By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

An hour after absorbing the worst beating of his career, Mike Tyson was sitting in his Memphis locker room, holding his baby daughter, his face swollen and chafed after eight brutal rounds with heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. When ESPN's Jeremy Schaap asked him what the future held, Tyson smiled.

Mike Tyson
AP
Mike Tyson on his way to "Bolivian."

"I don't know, man," he said. "I guess I'm gonna fade into Bolivian."

Of course, Tyson meant "oblivion," but "Bolivian" worked so much better, didn't it? It was the fitting conclusion to the Tyson era, one of those classic Tyson malapropisms that summed up everything. It's over. I'm done. Stick a fork in me. I'm fading into Bolivian. There were hundreds of comparable Tyson moments over the years, but this might have been his finest work yet. Can you feel sorry for someone as you're laughing at them? Apparently, yes. Just one of those goofy contradictions that made the Tyson era so absorbing.

We will miss him, won't we? Secretly? Has there ever been a boxing career that ended so unpredictably predictable? Was there a more interesting fighter in the past 20 years? Did any athlete generate more audio and video, more negative prose, more water cooler debates, more usable sound bites? Was there another pop culture figure from the past two decades who attracted more comedy, sarcasm, irony and disdain? For anyone between the ages of 25 and 35, Tyson was the memorable fighter of our generation. Nobody else came close.

And even if every historical sign pointed to Tyson's career winding down exactly like it did in Memphis, Tenn. -- with his considerable skills having completely eroded, with a superior fighter taking advantage and dismantling him, with a bloodied, disoriented Tyson rolling around on the canvas, with the pathetic ex-champ groveling for a rematch that nobody wants -- it still remained mesmerizing from start to finish. Close your eyes, and you can still see The Big Bad Bully of the 1980s in Memphis, struggling to climb to his feet, washed-up and humbled, battered and dismanted, headed straight for Bolivian.

Some extended thoughts on the heels of Tyson's demise:

  • Where does Tyson rank among the greats in heavyweight history? During the golden years of his career (1985 to 1989, his first five years in boxing), Iron Mike knocked out 34 of 37 opponents, including Trevor Berbick, Tony Tubbs, Pinklon Thomas, Marvis Frazier, Jose Ribalta, Frank Bruno, Tyrell Biggs, Michael Spinks and a washed-up Larry Holmes. Not exactly a murderer's row; I think those were the guys who Rocky Balboa fought during the "Eye of the Tiger" montage in the beginning of "Rocky 3." Spinks was probably the most notable name on the list, but he never successfully made the transition from light-heavyweight to heavyweight (unlike Evander Holyfield). Over that time, Tyson was never truly tested. Not even close.

    During the portion of his career where most fighters generally peak -- from their mid-20s through their mid-30s -- Tyson was knocked out three separate times and unable to continue. His most memorable victory over that period came against somebody named Razor Ruddock. In the biggest fight of that 12-year stretch, Evander Holyfield knocked him out (and would have done it again if Tyson didn't sabotage the rematch). With one final chance to salvage his prime last weekend, Tyson found himself totally overwhelmed by the much bigger Lewis. Now he's done. And the question remains ... how great was Mike Tyson? Not as great as we thought, apparently.

    And that's the operative word: "Apparently."

    Because you really had to have been there in the '80s, back when the man was a human wrecking machine. It wasn't the actual knockouts, it was everything leading up to them. Tyson striding to the ring without a robe, without socks, dressed in black, resembling an executioner. The glazed, "What have I gotten myself into?" expression of frozen fear on every opponent's face. The controlled fury of Tyson's combinations, the way he pounced on his opponents, the way his body exploded into every punch, the overwhelming stench of violence, the buzz in the air, the sudden, inevitable ending.

    Tyson always made you feel like you were watching a movie ... a scary movie. As with any other great athlete, you rearranged your schedule just to make sure you didn't miss him. That's the ultimate compliment. Did you stay home to watch him? With iron Mike, absolutely. And the Spinks fight stood out over everything else. Again, you really had to have been there. That was the only time in his prime when Tyson faced a seemingly "worthy" opponent, who was summarily dispatched by him in 91 seconds -- clinically, brutally, efficiently, viciously, with flair to boot. I wouldn't place Tyson among the top 10 heavyweights of all-time, but no champion from any era could have handled him that night. He was a well-oiled machine.

    (Put it this way: If your life depended on one fighter defeating a mystery opponent from another planet, and you could pick one heavyweight from any day in history to fight that fight for you ... wouldn't "Mike Tyson, June 22, 1988" be the choice? It would for me.)

  • Along those same lines, watching Tyson's skills slowly deteriorate -- partly because of ring rust, partly because he lost interest in his craft -- was the saddest aspect of his demise. You forget this now, but Tyson was a more polished version of Smokin' Joe Frazier in his prime, only with George Foreman's killer instinct. The young Tyson was technically perfect, bobbing and weaving, capable of fighting inside and from the perimeter, always throwing combinations, always working the body, always maintaining a primal level of intensity. And given how he studied fight tapes and cared for his craft, it seemed likely that Tyson would keep improving with age.

