Friday, August 20, 2010
This is the first part of a multi-part essay on Mike Tyson.
At the age of ten, after successfully clunking through Minuet in G at the Josiah Haynes Elementary’s annual piano recital, my parents walked me out to their station wagon. A box whose size I knew too well was sitting in the back, disguised, uselessly, really, in silver wrapping paper. There was a small rectangular tumor poking out at the top of the box and for a second, I panicked, before recognizing the shape of the growth. As it so happened, on that day, I was not to be disappointed, as the box, indeed, was the box for a brand new Nintendo Entertainment System and the tumor was a game: Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. In some bizarre occurrence that has been obliterated by the collective nostalgia for these 8-bit moments, my NES did not come with Duck Hunt or Super Mario Brothers. Instead, it came with a glossy, 200 page strategy guide for all the games that I did not own.
For the next three years, my parents steadfastly refused to buy me any more games. By the time I inherited the collection of a friend’s brother whose mother had had enough, I could beat Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out three times through without ever getting hit. My mastery of the game was so complete that it began to take on a hard-Zen aesthetic edge that lost touch with the usual demands of that virtual world—there are moments, even now, when I wonder if there truly is a way to get through the entire game without any damage. The mahareshi who stands in the way of that perfection is Great Tiger—there is simply no way to get past him without blocking his infamous, and comically ineffective spin punch. Every time you block a punch, a tiny sliver of health is sacrificed and the dream of perfection is shattered.
I have always maintained that Mister Sandman is the toughest motherfucker in the game. Again, I do not speak from the perspective of someone who is ever afraid of losing, or even really being hit more than once. Rather, once one has mastered Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, the measurement of difficulty comes from randomness. Mike Tyson himself is completely predictable—the only hairy moments in the Dream Match come at the start of the second round, when Mike comes out and just starts jabbing. Mister Sandman, with Juan Manuel Marquez’s sleight of hand, will sometimes slip in a random jab. There were times when I would play the entirety of the game, smashing fools, cursing at the impossible riddle of Great Tiger, and as I advanced as steadily and confidently as Ender Wiggin, I would be aware of a dread forming at the back of my head: will Sandman throw in that jab?
I only mention all this because I recently noticed something odd—as a child, when I battled Mike Tyson at least once a day, when his name was always around and his 8-bit image was burned into my brain, I never really thought of him as anything but the anti-climactic end to the only video game I owned. And yet, I wonder if all those encounters with Mike, the uncharted space he inhabited in the still-hazy spaces of my “virtual” life, were unconsciously soliciting my sympathies (how do you not sympathize with a man whose ass you kick on the daily?). Because now, at the age of thirty, my once legendary Punch-Out skills long gone (I can’t even get past Soda Popinski anymore—although, officially, I blame the controller), there is never a time when I think about sports without thinking about Mike Tyson. He has become the touchstone for everything—this blog, for example, while being about Rashad McCants and misunderstood athletes, is really about Mike Tyson, because there’s no way for me to understand Rashad McCants without first referencing Mike Tyson.
I don’t think it’s much different for any of us who were born between 1970-1985. Tyson was the dominant champion of our childhoods, the hero who evoked terror in our parents, the one athlete who begged the question: how can an invincible man be so complicated? And after it began to all unravel in that bout in Japan (here’s a testament to Tyson’s wild popularity at the time—even the who beat him got his own video game), he became the enduring and incalculably tragic figure of our young adulthoods. Whenever he shows up on television, whenever some talking head or talk show radio host dismisses him as a “nutjob” or a “madman,” I experience a spike of emotion that far exceeds the appropriate limits of what a sports figure should inspire in a grown man. Absurdly, I feel the need to protect Mike Tyson, the same man who destroyed Leon Spinks in 91 seconds, the same man who I knocked out every single day of my childhood.