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November 2002
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CBZ Book Review:

Iron Mike: A Mike Tyson Reader
Edited by Daniel O'Connor

Reviewed by Brett Conway

In September 1998, I was doing research for my M.A. thesis on boxing and trauma and studying the theories of French Freudian Jacques Lacan. A medical evaluation of Mike Tyson was released at that time. Conducted after the infamous "bite fight" in which Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear, the evaluation noted Tyson's symptoms of trauma and recommended he find someone he can trust to listen to his problems. I thought that this report and its conclusions were timely for a fledgling thesis writer and that Tyson's symptoms fit the trauma theories of Lacan. I particularly appreciated Lacan's idea of voicing trauma, of confessing, of giving it to the world, to what Lacan called the Symbolic. I felt the evaluation committee's recommendation for Tyson to find someone to talk to was a tacit acknowledgement of the power of what Lacan calls the Symbolic. By giving voice to trauma, what Lacan calls the Real, Tyson can begin to relieve his symptoms of trauma. I also felt Lacan's idea of verbalizing trauma as a coping mechanism parallels Nietzsche's idea of the Apollonian (reason) giving form to the chaos of the Dionysian (the irrational) in the Birth of Tragedy . The Apollonian tames, rationalizes, but does not erase the Dionysian. The Dionysian can always break out just like trauma. Given these theories and Tyson's symptoms detailed in his evaluation, I am surprised when people are surprised at Tyson's mistrust, violence, and sense of persecution. After all, he was created in a Brooklyn ghetto that "nurtured" such a slant on life, such symptoms of trauma. Mike Tyson's life mirrors the taming and then breaking out of both traumatic and violent Dionysian forces.

Following Gerald Early's 1998 book The Muhammad Ali Reader, Daniel O'Connor, an editor at Thunder's Mouth Press, presents Iron Mike: A Mike Tyson Reader, the most important book about Mike Tyson since Jose Torres's 1989 biography Fire and Fear. This book reminds us of what Tyson brought to boxing and of what both boxing and Tyson himself have lost as a result of "Iron Mike"'s violence and self-destruction. O'Connor has assembled a group of essays from not only the usual suspects such as Joyce Carol Oates, Jose Torres, Jack Newfield, and a foreword by George Plimpton but also from unexpected sources like ex-Tyson driver Rudy Gonzalez. These pieces were published between 1985 and 2002, appearing in publications as diverse as The New York Times and The Sacramento Bee, The New Republic and The Village Voice, People and salon.com. It also contains over twenty photographs.

I praise Iron Mike for giving us a balanced portrait of Tyson. It includes essays that condemn Tyson's destructive antics and ones that are sympathetic to Tyson. Presenting the many sides of Tyson's story seems to have been O'Connor's goal. He asks in the introduction, "what does it mean that those who champion Tyson are most likely to have no voice, while the rest of us get our news of him from writers who admit to a 'mostly hate' relationship?" (xxi).

This book is valuable not just for discussing today's Tyson who seems to throw more punches outside the ring than in it and the mid-1980s Tyson who exploded into mainstream culture as his opponents imploded at the end of his punches. It also details the mythology he entered into when he began training at a boxing gym in the Catskills. Cus D'Amato, the owner of this Catskills gym and the former trainer and manager of heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and light heavyweight champion Jose Torres, figures prominently early in the anthology in essays by William Plummer and Jack Newfield. The story of how D'Amato meets and "reforms" Tyson is as cliché as any Hollywood B-grade boxing movie. In the early 1980s, a friend who works at Tyson's residence, the Tryon School for boys, introduces D'Amato to Tyson. D'Amato begins training Tyson after noting the fourteen-year old has a knockout punch (something that cannot be taught) and a desire to learn how to box. He soon manages to get Tyson released from the reformatory and takes him into his own home, hoping not only to turn him into a good boxer but a good human being, too. If any boxing trainer has the ability to help Tyson, if any represents the Apollonian, it is D'Amato. In a 1985 People article, William Plummer describes him as "no mere trainer, but a teacher of the thorough going sort that frequented the gymnasia of ancient Greece" (2). With D'Amato's help, Tyson saturates himself in the world of boxing, its techniques and its historical lore, identifying with the white 1920s heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey with whom he shares explosive punching power. Tyson would never have been a heavyweight champion without the tutelage of Cus D'Amato, his physical and psychological trainer. D'Amato's efforts to help the young Tyson became known as the "Cus and the Kid Myth."

