Desperation is mostly inseparable from masculinity. Men strain for fame, for female attention, for sad, trivial triumphs over one another. We are a people perpetually trying to figure it all out—flexing in the mirror, using lines we've heard before, trying to seem bold and dignified. We're not cowboys or poets. If we are, we wear it as a disguise. Mostly, we are vulnerable and self-conscious and probably masturbating for the third time on a Tuesday afternoon, because we're off work and that Lea Thompson scene in All the Right Moves just came on. We are not men, but almost. Note: columns may also contain William Holden hero worship and meditations on cured meats.
There he is, like he’s always been, perpetually on the brink of breakdown, hands grasping for nothing in particular, eyes twitching, voice abruptly fluctuating in and out of that cartoon squeal of his. It is late August and Mike Tyson is at a press conference discussing his new life as a boxing promoter. His sentences occasionally veer into barely-coherent memories that grip him so tightly he almost can't breathe. But mostly he spends 15 minutes dispensing how-great-it-is-to-be-here platitudes about boxers you’ve never heard of.
He has been enthusiastic and hyperbolic. It has been a very encouraging Fresh Start and now he is ready to leave. But someone has one more question, about Tyson reconciling with Teddy Atlas. Atlas helped train him when Tyson was 16, but was dismissed when he threatened to shoot the teenage boxer in the head after he grabbed Atlas’s 11-year-old sister-in-law’s ass. They didn’t speak to each other for the next 30 years.
This is how Tyson responds:
“I'm a motherfucker. I'm a bad guy sometimes. I did a lot of bad things, and I want to be forgiven. So in order for me to be forgiven, I hope they can forgive me. I wanna change my life, I wanna live a different life now. I wanna live my sober life. I don't wanna die. I'm on the verge of dying, because I'm a vicious alcoholic. Wow. God, this is some interesting stuff. I haven't drank or took drugs in six days, and for me that's a miracle. I've been lying to everybody else that think I was sober, but I'm not. This is my sixth day. I'm never gonna use again.”
He turned a fight into a press conference, a press conference into a confession, a confession into a suicide note, a suicide note into his own eulogy.
Look at that man. It is not an entrance but an uprising, something volcanic. It is as if the apocalypse was happening all around you and you prayed to God and asked him what to do and he answered—confirming in that moment that He was out there, that He was real, that all the chaos, all the pain, had an architect, that there was a design—and then He told you to run for your life; there was no one who could save you from this man.
“It’s interesting to note that Mike Tyson selected his prefight music to be just noise.”
He is a breathing, seething rebuttal to every justification you’ve ever had for giving up. Were he not a borderline schizophrenic convicted rapist Nike would have cracked his chest open and carved his heart into a swoosh. He is anarchy. He is an ideology, a seismic event, a force to be measured like a colorful blob on a Doppler radar screen. There’s no way to stop it. All you can do is stand and gaze at its stupendous might. He is a motherfucker. No, really, look at that man. He is the distillation of every bad thing that has ever happened in his life; he’s ejecting all his pains from his body every instant, over and over again. When he was a boy and they called him fat and ugly and kicked him till he ran home. His mother the whore. His father who wasn't there. The boys who snapped his pigeons’ heads off. No heat, no hot water. Walking home in the dark with chapped lips.
For a year, I maintained a Tumblr on which I posted a picture of Mike Tyson every day. The people who followed me filled their own Tumblrs almost exclusively with pictures of Notorious BIG and girls with meaty, glistening tits. I think there was such a distinct correlation between those things mainly because they're all awesome. But I think it’s also because they speak to something primal, something honest and irresistible and essential about human nature, something that remains after you chisel away our pretentiousness: to fight, to fuck, to shout ominous lines.
Mike Tyson thought these things before he entered the ring: I’m scared to death. I’m totally afraid. I’m afraid of everything. I’m a God. He feels both above everything and beneath everything. There is just a need to destroy. It is the energy that powers everything we do and feel—charming a girl, getting a job, intimidating a brutish man who snarls at you.
Boxing prizes patience and elegance and harnessed fury. The sweet science, they call it. Mike Tyson is a scientist the way a Tyrannosaurus is a dinner guest. He does this. When Tyson knocked out Eddie Richardson 77 seconds into the first round, Richardson was asked if anyone had ever hit him that hard. Richardson paused and then replied, "Yeah, about a year ago I was hit by a truck.”
