If you stopped ten people on a busy street anywhere in this country and asked them if they knew who Mike Tyson is, you would get ten resounding affirmatives. There are Supreme Court justices who can’t sport that kind of notoriety (although that might be a different conversation altogether). Tyson has seen the world, fought its greatest conquerors and come out victorious time and time again. What more can be said about the illustrious – and at times, controversial – life that he has led? Over a decade has passed since Tyson last stepped into the ring as a competitor, and yet he still manages to capture our imagination. It’s a testament to Tyson’s legacy both as a pugilist and a personality that nearly 30 years after his athletic peak, people are still rabidly obsessed with him. ‘Iron’ Mike has been the subject of countless documentaries, a television and film star, and was a Broadway attraction to boot. He will also be the subject of an upcoming biopic directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Jamie Foxx. Considering Mike’s inauspicious beginnings, he has managed to propel himself to heights rarely seen by mere mortals.
Tyson has practically been canonized as one of the great saints of boxing. He is still regularly interviewed for his opinions on upcoming professional boxing and MMA bouts, and even promotes fights under his company, Iron Mike Productions. Part of our continuing fascination with the man is due in no small part to the fact that heavyweight boxing (at least in North America) came to a screeching halt when Lennox Lewis – himself a one-time Tyson rival – retired. The 90’s were a truly spectacular decade for heavyweight boxing, certainly comparable with the competitors of the 1970’s, which included such famed athletes as Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, George Forman, Larry Holmes, and Ken Norton. While Tysons’ professional peak ended before that other great decade, his battles against the likes of Evander Holyfield, Donovan Ruddock, the aforementioned Lennox Lewis, and others were as pivotal to the allure and excitement of heavyweight boxing at the time, even though they were marred with controversy.
In fact, it is in raising the great specter of the 1970’s that we uncover a veritable wellspring of potential candidates to the claim of ‘the greatest boxer of all time’. That generation of fighters provided the ultimate foil to Mike Tyson, and his name was Muhammad Ali. As Americans, we love a great story, and few boxers can boast the kind of ‘larger than life itself’ mythos that Ali enjoys. Ali is widely considered the greatest heavyweight boxer, if not the greatest boxer of all time. Like Tyson, Ali was (and still is) a cultural icon. Ali empowered as many people as he enraged, much like Tyson did (though for completely different reasons). Ali represented a cultural changing of the guard; he was a hero to a not-so-insignificant percentage of the population. His hard-line stance on the Vietnam War made him an even more intriguing personality. Putting aside that very sexy narrative, if you watch Ali’s fights (particularly his career following the suspension), his health problems should be of surprise to precisely no one.
For the remainder of his career, Ali’s fight strategy seemed to rely on his ability (and willingness) to absorb the blows of his opponents. This resulted in a succession of awe-inspiring, if not completely horrifying performances. Even before his protracted legal disputes, Ali lacked in that most desirable of heavyweight skills: punching power. Contrast this with Tyson during his peak where he perfectly combined foot-work, head movement, hand speed, and power punches, leading him to a world title at the age of 20. Tyson was able to boast more than just immense physical talent, he also owned an amazing mind; a true apprentice of the sport, Tyson was a historian. He studied the careers of other great punchers, siphoning their prodigious talents and making them his own. Lest we forget, Tyson was a terrifying finisher; his right hook-right uppercut combination spoiled the night of many of his opponents. Mike was a fighter’s fighter, and not coincidentally he was also a fan favorite as well. He fought with such ferocious, murderous intent that many of his opponents were psychologically beaten before entering the ring.
Critics and fans alike will lament the lack of sustained excellence Tyson was able to achieve. That fact is almost inarguable. But if we are to compare athletes at their peak performance, and measure their skills, Tyson is the king. That’s not to say he would be the favorite against any other heavyweight (from his generation or any other); his frame would certainly be a disadvantage against the likes of George Forman (who Cus D’amato warned him against fighting), Lennox Lewis (Tyson eventually fought – and lost – to Lewis), or the Klitschko brothers. This seeming downside to his career highlights another impressive aspect of Tyson’s legacy – he fought above his weight. Tyson could have easily fought at light heavyweight or cruiserweight, and likely would have gone undefeated. He wouldn’t have given up as much reach or height to his opponents, and likely would still retain the speed and power that made him such a fearful heavyweight.
In an age of increasing civility, where violence has almost become a four letter word, intellectuals, humanitarians, and civilians alike will boast of the ‘progress’ we have made. But the ugly secret is that we are the same animal today as we were 10,000 years ago. We’re a Commodore 64 in a PS4 world. If Mike Tyson had been born on the Steppes of Russia during the times of the Mongols, he would be riding horses, decapitating his enemies and fornicating with their wives (Mike’s words, not mine).
And let’s face it – combat sports are the only sport that matter. Other athletes throw balls, or try to ‘score points’ on the opposing team. Mike Tyson knocked motherfuckers out. There is a great amount of hubris that comes with being a successful American athlete. Pro footballers gratuitously celebrate touchdowns. Basketball players turn animalistic when successfully dunking. But there’s nothing on the line in most athletic competitions, not quite like there is in boxing. Losing at the U.S. Open does not come with the same kind of gravitas that losing a world title prizefight by knockout does, and that’s the difference. The world we live in is increasingly sanitized – scrubbed clean of all risk and danger. It is in watching someone like Mike Tyson perform that we are allowed a glimpse into ourselves – what famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung termed ‘the shadow’. The shadow being a function of our psyche that is home to the despised parts of ourselves: hatred, malice, shame, fear, senseless violence. These are evolutionary holdovers from a bygone era. And yet, to watch someone embrace these qualities and win is truly thrilling. Few people in the modern era personified that quite like Mike Tyson, which is why he is my pick for ‘the greatest of all time’.