In the late afternoon on June 26, 1988, after half a week in the back rows of a Greyhound, I stepped with my duffel into the gloom of the San Diego bus terminal and bummed a cigarette off a fifty-something in a tracksuit. I smoked it near a bank of payphones. Then I called, collect, an ex-girlfriend from high school. She’d broken up with me five years earlier because, I suspect, I couldn’t control, despite a thousand topicals and fistfuls of antibiotics, my ferocious acne and also, I’m sure, because I stole a pair of her earrings to give to the girl I’d longed for, pretty much openly, since middle school. But that was in the past. Would she, I asked, put me up? I had no wallet, no money. I’d be hitchhiking the next morning up to San Francisco and so just needed a place to crash for the night. She arrived a little later in an Alpine white Cabriolet and drove me with the top down to her duplex a block off the Pacific, where, she said, I could clean up before she took me to a party where I would meet her boyfriend, last year’s sack leader for the San Diego State Aztecs.
Exactly 23 months earlier, on the afternoon of July 26, 1986, in the cramped, sweltering front room of an apartment I was staying in unbeknownst to its owner, a Columbia professor on sabbatical somewhere far away, some friends and I, drinking beers, smoking weed, crowded around a small colored TV and studied the eyes, as he slow-bounced during the intros, of the great and once fearsome Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s son, Marvis. Marvis’s eyes, we saw, showed terror. It’s rare in boxing, especially at the highest levels, for a fighter to be genuinely afraid of another fighter. But there was no doubt that in upstate New York that day, where the fight took place and from where it was televised to the country on Wide World of Sports, the #9 ranked heavyweight boxer in the world—in a sense, the ninth baddest man on the planet—was terrified of his counterpart across the ring.
I wrote the above two paragraphs a while ago, as the beginnings of a lead-in to an eventual discussion of the newish Mike Tyson autobiography, Undisputed Truth. I’d planned a third paragraph, the action of which would take place on February 2, 1990, the night Tyson lost his crown. The idea of such an introduction was to demonstrate how important Tyson was to me during those years but more significantly to try to show how prominent a figure he was, in a way that a boxer never will be again, to the country at large. Everybody knew where they were and what they were doing when JFK got shot. That was the idea: I’d show where I was and what I was doing for three of Tyson’s fights, the first two documenting his rise and the third his fall. I wanted the paragraphs to accomplish other things as well, but mostly I hoped they’d provide some context for my thoughts and feelings about Tyson’s book.
The truth is, I’ve wanted to read Undisputed Truth since it came out but especially since I saw it quoted from by fellow KR blogger Natalie Shapero. If Tyson, in this most recent of his many afterlives, had made it through the doors of the Kenyon Review, I wanted to be the one to introduce him properly. As it was, all we had so far was a link to a Joyce Carol Oates review and the following Tyson quote, which, as Natalie notes, concerns Tyson’s thoughts about his ex-wife Robin Givens and her mother: “There was nothing they wouldn’t do for money, nothing. They’d fuck a rat.”
The quote is funny (“art,” Natalie calls it, only half, I think, in jest) for its incongruity and works as a joke because of its self-deprecation: Tyson himself is the rat Ms. Givens and her mother fuck. Still, if taken straightforwardly, and especially if that one quote is all one has to go on, Tyson comes off as impossibly boorish. Which he has been, often for years at a time. He is also, it would be remiss not to add, a convicted rapist, though, like many a convicted rapist, he denies ever having raped anyone. But while I’m not much of a sociologist or cultural critic, and while Tyson has made it 47 years now without ever needing to call on me to defend him, I’ll note that it’s impossible for me to conceive of a person with his history becoming anything other than what he became: a freak, a paradox, always in some way a repository. He became what most of us become, an amalgam of hypocrisies and fears and needs, only writ Shakespearian large. He was willing to hurt but also to be hurt. In many senses, he was, indeed, for a long time, the baddest man on the planet.
But after just 39 pages of The Undisputed Truth, I laid to rest my grand literary plan.
Bell rings to end the round. Next up: Round 2