    But the worst thing happened to him that could ever happen to a fighter: In the words of Mickey Goldmill, he got domesticated. Within four years, he went from the Catskills to Hollywood, becoming the most famous athlete alive, earning tens of millions of dollars, falling in love with a famous actress (Robin Givens) ... inevitably, his training and studying went by the wayside, and after trainer Cus D'Amato's death, he lacked that one authority figure in his life who could say, "Hey, look at what's happening here."

    By the time Douglas and Tokyo rolled around in February of 1990, Tyson had evolved into a self-parody, the proverbial puncher always looking to land one big shot. Once he was convicted of rape and sentenced to four years in prison, any chance of Tyson regaining his skills was gone forever. During the Lewis fight, he looked like a pale shadow of himself, unable to mount any semblance of a game plan. If you care about boxing even a little, it was jarring to watch. Given that so few people achieve greatness in sports anymore, it's always upsetting to watch someone squander their talents so callously, regardless of how you feel about them as a person.

    Which brings us to our next topic ...

  • As we all know, Mike Tyson wasn't the nicest guy. We accepted him conditionally back in the '80s, aware of his background, understanding he would probably self-implode at some point, but accepting these "foibles," because it was thrilling to watch him beat up other guys. Of course, when he finally self-imploded following the end of his marriage to Givens in '88 -- ultimately landing in jail on a 1991 rape conviction -- everyone rushed to condemn him, a process that continues to this day. That always seemed a little hypocritical to me. Mike Tyson was a bad guy in 1987, too. Where were these columns then?

    It all comes back to the High Horse Factor. You know how sports columnists and radio hosts love hopping on high horses and villifying targets like Tyson, how they get all carried away and start gunning for the Pulitzer, how they write lines like "He's the monster in all of us" and say things like "They could be fighting in my living room and I wouldn't watch it"? Nobody rated higher on the High Horse Factor than Tyson, the grizzled sports columnist's wet dream. Just once, I would have loved to have seen one of these media people tell their editors or producers, "You know what, I refuse to discuss Tyson on the radio anymore," or "Please don't send me to cover this fight, because I refuse to write about such a scumbag."

    Never happened. If anything, the media flowed in the other direction, exploiting Tyson for all he was worth. For instance, three weeks ago, Sports Illustrated placed Tyson (grinning like a maniac) on its cover, accompanied by the headline, "Monster's Ball." Hope they sold some magazines. The whole thing reminds me of an op-ed column I wrote for the Boston Herald in 1995, where I compared Tyson to Tony Montana from "Scarface," with special emphasis to the "Say hello to the bad guy ... you need people like me!" scene. Seven years later, nothing has changed. We still need people like him. We still need the bad guys. We still need to call strangers "monsters," to rip them apart, to use others to make ourselves feel better. Just remember, we were the reason that Tyson earned nine figures over the course of his career.

    After seeing his performance following the Lewis fight -- his obsequious interactions with Lewis in the post-fight interview, the way he candidly accepted defeat, the way he even brushed blood off Lewis' face -- you can't help but wonder if much of this "Bad Guy" stuff has been an act. Was he genuinely this crazy? Was he just a misguided soul who thought to himself, "They're never gonna love me, so at least I'll make them remember me"? or "They're never gonna accept me, so I'll give them exactly what they want"? Was it a little of both?

    We may never know. That was one of the contradictions about Tyson, that someone so vicious remained so gracious after almost every fight, helping fallen fighters up, putting his arm around them in post-fight interviews, always showing genuine concern for their welfare. How was this the same man who chewed off Holyfield's ear and tried to break Franz Botha's arm? Was he just bipolar? Did it go deeper than that? Was he conning everyone all along?

    Maybe he never had a chance in the first place. Much has been made of Tyson's tragic childhood, or the fact that he missed D'Amato (a father figure during Tyson's teens). During the only period in his life where he was potentially redeemable -- right after he captured the heavyweight title -- Robin Givens and Don King collectively played him like a cello, soaking him for big bucks. A few years later, Tyson was railroaded at that rape trial in Indianapolis, victimized by a sketchy accuser and an inept defense team that completely botched his case. Not that this was a bad thing -- even though Tyson maintains his innocence about the alleged rape of the beauty contestant to this day, he also admitted responsibility for unreported "incidents" that were probably just as bad, if not worse. It all caught up to him in the end.

    Whatever the case, spending time in jail pushed Tyson over the edge. Suddenly, his life became a self-fulfilling prophecy -- like Tony Montana, Tyson realized that he was the Bad Guy, nothing more, nothing less -- which may account for much of his bizarre behavior over the past few years. Biting Holyfield's ear? Threatening to eat people's children? Gnawing Lewis's leg? Sexually harassing and threatening reporters? Tyson was playing the Clubber Lang role everyone wanted him to play, especially because it was the only way to drive up interest in his fights.

