by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published as "The Powerful Allure of Mike Tyson" in The New York Times, October 25, 1987. Reprinted in (Woman) Writer.
It's like being in love with a woman.
She can be unfaithful, she can be mean,
she can be cruel, but it doesn't matter.
If you love her, you want her, even
though she can do you all kinds of harm.
It's the same with me and boxing. It can
do me all kinds of harm, but I love it.
—Floyd Patterson, former world heavyweight champion
It is the boxing match with the distinct premise as its theoretical axis that is likely to be the most profound, and in our time the boxer whose matches are most consistently fueled by such interior—if rarely articulated—logic is Mike Tyson, the youngest undisputed world heavyweight champion in history.
The premise underlying Tyson's first title match, for instance, with World Boxing Council titleholder Trevor Berbick, which Tyson won in six brilliantly executed minutes, was that a boxer of such extreme youth (Tyson was twenty at the time; and fighting in a division in which boxers customarily mature late), who had never fought any opponent approaching Berbick's quality, could nonetheless impose his will upon the older boxer: thus Tyson was a "challenger" in more than the usual sense of the word, as, for instance, the luckless Marvis Frazier, son of Joe, had been in challenging Larry Holmes for his heavyweight title some years before.
The premise underlying Tyson's second title defense in Atlantic City, on 16 October 1987, was something along these lines: the twenty-six-year-old challenger, Tyrell Biggs, an Olympic Gold Medalist in the superheavyweight division in 1984, deserved to be punished for having enjoyed a smoother and more triumphant career as an amateur than Mike Tyson; and deserved to be punished particularly badly because, in Tyson's words, "He didn't show me any respect." (Tyson said, post-fight, that he could have knocked out Biggs in the third round but chose to knock him out slowly "so that he would remember it for a long time. I wanted to hurt him real bad.") That emotions between the boxers' managers ran high before the match, very nearly to the point of hysteria, did not assuage the situation.
As with the young, pre-champion Dempsey, there is an unsettling air about Tyson, with his impassive death's-head face, his unwavering stare, and his refusal to glamorize himself in the ring—no robe, no socks, only the signature black trunks and shoes—that the violence he unleashes against his opponents is somehow just; that some hurt, some wound, some insult in his past, personal or ancestral, will be redressed in the ring; some mysterious imbalance righted. The single-mindedness of his ring style works to suggest that his grievance has the force of a natural catastrophe. That old trope, "the wrath of God," comes to mind.
Though there were boxing experts who persisted in thinking that Tyrell Biggs, with his "superior" boxing skills, and his height and reach advantage, could manage an upset against Tyson, for most spectators in the Atlantic City Convention Center the fight was a foregone conclusion. (The odds were ten to one in Tyson's favor.) Not which boxer would win but when would Tyson win, and how decisively, was the issue; and how badly after all would Biggs be hurt. Thus, when Biggs entered the ring, dancing, bobbing and weaving, shadow boxing, a singularly graceful figure in a white satin robe to mid-thigh, with built-up shoulders and fancy trim, accompanied by a sinister sort of music with a jungle-sounding beat, amplified but muffled, the vision was both alarming and eerily beautiful: for here was, not the champion's opponent, but the evening's sacrifice to the champion.
It is difficult to suggest to those whose experience of boxing has been limited to television how very different, and dramatically different, the "live" event is. For one thing, the live match is not filtered through the scrim of announcers' voices; it is voiceless, unmediated. Since words do not encompass it or define it one is not distracted by concepts, nor is one likely to know, from second to second, precisely what is happening, because it happens so swiftly, and irrevocably: no slow-motion replays. Announcers, too, develop homey, formulaic ways of talking about boxing; domesticating it, in a sense—as mellow-voiced narrators of African veldt documentaries domesticate the savage "natural" events of the animated food cycle. By naming, by conceptualizing, we reduce the horror of certain intransigent facts of life; by making the unspeakable speakable we bring it into a comfortable apotropaic relationship with us. Or delude ourselves that we have done so.
The live boxing match, however, suggests that such strategies are of no avail, and the more ferocious the fight, the more relentless the stalking of one man by the other, the wearing-down, the out-psyching, the approach to the knockout and the knockout itself, the more spellbinding the event. If refusing to look at the gouging out of Gloucester's eyes in King Lear could prevent that action, there would be some logic in refusing to look, but the event does occur, must occur, and by the terms of the contract we must watch. It is our obligation to the victim to witness, not his defeat, but the integrity with which he bears his defeat.
