Of course, I'm going to watch the Mike Tyson fight tonight. I'd watch it no matter how late it comes on, even if I have to pay $24.95. Mike Tyson and his half-finished face tattoo are must-see TV, in the same way Michael Jackson and his vanishing face and his wacky life and his mosquito-netted children are must-see TV. Few things consume us these days as much as a good freak show, and that's exactly what Tyson vs. The Black Rhino is. We don't tune in to watch Tyson box any more than we care if Jackson can still sing.
The Tyson show on late tonight can't be any more bogus than "Joe Millionaire," can it? And that trash attracted 35 million viewers Monday. Looking in on Tyson amounts to a guilty pleasure, but no worse than "The Bachelor" or any of these other sleazy reality shows. In fact, ESPN.com reported earlier this week that a Hollywood producer is in the process of finalizing a reality show featuring Tyson. How about Tyson as "Mike Millionaire" where he chooses between 25 bachelorettes? The producer, Stu Schreiberg, was quoted as saying, "With 500 channels, you have to have that name that just cuts through the clutter."
And Tyson, with our help, does exactly that. And while not particularly proud of it, I admit I'm fascinated with Tyson, even though it's easy to make the case that he not only isn't a great fighter now but perhaps never was. He never won an epic fight, never got off the mat to whip anybody, never dug deep to win in the last round with an eye cut or nose busted or shoulder separated. Any time he has been challenged by someone as big and tough as he is, Tyson's been whupped. You can look it up. He got knocked out by Buster Douglas, beat down twice by Evander Holyfield and pounded senseless by Lennox Lewis.
Tyson's former trainer, Teddy Atlas, said this week that Tyson was a comet, a blur across the heavens, but never had the staying power of a planet, and to me that captures Tyson and his impact as much as anything I've heard or read. Just think: Tyson hasn't beaten anybody of consequence since before he lost to Douglas in February 1990. That's 13 years ago. Since then, he's just been mostly notorious, but in today's culture, that's enough to fascinate, if not titillate.
Three months ago, more than one quarter into a Lakers-Wizards game at MCI Center featuring the three most famous people in the NBA right now -- Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaq -- Tyson made a late entrance from the mezzanine and down the staircase, and every pair of eyes in the arena looked away from the court, away from the glittering stars still active and vibrant, and at Tyson until long after he had taken his seat.
This week alone, Tyson has demonstrated the full 360 degrees of his bizarre personality, and sometimes the full circle in less than 30 seconds. At his news conference Thursday, when someone mistook Tyson's little boy for a girl, Tyson appeared terrifyingly close to exploding over this perceived affront to his manhood, and his son's. A few minutes later, after being interviewed on-camera by ESPN's Jeremy Schaap, Tyson turned to him once the cameras were off and said, "It's always a pleasure speaking with you. I really have a great deal of respect for you and your father [the late Dick Schaap]. Please give my regards to your mother."
I'm not saying that acts of kindness make Tyson's frightening episodes acceptable, just that the contradictions are part of what make him irresistible -- from a distance, of course. I have been in Tyson's company enough to see him be terrifying, gentle, hostile, engaging, primitive, then inquisitive and introspective. He's bright, he's well-read, well-traveled, curious. He also worried aloud recently that he's so unstable that "the current may take me so far out . . . that I just can't get back."
There's no simple answer to any question regarding Mike Tyson.
He was so accomplished in his discipline by the age of 22 that we can't understand how he came to this. Just as we can't quite figure out how Michael Jackson came to this. (My friend Tony K. says they are now both in "a fog of lunacy" and who could debate that?) They commanded so much attention for what they did, it's hard to let go of what might have been or what might be once again.
But we don't tune in anymore expecting greatness from either, just to be entertained in a way that we can be entertained by looking in on whack jobs such as Ozzy Osbourne and Anna Nicole Smith or anybody who appears on Jerry Springer.
My friend and colleague Pat Forde, writing in the Louisville Courier Journal, found an old interview in which Atlas told the New Yorker, "[People] want to see something dark. They want to feel close to it and in on it, but, of course, only from the distance of their suburban homes. They want to have the benefit of comfort, security, safety, respect, and at the same time the privilege of watching something out of control . . . as long as we can be secure we're not accountable for it."
I expect Tyson to knock the Rhino's horns off Saturday night, inside of four rounds. As diminished as Tyson is as a boxer, he'll still smash this guy to bits. But I suspect those of us watching will be waiting (hoping?) Tyson will outdo himself in this theater of the absurd. We want to see his face, see if it'll bleed the same way we want to see how grotesque Michael Jackson has become.
If Tyson actually cared about the fight the way he used to care about boxing, he never would have broken camp a week before the bout. In fact, there's every reason to think Tyson has no desire to fight at all anymore. He didn't really want to be in the ring when he bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear, and probably rather would be anywhere but Memphis on Saturday to face Clifford Etienne. But this is the way he makes a buck now, and we're his patrons, fascinated still, even if for mostly the wrong reasons. The heavyweight prizefighter Mike Tyson is finished as a draw; the notorious Mike Tyson might have a few big paydays left.