SI Vault
Richard Hoffer
May 20, 2002
As he storms toward his showdown with Lennox Lewis, is Mike Tyson the ultimate psycho celebrity in the midst of a public breakdown—or the shrewdest self-promoter in boxing history?
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May 20, 2002

All The Rage

As he storms toward his showdown with Lennox Lewis, is Mike Tyson the ultimate psycho celebrity in the midst of a public breakdown—or the shrewdest self-promoter in boxing history?

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Here, take a look: Mike Tyson is in his beach-front cabana in Maui, having run his six miles on the sand, in great shape (as far as you can tell) and strangely calm, given the intense nature of his preparations, the desperate state of his professional life, the shambles of his business affairs. He and one of his assistant trainers are hunched at a laptop, poring over a web page, picking out pigeons to buy online. (He has a thousand.) Behind Tyson is a stack of books—Machiavelli in Hell by Sebastian de Grazia and the Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. Outside, you can hear a gentle surf, maybe 20 yards away. A trade wind moves small clouds across the baby-blue horizon beyond his patio. Tyson looks up as a parade of international writers files in, and paradise be damned, a shape of bitterness suddenly forms in his mind.

"All my antagonists," he says by way of acknowledgment, a Maui menace now. An idea! "I ought to close the gate and beat your f——— asses, you all crying like women. Just close the gate. Kick your f——— asses."

These are his first words as he disengages from the childlike innocence of buying pets. He is not serious, of course; he beats no f——— asses. But he means to demonstrate how easily he can shuck the cloak of civility when it comes to his public life. He is not to be trifled with. A day later, when he meets broadcasters separately (like the writers, handpicked and briefed to a comical fare-thee-well by a nervously grinning New York p.r. man), he tells a young woman reporter from CNN/SI, "I normally don't do interviews with women unless I fornicate with them, so you shouldn't talk anymore, unless you want to, you know...." He is not serious. Of course.

This is what everybody has come to see and hear, and nobody is disappointed. The rage is so ready that it seems practiced, the hatred by now ritual. Is it shtick? Or is it really a horrific unraveling? Questions to think about. Also: Does it matter?

For quite some time now Tyson has coasted on the fumes of his anger, as if it's all he's got left, as if it's all we want. He's long since crossed from boxing into a lurid show business where his chronic inability to exist in normal society has been all the entertainment value we need. Certainly, for years now, he's been satisfied to substitute aberrant behavior for actual athletic performance. And who can blame him? There has been no downside to that, except possibly an artistic or historic one. (He really could have been one of the greatest of all time.) Financially, it's been a bonanza. Outside of the occasional stretch behind bars, which is the acceptable, perhaps necessary, overhead in such a career, his perversity has paid off sensationally. Do you think Mike Tyson is earning a minimum of $175 million for his next fight because he's coming off a knockout of Brian (the Danish Pastry) Nielsen? Or because he bit Lennox Lewis on the leg at their last press conference? These days aberrant behavior wins every time.

Hey, it's nothing to get discouraged about. Ours has been a geek-oriented culture for a while, and to blame Tyson and his nervously grinning handlers for a business plan that exploits our low-rent entertainment requirements is hypocritical. He's delivering the goods, best he knows how. Lewis, who likewise is getting $17.5 million for their June 8 fight in Memphis, surely does not complain about having had to get a tetanus shot. (He doesn't even acknowledge it, so fearful is he—is everyone involved—of cancellation.) Showtime and HBO (like SI, a part of AOL Time Warner), which are cooperating on the promotion, are also somewhat less horrified than you might imagine as they lick their corporate chops over rising pay-per-view buys. Nor, for that matter, do we complain, even as we set aside our $54.95 for this next catastrophe. That would be hypocritical too.

In fact, aren't we all looking forward to it, a guilty pleasure if ever there was one, the chance to be ringside at some kind of personal disintegration?

This is how it has been with Tyson since he got out of an Indiana state prison in 1995, having served three years for raping Desiree Washington. His boxing career had splendid beginnings and was theatrical in its own right, but it quickly degenerated into a sideshow, and his followers became less fans than voyeurs, craning their necks for a peek at the type of explosive personality that repeatedly makes news for all the wrong reasons. Of course, as anybody who enjoyed the sight of Tyson biting a chunk of Holyfield's ear off might say, if watching a man having a nervous breakdown is wrong, I don't want to be right!

But he's not a complete madman and is, in fact, confoundingly human. Look at him again. Even as he vents, for the sake of performance or just his psychic survival—who knows?—he quickly relaxes into less threatening rants, becoming by turns interesting, funny, sympathetic, highly dramatic, at all times profane. However, it seems to be a given that he must deliver diatribe to remain authentic. This is the sad subtext of his career, even as he careens into Lewis in what may be the most lucrative fight of all time. He has scarcely done anything but talk, not for years and years, and even he knows it. After the Nielsen bout seven months ago (capping a comeback in which he fought just 19 rounds in five years, and against as marginal a lineup of heavyweights as has ever been assembled) he at first said he would need two more tune-up fights before he could ever face Lewis for the championship. That sounded about right.

Economics and age ( Tyson will turn 36 this summer, Lewis is already 36), not to mention the unlikely and highly temporary alliance of rivals HBO and Showtime, each controlling one fighter, changed his mind. Tyson owes a fortune (to Showtime mostly, but to others as well) and can hardly defer a huge payday. Plus, inasmuch as he has proved highly unpredictable in the company of women and old men (road-rage assault, four months in jail), and it seems as though women and old men are everywhere these days—even at press gatherings!—any further abeyance is hardly prudent. At Showtime's offices there is actually a countdown clock that ticks off the seconds remaining to this financial absolution. (They wish.)

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