A Blues Song Just For Fighters: James Toback's Tyson
Boxing is our most controversial American sport, always, it seems, on the brink of being abolished. Its detractors speak of it in contempt as a "so-called 'sport,'" and surely their logic is correct: if "sport" means harmless play, boxing is not a sport; it is certainly not a game. But "sport" can signify a paradigm of life, a reduction of its complexities in terms of a single symbolic action--in this case its competitiveness, the cruelty of its Darwinian enterprise--defined and restrained by any number of rules, regulations, and customs: in which case boxing is probably, as the ex-heavyweight champion George Foreman has said, the sport to which all other sports aspire. It is the quintessential image of human struggle, masculine or otherwise, against not only other people but one's own divided self.
-- Joyce Carol Oates
Someday, they're gonna write a blues song just for fighters. It'll be for slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.
-- Sonny Liston
As a child somewhere on the journey towards adolescence in the mid-to-late 1980s, there were certain names that brought with them entire worlds. "Maradona" was one this little Canadian Scot spent a lot of time rolling around his tongue, while balls rolled around football pitches marked out by jumpers and trees, at the feet of players far more capable than he. "Schwarzenegger" and "Stallone" made for air machine guns, bandannas, throwing each other in the mud and learning to love the art of gratuitious bloodshed.
Then there was Tyson. Tyson was what the older kids who worked at the slaughterhouse would name their dogs (and, eventually, their children). Tyson was huddled conversations under the bridge about sixty second knockouts, older cousins with cigarettes in their mouths, replaying the fist swings with a slow and sincere reverence. Tyson was in the playground, our heads smashed against walls by the bulkier and more slowly moving amongst us, games of British Bulldogs suddenly turning to the heavyweight championship for inspiration. Seconds out, they'd shout, and the bricks were only ever those seconds away.
At the time, Joyce Carol Oates was writing very smart and eventually legendary work on Tyson, contextualising him amongst the greats. But the rumble in the jungle, to us, was probably an episode of GI Joe. We were becoming vaguely aware that Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali were the same person but could not tell you the reasons why. Frank Bruno was on the Saturday telly, that lovely Irish McGuigan lad too. But those weren't the word that made the world shake.
That word was Tyson.
I knew nothing of boxing, but I knew what I saw. That vicious, raw, pure distillation of the fight. Kid Dynamite transformed into Iron Mike. The purists hated him. He wasn't the art. The world did not dance on his fists. It was pummelled. He was unbeatable because you can't beat rage like that. You can't beat the streets, and the prisons, and the anger.
You know what happened. Others have written it better. Those who actually know something about boxing. Start with David Remnick and go on from there. There was the rape. The prison sentence. The comeback. Evander Holyfield. The ear bite. Fuck you til you love me, faggot. Don King. The collapse. Dragging boxing down with him.
And always, at the center, that man, that strange, self-victimising madman with the motor mouth. With his mansions abandoned, he is reduced to that hoariest of cliches, the fallen heavyweight champ. The Raging Bull. The Sonny Liston. Long ago a realisation there would be no triumphant Balboa return, horns ablaze. This was it.