Facing Tyson: Fifteen Fighters, Fifteen Storiesby Ted Kluck
Facing Tyson gives a ringside view of the world’s most dangerous and notorious boxer. Brutal, controversial, and always newsworthy both inside and outside the ring, Mike Tyson remains a cultural icon to this day. Despite the personal, legal, and mental problems that have overshadowed his celebrated boxing career, he continues to make headlines as a
Facing Tyson gives a ringside view of the world’s most dangerous and notorious boxer. Brutal, controversial, and always newsworthy both inside and outside the ring, Mike Tyson remains a cultural icon to this day. Despite the personal, legal, and mental problems that have overshadowed his celebrated boxing career, he continues to make headlines as a fascinating, yet extremely flawed character. Several of the era’s biggest names in boxing, including Pinklon Thomas, Tyrell Biggs, Evander Holyfield, and Lennox Lewis were interviewed by author Ted A. Kluck specifically for Facing Tyson. Each opponent gives his account of what it was like to face the most feared and loathed boxer at different stages of his career. .
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Facing TysonFifteen Fighters, Fifteen Stories
By Kluck, Ted A.
The Lyons PressCopyright © 2006 Kluck, Ted A.
All right reserved.
[quote]“Michigan seems like a dream to me now...I’ve gone to look for America.”
-Simon and Garfunkel, America
The most enjoyable part of this project has been the conversations—not only with the fighters, but with regular people in airport terminals (too many—the terminals, not the people), hotel lobbies, restaurants, and elevators. They ask what you do. You tell them you're writing a book about Mike Tyson. He's a lunatic, they say. What an animal. An icon. A freak. Did he try to bite your ear off? Ha ha. They all say this as if they were the first people clever enough to think of it.
I especially enjoy the look of shock on their faces when I tell them that I found Tyson to be kind, gentle, accomodating, and intelligent. Well read. Good to children. A guy who seems to want to live out his years quietly, but, as per American celebrity culture, will probably never get the opportunity. Their shock, I think, is my favorite part. That, and the travel. This is a book that happened from the inside of cars...rentals...airplanes...airport shuttles...riding to see people who may or may not show up. People who once were televised and now aren’t but are now remarkably like us. Regular. It’s about Tyrell at 57th and Haverford in Philly, Lotton 5th Avenue, Tubbs still in the ring, Pinklon in the diners, Marvis in his dad’s shadow. Me in my dad’s shadow and extremely proud to be there. And about finally taking her with me to Miami.
She had asked me why was it again that I like boxing, which is something she asks pretty much every month. I talk about how it's human drama, how there is more respect for the opponent than in any other sport, and how I've met some of the most open, honest, and interesting people covering boxing. I then talk about how I'd like to get back in the gym, maybe do some light sparring. That's usually when she throws something at my head.
“It's the brain damage I have a problem with,” she says. “I have trouble with a sport where the idea is to concuss the other guy.”
It's hard to argue with that. I've felt ill at ringside before, and some of those experiences are described in detail on these pages. Boxing ravages the body. It is a head-trauma sport. I had always tried to rationalize it away before, telling people that if guys got out at the right time they would be fine. That is not true. Every man who has stepped in the ring has come out a little less whole. I used to think I wanted to do it, to box. But I've since learned that it's like being a war historian. You become an enthusiast, you go to the museums, watch the films, you respect the men that bled and died, etc. But at the end of the day you're glad you're glad you weren't there, dodging the bullets. Such is my relationship with boxing.
Watching Mike Tyson walk into a boxing ring in his prime was akin to watching Barry Bonds hit a home run or Michael Jordan shoot a basketball. Or maybe it’s more like watching one of those mushroom clouds billow up during a documentary about “the bomb.” It’s a thing of such ferocious beauty that you can’t force yourself to look away. At any rate, Tyson was the Picasso of the ring walk. He had it down to such an extent—with the gladiator-themed garb (towel, black shorts, no socks), frightening physique, and blank stare—that he often beat men (see Michael Spinks) before the fight even began. Regardless of how one feels about Tyson’s body of work as a whole, especially in recent years, he mastered the ring walk with brutal style.
Mike Tyson was, and is, a cultural icon. In his heyday, before his defeat to Buster Douglas, he was a box office draw and marketing commodity of Jordanesque proportions. This is a Tyson who punched often and with no wasted motion. A Tyson who showed head movement and didn’t pose after punches. The punches themselves were physics lessons delivered with a maximum of bad intentions, as he liked to say. This, despite the high voice and lisp, still managed to sound really scary. He was an anti-hero before the 90s made anti-heroes cliché.
My goal was to learn more about him by interviewing his contemporaries—the men that walked into the ring with him and opposite him and survived. I tried to talk to these boxers, managers, and trainers in their own environments—their homes, their gyms, and their streets—and hear each tell the story of their brush with the “baddest man on the planet.” Some of his opponents went on to fame and fortune in the ring (Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis); others, as is often the case in boxing, have ended up back on the streets.
This is not meant to be a definitive chronological history of Mike Tyson, or a thinky, sociological treatise on “how the streets made Mike the way he is,” but rather an opportunity for the greatest storytellers in sports—fighters—to tell their stories. That said, boxing is a hungry man's game, and many of his contemporaries proved difficult to pin down. Many refused to talk with me because there was no money in it for them; at least two (Cliff Etienne and Henry Tillman) are behind bars for violent crimes. Razor Ruddock, according to one prominent manager, is on the lam in Jamaica trying to evade the long arm of the IRS. Tony Tucker asked "What's in it for me?", which could be the battle cry of our generation. Peter McNeeley, at the behest of his manager Vinny Vecchione, needed $500 bucks because, as he said, "We're just a couple of hardworking guys trying to make ends meet." I am inclined to believe him, but we never connected. Buster Douglas was working on his own book, and feared overexposure. After several good conversations with Jim Kurtz, manager for Bruce Seldon, his fighter passed—it was too hard, he said, to reopen that chapter of his life. And the vast majority, it seems, just disappeared. There is no player's association to keep them together, and there is no banquet circuit for the ex-boxer.
