By Scott Wilkerson
Boxing was the first, and remains, the only true sport. This histortical primacy imputes to every boxer both the responsibilities of a gallant tradition and the encumbrences of a mythic heritage. In Mike Tyson, we find an exemplar of boxing’s complex relationship to the human drama. And while my distnguished colleagues in the critical community crowd the Tyson corpus in ghoulish delight, I wish, instead, to celebrate his radical achievement as an icon and commend to everyone’s attention the transformative grace of his humility.
Life is unpredicatable. So, too, is the career cycle of the boxer, any boxer. Of course, one might reasonably object that Tyson’s cascade of recent losses were, in retrospect, not only predictable, but inevitable. Indeed, the prevailing view seems to be that, as a boxer, he was finisehd before the McBride fight even began. Sadly, this style of self-congratulatory revisionism has become the dominant vogue in the sporting press and represents not only a failure of the analytical project, but more fundamentally, a failure of the imagination.
To be sure, the McBride fight was a ghastly spectacle. Far more disturbing, however, is the mountainous pile of shrieking pundits proclaiming the end of the Tyson era. In an age of commercial packaging and insouciant hip-hopification, Tyson’s operatic tableau is simply too vast and his struggle, too authentic; he has become so completely human as to be unrecognizable. This is a profound indictment of our role as observers and, indeed, of our entire intellectual enterprise.
As for Tyson’s own intentions, one can only speculate what retirement could mean for a fighter who has traced the full arc of our fascination with his successes and failures, his arrogance and candor, his humor and, perhaps most importantly, his humility. The great Floyd Patterson’s own dictum that losing requires real courage is not only instructive here, but also prophetic in the sense that Tyson compels us because we see in him something of ourselves.
The lessons of boxing are harder than the punches, although, certainly the punches are easier to count. The question, then, is how to quantify what we have witnessed. Tyson has lost another fight and has lost his fortune, but it is unfair and plainly incorrect to declare him a loser. I have learned from Tyson, and I submit that anyone who imagines Tyson will, or should, disappear has watched all the rounds but, finally, missed the bout.
Mike Tyson illuminates both the mythic in our daily experience and the ordinary hidden in the fantastical. And in the lives of all truly heroic figures, there must be a tragic fall before the triumphant return.
Humanities Faculty, University of Phoenix