Sunday, August 22, 2010

This is part two of a series of thoughts on Mike Tyson. Part one is below.


All sports are marketed to children, or, when applicable, the child within us. What gets targeted, though, is not really childishness, but, rather, the happier approximation of childhood: the same wide-eyed kid who collected baseball cards, who wore his favorite player’s jersey, who practiced the commercialized cross-over in the driveway. The narrative of each game, season, series and franchise, then, is told as a children’s story, with simple delineations between good and evil, hero and monster. At first read, both humanity and inhumanity are assumed—as children, we do not question Grendel’s monstrosity or Beowulf’s intentions or humility. It is only later, as adults, when we can see a bit of ourselves in Grendel, that we ask questions, stitch together justifications and alter the shape of the narrative.

Similarly, our childhood sports heroes rarely hold up against time—Mantle staggers off, bottle in hand; we find Tiger balls-deep in a porn star; Jordan is off abusing dealers at the craps table; Clemens cockwalks around, needle stuck in ass. Our monsters are forgiven for their perceived monstrosities—Ted Williams’ dickishness is forgotten, Jim Brown is lionized, Ron Artest goes from “dangerous” to “quirky.” At some point in the near future, Pete Rose will record his blustery, apologetic confession on SportsCenter and baseball will determine that he is sincere and we will see him next at Cooperstown, where a gallery of fans will give him the longest standing ovation in the history of Upstate New York.

Only Mike Tyson, heavyweight champion of the world, convicted rapist and lowbrow comedy star, exists outside of these normalizing trends. It has been eight years since his last meaningful fight. The generation of kids who know Tyson as the tiger owner in The Hangover have excised him from the images we have of Mike Tyson in a grey suit and handcuffs, the images of Tyson with his arm around Robin Givens, staring incredulously as she details her daily terror. Most of us old enough to remember these things have also forgotten them. This in itself does not deviate from the normal trend of forgetting and time-fueled redemption, but what’s odd about Tyson is just how quickly we have forgotten and how the process of forgetting has not just obliterated his indiscretions, but also his triumphs.

The completeness of this evacuation of Mike Tyson’s history must be attributed, at least in part, to the violence of boxing itself. It’s hard to ratchet a man’s legacy to images if those images involve him brutally beating another man. Even the sport’s most iconic image—Muhammed Ali standing over Liston—only passes because we cannot see Liston’s face. So, yes, given the particular brutality of Tyson’s early string of KOs, it’s understandable why there is not much in the way of a visible record—we can watch Kirk Gibson limp around the bases or Dwight Clark leaping into the air, arms outstretched, but we cannot watch Marvis Frazier’s eyes get knocked out of their sockets without thinking there might be something wrong with us.

And yet, we keep him around, not as a flawed, great man whose story awaits its epilogue, but rather as a cautionary tale against our peculiar American excesses. Because this particular cautionary tale is told in a child’s terms, and because we have known about Tyson for decades now, the details of his past greatness are no longer necessary to define—just as the Emperor is simply the Emperor and Job is described as nothing more than an “upright man who feared God,” Tyson's legacy, long since stripped of its triumphant images (what would those even have been?), has been laid flat with non-evocative, ultimately inert words. All that's left, really, is a video game and the title of former champ. The spectacle of his downfall has already been dissected and discarded, plucked of its easiest metaphors and life lessons. All that’s left is Tyson, himself, and the fact that he fell from great heights down into unimaginable suffering. And just as God used Job to prove man’s resilience and faith, perhaps Tyson stays in the public’s eye because he signifies the grotesque side of that devotion to life, that indomitable spirit.

Watching him give interviews, listening to his conception of pain, hearing his contrition over his past life, brings to mind something somebody once said about JD Salinger, that he lived his life with his eyes a bit too wide open to the suffering of the world. Indeed, Salinger, a devoted Zenny man, devoted much of his post publishing career to trying to understand the first of the Four Noble Truths: All Life is suffering. For Tyson, who seems to be borne of that same handicap of over-seeing, there is no escape to New Hampshire and once God makes his point, there will be no cessation of suffering and a restocking of his riches. Where could he even go for peace?

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