Tyson hit like he was trying to transfer his every wound, every calamitous decision, every regret, every sleepless night, every night where his sleep was ravaged by nightmares, onto his opponent. Tyson talks about fear like someone who has been consumed by it and now lives in its belly, as if Fear were a monster with six frothing mouths and a flaming tail. He can identify fear in others. He recognizes imperceptible body tics because he has felt them in himself, years ago, running, hiding, trying to disappear in some abandoned tenement in Brooklyn. He sees it in someone briefly breaking eye contact, the way they slouch after absorbing his punch.
In interviews he can be both unhinged and catatonically docile, dissolving into a couch cushion with his arm around Robin Givens while she burns his identity to ash. When he confronts reporters during a press conference to promote his fight with Lennox Lewis he tries so hard to suppress his tears it’s as if they’re going to come spurting out of his ears and from under his fingernails.
He has spent his life saying things like this: “I just have this thing inside me that wants to eat and conquer. Maybe it's egotistical, but I have it in me. I don't want to be a tycoon. I just want to conquer people and their souls.” And this: “I want to kill people. I want to rip their stomachs out and eat their children.” He said he no longer had interest in becoming the world champion—“I just want them to keep bringing guys on and I’m going to strip them of their health. I bring pain, a lot of pain.” He said, as a 21-year-old, “When I fight someone, I want to break his will. I want to take his manhood. I want to rip out his heart and show it to him.” He said he wanted to take a bath in Francois Botha’s blood.
Violence is his medium, his field of study. It is more than just a menacing gesture. It propels him and then it paralyzes him. When he was little, he and a friend stole a young man’s pigeons. The young man and his friends found Mike’s friend. They tied a rope around Mike’s friend’s neck and threw him off a fire escape. He only knows humans as disposable entities; they exist to be tormented by all that surrounds them and to then be discarded with no explanation. They either suffer or triumph. Triumphs are brief; suffering is eternal. These are the laws of his universe. He accepts this and climbs to a rooftop to play with his pigeons till the sun goes down.
We build narratives with absolutes so that we can understand things: the villain and the hero, the jester and the sage. Mike plays the most reviled role in the celebrity drama—his only redemption has been in turning his disorders into contrivances, parodying his nihilism in some PG reenactment on basic cable. But he is neither airbrushed caricature nor mythological beast. He quotes Machiavelli and spent the weeks leading up to his fight with Trevor Berbick watching cartoons and kung fu movies. He is explosive and fragile. He vibrates with rage. He grunts and stammers. When he knocked out Sterling Benjamin he turned to the crowd while the referee counted him out and waved for them to rise to their feet. And when the referee signalled the fight was over, Tyson turned around and helped pick Benjamin off the ground. It’s nothing personal. I have to do this to survive.
After he beat Larry Holmes, Tyson returned to his dressing room and found Barbra Streisand waiting for him. Tyson smiled at Streisand and said, “I think your nose is very sexy, Barbra.” When he was released from prison in 1995, he called Roseanne Barr and told her, “You're the only person that I wanna tell my story to.” They went to the mall and he spent $25,000 on Versace towels. When Tyson walked in on Givens, who he was divorcing, having sex with Brad Pitt, his response was not anger but sadness: “I was just depressed I couldn’t bone her no more.” Who has ever been so explicitly real, amplifying our basest impulses?
In 1988, Mike Tyson was riding through Brownsville, Brooklyn, in the back of a limousine with Givens and a reporter from Sports Illustrated. They turned down Rockaway Avenue and Tyson lowered his window. He smiled and began to reminisce about the years he spent there, when he’d rub the drunks’ fingers in the snow so their rings would be easier to slide off. About reaching into bus windows and snatching women’s necklaces. He said this: “There's Lincoln Terrace Park. We'd see dead whores there in the morning. What memories. Good memories. Beautiful memories. I was happier then. I had pure fun here. Every day I was living on the edge. I was wild and free. I love coming back. Do you understand? When I'm here, I feel like a warrior.”
A decade later, Don DeLillo’s massive, America-spanning novel Underworld was published. In it, DeLillo writes: “I long for the days of disorder. I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. This is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked real streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.”
There he is. Somewhere, Tyson, that force, is in the work of everyone. In that last quarter mile; at closing time, as you look at her and try to find the nerve to walk over; in the pursuit of every dream you’ve ever had. He is screaming and sobbing and pounding his fists. He is grabbing his dick and smiling for the cameras. He is nothing and he is everything. A peasant and a king, rubble and a monument. He is terrified, he is in the ring in his black trunks, he is standing over a corpse with his arms in the air. He is ready to die and he is desperate to live.
Previously – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
John Saward likes O.V. Wright and eating guacamole with no pants on. He lives in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter @RBUAS.