As a child of the 1980s, few figures held greater sway in my imagination than champion heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson. Along with similarly indomitable characters of the era — Hulk Hogan, Jose Canseco, Arnold Schwarzenegger — Tyson radiated a destructive intensity that was uniquely American, pleasingly cartoonish, and very of its time. He was unmatched military might and expansionist policy. He was a bomb-dropping F-14, flown by a young Tom Cruise.
My fascination with Tyson didn’t come from watching his fights; in fact, at the time, I never actually saw one. The closest I came was at a Morningside Heights house party that my older brother took me to when I was nine years old. The Tyson-Spinks bout was on in the living room, and as I climbed the brownstone’s front steps, partygoers were already pouring out, in laughing disbelief at what they had just seen: Tyson had knocked poor Michael Spinks practically unconscious in a mere 91 seconds. When I finally made my way in to gape at the TV, the knockout was being replayed in soft-focus slo-mo, the real act of violence already a memory.
In that way, Tyson was always lurking at the edges of the culture — caricatured as a malevolent, grinning beast who I could never quite comprehend. I’d spend hours at my Nintendo, steadily ascending through Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, only to reach Tyson and, like Spinks, be flattened and debased. I’d see him in Pepsi commercials with his then-wife Robin Givens; they put forth a picture of domesticity that, given his powers and his very look — a Frankenstein’s monster head atop a thick slab of deadly muscle and black gladiator boots — was deeply confusing to me.
Everyone knows what came next for “Iron Mike:” the tabloid divorce, the rape conviction, the Buster Douglas loss, the Evander Holyfield ear-snack, the face tattoo, the fading career, the squandered fortune, the Hangover cameo. In the national mind, Tyson currently holds a space somewhere between Jim Brown and Gary Hart, a near-even mixture of greatness and disgrace.
There is nothing more interesting to me than near-even mixtures of greatness and disgrace, especially when it comes to someone who figured so prominently in my youth. So when I saw a paperback copy of Tyson’s 2013 autobiography, Undisputed Truth, on a bookstore shelf earlier this year, I felt compelled to pick it up. Finally, I would be able to, if not understand Mike Tyson — villain, felon, lunatic, hero — at least be able to hear him discuss what it’s like to be those things.
Undisputed Truth is, like the man himself, troubling, maddening, and unselfconsciously entertaining. It is not written so much as dictated to his ghostwriter, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, and it sprawls, often repetitively, for nearly 600 pages. It is a nearly-endless catalogue of beefs, perceived injustices, boxing stories, sexual partners, comically wasteful spending, childhood trauma, and substance abuse. (“I was losing my mind,” he writes in one typical passage. “I was getting so high, my brain was getting fried. I was taking phrases from Shaw Brothers karate movies like Five Deadly Venoms. I was quoting from Apocalypse, my favorite cartoon character.”)
The book begins with a refutation of his 1992 rape conviction that is, at best, hard to believe, and at worst, sickening. In this and other chapters dealing with the episode, he portrays himself as a harmless lamb, incapable of such violence. In the rest of the book, of course, he boasts of being a skull-cracking, lady-killing ogre of the first degree, “The Baddest Man on the Planet.” But he’s also, plainly, pathetic and tormented, unable to outrun his chaotic childhood in a brutal, fatherless Brooklyn. Somehow, these contradictions work to the book’s benefit. All of these things — specious outrage, he-man arrogance, formative tragedy — make up the man. His story isn’t consistent — but who ever expected consistency from Mike Tyson?
Undisputed Truth wasn’t the best book I read in 2015, not by a very long shot. (That honor would probably have to go to T.C. Boyle’s wild, unsparing The Harder They Come.) But when I look back on my year in reading, Tyson’s autobiography sticks out in my mind. If writing is an act of getting one’s purest self onto the page, then with Undisputed Truth, Mike Tyson has written well. Sure, it’s essentially a stream-of-consciousness chat with a tape recorder; there’s no “craft” to speak of here. But in his willingness to discuss, brag, and lie about his strange and corrupted life, I found him, finally, demystified. I had missed the Spinks knockout not because Tyson was some dark and mysterious god, but because my brother and I had arrived at the party too late. “As soon as I entered that ring and looked over at Spinks, I knew I had to hit him,” Tyson says in Undisputed Truth. Pretty simple, actually. That was all I needed to hear.
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In the past year or so, I’ve read the following books about boxing: Nick Tosches’s The Devil and Sonny Liston, a stylized history of the troubled former champion; Norman Mailer’s document of the 1975 Muhammad Ali/George Foreman battle, The Fight; Mark Kriegel’s The Good Son, a biography of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini; and Undisputed Truth, Mike Tyson’s maddening but compelling autobiography. I’ve supplemented those with a heavy dose of magazine articles, including Sports Illustrated profiles of Deontay Wilder, Gennady Golovkin, Don King, and Al Haymon, pieces in New York and The New Yorker about the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fiasco, and classics by Gay Talese and W.C. Heinz.
