Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence,
something helpless that wants our love. ~ Rilke
March 6th marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of Mike Tyson’s first professional fight and the start of his meteoric rise in heavyweight boxing. In and outside of the ring, Tyson tapped our collective consciousness in a way few fighters had before—or have since.
Tyson’s first professional fight, against Hector Mercedes, took place in a small convention center in Albany, NY. He won in the first round. After that debut, Tyson fought regularly: eighteen fights in just twelve months. In those early fights, Tyson—whose original boxing moniker was “Kid Dynamite”—didn’t feel out his opponents; he simply exploded.
Tyson quickly became known for his ability to knock-out his opponents, often in the first round. His punches were as accurate as they were swift and heavy. Fast and ferocious in the ring, “Kid Dynamite” soon became “Iron” Mike Tyson. In 1986, he knocked out Trevor Berbick and became the youngest heavyweight champion of all time. Tyson was 20 years old then, and his record still stands. That fight earned him the unofficial title of “baddest man on the planet.”
Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey claimed that boxing’s “simplicity” made it the perfect spectator sport. The spectacle of one fighter battering another draws us in, thrills us in its brutality. This is the tension that boxing’s spectators experience. On the surface, we watch two fighters dancing their highly technical and well-regulated steps, constrained by a conscience of rules. Yet we suspect, we feel, that roiling just beneath that veneer of regulation is something lawless, something ancient and untethered from modern-day civility. The tension builds until tectonic plates seem to give way and a fighter is left flat on the canvas, knocked out in a cathartic imitation (or mockery) of death, that most ancient and persistent of fears.
Look at how Joyce Carol Oates described Mike Tyson, in one of boxing’s most eloquent and stunning paragraphs:
As with the young, pre-champion Dempsey, there is an unsettling air about Tyson, with his impassive death’s-head face, his unwavering stare, and his refusal to glamorize himself in the ring—no robe, no socks, only the signature black trunks and shoes—that the violence he unleashes against his opponents is somehow just; that some hurt, some wound, some insult in his past, personal or ancestral, will be redressed in the ring; some mysterious imbalance righted. The single-mindedness of his ring style works to suggest that his grievance has the force of a natural catastrophe. That old trope, “the wrath of God,” comes to mind.
What remains most captivating about Tyson is how fully he stepped into that mythos and how quickly his audience accepted that mytho-poetic persona. Tyson’s own persona embodied what he himself described as “bad intentions:” aggressive, sneering, and uncaring. He famously dressed in all black. But Tyson was something more than that, too. He seemed inevitable, elemental, an ancient gladiator unleashed into this suddenly too-modern world. Tyson become our grim reaper, our exterminating angel, but with such ease, such fine finesse. Our “unapologetic warrior,” journalist Phil Berger called him.
The idea that Tyson simply could not lose emerged as an attempt to explain the inexplicable, like ascribing annual flooding to the whims of angry gods. “The only person who can beat Mike Tyson is Mike Tyson himself” was the cliché on the lips of commentators. Recently, a sports channel played a sampling of Mike Tyson’s “greatest hits.” When I clicked the tab for more information, the program description was foreboding and direct: “Watch as Mike Tyson puts fear into his opponents.”
That fear remains a palpable legacy. And yet within “Kid Dynamite” and “Iron” Mike Tyson was another Tyson who would later choose to dedicate his memoir to “to all the outcasts,” including those who are “incapable of receiving love.” The two impulses, the fear and the love, are yoked together in the ring with Tyson. They circle one another, as if the only way he could ask for love was to throw a punch. Sociologist Ellis Cashmore noted that such paradoxes “suggested Tysons within Tyson,” gesturing to an interiority that was either unexpressed or unrecognized. The hand within the boxing glove was not necessarily a fist.
Tyson’s knock-outs resonated well beyond the moment, long after the final bell sounded. In the end, it wasn’t about head movement or accurate punching or anything technical; a Tyson knockout was an emotional response to an emotional need. Tyson blurred the line between what was fierce and what was cruel, playing on our feelings of admiration and revulsion. Tyson did not appear to be acting. Better, perhaps, to say he was acting out. Watching Mike Tyson’s fights now (and I have watched them all, several times) is as emotional as it is technical, the simulated death of a knock out on full display alongside that sense of cosmic or religious justice described by Oates. It is here, as a witness to these fights, that I enter into a central, unresolved paradox: Tyson’s apocalyptic KOs detonate like hydrogen bombs while, as if by some miracle, I find myself rooting for the man with “bad intentions,” for the fighter who set out to frighten us.
Andrew Rihn is the author of Revelation: An Apocalypse in Fifty-Eight Fights, a book of prose poems about Mike Tyson. He also writes a monthly boxing column, The Pugilist, for Into the Void magazine. Andrew lives in Canton, OH.