By: Sean Crose
We all knew how iconic Mike Tyson was before he agreed to meet Roy Jones in a highly publicized pay per view exhibition bout that’s scheduled for this weekend. It just seems we didn’t know exactly HOW iconic the guy was. Let’s face it, Tyson is such a part of the public consciousness that he’s arguably as well known now as he was during his heyday over thirty years ago. That’s simply incredible. No fighter, with the exception of Muhammad Ali, has maintained such a hold on the general public.
Names like Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson certainly earned a large degree of publicity in their times. Your 12 year old niece and nephew probably won’t recognize their names, however. The chances that they’d recognize the name Mike Tyson, on the other hand, are probably better than average. Think that’s because Tyson was around more recently than those other men? Maybe, but ask yourself this – How many 12 year old’s would know the names Bo Jackson, or Joe Montana?
My guess is, not many. Yet both those individuals operated in their respective sports the same time Tyson was in the ring. Perhaps the only former professional athletes from the Tyson era as well known as “Iron Mike” himself are Wayne Gretzky (and that’s truly debatable), George Foreman, and Shaquille O’Neal (both likeable and ubiquitous advertising presences). And, of course, Michael Jordan, perhaps the only athlete from Tyson’s era on equal pop cultural footing with Tyson. There’s a reason, perhaps, that these two names, Tyson and Jordan, stand out. In his time, Jordan was unquestionably the best to ever play his game. And Tyson? Well, there was a time when it was arguable he might be the greatest heavyweight ever.
That didn’t end up being true of course, though prime Tyson was still far more dominant than revisionists give him credit for. Tyson had something else going for him, though – violence. Tyson was destructive in a way reminiscent of Dempsey. In other words, he was pure speed, skill, and aggression. Such things have a way of burning themselves into people’s minds. It might be doubtful, for instance, that anyone who saw Tyson’s 1986 demolition of Marvis Frazier live on television will ever forget it. I remember telling my father at the time that every shot Tyson landed seemed to take a chunk out of the person he landed on. Individuals who consistently leave that kind of impact are not easily forgotten.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
If there’s one thing that seems to keep people in the collective memory, it’s doing damage to someone’s – or even one’s own – ear. Bring up Van Gogh and the whole ear incident pops up in the listener’s mind nearly as quickly as those sunflower paintings do. The same is pretty much true for Tyson. His name doesn’t conjure up images of the Michael Spinks’ bout so much as it does poor Evander’s severed piece of ear. That one act, which saw Tyson gnaw on Holyfield’s ear during their 1997 rematch, is probably the great dark moment of contemporary sports, the flip side of the “Do you believe in miracles” moment at Lake Placid. For that was the instant Tyson went from being frightening to being outright gross.
All of which brings up a larger point…Tyson changes with the times. Like many iconic figures, there’s distinct stages of Tyson’s public career. Elvis went from Sullivan to Vegas, from lean to heavy. Tyson went from Sonny Liston in overdrive, to convicted sex offender, to ear chomping ghoul, to all out madman, to comically ironic pop culture staple, all in the course of three decades. And that, frankly, may be the key to the man’s longevity, the fact that, consciously or not, he keeps things new. Mike Tyson may be many things, but stationary isn’t one of them. He’s constantly evolving before our eyes.
We have to want to watch him in order for the man to remain famous, though. Countless people go through career and life stages without drawing the attention Tyson does. This is particularly true in the case of fighters. The history of boxing is rife with tales of talented athletes attaining glory, only to fall from on high before sometimes finding redemption. In this, there is no greater example than George Foreman. Tyson, however, holds our attention like no other. His more recent endeavors, like voicing a cartoon likeness of himself, or engaging in the legalized marijuana industry, keep us watching, listening and reading about him.
The key to understanding the man’s longevity may be this: As people, we’re naturally curious as to what colorful individuals are up to – and Tyson is always up to something. The former great may or may not look sharp as he battles Jones this weekend, but there’s little doubt we won’t have heard the last of Mike Tyson, no matter how the fight turns out. And, frankly, we wouldn’t have it any other way.