    Think about it. This man had fought 41 unimpressive rounds over the past 11 years, yet Vegas still considered him only a 2-1 underdog against the talented Lewis, and Showtime and HBO were still able to charge a record price of $55 for the pay-per-view. Would those numbers ($55 and 2-1) have shifted if Tyson's actions hadn't obscured the real truth, that he hadn't defeated a quality opponent in 14 years? Looking back, Mike Tyson played us like fools. Washed up ever since the Ruddock fights, he knew it better than anybody ... so there was only way to maintain his market value and keep commanding eight-figure paychecks: Continue acting like a complete lunatic in and out of the ring.

    And he did. And we bought it.

  • My favorite running part of the Tyson era? His post-fight interviews from the mid-'80s, after he had just knocked somebody unconscious, when Tyson was so jacked up that he would practically start hyperventilating. Remember those? Larry Merchant would ask him a question, Tyson would spit out the answer -- hopping back and forth, always maintaining eye contact to make sure Merchant was listening, spouting out that Tyson-esque BS like "I tried to drive his nose through his brain" -- and when Tyson finished speaking, he would abruptly stop, then widen his eyes, anxiously waiting for the next question. Was anyone more excited to get interviewed than Mike Tyson in the mid-'80s? Just thinking about it makes me start giggling.

    (During his heyday as a celebrity in the late-'80s, before it became taboo for anyone to invite him on a talk show, Tyson may have been one of the three or four funniest Letterman guests of all-time -- not just because Letterman was scared of him, but because Tyson was trying so damned hard. Couldn't "Saturday Night Live" have asked him to host just once? Am I asking for too much here?)

    That wasn't the only fun part of the Tyson Era. There was his improbable voice, which made him sound like a rejected Jamie Foxx character. The malapropisms were TREEE-mendous; he might have been the modern-day Yogi Berra. (Following the Lewis fight, he reeled off two good ones -- the "Bolivian" comment and the phrase, "I take my hand off to him," although neither compared to the time he called a referee's decision "ludacrisp.") And there was always something strangely enjoyable about Tyson's penchant for using splashy adjectives like "magnificent" and "transcendent" (the toughest boxer of the '80s apparently learned how to speak from an interior decorator).

    Add everything up and Tyson consistently ranked in the mid/high-'90s on the Unintentional Comedy Scale, and now that his boxing prime is over, anything's possible. Many people are predicting that he'll be dead within two years; I couldn't disagree more. We are never, ever, ever getting rid of Mike Tyson.

    I see him pulling the George Foreman routine over the next 10 years, beating up a series of nobodies (just like he did from 1998 to 2001), restoring his reputation as a contender, pulling two or three crazy stunts in and out of the ring to maintain his "I'm the Bad Guy!" routine, then somehow conning the public into another title match. Rinse, lather, repeat. And if the thought of a demented, punch-drunk Mike Tyson carrying on five years from now doesn't warm your heart, I don't know what does. You have to tip your hand to this man, don't you?

  • My favorite moment from the Tyson era? His shocking defeat to Buster Douglas in Tokyo (I wrote about it a few weeks ago), which remains one of the three or four most amazing sports-related things I've ever seen. My second favorite moment? The interview right after the second Holyfield fight, when a menacing, pacing Tyson looked ready to rip Jim Gray apart at any moment (unfortunately, he held off). My least favorite moment? When Tyson bragged to Jose Torres that the best punch he ever landed was to his ex-wife, Robin Givens. Hard to forget something like that.

    As for the most underrated moment of the Tyson era, it happened during the second Holyfield fight. I'm not condoning it, I'm not condemning it ... I'm just mentioning it.

    Anyway, remember when Tyson chewed Holyfield's ear the first time, and Holyfield complained, so the referee halted the fight for about a minute, then improbably allowed it to resume? There was about 20 seconds in there, right after we realized what had happened but right before the fight continued, when both guys were standing in their respective corners, ready to resume the fight, and Tyson was practically growling like a pit bull ... and absolutely anything seemed possible.

    For some reason, I'm always going to remember those 20 seconds. That might have been the greatest "Move To The Edge of Your Seat Moment" in sports history. I can still remember where I watched the fight, where I was sitting and everyone else that was sitting in the room with me. I bet you can, too. If the Spinks fight was the defining fight of Mike Tyson's career, then those 20 seconds were the defining moment. Twenty seconds where anything seemed possible, where every room came alive, where you could feel your heart pounding and your knees grow weak. Mike Tyson was completely insane. And a bad guy. And a great fighter, at least for a little while. And now he's headed for Bolivian.

    For some reason, it seems like the perfect place for him.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.



            Paginated view

  • Bill_Simmons
    Bill
    Simmons
    THE SPORTS GUY