Real courage is required when you lose, Floyd Patterson once said. Winning is easy.
Matches of such spectacular action as Tyson/Berbick and Tyson/Biggs (arguably Tyson's most intelligently fought fight thus far) suggest boxing's kinship with ancient, or not-so-ancient, rites of sacrifice. The trappings of sport, let alone entertainment, simply dissolve away. One is witnessing the oldest story of our species, the battering of one man into submission by another, the triumph of one which is the loss (the mock death) of the other; but the significant issue, in boxing at least, is not this battering so much as the victim's accommodation of it, second after second, round after terrible round.
Like his predecessor Pinklon Thomas, whom Tyson handily knocked out to retain his World Boxing Association title last May, Tyrell Biggs was remarkably courageous in absorbing Tyson's hammerlike blows, those left hooks in particular, so that the theme of the fight as a drama became Biggs's quixotic, doomed determination in the face of Tyson's single-minded assault. The fascination lay in how long Biggs could endure it, or how long his cornermen would allow him to endure it. (What a surprise to afterward see the fight as Home Box Office televised it, and to hear Sugar Ray Leonard wonder aloud repeatedly why Biggs had "abandoned" his game plan—as if the helpless boxer had had any choice in the matter.) Biggs's strategy of lateral movement, quick jabs, constant motion was thwarted almost immediately, confronted by Tyson's superior will and strength; his much-publicized jab was a flicking sort of jab, a stay-away-from-me jab, while Tyson's newly honed jab was the real thing, a blow (with which, in the second round, Tyson split open Biggs's lip). In retrospect the match seemed a mismatch, like so many of Tyson's thirty-odd matches, but only in retrospect, since at the start—at the very start, at least—Biggs seemed to have had a chance. It was Tyson's unremitting pressure, the intensity of his concentration, his will to do hurt, that must have broken Biggs's spirit even before his blows began to take their toll, for never in Tyson's career had he seemed so grimly resolute, so fixed upon destruction, and so exhausting to watch. The tiredness that must have seeped into the very marrow of Biggs's bones, not to drain away, perhaps, for months, or years, was felt throughout the arena, a counterpoint to the nerved-up exhilaration of Tyson's attack. (Surely he is the oldest twenty-one-year-old on record?) Tyson has said that he doesn't think in the ring but acts intuitively; like his great predecessor Joe Louis, but unlike, for instance, Muhammad Ali, he gives the chilling impression of being a machine for hitting, and in this most rococo of his fights a machine for rapid and repeated extra-legal maneuvers—low blows, using his elbows, hitting after the bell. Never has a fight, in my limited experience at least, been so oppressively communal . . . as if we were all trapped inside the ring's foursquare geometry, with no way out except to be knocked through the ropes, as Biggs would be, at last, in the seventh round. And no way to be saved from annihilation except to succumb to it.
The tension generated by a typical Tyson fight—meaning one controlled and dominated by him—must be experienced to be understood. Tyson/Biggs struck its tone of high expectancy even before Tyson entered the arena (robeless, but wearing the three oversized and absurdly ornamental belts that are the warrior-symbols of his three titles) and built steadily, in some quarters very nearly unbearably, to its climax in the seventh round, when the blood-bespattered referee, Tony Orlando, stopped the fight after the second knockdown without counting over Biggs. Tyson's ring style, pitiless, forward-moving, seemingly invincible, evokes odd behavior in presumably normal people. Do most men identify with Tyson-as-potential-killer? Do most women identify with Tyson's victims? Or is "identification" in terms of the fight, the spectacle, the playing-out-of-action itself? When a great fight occurs—and Tyson has not yet had a great fight, for the reason that he has not yet had a worthy opponent—the spectator experiences something like the mysterious catharsis of which Aristotle wrote, the purging of pity and terror by the exercise of these emotions; the subliminal aftermath of classical tragedy.
