It is a curious thing, the kinship between great heavyweight champions and their decades. Dempsey was the ’20s, free of care and full of energy, swinging from the hips; Marciano the ’50s, clean-cut, square-jawed, straightforward; Ali, thumbing his nose at old rules and authority, the incarnation of the ’60s.
Then came Tyson and the 1980s. Arenas filled with executives and office workers to watch a man whose robeless, sockless, blunt, massive body, whose murderous eyes, wrinkled-up nose, drawn-back lips and volcanic uppercuts were a silent rant against everything and anything in our society that smelled of technology or style or media packaging. He called to something in us very old and dark and cobwebbed, something which still needed air and light. When he entered the ring, we did not throw up our arms and dance in the aisles, as we had when Ali flicked and floated across the canvas. We did not cheer wildly. We gaped.
He became—at 20, in 1986—the youngest heavyweight champion ever, winning all 37 of his fights, 33 by knockout, but it was outside the ring that his life became a phenomenon of our times. The control he exercised in his professional life was absolutely and devastatingly complete; but so, too, was the chaos which overwhelmed his private life. Who could not be fascinated? The reformed mugger—whom the white world wanted to reward with riches and fame—hurling an andiron through his mansion window in a rage at his marriage, arguing violently with his TV actress wife in Moscow, New York and Los Angeles, smashing his BMW into a tree and knocking himself out, breaking a bone in his hand in a Harlem street brawl, being charged with assaulting a parking lot attendant and speeding on a highway…. That a man could be so in charge of his destiny when he was at work and yet so frighteningly a slave to it the moment work was done not so much an anomaly in the ’80s as an exaggerated, tabloid dramatization of what was happening quietly all around us.
We who orphaned ourselves for careers, who broke from our families or watched our families broken, how could we not be affected by the obvious pain in Tyson’s flailing search for love, for trust, for home. “…I didn’t like fighting. But I loved Cus…. I wanted to make him happy…. I didn’t want to let him down,” he cried one day in June of ’88, referring to the fight sage who salvaged him from reform school, then became his legal guardian and taught him to box. But Cus D’Amato died when Tyson was 19, as his mother had died when he was 16, as his co-manager, Jimmy Jacobs, would die when Tyson was 21, in 1988—gone as abruptly as the father who walked away when Tyson was still in his mother’s womb.
And so we watched him dart from shelter to shelter, from co-manager Bill Cayton to wife Robin Givens and mother-in-law Ruth Roper, from billionaire Donald Trump to promoter Don King, from the New York nightclub dance floors to the baptismal waters of a Cleveland Baptist preacher. The man tougher and harder than all men was simultaneously the little boy lost. What distinguished him from us was not his search, but his manner of relief from it. A few times a year, for a few glaring moments, Tyson could do something many of us in an ever more complicated world longed to do: coalesce all his frustration, fear and confusion into one fixed object, one opponent, and annihilate it.
Amid the wreckage, something else was annihilated too. In the decade that saw the line between the public and private lives of our celebrities seriously blur, was the smudging ever so complete as in the soap opera of Mike Tyson and Robin Givens? Intimacies that we once learned of in memoirs 10 or 20 years after the fact were reported to us in screaming headlines the morning after, with the same chilling immediacy with which Tyson’s prize fights were chronicled. What intrigued us most of all—in a decade when the number of American women in management positions jumped by an astonishing 84 percent and the role of men was shaken down to its socks—was the very real impression that the baddest man on earth was being manipulated by a 105-lb. woman. The heavyweight champion—could it be true?—became an object of pity. By all indications, Americans seemed to overwhelmingly blame Givens.
Think of it, in a way, as the climax to a long evolution, a parable about all the armor that males have been accumulating for centuries. Mike Tyson showed us how it could end up counting for everything in the 1980s—and for nothing.