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Nashville Scene Reality Bites

Chomping down on Tyson

By Randy Horick

July 8, 1997:  This week the Mike Tyson jokes will inevitably begin. It's sad, in a way. This once proud warrior, once supremely feared, has been reduced to a clownish caricature, a laughingstock, an object of unending derision. Like Macbeth or Oedipus, Tyson is a tragic figure, brought down from the pinnacle by a fatal flaw.

Geez, I hope nobody out there is buying this crap.

This particular load of fertilizer is brought to you--at great risk of trespassing upon Don King's franchise--in hopes of providing what your Pundit Types like to call perspective, or what the rest of us often express, less articulately, as "Duh-h."

There were several transcendently "duh-h" moments Saturday night in the aftermath of the Tyson-Holyfield boxing bonanza. But most viewers, understandably, were so agog over Tyson's ear-chomping assault, and the ensuing in-ring melee, that they might have missed the funniest act of the whole circus, provided by the network clowns who seemed genuinely outraged that something outrageous could occur in--gasp!--a boxing ring.

The official professions of shock at Saturday's affront to civility, offered in apparent obliviousness to the uncivilized surroundings, suggest the existence of a parallel, turned-on-its-head universe where boxers are as sportsmanlike as cricketeers, promoters never act like racketeers, and it's possible to keep a straight face while comparing Mike Tyson to the confused protagonist ("To bite, or not to bite") of a Shakespearean tragedy.

"I'm at a loss for words," ESPN's analyst Buster Douglas apologized repeatedly, setting the comic tone of the whole post-bite reaction. Admittedly, Buster, himself a former palooka, might have been momentarily startled--biting is a tad over the top, even for Tyson--but he could hardly have been stunned that Iron Mike had stayed in character.

Which brings us to Duh Moment No. 1, when some ringside pundits, with the cummerbunds of their spiffy tuxes wrapped perhaps just a lee-tle too tightly, wondered aloud, "What could Tyson have been thinking?"

Um--duh!--pardon me for saying so, but the words "Tyson" and "thinking" occur together about as often as "Nobel Prize" and "jock itch." What was he thinking? The question is: When did Tyson start thinking? And why?

Not that Mike's decision to apply his tooth clench wasn't premeditated. Before the bell rang to start Round 3, Tyson spat out his mouthpiece with malice in mind.

After the first bite, when the referee warned that any subsequent incisor work would bring disqualification, Tyson struck again almost immediately. Afterward, when he could have pleaded temporary insanity, Iron Mike instead defended the bites.

He had to retaliate for a head butt, he said. For the sake of his young children, he had to protect his means of earning a livelihood. (Those pitiable babies could be reduced to vying for table scraps, since the loser's purse Saturday was a thin $30 million.) This is a man who is quite possibly insane, but it's not temporary.

It's also possible, as some observers (particularly Holyfield) suggested, that Tyson realized by the third round that he was headed inexorably toward another hiney-kicking at the hands of the more skilled champ. Rather than submit to another prolonged beating, Iron Mike chose a cowardly suicide by taking matters into his own teeth.

The theory sounds plausible enough. But to confirm it, you'd have to get way in Tyson's head. Trust me, you don't want to go there.

Another splendid "duh" moment followed when the press-row railbirds decried Tyson's animalistic and aber-

rant behavior, perhaps unaware that "aberrant" connotes a departure from the norm. In fact, much of Tyson's appeal has always had its source in his feral qualities; he suggests nothing so much as an animal confined only by the ropes. And his behavior outside the ring (apart from his recent profession of Islam) has done little to alter his Neanderthal image.

Don King and his minions have labored to cloak Tyson in respectability--and they've had about as much success as Jethro Bodine had when he tried to reinvent himself as a "double-naught" spy. So when the agape analysts complain that Mike has behaved badly, the correct response is to yawn. Or laugh.

Perhaps the best reason for a collective "duh" is the media's fretting that Tyson's brutishness will bring boxing into disrepute--which is a little like suggesting that Pol Pot gave genocide a bad name. Um, did we miss something, or didn't boxing already have an image that wasn't exactly pristine?

The sport, if we may still call it that, isn't just brutal and hazardous, it has evolved into a sleazy casino game. Tyson is a symptom, not the cause.

Just in the past year or so, we've seen one title contender dissolve into tears during a bout and refuse to box. Observers smelled a fix when a fighter was felled by a phantom punch. Nobodies like the lummoxy Peter McNeeley, who made the original Rocky Balboa look like a cinch, were selected to fight for the heavyweight title. (By the way, isn't it curious that, whenever something bizarre happens in boxing, Don King is lurking in the background, like that little beanie-wearing twerp in the Nissan commercials?)

In some respects, big-time pro boxing today is more farcical and less honest than pro wrestling, which promises fans nothing more than campy entertainment and costs far less to attend. In attempting, with their tuxedos and moralizing, to give boxing a veneer of respectability, the ringside commentators are hard-pressed to avoid sounding like Casablanca's Captain Renault, who professes shock--shock!--to learn of gambling in Rick's Café, even as he pockets his winnings from roulette.

What happens now is anyone's guess.

Tyson, who under Nevada law can lose only 10 percent of his purse, could be suspended from boxing. His career, as he admits, could be over.

But probably not. Even if Tyson is permanently barred from fighting in this country, the finagling King could always arrange bouts for him overseas.

Maybe the don of boxing could even wrangle another rematch with the ever generous Holyfield, with Tyson surgically defanged and ushered into the ring wearing a straitjacket, like Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter. They'd bill it as "The Mauler vs. The Molar," and 50 bucks a ticket would be way, way too low.

At the very least, other opportunities should now abound for Iron Mike. He could reprise the role of "Jaws" from the James Bond films. Or Jaws the Shark, for that matter.

As part of his community-service penance, Tyson could bring a street savvy to the role of McGruff, taking a bite of crime and whatever else happens by. He could work out promotional tie-ins with Hardee's. Or become the TV helper of the Jolly Green Giant, turning ears of corn into niblets before our eyes.

Pro boxing could be outlawed, but it won't be. Chances are, we'll even welcome King's carnival back to Nashville, as eager as our city is to host anything that appears on nationwide TV.

Who knows? Maybe Tyson's merely helping the sport evolve to its next logical level, liberating it from those swishy Marquess of Queensbury rules.

With King masterminding the promotions, boxing could interblend the fan-friendly, no-holds-barred qualities of Ultimate Fighting, wrestling, American Gladiators, and cockfighting. If so, we'll remember last Saturday as one small bite for Mike, one great leap for pugilism.

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