Word has it that Mike Tyson has emerged from his three years of incarceration in an Indiana prison as something of a culture vulture. Apparently Iron Mike used his leisure time in the slammer wisely, boning up on the religion of Islam, the effusions of Chairman Mao and, most significantly, the epic poetry of ancient Greece. "I read a guy by the name of Homer," Tyson said in a television interview last May. "And he wrote about a guy, Achilles, and another guy, Hector. And he wrote about that war." If it hadn't been for the Iliad, the ex-champ suggested, prison life would have been hopelessly "mundane." Mundane! This from a guy whose best-known remark had heretofore been about punching an opponent's nose bone through his brain?
Let's give Tyson the benefit of the doubt and concede that he has joined a very short list of pugilists with intellectual pretensions. Glad to have him aboard, although there are undoubtedly those in the fight racket who prefer the pre-Trojan War Tyson to the bookish ex-convict they must now train. It's reasonable to inquire, after all, if a boxer who quotes Homer and uses words like mundane can still hook to the body.
Under any circumstances Tyson has many books to go before he approaches the cultural standards set man) years ago by boxing's most celebrated litterateur, Gene Tunney. Exposure to belles lettres never hurt Tunney's punching power or affected his footwork. In fact, it worked to his psychological advantage. In the weeks before he was to meet Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight championship in 1926, Tunney's training camp was infiltrated by a Dempsey spy. When this mole saw Tunney relaxing after the rigors of sparring and roadwork, he could scarcely contain his excitement. "It's in the bag, Jack," he reported back to the champ. "The big sissy's reading books." Dempsey, of course, got his block knocked off by the bookworm.
Tunney defended his title only twice, surviving the famous "long count" to beat Dempsey again a year later and then flattening Tom Heeney in July 1928 before retiring from the ring for good, a wealthy man with all his marbles intact. Tunney even had the good sense to marry money, and he lived thereafter as a Connecticut country squire, hobnobbing with the like of George Bernard Shaw. Lord knows he had plenty of time to improve his mind. And so he did.
In 1970 it was my good fortune to interview Tunney when he came to San Francisco to visit his sons, one of whom, John, was then running for the U.S. Senate, a race he would win. Tunney was also in town to catch the local premiere of The Great White Hope, a motion picture based loosely on the life of another heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. My curiosity about Tunney was boundless. Was he really as well-read as reputed, or was his supposed erudition a publicity gimmick? Did he really know Shaw? Could he spout Shakespeare on command?
He dispensed with the bard business right off, quoting freely from the sonnets as I entered the sitting room of his son Gene's suburban house: "For nimble thought can jump both sea and land." I must say I was mightily impressed. At 73, Tunney looked positively Falstaffian, his considerable girth settled comfortably in a plush easy chair. It was hard to picture this pink-faced gent as the sleek 190-pound dancing master who twice left the great Dempsey pawing the air in frustration. But fighting, he said, was "compulsory" on New York City's tough West Side, where he grew up. And though he was "damn good at it," he "derived little pleasure" from busting up the neighborhood bullies. It was in the Marine Corps during World War I that Tunney became serious about a professional boxing career, and he returned from the war billed as the Fighting Marine, not, as he might have preferred, the Slugging Sonneteer.
His two battles with Dempsey gave him enduring fame, but it was his five bouts as a light heavyweight with Harry Greb, the fierce and unethical Pittsburgh Windmill, that tested his courage and will. An expert eye gouger and head butter, Greb won only one of those fights. Tunney described him to me as "a terrific fellow, afraid of absolutely no one." He might as well have been talking about Shaw, who was also "terrific" and "a very warm person at heart." So, it struck me that day, was Tunney himself, a man who, for all of his posturing, was generous and kindhearted. And certainly, as Dempsey learned to his grief, no one to take lightly.
As it happened, Muhammad Ali—Tunney called him by his given name, Cassius Clay—was making his comeback from three years of ring inactivity the very week of our interview. Tunney spoke of Clay in the past tense. Clay had been, he said, a "very great fighter, but I suspect the long layoff will raise Cain with him." I wonder what he might say today about Tyson. We'll never know because the Fighting Marine died in 1978. But chances are that anyone who has read Homer for pleasure, even in a jail cell, would receive Tunney's endorsement.