Saturday, September 1, 2007

Reflections On Mike Tyson

I've spent several hours this afternoon viewing "Fallen Champ: Mike Tyson," a documentary produced in 1993, two years after Tyson raped a beauty queen named Desiree Washington. It's a remarkable piece of work for a great many reasons. For instance, the numerous off-key defenses of his actions with Ms. Washington are shocking. On one hand, two of his bodyguards say, respectively, "'People say we touch women's asses. Well, people want to be touched," and "We get accused of reaching out and grabbing women. But if I grab you, that means you're close enough for me to reach you, and that says a lot"; on the other hand, there are the ministers, among them Louis Farrakhan, mocking the idea that Ms. Washington might not have wanted to be forced into sex. In the audience, Don King laughs along at this bit of unhilarity. Such scenes illustrate perfectly one of the central premises of the film, the notion that Mike Tyson was a troubled youth who, when positive role models were supplanted by destructive ones, became dangerous to himself and others outside the ring. (Even with good role models, Tyson was fragile. The first half of the documentary contains amazing footage of Mike at 15. In on scene, following a quick knockout of his opponent at the Junior Olympics, he had to be coaxed back into the building for the next fight by trainer Teddy Atlas. Tyson was outside crying for what appears to be no reason.)

This insight into Tyson, about influences and his fragility, is not original, although the film adds tremendous depth and contour to it. What I found most compelling were two insights contradictory to conventional wisdom, one of which I have long subscribed to and the other of which I had never heard uttered.

The first is a challenge to the orthodoxy on Tyson that I was glad to see someone else besides myself espouse. The traditional line of thinking goes that as soon as anyone stood up to him without fear -- Buster Douglas originally, then Evander Holyfield and others -- Tyson was revealed as a sub-par heavyweight who thrived on intimidation. The bully theory is kind of accurate; the look of terror in his opponents' eyes was at times palpable, and can't have been conducive to victory. But that, along with the sheer power he was blessed with, was only part of what made Tyson great. In reality, Tyson was once a skilled boxing technician who gobbled up fight footage like candy and tied his legendary power to ring intelligence, compounding the threat he posed. By the time Tyson faced Douglas, his boxing technique had long faded. Watch early Tyson, even Tyson from the start of his heavyweight reign, and compare him to the fighter who stepped into the ring in Japan. He was a different boxer. Douglas hit him at will. Early Tyson got hit cleanly only on rare occasions, because of his constant, almost manic head movement. Early Tyson was a ferocious body puncher who also set up his biggest punches with a jab. By the Douglas fight, he swung for the home run almost exclusively and neglected the body, ignoring the old boxing maxim that "if you kill the body, the head will die." Although the documentary does not make some of those points explicitly, it features the first experts I've ever heard making the point that it was more than a bad divorce with Robin Givens and a brave Douglas that did Tyson in that night -- it was rust on his skills that accumulated then culminated in one of the greatest upsets in sports history. Tyson, always a small heavyweight at about 5'10", would have had trouble with the tall Douglas anyway, even if he had maintained that excellent technique, and if his unbeaten reign had survived Holyfield in this hypothetical world (I think it would have), then Lennox Lewis (at least, a seasoned Lewis) probably beats Tyson. Too bad we never got to see if I'm right.

The second revealing point the documentary made to me -- more a question it raised than an argument, per se -- is that Cus D'Amato, the trainer and father figure to Tyson credited with turning him from an armed robber into a semi-dignified champion, may not have been the saintly influence he is thought to have been. Certainly, Cus deserves a great deal of credit. But numerous examples in the film suggest D'Amato's willingness to let Tyson get away with indiscretions may have been too generous. When Tyson threatened a teacher with violence, he was not severely punished by D'Amato. Teddy Atlas said of this incident that it established in Tyson's mind that there were no repercussions for treating people with disrespect. When Tyson sexually propositioned a much younger girl, Atlas took matters into his own hands, apparently threatening Tyson at gunpoint, apparently in part because Atlas was close to the girl in some way. Atlas probably went too far. But rather than work out the differences and righting both wrongs, Cus kicked Atlas to the curb and stood by Tyson. D'Amato died in 1985, shaking Tyson right to his core. It no doubt was one key element of him becoming a "Fallen Champ." But it is clearer to me now than it was before that had Cus lived a few more years, it would not have stopped Tyson from doing something that would have landed him in jail eventually. And that makes all those hypotheticals about what "might have been if" so much more distant, to my lament.