Not all scribes in Iron Mike are enamoured of the Tyson-D'Amato relationship, though. In his contribution, Gerald Early used the adverb of frequency "never" to describe the number of times D'Amato truly helped Tyson. Using hindsight, one can argue, like Early did, that D'Amato exploited an emotionally damaged and violent kid for his own glory and that he did not help Tyson at all. I have to disagree with Early though. D'Amato's successful work with Jose Torres and Floyd Patterson, his disdain for money, and his risky resistance to the mob which controlled the heavyweight division of the 1950s and 1960s give him what the rhetoricians call "ethical appeal." He is almost universally recognized as a trainer who cared about the person behind the fighter, who wanted the boxer to confront his fears and his traumas. D'Amato wanted his guidance, his role as boxing and psychological trainer eventually to become, to use Plummer's word, "obsolete." He wanted his boxers eventually to become self-sufficient not only in the ring but also in the world. As D'Amato says, "people, especially if they come up in a rough area, have to go through a number of experiences in life that are intimidating and embarrassing. These experiences form layer upon layer over their capabilities and talents. So your job as a teacher is to peel off these layers" (3). Whether D'Amato's work paved the road to the hell that is now Tyson's life does not matter. What matters is that D'Amato acted with the best intentions.

Iron Mike clearly shows the unravelling of Tyson's psyche upon Cus D'Amato's death in 1985, a year before Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history at age 20. Tyson's manager Bill Cayton noted how D'Amato's death "traumatized" Tyson (15). Tyson had lost his father figure. Soon after defeating Michael Spinks in less than two minutes in June 1988, Tyson allows his life to go bad seemingly all at once. He fires his trainer Kevin Rooney and begins training on his own. Tyson's first wife, Robin Givens, cuts him off from the very people who helped him achieve the championship and, more importantly, maintain a modicum of self-control. He leaves his manager Bill Cayton to join Don King, who knows how to exploit his new cash machine's paranoia. With King, Tyson's Dionysian impulses are raging. Out of shape, Tyson is knocked out by journeyman Buster Douglas and loses his heavyweight title in 1990. In 1992, a jury convicts him of rape, and he spends three years in prison. In 1997, the Las Vegas Boxing Commission suspends Tyson from boxing for a year after Tyson bit the ear of Evander Holyfield in their heavyweight title rematch. In 1999, a judge sentences Tyson to a year in jail for assaulting a sixty-year old man after a minor fender bender. Having experienced what he and others feel is unjust persecution, Tyson no longer identifies with Jack Dempsey, the beloved 1920s champion, but identifies with Sonny Liston, a heavyweight champion of the early 1960s. In Iron Mike, Joyce Carol Oates describes this former champion, despised by the white press and killed by an "accidental" drug overdose, as "'the baddest of the bad' black heavyweights." All these events are well documented in the book in pieces by Jose Torres, Michael Katz, Harry Crews, Peter Heller, and others.

Early in his career, Tyson used slogans such as "the Tyson tradition" and "Team Tyson" when he entered the ring to show his awareness of his link to D'Amato, of his place in boxing history, and of his place in a society that cared and cheered for him. He was, to use Lacan's language, aware of the Symbolic network around him. Tyson no longer attends Cus's "gymnasia of ancient Greece," though. D'Amato's lessons are barely a memory in Tyson's psyche. Before taking one of the worst beatings in the ring ever at the hands of one-time Canadian and current heavyweight champion of the world Lennox Lewis on June 8, 2002, Tyson told Rudy Gonzalez, "I don't even think of Cus no more." Now, when Tyson enters the ring it is not about "tradition" or being on a "team". He garbs himself in a shirt bearing the slogan "Be Real". As mentioned above, French theorist Jacques Lacan suggests that to "Be Real" is not to be "realistic" or rational, but to be "traumatic," to be disconnected from the Symbolic, from society itself. Tyson walks and talks trauma and violence. We are all waiting for what will come in the end for Tyson. Iron Mike offers many clues, but sadly it does not allow me to deduce a happy ending for a man once considered by many destined to replace Sugar Ray Robinson as the greatest boxer of all time.

Iron Mike: A Mike Tyson Reader

Foreword by George Plimpton
Thunder's Mouth Press.
324 pages, $27.95


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