know.
This’ll sound goofy, but the man’s hands are incredibly small and immaculately taken care of. I guess the other was where his reading habits lead him. All over the place! Fanatical about history and dropping quotes from American lit every few minutes. “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a coward” was the first Fitzgerald quote he dropped.
Does he still do a lot of reading now? Why do you think that he concentrated on the classics, what about other genres?
He was immensely concerned with historical figures—anyone from Fredrick Douglas to Che to Churchill to Alexander the Great to Jack Johnson (not the singer) to Arthur Ashe to Nelson Mandela to Civil War stuff. Very curious mind. Many people I talked to put Tyson as the greatest boxing historian who ever lived. Intense focus. And all that insecurity about feeling dumb he used as fuel to plunder books. He wasn’t talking about books as much he’d lived *in* books. It was really interesting to explore with him.
It’s great to know about all the reading he was doing. I guess it was necessary for him since in our society you can’t exactly beat people up on the street outside the ring. That anger had to be pushed somewhere else. What about Malcolm X, any interest there?
There was a lot of interest in Malcolm on Tyson’s part. Mainly he was obsessed by the transformation of Malcolm and the almost suicide of Malcolm at the hands of the Nation. Tyson converted to Islam as a function of rebellion as much as anything. But, unlike with Martin Luther King and all the extra marital affairs, when Malcolm converted there were never any reports of him being hypocritical. Tyson was fascinated how a violent pimp made such a drastic change and was continuing to change up until his death.
How does Tyson think that our world should be transformed today? Is he at all critical of a society that would pay a man such as him so much money in order to fight? There is something so pure, of those who have nothing, being able to train their bodies, self control and self discipline. But what about when it ends up being entertainment for the wealthy?
The racial element you raise of whites paying to watch poor blacks slug away at each other for entertainment is definitely something he mentioned more than once. In Jack Johnson’s day several blacks fighters were gathered into a group and had hoods placed over their heads and the last man standing was offered the purse.
Tyson’s explanation for what made him the most lucrative entertainer in the world was a strange and, I thought, marvelous answer: “I’m scum, but I’m also angelic.”
Just to address the other points of your question: No, Tyson didn’t talk at all about transforming society. He did mention—and this caught me off guard significantly—about how much of a staunch patriot he was to America despite slavery and all the ugliness intrinsic in the nature of his country. “I’ll die here,” he mentioned several times.
Can’t wait to see where you go with this interview.
Hey Brin. I think you touched on something really important and often overlooked and that is how Tyson’s narrative produced something positive in people including yourself. The deprivation and danger that Tyson faced as a youth often found it’s cultural expression in gangsta rap, phallopsychotic gun worship, nihilistic violence. Many young Black males identified themselves within these cultural forms and many others found their expressive and performative outlet in break dancing, graffitti art etc. One of these cultural forms which sprang from the playgrounds and alleys of U.S inner cities at that time was double dutch rope skipping.Double dutch grew from a few girls and a length of rope to an intensely physical, elaborately choreographed, celebratory spectacle. It requires cooperation, teamwork, empathy, skill and hard work. Not only that but the game of double dutch acted as a catalyst for a form of social production that provided a positive, consensual, cooperative, dynamic model of progressive social relations, camaraderie and mutual affirmation.It was created by girls for girls.It is not a stretch to suggest that these skills learned in play were carried over into adult life by many of these girls who then went on to be the Black women whose grassroots efforts and cooperative community activism helped revitalize and rehabilitate devastated U.S inner city neighbourhoods in the 1990’s.So flowers grow on rubble. I mention double dutch because having been an amateur boxing official both before and after girls and young women began entering the sport I noticed that they have brought a similar set of social skills, values and attitudes into boxing gyms and into the sport of amateur boxing. This can only be good not just for boxing but for the communities where these girls live and where they will grow.To those who say that boxing is dead I suggest the next great champion, the one who will enter boxing history to revive it, the one whose legend will eclipse Tysons, is out there. She is in the gym practising her jab and skipping rope. (if you can handle Malcom Mclaren go to youtube and search for Malcom Mclaren double dutch but if you feel like shaking your booty shut the drapes because white motherfuckers like us can’t dance!)
This is a fun one to ponder, Simon.
Although different in approach, another great one Brin. Love that pic with Freddie (together with the cancelled meeting notice 🙂 ). Have you trained in the Wild Card?
Appreciate it, Edwin. Yeah, I sure did train in Wild Card with Freddie. It was a real treat. Have some picks up on my boxing website: breaboxing.ca
Great work!!!!! On this Mike Tyson piece. Im looking forward to reading the rest of your interview.
This is so wonderfully written that I don’t even feel like I have the merit to comment. Mike Tyson fascinates me. Always has. Back before he went to prison or beat off Holyfield’s ear. He’s just an enigma, almost, of a personality and so grossly misunderstood and I think you captured that and crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s from top to bottom in this piece. Damn, this is good.