These fights do linger in the mind, sometimes obsessively, like nightmare images one can't quite expel, but the actual experience of the fight, in the arena, is a confused, jolting, and sometimes semihysterical one. The reason is primary, or you might say primitive: either Tyson is hitting his man, or he is preparing to hit his man, and if nothing nasty happens within the next few seconds it will not be for Tyson's not trying. (For a man of Tyson's physical build he is extraordinarily fast with his hands, and he hits in combinations.) In the average boxing match, contrary to critics' charges of "barbarism," "brutality," et al., nothing much happens, as boxing aficionados affably accept, but in Tyson fights (with one obvious exception—last March's title fight with "Bonecrusher" Smith) everything can happen, and sometimes does.
Thus individuals in the audience behave oddly, and involuntarily—there was even a scuffle or an actual fight at the rear of the Convention Hall during the third or fourth round of the fight in the ring, not suggested by the television coverage, and a matter of some confused alarm until security guards broke it up. Some women hid their faces, some men emitted not the stylized cries of "Hit him!" or even "Kill him!" but parrotlike shrieks that seemed to be torn from them—perhaps the "womanlike" shrieks Tyson amusingly described coming from Biggs when he was hit. The boxing commissioner for New York State, ex-world light heavyweight champion Jose Torres, seemed to forget him self as he shouted out commands to Tyson (who was oblivious to him as to everyone and everything outside the ring) and to Tyson's cornermen (who were too far away to have heard, should they have wished to hear). Torres's violent hand signals and shouted commands—"Six-five!" was one— would have seemed quite mysterious, if not deranged, had one not known that Torres, like Tyson, is a former D'Amato protege, and had one not guessed that the ex-champion simply could not resist participating in the mesmerizing action. Strangest of all—and discreetly ignored by HBO television cameras—a fight threatened to ensue between Biggs's chief cornerman, the redoubtable Lou Duva, and the fight's promoter, Don King himself, at the immediate conclusion of the match; each man had to be forcibly restrained from rushing at the other. While television audiences watched the triumphant Tyson striding about the ring, and the dazed Biggs sitting on the canvas, attended by a physician, most of us were watching fascinated as the portly, not-young Lou Duva tried to climb through the ropes to get at Don King at ringside, the two gentlemen shouting at each other, for reasons only a few insiders would know: King had wanted the fight stopped immediately after the first knockdown, fearing "slaughter," but Duva had insisted that the fight continue, no matter the risk to Biggs. Duva had his way, and the fight continued a few more seconds, as if to fulfill its premise Biggs deserved to be hurt, and to be hurt "real bad" by Tyson.
Boxing's spectacle is degrading, no doubt—in the most primary sense of the word: a de-grading of the self; a breaking-down, as if one's sensitive nerve-endings were being worn away. That the losing, failing, staggering boxer will not quit is very much a part of the degradation process, for boxing is as much about losing as winning, about being hurt as doing hurt, and even the most macho of spectators is roused to sympathy with the boxer who, though losing, has displayed that "grace" and "courage" of which, in another context, Hemingway spoke.
When the fight was over people remained for some minutes in their seats as if spellbound or dazed, like Biggs; or exhausted—the twenty minutes of action had seemed rather more like twenty hours. The prospect of surrendering Mike Tyson's display of control to the quotidian controllessness of the world seemed daunting, but we made our way, a crowd of thousands, milling and surging, headless, directionless—the yellow-clad ushers, so much in evidence earlier, seemed now to have entirely vanished—through dour dirty passageways with no EXIT signs and into cul-de-sacs of some terror, for what if, we were all thinking, what if there is a fire? a sudden panic? and we stampede one another to death? a fate some might consider only just, since we had all been witnesses to an action of indefensible savagery?—but, by sheer blind groping instinct, a sort of Brownian movement of human molecules, we made our way out to the street, or into underground passageways that led to the swanked-up tackiness of the Trump Plaza, where figured carpets in primary colors jolted the optic nerve and functionless silly mirrored columns blocked pedestrian movement, showing us what we could not have wanted much to see, our own faces. The fight being over, the "real" world floods back, and the powerful appeal of Mike Tyson, as of his great predecessors, is that, in however artificial and delimited a context, a human being, one of us, reduced to the essence of physical strength, skill, and ingenuity, has control of his fate if this control can manifest itself merely in the battering of another human being into absolute submission. This is not all that boxing is, but it is boxing's secret premise: life is hard in the ring, but, there, you only get what you deserve.