In the ring, doing the same old thing
Even at 54, Mike Tyson’s moves are extraordinary, balletic. If it wasn’t for the steel wool stubble on his face, this could be 1988. Years into a battle with alcoholism and despair, is it that ordinary life just can’t compare with those moments in the ring?Updated: Aug 09, 2020 10:36 IST
atching Mike Tyson throw a punch is a vicious, visceral experience. Even if I’m watching a grainy video on YouTube shot on a mobile phone, the sheer power of those punches— moving from the ground up through Tyson’s tree-trunk thighs, his steely torso, his boulder shoulders, his bulging biceps and into the blur of his fists—is enough to bring up deeply buried primal fears. It’s scary. It’s sensational.
The man is 54. He should not be moving like this. Duck, weave, boom. Duck, weave, smash. If it wasn’t for the steel wool stubble on his face, if it wasn’t for the deep lines around his eyes, this could be 1988, and I could be time-travelling.
Watching recent videos of him reminded me of an old Blues song on the legendary boxer Joe Louis: Well, he even carries a mean left / (You know he do) and he carry a mean right / And if he hit you with either one, send the charge from a dynamite / He in the ring, boys, doing the same old thing…
Iron Mike, back in the ring, doing the same old thing.
On September 12, Tyson will fight Roy Jones, one of the most technically gifted fighters of his time (who, at 51, is also coming out of retirement for an eight-round match). The promoters have had the good sense to call it an ‘exhibition’. May it remain so, and remain a one-off event. Because no matter how good Tyson looks for his age, boxers in their 50s coming out of retirement, is no cause for celebration.
Sport has seen a near-revolutionary shift in the science of training and nutrition, and athletes are fitter now than ever before, even as they go past what is conventionally thought of as their prime—look at Cristiano Ronaldo at 35, or James Anderson, Serena Williams and Roger Federer (all 38).
But this is boxing we’re talking about, a sport with a singularly brutal purpose—the end game is to render your opponent unconscious, or at least unable to stand, with blows to the head. No other combat sport is quite as dangerous. Not even mixed martial arts, with its bloodied octagons (because most fights end with wrestling submissions and not knockouts).
Even a sport as patently illegal as bare-knuckle boxing, research indicates, may be less harmful than pro boxing—because boxers use padded gloves, the impact of the punches are less immediately painful, which means they can go on for much longer, absorbing heavy hits and intensifying internal injuries.
Though Tyson is not actually making a comeback, the list of boxers who have done so at an advanced age, or simply did not quit when they really should have, is long and bleak. Larry Holmes, who held the heavyweight title longer than anyone in boxing history, was 38 when he came out of retirement and was dropped in the fourth round by a 20-year-old Tyson. It did not stop him. He fought his last fight at 53.
Evander Holyfield, the four-time world champion, continued till 51. George Foreman, Rocky Marciano, even Joe Louis, they’ve all done it—but certainly the most tragic example is the late great Muhammad Ali.
When Ali fought Holmes in 1980, he was already showing signs of Parkinson’s disease. His speech slurred, his hands shook. His kidneys were already badly damaged. The man who floated like a butterfly, moved as if in slow motion, as if he was confused about why he was even in the ring. It is still difficult to watch footage of that fight. Yet Ali fought again, his last bout, in 1981.
Why do they do it? Money is an obvious answer. But there is also the adrenaline, the illusion of invincibility, the deep-seated desire to dominate another person with your fists. How can ordinary life compare to those moments inside the ring?
Tyson last fought in 2005. His life was already unravelling. By 2013, he was describing himself as a vicious alcoholic. “I’ll never be happy. I believe I’ll die alone,” he said then.
Watching him move now, you get a glimpse of why he must fight again. For him, perhaps, it’s redemption.