A Bad Man: Reading Mike Tyson's Body of Work

Tobias Peterson

The only sure thing about Tyson is that he stands opposed.

"If Jesus was here, do you think Jesus would show me any love?."
— Mike Tyson, at a press conference promoting his fight with Lennox Lewis.

Upon learning of Mike Tyson's recent visit to the war-torn republic of Chechnya, I couldn't escape a brief wave of nostalgia for times past. Everything used to be so simple. His nickname: "Iron". His pre-fight dress: a spare white towel with a hole ripped in the middle, allowing his square head to poke through. His boxing style: unchecked, undiluted aggression.

Particularly, it was Tyson's single-mindedness in the ring that was once so captivating for the public. Rarely, if ever, had someone delivered such amazing brutality on such a consistent basis. Huge men, rippling with muscle (Trevor Berbick, James "Bonecrusher" Smith) and wily veterans of proven skill alike (Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks) were reduced in seconds to glassy-eyed imbeciles, groping around on the canvas for their mouthpieces -- and whatever they could salvage of their professional careers. In these destructive performances, Tyson simplified boxing, condensing it into the gruesome spectacle it was originally meant to be. Extracurricular allegations of mob ties, fixed fights, racism -- all of these seemed to wither in the fiery glow of the fighter's explosive knockouts.

In fact, Tyson became reducible to a single word: power. And that power — with all of the racial, sexual, and political ramifications of the term — drew attention. Sports writers raved about him. Will Smith rapped about him. Robin Givens even married him. In the late '80s, as he tore through the ranks of his vastly outclassed opponents, Tyson became one of the most fearsome and compelling figures in sports, embodying all of the unfortunate stereotypes of (black) physical domination and sexual prowess. "Iron Mike" had become "The Baddest Man on the Planet".

That new moniker was a bit awkward, though, and certainly more ornate. Tellingly, it signaled a complication for Tyson's image in the media (a complication that has continued to develop to this day). He was no longer able to simply show up, knock out, and take off, as his newfound celebrity took on a momentum of its own. His marriage to Givens very publicly hit the rocks amid allegations of spousal abuse. Tyson was involved in a street fight in Harlem, breaking his very valuable hand. He followed this by crashing his BMW into a tree in a reported suicide attempt, and then appeared with Givens in a tabloid-esque ABC interview with Barbara Walters. Complications, indeed.

None of these distractions, however, affected Tyson's image the way his February '90 loss to overwhelming underdog James "Buster" Douglas did. While the grotesquely swollen eye Tyson suffered in the beating eventually healed, the aura of physical domination that had characterized his rise to celebrity was irrevocably damaged. Adding to the fighter's woes were two separate charges brought against him for sexual assault. The first saw him escape with a $100 fine. The second, an accusation of rape brought by a Miss Black America contestant named Desiree Washington, stuck. Tyson was found guilty nearly two years to the day after his loss to Douglas and spent the next three years behind bars.

Whether Tyson's experiences in prison were instructive or detrimental is hard to say. What is clear, however, is that his time served as the gestation of an image that Mike Tyson evokes to this day. "The Baddest Man on the Planet" was no longer "bad" in the way that, say, Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan were -- black athletes whose images garnered cultural currency as a result of their stylish, but non-threatening, displays of athletic prowess. No, "bad" was applied in a very literal sense to Mike Tyson. He was a bad person, a bad seed, a bad husband, and (inevitably) a bad role model.

Of course, this is not to say that this change in Tyson's image was undeserved. A rapist deserves every minute of jail time handed down, and should rightly be marginalized for the crime committed. But the vehemence with which Tyson was and continues to be treated reflects the ever-present underpinnings of the racial stereotypes that once propped Tyson up as a figure who women desired, and who men feared and envied. After losing to Douglas and going to jail, however Tyson's image very quickly changed. He assumed the demonized figure of a monstrous animal, incapable of forethought or restraint.

Naturally, it's impossible to prove that Tyson is either the sexual demigod or the lascivious beast that he's been made out to be -- which is always the logical pitfall of stereotype. Instead, what is demonstrable is that Tyson, after his release from jail, began to assume an increasingly oppositional position with respect to mainstream American society. After his conviction, Tyson was seen in racist terms as a sexualized fiend. But, after serving his and being released from prison in March of 1995, Tyson's image grew even more ominous. This development was evidenced by the very first stop he made after leaving prison: a mosque. It seemed that Tyson had adopted yet another moniker while in prison, Malik Abdul Aziz, converting to Islam in a gesture that, for all the discussion it engendered, is most significant not for what it says about Tyson's religious beliefs but for what it signifies about the relationship between Tyson's image and the predominantly white, predominantly Christian nation that once cheered so loudly for him.

The circumstances of Tyson's conversion were an echo of more famous conversions before him, most notably that of Cassius Clay. The emergence of Muhammad Ali, today a venerated and idolized figure, evoked a great deal more controversy in 1965, when his name change accompanied his very public opposition to the treatment of African Americans and the Vietnam War. As such, the consequences of Tyson's conversion in the early 1990s can be located in a particular tradition of antagonistic politics. Still, one might well ask precisely what, if anything, Tyson had to protest with this conversion, beyond a rape conviction. There was no war to oppose at the time, and his celebrity status and public millions made him an unlikely champion for equal rights. What then, was Tyson up to?

