WASHINGTON — My spies, who are everywhere, tell me that “no one knows more about the history of boxing than Mike Tyson.” Is that really true? Surely at our great universities, where students are offered courses in “popular culture,” there is a Popular Culture Professor who knows more about the history of boxing than the former heavyweight champion of the world whose career took it on the chin last weekend in the fourth round. But then I think of a Professor of Popular Culture whom I met some years ago from the Ivy League. The dope confused Johann Strauss with Richard Strauss and probably thought both were related to Levi Strauss. So maybe my spies are right. Tyson might be the world’s greatest database on the sport in which he earned $400 million, most of which has gone to hangers-on, the boxing promoter Don King and lawyers.
Surely there is a brain beneath the shaved head and behind the ugly facial tattoo of the dethroned and bankrupt champion. Moreover, there is some personality, and one perceives even flashes of charm. Nonetheless what is mostly remembered of Tyson is a bad man with criminal convictions, barbaric behavior in and out of the ring, and now bankruptcy. Former heavyweight champion Joe Louis spent his retirement as a paid fixture in Las Vegas gambling joints to make ends meet. Yet Louis was known to be an amiable gent. Where would Tyson be considered amiable, the Sunni Triangle?
The bad ending of the Tyson saga did not have to be. The public might well have forgotten that in the late 1980s Tyson was one of sport’s great heroes. Rising up from the tough streets of Brooklyn he had become one of the great heavyweights and a spokesman for the New York Police Department and for the Drug Enforcement Administration. In those days he had a manager equal to his talents and to his defects, Cus D’Amato. D’Amato and his coterie, which included Jimmy Jacobs, a business-wise fellow who also had been national professional handball champion many times, brought out the good in Tyson, and from 1985 to 1988 he made what A.J. Liebling called the Sweet Science interesting again.
Then disaster befell Tyson. He entered into lawful wedded bliss with a low-grade actress possessed of a prima donna’s delusions. In a Barbara Walters interview he was goaded into claiming to be “manic depressive,” which he was not but which made good copy. And in came Don King, the convicted felon who had come to dominate professional boxing. King, using racial incitements and other cheap stratagems, coaxed Tyson from his mostly white managers. Tyson was freed to indulge the vices of his juvenile delinquent past and the result was millions for King and a descent into barbarism for Tyson.
Over the past couple of years Tyson has been suing King for over $200 million in lost income. Not long ago he settled for $16 million. He thought he was on a comeback. After his dreadful showing last week it appears the comeback is over and the hundreds of millions he left to King have gone aglimmer. Someone should have stepped in when Tyson’s descent into barbarism became apparent.
Unfortunately there is no entity in boxing that maintains standards. Tyson at his worst, chewing on an opponent’s ear, attacking ordinary citizens on the street, still made multi-million dollars fights. The consequence has been the further decline of boxing and of professional sport in general, to say nothing of the poor sap that hit the canvas in the fourth round the other night. King goes on to something approaching respectability, becoming a major fundraiser for President George W. Bush, and Tyson heads for oblivion — if he is lucky.
The solution, if one is still available for the Sweet Science, is the kind of national boxing commission Senator John McCain favors. It would assert standards of ethics, health, and safety. A boxer going the way Tyson did in the early 1990s would be sobered up with suspensions and other sanctions. A Don King would not be allowed to ruin another professional sport. And while on the subject of King, is he really essential to the President’s victory this year? I would have expected to see him popping up on Bill Clinton’s book tour.