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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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Can't people see, that's all he really wants. It's easy to misunderstand him when his fists are wrapped around the rafters of the world and he's pulling down with all his might, but that's what he actually seeks, a philosophy, a religion, something to make it all feel whole and pure.

He takes a deep inhalation of Brownsville and tries not to let go—God, when you walk into Manhattan and they slap you on the back, it's so hard to hold it in. How else, if he lets his past recede, can he preserve the hurt and outrage that made him rebel, the anger that compels him to hit a man? Everyone is trying to dilute it, every request for an interview or a photo or an autograph threatens to weaken it, every multimillion-dollar offer, every fan that sidles up to him on the boardwalk in Atlantic City and says. "You're going to kill Holmes, he's an old man," every reminder that he has become the favored one, that he now is society's champion. Don't they see what they're doing to him? They're making him master, but to succeed he must be the rebel. He is driven to conquer; to do it, he must feel oppressed. How can he keep fighting with his lips curled back if they rob him of that? Why does the way he satisfies himself have to satisfy them; how can he take the paycheck and keep the cry of the self pure?

"What am I going to do with all that money?" he groans. Twenty-one years old, 60 million dollars this year, six-sevenths of what Ali earned in his entire ring career. He buys a Mercedes, a Jaguar, a Rolls-Royce, a Corvette, but a week later every one of them bores him. "Real freedom is having nothing," he says. "I was freer when I didn't have a cent. Do you know what I do sometimes? Put on a ski mask and dress in old clothes, go out on the streets and beg quarters."

It's late December in Atlantic City, four weeks before the fight with Holmes. Soon, as they are a month before each bout, 20 black-and-white photos of former champions will be taped to the walls of the condominium he stays in. Videos of their epic battles will play again and again on his screen; he, with each squeeze of his remote control, pumps life back into their nickering spirits and fights away the question: Who one day will do that for him?

He doesn't measure himself against his contemporaries, but against them—the gods. He wears the same bulky sweaters, long overcoats, cuffed trousers and caps that they did; squints and tries to see his own life in grainy black and white, bathed on a screen with the same soft white light as theirs; why, why doesn't his life ever seem quite as magical?

Sometimes, wrapped in knee-length white mink, he'll go 72 straight hours prowling the nightclubs, streets and hotels of New York. Then come days of listlessness and boredom in his apartment, staring at videos of movies in which people's heads get split open and their eyes are gouged out. One day, he'll eat 15 chicken wings and a gallon of ice cream. The next, he won't eat a thing. Life must be devoured, to prove that there are no limits to his freedom. Life must be shoved away, to prove that he remains in control. "Every conquest adds to him," says Lott. "He needs to conquer something new every day."

He walks into the wind on the boardwalk, distant, moody. Too many backslaps since that last night in Brownsville, his lungs can't hold it anymore, that deep breath at midnight has escaped him. Everything's compromised, it's all drudgery, four weeks of killing himself in training, all for another staged social event. He looks up at the Trump Plaza marquee advertising the fight, sees the big picture of him with one title belt around his waist and two crisscrossed like bandoliers across his chest, suddenly he recaptures the snapshot of himself that he needs. "Look!" he cries. "Look at me! Like a———bandit!" He hop-steps like a little boy. "It's going to be great! I can't wait, it's going to be great!"

Please, don't ask him to explain. Confusion is his gunpowder. Every explanation lets a little of it leak. O.K., listen well; he won't do this often. He is pacing in a dingy locker room above the police station in Catskill, where he trains, night crowding all around a single naked light bulb. One moment he is in the shadows at the far end of the room, fingering a boxing glove, a wad of tape, anything his restless hands can find. The next he looms above you, touching your shoulder, an intelligent man trying to press into you a feeling for which he never learned words. His voice, it's still soprano, a bird trapped inside a tenement.

"In my mind, everyone is against me," he says. "Some people may act like they respect me, but they don't. I'm in a business of phonies. I want to believe the whole world is against me. I love the smell of danger. I love living on the edge. In my mind I'm not a man who has made 25 million dollars. I'm still the wild kid on the streets.

"I believe in taking chances. There's nothing I won't try, as far as my social life. Small stakes don't interest me. Only big. I never stole for the money, I stole for the excitement. No one will ever tell me what to do. I refuse to have anyone dictate to me.

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