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TYSON THE TIMID, TYSON THE TERRIBLE
Gary Smith
March 21, 1988
WHAT CONSUMES THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD, WHAT MAKES MIKE TYSON AS IMPOSING AS ANY FIGHTER IN BOXING HISTORY? HIS OWN FEAR, PERHAPS
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March 21, 1988

Tyson The Timid, Tyson The Terrible

WHAT CONSUMES THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD, WHAT MAKES MIKE TYSON AS IMPOSING AS ANY FIGHTER IN BOXING HISTORY? HIS OWN FEAR, PERHAPS

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Just now word has come, his mother is dead. The guilt from the grief he has caused her is so sharp he wants to roll up in a ball on the ground and scream. Where can he do that—in front of the gruff old man in his new home, in front of the pigeon decapitators in his old? He looks so cool and powerful on the outside—sometimes three-quarters of his weight class at amateur tournaments withdraw the moment they lay eyes on him—but inside, the self-hatred is chopping him up.

Like that thing with Duran. He loves Roberto, he can almost picture him as an older brother walking beside him down Rockaway Avenue to kick some ass and steal some birds. "So mean, so———mean!" he says, reveling. "An intelligent animal!" He goes to Albany to watch Duran's second fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, on closed-circuit theater TV. What's this, the killer surrendering to the pretty boy, the animal whimpering "No más"? Back in his room, he cries. It's me! All those years Duran was champion before I started liking him.... I ruined him. I ruin everything. He fell apart because of me.

And then: Don't I fight like Duran, don't I bully people in the ring? If Duran can cry "No more," can't I? Where's the old man right now? Is he sleeping? He kicks off the sheets, the air cold against his sweating skin. Cus, where are you? Is this it? Fear is a beast you must keep feeding fresh kills to keep it quiet, in the ring, outside the ring, it's all a ring, the beast must have new conquests to stay silent.... Suddenly the old cherry floorboards are thumping, the old man—who sleeps a floor below him—is awake; Mike is up there, dodging a jab, ripping the dark with uppercuts and hooks, flattening someone, giving the beast a snack to hold it until daylight.

What is it with girls? Funny, he never wants it to last. It's almost like in the ring: He only wants to break down their resistance, bend their will to his, conquer them and move on to the next. A girl says something that hurts his feelings, brings all his old fears about himself rushing back. Watch this, he tells a friend. For days he buries the hurt, pretends to flirt, makes her fall in love with him. Very good, now she's ready. He sneers at her and walks away.

His first four amateur fights, they have all said yes very quickly, tumbled to their backs, arms open, at his feet. The old man has dozed through the night, not a thump, not a single thump through the ceiling. Now comes the fifth one. in Scranton, Pa. Mike punches, the guy falls—no, wait, the guy is getting up, throwing punches! Mike knocks him down again, the guy gets up again. My God, I cannot dominate him! His arms forget how to strike a man, his legs forget how to sidestep and spring. The bell rings, he sags onto the stool. "My hand is broke," he says. Atlas, who was still around then, squeezes his hand to check; he doesn't flinch. "You're letting yourself fall apart." hisses Atlas. "You have to control your feelings!" Mike wades back into the ring, throws a punch; the guy topples again, the guy gets up again! To everybody in the crowd Tyson is winning easily, but he clinches and holds, the whole world whirls before his eyes. "I can't go on," he says, panting, before the third round. "Get out there!" shouts Atlas. Suddenly Atlas senses it—he might go down! Atlas ignores the rules, leaps onto the apron, screams, "Don't you do it, don't you dare do it!" Tyson hangs on, wins the decision, closes his eyes, hugs his trainer and says, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Oh, God, will it be a whole life like this? Feed the beast, feed the beast, miss a single feeding and the beast eats you.

The big white house is silent. How can the old man sleep? Does he know some other way to quiet it?

Someone's killing little boys in Atlanta. Someone's putting cyanide in Tylenol. Months pass and everyone else forgets it, but it eats inside him, burrows into the soft place that never had a chance to toughen, so young was it paved over.

Today he's in one of those moods that people who haven't lived his 16 years can't understand. He stayed out late last night, past curfew. Cus barks at him. He mutters back. Cus shouts. Tears fill Mike's eyes. Cus wraps his thick arms around him and hugs him; oh, it feels so warm, so good. Mike begins to stay out late on purpose, so Cus will scream at him, so he will cry, so Cus will hug him once more.

Then Cus dies. Fights it with every ounce of his will, sweats like a horse and arches off the bed. It takes three men to subdue him. But he dies.

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