It could be that he experienced a genuine change of heart. It could be that his conversion was a cynical public relations move aimed at restoring his considerably tarnished reputation. The ultimate reasons are unknowable -- and it is precisely this uncertainty that makes Tyson's new image so much more compelling. The only sure thing about Tyson is that he stands opposed. His motivations will remain elusive, no matter how many "tell all" interviews he grants. What is known is that he emerged from prison twice-removed from his previous incarnation -- once for fulfilling racist expectations of black lascivious physicality, and once again for embracing a religion that is seen in the United States (a country perceived to be dominated by Christian ideology) as different and exotic at best and at worst (particularly post-9/11) as the common denominator for all its national enemies.

These associations alone were enough to ensure Tyson's continued antagonism of the American mainstream. Still, he was not finished fighting and not finished drawing criticism. After suffering a 1996 loss to Evander Holyfield and losing in their rematch the following year, Tyson, frustrated and desperate, bit off a sizeable chunk of Holyfield's ear. Once again, Tyson neatly embodied the uncontrolled monster that had always lurked beneath the surface of his previous, more palatable image. In a sport where the object is to force your opponent's brain to collide with his or her skull and cause a loss of consciousness, in a sport where combatants routinely die as a result of their injuries, Tyson's bite was too much to be endured. The expected censure arose from both within boxing and without. Truly, Tyson had become the raving lunatic outsider that all had expected him to be: first as a rapist, then as a Muslim, and now as a biter.

Thrice damned, Tyson spent the next three years attempting to restore his suspended boxing license and inspiring allegations of verbal and physical abuse from whatever members of the public had the seeming misfortune to come into contact with him. Growing speculation mounted about his mental health; amateur psychiatrists pontificated aloud as if his behavior was some kind of scientific problem to be solved with the correct amount of drugs and research. All the while, more concrete answers could be found in the public's continued fascination with the unpredictable figure that Tyson cast.

What would he do next? How did he come to such a pass? This fascination more precisely spoke to the process by which Tyson's behavior cast him as the quintessential boogeyman for a culture at once captivated by violence, yet continually in denial of this fascination. Hence our gladiators must obey the rules of their sports and the laws of our land -- even though it is their failure to do so that really gets our attention. Tyson has been more than once likened to a "train wreck", a disaster that is only compelling in so far as the violence it embodies. Tyson himself is acutely aware of this paradoxical bind. Asked about the "common fan", he noted in an interview with ESPN that, "they pay to see me smash anybody. If they're white they pay, because the only thing they have respect for is my ability as an athlete. But if I was in court…they wouldn't testify positively against me and they would think I'm a cad."

What's really compelling about Mike Tyson, I would argue, is not the application of this constant, hypocritical barrage of censure and critique, but rather the seemingly pathological fervor with which he has embraced his villainous image -- a dark heart that he has come to wear literally on his sleeve. One need look no further for evidence of this than the tattoos Tyson has amassed on his person since leaving prison. On his right arm sits Mao Zedong. On his left shoulder: a portrait of Arthur Ashe under the inscription "Days of Grace". Che Guevara's defiant pose decorates his left abdomen. And, most spectacularly, the entire left side of his face sports a Maori-influenced design that swirls over his cheek and forehead.

Taken together, the tattoos represent a hodgepodge of associations: a Communist dictator, a Marxist guerilla, an African American tennis player and AIDS activist, and a New Zealand tribal group. One common thread linking all four, however, (other than their place on Tyson's body) is their evocation of anti-American-ness, the same American-ness that has branded Tyson a lunatic and a monster. China under Mao was a Cold War enemy; after helping to establish Communist Cuba, Che attacked American imperialism from the jungles of South America; Arthur Ashe advocated publicly for equal rights while giving a public face to the growing yet previously unspoken AIDS epidemic in the United States. Finally, the Maori tattoo stands out not so much for its political referent as for its physical location -- displayed prominently on Tyson's face, it's his most vehement and obvious declaration of difference.

An attention to Tyson's body is, in fact, perhaps the most direct way to trace the evolution of his image in the US. No longer a sexualized machine of destruction, the fighter now embodies a disparate group of associations that can only be collectively understood as oppositional. It's clear, for example, that when he says in a pre-fight interview to opponent Lennox Lewis, "I want your heart. I want to eat your children. Praise be to Allah," Tyson is no longer evoking any particular agenda, other than that of being as monstrous a figure as possible.

Notably, this includes a mention of Islam, which quickly leads to the real and ultimate value of this phenomenon: not greater insight into Tyson the person, nor a deeper understanding of racial stereotypes. Instead, Tyson is an invaluable case study of acceptance and antagonism in the mainstream US. By exploring the myriad ways in which he pursues an opposition to American values, we gain insight into what those values are, and can then question why those values are in place to begin with.

Tyson's latest move, though, a visit to the Muslim republic of Chechnya — which currently enmeshed in a bloody struggle for independence from Russia — suggests that his campaign of antagonism need no longer confine itself to the US or even Western Europe. Publicly declaring his solidarity with Chechens as fellow Muslims, Tyson is simultaneously allying himself with a group that is — at least in the American media — most commonly associated with school bombings and other acts of terror (if they are mentioned at all). Is this to say that Mike Tyson is a terrorist, then? Yes, but in a very broad sense. Just as the term is bandied about and applied with reckless imprecision to evoke everything "evil" and "freedom hating" about the Christian West's enemies, so is Tyson a floating signifier whose multiple incarnations, regardless of circumstance, have come to mean difference, opposition, antagonism. In this sense, Tyson indeed seems destined to become, for a variety of reasons and for a variety of people, "The Baddest Man on the Planet."

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