Too bad this version of Mike was never to return.


BOB said...

I will stand by my claims that "Iron" Mike Tyson in is prime was the best heavyweight fighter I have ever seen with my own two eyes. Had I remembered any Ali fights I may have him at #2.

The lost of Cus then Kevin Rooney as his trainer was the beginning of the decline. I don't buy your theory of bigger fighters would undo Tyson.

He knocked out Trevor Berbick, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, Frank Bruno...all of whom were at least 6'2".

Had he not been but in jail he would have destroyed Holyfield. I agree Lennox Lewis would give him trouble...but in his prime Tyson would be hard to stop.

Jacob said...

I definitely agree with your point about Tyson's deteriorating defensive skills being one of the more overlooked reasons for his decline.

From what I've read, head movement was something that D'Amato & Co. put a lot of emphasis on during Mike's time in Catskill, and if you watch any early Tyson fight you can see that he put into use what he was taught.

When you combine a great defense with precise, accurate offensive technique and Mike's natural punching power, you get a fighter who conjures up words like 'unbeatable', and that's arguably what Tyson was in his pre-Tokyo bouts. As Tyson's willingness to avoid his opponent's leather waned, his vulnerability slowly grew until finally he went from 'unbeatable' to a battered, beaten man crawling about the canvas in search of his mouthpiece.

dammrod said...

Cus D'Amato was a very complex and mysterious figure. On one hand he was a very virtuous man who instilled strong moral values into the fighters he trained. This was very evident with Floyd Patterson, who would conduct himself as a gentleman until the day he died. But Cus was also a very cunning schemer who dealt with a lot of trust issues.

If you've read Atlas autobiography, Atlas criticizes Cus for always being lax with Tyson, just like that documentary does. Sometimes Tyson would walk out late at night to party with girls and Cus wouldn't say anything about it. Also, that incident with Atlas and the gun happened because Tyson had groped Atlas' niece. Cus was infuriated at Atlas, but would later offer him a percentage of Tyson's future purses as a way to keep Atlas' mouth shut about the gun incident. Cus did teach Tyson many valuable lessons. How to be generous, how to be kind, but he never taught Tyson discipline and self-reliance and that would affect Tyson for the rest of his life.

Tim -- said...

Excellent. Very well-written responses.

Bob: I think Buster would've given prime Mike more trouble that a lot of other guys anyway; I don't think Buster would've won. But he fought "tall" compared to the other guys you mention. And Buster had plenty of motive going into that fight. I don't think Mike destroys Holyfield, given Holyfield's heart; but Mike wins, for sure, in my mind. I really think you go all the way to Lewis before the hypothetical good-Mike is defeated, and then only maybe.

Jacob: That image of Tyson crawling in search of his mouthpiece so perfectly encapsulates what became of him. Appreciate your commenting.

Dammrod: I haven't read Atlas' biography, but maybe I should. I'm not sure there's a sharper boxing analyst than Teddy. The film strangely never indicated that it was Atlas' niece. It just said it was someone he was close to. Weird that the film couldn't suss that out.

dammrod said...

The Atlas biography is pretty good. Atlas can tell a good story, but you can tell that he really dislikes Tyson and has a very colored opinion of Cus D'Amato. To him D'Amato seemed like a fraud for siding with Tyson during the gun incident. If you read the book understanding that it comes from a man with very strong opinions about Tyson and D'Amato you will have a very enjoyable and informative read. I especially liked the parts where Atlas helped a world famous ballerina get in shape and when he co-starred with William Dafoe in a boxing movie. The man has had a fascinating life.