A Savage Business by Richard Hoffer Simon & Schuster, $23
Richard Hoffer has lived in the belly of the beast that is heavyweight prizefighting. The result is A Savaga Business. The business is, of course, boxing, but this behind-the-scenes narrative of "the comeback and comedown of Mike Tyson" is about much more. It is a reflection of America from a most unflattering angle. Never has the nation looked more like Sodom and Gomorrah.
The story commences on the day in March 1995 that Tyson emerged from an Indiana jail, a kufi cap on his close-cropped head. This led some innocent souls to hope that Iron Mike might have chosen to live under the steadying influence of religion. Fuhgeddabowdit. The only steadying influence in his life for the next three years would be Don King, who had never smelled so many greenbacks as on the day Tyson was sprung. The reason, as Hoffer, a senior writer at SI, convincingly argues, is that for Tyson, "raping a teenager had turned out to be a great career decision." The crime burnished the fighter's image as a man-monster—part Darth Vader, part Willie Horton, all Clubber Lang—and King knew that Americans would be willing to pay millions of dollars to see him pummel other people.
So bring on the tomato cans at, as Tyson put it, "30 million a whop": Peter McNeeley, Bruce Seldon, Frank Bruno. Whop, whop, whop. Surprisingly, though, the more money Tyson collected, the more angry, miserable and degraded he became. Tyson was no dummy. He was no Stephen Hawking, but he certainly knew boxing and could see perfectly well that he was being paid "to act the freak in Don King's circus," as Hoffer writes. And when, for the second time, Evander Holyfield began to turn Tyson's face to purple mush on pay-per-view, the entire world could see it, too. No wonder Tyson tried to chew off Holyfield's ear.
But what's most hair-raising about Hoffer's unflinching look at the "savage business" is not the flying fists (even the author gets decked at one point) nor the outrageous characters (there's a fascinating and hilarious dissertation on why heavyweight boxers are "so prone to spectacular disintegrations of spirit") nor the billion-dollar stakes (the MGM Grand Casino grew so wild after Tyson-Holyfield II that there were $1,000 chips literally rolling around on the floor). No, what is most hair-raising about A Savage Business is that it is entertaining as hell. Both the book and the business. God help us all.