Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson began life in the condemned projects of Brooklyn, and condemned he has remained. His American journey has included stops in homeless shelters, reform schools, bankruptcy courts, and prison. Along the way, he earned and lost more than $100 million.
Now a completely bogus news story is out that Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss has hired Tyson as the main attraction for her 60-acre Nevada brothel for women called “Heidi’s Stud Farm. In a press release, the parasitic Fleiss said, “I told him, ‘You’re going to be my big stallion.’ It’s every man’s fear that their girlfriend will go for Mike Tyson.” She then quoted Tyson saying, “I don’t care what any man says, it’s every man’s dream to please women . . . and get paid for it.” Tyson had this to say about the subject: “I am not working with Heidi Fleiss nor have anything to do with her new business. There is no truth to these rumors.” His lawyers have threatened to sue if she uses his name for further promotion.
No doubt this will all become more fodder for the “Tyson as freak show, Tyson as beast” jabber on sports radio. That line goes down easier than discussing his bi-polar disorder; his attempts at suicide; his clinical depression; and how the SportsWorld has spent the last decade poking him with a stick, waiting a-titter to see what “Crazy Mike” does next.
They won’t discuss the sad truth that every inexcusable act of aggression towards women, every facial tattoo, every threat to “eat the children” of opponents, every bitten ear lobe, every public utterance, was a cry for help that never came.
But Heidi Fleiss wouldn’t have been his first pimp. Managers like Bill Cayton, Don King, and a throng of others have all taken turns using his physical prowess and picking his carcass clean.
Yet Fleiss’ “Stud Farm” with Mike as “stallion”, even though false, also carries a devastating historical echo. The first prizefighters in this country were slaves, owned by competing members of the plantocracy. They were the heroes of the plantation, greeted by whites and Blacks with both resentment and awe. These boxers in bondage were literally handed women slaves for sexual gratification but would be lynched if caught looking twice at the master’s wife, no matter how successful. In the 20th century, all African-American heavyweight champs have faced a similar vice between their race and sexuality.
Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson went to jail for “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes” by sending his white girlfriend a railroad ticket to travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago. In an era when the KKK executed Southern Justice and the Klan-film “Birth of a Nation” was screened by a rapturous President Woodrow Wilson, Jack Johnson’s insistence on flouting the rules of white supremacy made him deeply dangerous, as his FBI file attests.
The backlash against Johnson meant that it would be 20 years before the rise of another Black heavyweight champ “the Brown Bomber” Joe Louis. Louis was quiet where Johnson was defiant. He was handled very carefully by a management team that had a set of rules Louis had to follow, including, “never be photographed with a white woman.”
All Black boxers were seen as either neutered or potential rapists until Muhammad Ali said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be” and infuriated the sports writers of his day. One contemporary of Ali told me, “One of the things that made reporters so mad about Ali was that he told people how ‘pretty’ he was. The champion is supposed to be a stud, not pretty.”
Even progressive examinations of athletes can’t escape this trap of eroticizing their subjects. In Ken Burns’ otherwise stellar documentary of Jack Johnson, “Unforgivable Blackness”, Burns spends so much time gazing at the fighter’s crotch and tight pants, that Johnson’s bulge should be submitted for Emmy consideration.
In David Kindred’s wonderful recent book about Ali and Cosell, “The Sound and the Fury“, he unfortunately takes time to let us know that the naked Ali earns his title as “the greatest.”
Granted, it’s tough to find the humanity in a sport like boxing, that so relentlessly dehumanizes its subjects. But Mike Tyson is the scarred reflection of this ugly corner in the SportsWorld. Instead of stopping to sneak a peek, and cop a thrill, we should force ourselves to stare and think. Instead of laughing at Mike Tyson, we should take time to weep.
The tragedy is that Tyson is no animal. Trained by the legendary Cus D’Amato, the young Tyson was a student of the game. He watched grainy films for hours on end. He possessed beautiful lateral movement, and thunderous blows to the body. Only an intelligent boxer understands the demoralizing nature of body shots, and Tyson went to the torso like no fighter this century. He was also a scholar of the psychology of the sport. In the mid ’80s when fighters routinely came to the ring in flowing sequined robes like they were extras on George Clinton’s Mothership, Tyson would walk to the ring clad only in black trunks. While other fighters walked down the aisle to cheesy party songs, Tyson’s tune was “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. I saw Tyson live when he was 20 years old, and trust me: Phil Collins was never so badass.
But the young Tyson, despite all the menace, also showed a real compassion for the people he knocked out. He exhibited smarts, charisma, and concern. Now he is just an exhibit.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” is published by Haymarket Books. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.