The book has provided some enduring memories—fearing for my life in the back seat of Pinklon Thomas' car, being sold on the travel business by James “Bonecrusher” Smith, arguing over the breakfast bill with Kevin McBride (he wouldn't let me pay), and being drunk-dialed by Mitch Green on my cellular phone. Yes, I have changed my number. Perhaps the most memorable event was being there for the end of Mike Tyson's career on June 11, 2005, in Washington DC.
I knew I was going to write at length about Mike Tyson on June 8, 2002, the night he lost to Lennox Lewis in front of the whole world, losing the fight, along with much of his mystique, in an 8th round KO. I was covering a small fight card in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, with my father, doing a short piece for ESPN.com on then-heavyweight title contender and current IBF champion Chris Byrd. The gist of the piece was that Byrd is the anti-Tyson—a soft spoken, genial family man who reads the Bible and for whom boxing is just a sport, rather than the definition of who he is. All of that, by the way, is very true. Byrd and his family were delightful. He knocked a guy named Jeff Pegues silly and then hung out with his wife, parents, and kids backstage. The whole thing was about as sinister as a church picnic. Then, on giant televisions set up in the casino theatre, my father and I watched the dismantling of Mike Tyson.
I had never felt much for Tyson before, other than the fact that I felt like my childhood, in a boxing sense, was defined by Iron Mike. Like many, I had lost respect for him as a result of the rape trial and his other public foibles and, if pressed, would have admitted to rooting for Lennox Lewis that evening.
Tyson walked to the ring accompanied by the fierce beats of DMX, complete with towel and entourage, looking menacing and looking like Mike Tyson. Strangely, as Tyson's entourage got bigger, his performances began to suffer. The ring in Memphis (Tyson had already been expelled from the boxing Edens of Las Vegas and Atlantic City) was filled with yellow-jacketed security personnel, forming a human wall between the entourages of Lewis and Tyson in the ring. At that very moment there was perhaps no more posturing to be found on the entire face of the earth. There was much strutting and shouting. And then Lennox Lewis proceeded to dismantle him over the course of eight painful rounds. I found myself feeling sorry for Mike Tyson in the way that you feel sorry for someone who is on the brink of losing much of what is important to them in life. I saw a very frustrated Tyson in the corner between rounds, a Tyson who didn't want to continue taking the beating but who fought on courageously. When the knockout finally came in round 8, I found myself strangely depressed, having watched my generation's boxing icon reduced to two ghastly cuts and a knockout. Yeah, Tyson was a thug, but he was our thug, and that was significant. He would, as he said in a famous, much-parodied postfight interview, “fade into bolivian.”
My dad mentioned something about feeling the same way when he watched Larry Holmes and Leon Spinks beat up Muhammad Ali. My father wasn't an Ali fan. He sided with Joe Frazier when the nation took sides back in the early 70s. You were either an Ali guy or a Frazier guy. My dad was a Frazier guy. But even the Frazier guys were saddened to see Ali honor the time-tested boxing tradition of staying in the game too long. It was those beatings, and the accompanying sparring sessions, that helped leave Ali in the shape he's in today. Tyson, sadly, seemed to be walking the same path.
That night, driving home from the Casino, was the first time I prayed for a professional athlete. I prayed for Mike Tyson because I knew that the years ahead of him were not going to be easy. Mike Tyson is a man who lived his whole life in the pursuit of human appetites—money, sex, fame, power—and in the end found them all to be lacking. This, I think, must be the epitome of hopelessness.
Of late, Tyson’s public life has become the train wreck from which we can’t turn our eyes. Though he hasn’t won a meaningful fight in years, he still sells out arenas, and in the same interview he alternately speaks of feeding his heart to his opponent and talking to Jesus. I grew up in his era. I played his video games and watched his fights, usually wanting to see him lose, but, recently, rooting for him in the way that one roots for nostalgic figures whose character flaws have gone remarkably public, while most of us manage to keep ours private. Mike Tyson has been many things (heavyweight champion, armchair philosopher, accused rapist), but he was, and still is, if anything, interesting.
But America wants Mike Tyson to die.
In our culture we have no mechanism in place for larger than life celebrities growing old quietly. They have to die young (Elvis, James Dean), be hurt to such an extent that we can eulogize them while they're still around but can't ruin their own legacy (Muhammad Ali), or, sadly it seems, they have to take their own life. When Curt Cobaine did insane amounts of heroin and shot himself, the enlightened talked about what a folk hero he was. Kids cried, college students lit candles and wrote bad poetry, professors with ponytails taught courses on What It All Meant. When journalist Hunter S. Thompson took his own life, my own sometime-employer ESPN.com devoted page after page to essays on what a brave man he was for “going out on his own terms.” As if reaching a point of hopelessness is a path anyone would choose.
Mike Tyson's last rebellious act needs to be living out his years in quiet contentment. Living well for Tyson will mean disappearing. Enjoying his family, enjoying his friends, flying his pigeons. This will be his last statement in the direction of the media and the general public, both of which I am a part. I wish him the best in this important endeavor.
Excerpted from Facing Tyson by Kluck, Ted A. Copyright © 2006 by Kluck, Ted A.. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ted A. Kluck has written for ESPN The Magazine, Sports Spectrum Magazine, Cyberboxingzone.com, and several small literary journals.
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