I’ve been working with Reid Farrington on an upcoming theater piece examining the careers and lives of Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali (fka Cassius Clay). It’s been surprisingly enlightening. So far, I’ve watched virtually every Tyson fight, and my opinion of him has changed dramatically; the only impression I had of Tyson came from 1) coverage in popular media and 2) the James Toback-directed documentary; but to observe the man in the ring is to see how much of a student he was, how much discipline he had, and how much respect he had for his craft, and his opponents. It’s something you don’t get from the popular snippets of his post-fight interviews. I wish I could share some of the footage here, but I don’t want to put my collaborators at risk of copyright infringement.
My role in the project is to go through footage of each boxers’ fights, and separate them into individual rounds for comparison later. To me, the project is about more than just the supreme craftsmanship of each boxer — it’s about the complexity of black men, and how it has been systematically subdued since we’ve been in this country. So much of what we know about Tyson (and all black men) comes from media, which necessarily simplifies the narrative. What Tyson did over the course of his career and life, is show us all sides of being a black man in America: the brutality, compassion, love, insecurity, fear, braggadocio, eloquence, stupidity, childishness. Look at the archives of the Tyson vs Lewis fight. Before the fight, each of them berated the other with such vitriol. After the fight, Tyson spoke with such gratitude and respect for a man who just moments ago knocked him out. Yet here is Tyson, talking about how much loves (yes, he used the word “love”) Lewis, and how grateful he was that Lewis gave him an opportunity to fight (later in his career, Tyson was very candid about his need for the prize money). Love and gratitude are not words commonly associated with Tyson (or black men, for that matter).
What’s more, to see him in interviews now, he has such a complete understanding himself. It’s something we all strive for, and it serves as personal inspiration. After watching Tyson in and out of the ring, and seeing his development over the years, I think it’s safe to say Tyson is a worthy case study (if not role model) for black men in America.