Shadow Boxing

The night before Mike Tyson went nuts last Tuesday, I was having dinner with his first trainer, Teddy Atlas.

Atlas understands Tyson’s fractured and complex psyche through the special intimacy of the gym, through blood and sweat, tears and fears, those intense seconds in the corner between rounds.

“I don’t think he really wants to fight Lennox Lewis,” Atlas said. “Mike has no idea who he is. He hates himself. He wins fights by intimidating the other guy, but I think he suspects he can’t intimidate Lewis.

“I think Mike feels trapped,” Atlas continued. “I have a hunch he will do something to get out of the fight while still looking like a tough guy. Just like he bit off Holyfield’s ear before he could get knocked out.”

Twelve hours later, Teddy’s instinct was vindicated. The fighter who at 21 had the potential to be another Jack Dempsey or Sonny Liston was rolling on the floor of the Hudson Theatre, allegedly biting Lewis’s leg, while TV cameras recorded this cannibalistic mayhem. It was like watching the tragic end of King Kong. Or the final days of Elvis Presley. A huge talent was descending into self-destruction.

Tyson had been under enormous pressure. His wife had just filed for divorce, he’d fired his trainer, and Las Vegas police said they had enough evidence to consider charging him for a new rape allegedly committed in September.

After the Holyfield lunacy, Tyson was examined by psychiatrists at Mass General hospital. Their report makes references to chronic depression, a problem with rage management, a lack of impulse control, and attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders. It also cites “multiple episodes of loss of consciousness” from bats and bricks that Tyson suffered as a man-child on the streets of Brooklyn. It quotes Tyson saying, “I have no self-esteem.”

Even before this study, Tyson was on Zoloft and lithium. But he’s a walking pharmacological paradox. He told the Boston psychiatrists that the Zoloft robs him of his desire to spar, and so he has to stop taking it before a fight in order to do his violent job.

On January 7, Mike Tyson unexpectedly rang the doorbell of his old friend Brian Hamill, the photographer. He stayed for almost four hours. “Now that I’m in the twilight of my career,” Tyson told Hamill, “I want to reconnect with the people who were with me at the beginning.”

From Hamill’s apartment Tyson called Jose Torres, the former champion who had taken me to see Tyson in 1980. They had once been like brothers, but had been estranged since 1989, when Tyson had his bodyguards kick Torres out of his gym in Las Vegas. They met a few days after the call and had an affectionate reunion. “He asked me how to fight the much taller Lewis,” Torres told me. “I told him to hit Lewis on the biceps until his arms came down, to fight him like Rocky Marciano would have, to use the uppercut.”

Tyson also told Hamill he finally wanted to make his peace with Atlas, whom he had not spoken to in twenty years. In 1982, after a 16-year-old Tyson allegedly sexually molested Teddy’s 11-year-old female relative, Teddy put a gun to his head, then fired it into the air. That ended Atlas’s career as Tyson’s first tutor.

Hamill recalls that Tyson kept calling himself a “rage-aholic.” He was also struck by Tyson’s use of twilight to describe his career. This was an appealing honesty, but an appalling lack of confidence.

A great fighter must have a sense of honor, and the vanity of self-love, to get up off the floor and win a fight he is losing. Tyson has never gotten off the floor to win a fight.

And he loathes himself for it. When Tyson couldn’t intimidate Holyfield and Buster Douglas, he faltered. When they survived his best punch, he fell apart.

The morning after last week’s squalid scrum, I called the prophetic Atlas. “I almost feel sorry for Mike now,” he said. “I don’t think he wants to fight anymore.”

Tyson has become a freak-show act, like Barnum’s Tom Thumb. But people – the Jerry Springer-WWF crowd – will still pay money to see if he goes nuts again.

That’s why the Lewis fight could still happen somewhere, because it will generate millions of dollars from voyeurs lusting for cheap thrills and the rawest tabloid drama.

Shadow Boxing