All of this would suggest that I’m a boxing fan, one of those old-timey cigar-chewers eager to overlook the sport’s myriad problems and mainstream insignificance in order to enjoy its brutal purity. But despite boxing’s outsize presence in my reading, I’m not particularly interested in it. I’ve watched perhaps an hour’s worth of the sport in the past 12 months, mostly in a flipping-channels sort of way. As it turns out, I’m not a boxing fan; I’m a fan of reading about it.
This has happened to me with other sports, to varying degrees. I read about baseball far more than I watch it; at one point this summer, I forewent live Mets games in favor of The Bad Guys Won, Jeff Pearlman’s account of the team’s debauched ’86 World Series run. I recently read Scott Raab’s pre-Cavs-return evisceration of LeBron James, The Whore of Akron, but I’ve watched about 15 minutes of James’s actual career. Nicholas Dawidoff’s Collision Low Crossers, a deep inside look at the 2011 New York Jets, is coming up fast in my queue. I haven’t watched a Jets game since Boomer Esiason was the team’s quarterback.
This sort of effete, keeping-my-gloves-on distance is somewhat disconcerting to me. As a child, I read about sports just as I do now; among the first books I read cover-to-cover were Outrageous!, Charles Barkley’s autobiography (in which he famously claimed to have been misquoted,) and Say Hey!, the autobiography of Willie Mays. The difference — aside from my having outgrown exclamation-pointed, ghostwritten autobiographies — was that my interest in such books was an outgrowth of my overall sports fanaticism; it was an equal branch on the tree. I read about Barkley because I played basketball after school and watched NBA games on weekends. Despite a few obvious differences — I was a skinny, contact-shy 11-year-old from suburban New Jersey; he was a 250-pound wrecking ball from central Alabama — my desire to read his book was more physical than intellectual. I loved what he did on the court, I wished that I could play like him, and I saw Outrageous! as a chance to spend some time with the man. It was all of a piece.
Twenty-odd years later, only the reading remains. I recently read Pistol, Kriegel’s excellent biography of doomed basketball legend Pete Maravich, for the opposite reason that I once read Outrageous! I had never seen a second of a Maravich game, had never sought out his grainy YouTube clips. I was attracted to his story, his fashionably damned character arc: father-crafted kid prodigy, collegiate megastar, oft-injured pro, reclusive retiree, early heart attack victim. Take away the droopy socks and the LSU jersey and he could have been a figure in a Richard Yates novel. I once used to read sports books because I admired their subjects; now, it seems, I read them because I admire their narrative — the more harrowing the better.
So why read these books at all? Why not stick with Yates — or, for that matter, any novelist or nonfiction writer — if all I’m after is the story? I think the answer, as is increasingly the case, lies in my mortality. I’ll be 37 in a couple of weeks — not old, of course, but getting slightly grayer, growing indisputably creakier — with a hazy sense of the end of things, way off down the road. I shouldn’t arrive there any time soon (at least I hope I don’t), but, like a faraway city on the bottom of a roadside mileage sign, its distance is no excuse to ignore the fact of it.
As a chronically exhausted, train-commuting, kitchen-cleaning husband and father, I have neither the time, energy, nor desire to sit on the couch for two hours and watch a Grizzlies-Raptors game. Life might not be too short for such things, but it’s not as long as it used to be. Sports books have become my replacement for those hours on the couch. They take the most interesting aspects of a sport — for instance, baseball’s longest game, immortalized in Dan Barry’s wonderful Bottom of the 33rd — and let the irrelevancies fall away, like Civil War accounts that skip over the minor battles. The books allow me to experience the games without having to experience all the games.
As children, we watch those games to vicariously experience triumph and defeat, and in the process learn that we will experience both — usually more of the latter — throughout the course of our lives. When I was 12, the Giants won Super Bowl XXV on Scott Norwood’s errant field goal, and as I screamed with joy, I couldn’t help but think about the weight on the kicker’s shoulders. ABC’s cameras caught him as he shuffled off the field, blankly miserable, and the image stopped my whooping and made me want to cry. Football, as strange as it seems, was offering a lesson in empathy.
I absorbed plenty of such lessons through years of watching sports, and many more from playing them. But I’m pushing 40, and I’ve pretty much learned all I’m going to learn about empathy, say, or perseverance, from men in uniforms. And although I still love to see a well-turned double play, a darting touchdown run, or a well-thrown jab, I’d just as soon wait a few years — when the best moments and contests have been ranked and distilled — and read about them. I’ll lie down on the couch with the new book, relaxing after another tiring day. My lifelong love for sports will feel undiminished. The TV, hanging on the wall in the corner of the room, will be off.
Image Credit: Flickr/Generation Bass.