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Tyson quits

Andy Newman

It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Writing on the day before the match, the Washington Post's Mark Schlabach
predicted: "I think Tyson knocks him out in the first or second round. You never get what you fully want from a Tyson fight and this one won't last long." The Independent's brilliant sports columnist, James Lawton, described Kevin McBride as Tyson's "feeblest opponent since a bar-room scuffler from Boston, Pete McNeely, was unearthed by promoter Don King as a "welcome home" ring present for Tyson after he had served three years for rape". Yet Irish non-entity McBride has ended the career of the legendary Mike Tyson, the fight halted by the referee after 6 rounds.

Tyson was fighting because he has debts of $30 million. The McBride fight netted him $5 million, of this he would draw just $1 million, and the rest would go to his creditors. (McBride received just 80000 even though he won). If he beat two or three more no-hopers Tyson could have had a shot at a lucrative world title, thus resolving his financial catastrophe. And there are so many titles to chose from, and currently three world champions. John Ruiz is WBA champ; Chris Byrd is IBF champ; and the talented Vitali Klitschko is WBC champ. Here the truly farcical nature of professional boxing asserts itself: fights are arranged between managers based upon the income they will generate and are often very unequal. The alphabet soup of governing bodies both maximises revenue and effectively avoids control. In 2003 Tyson was barred from fighting in Nevada after he attacked Lennox Lewis at a press conference, the fight was simply moved to Memphis.

In the 1976 film, Rocky, Silvester Stallone plays washed up amateur fighter Rocky Balboa, who by chance is given a shot at the world title to fight the fictional Apollo Creed. Sadly, a number of inferior sequels and imitations have diminished the reputation of the film, but in a way Rocky's celluloid triumph does sum up the popular appeal of boxing. Rocky is portrayed as an inarticulate but well meaning man with very limited prospects, and the love interest in the film is unconventional as Talia Shire plays an introverted and difficult girlfriend. It is artificial, but a nod to blue collar experience away from the glitz of most American movies. (It is perhaps worth saying that as a portrayal of mundane working class life Rocky is very derivative of the far superior Marty (1955), onto which it grafted a perfunctory boxing plot.) In an example of life imitating art in 2003 California production company Triage entered talks with Tyson's management about a reality show where the winning member of the public would fight Tyson, although this came to nothing.

Nevertheless, Rocky builds upon the simple myth of boxing, that it is a path to glory out of extreme poverty based upon self reliance. In Elia Kazan's anti-communist film masterpiece On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando articulates the pain of failure: "I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I am".

Tyson's image makers understood this myth of boxing very well. This is what people pay to see, an all or nothing struggle where the victor escapes, but of course the essential dramatic tragedy and what makes boxing so compulsive is that the winners cannot escape, because to win they must be so competitive and aggressive they cannot find peace in victory. The flawed heroes and villains of the boxing world live the torments of Hamlet, but expressed with the drawl of Sylvester Stallone, not the poetry of Shakespeare. And vicariously as well, we the audience indulge in the primitive, animal pleasure of fighting: surrendering our conscious and critical self to the guilty, sensual experiences of flesh upon flesh.

Tyson had it all: doomed youth, aggression, flamboyance. In 1987, as the world's youngest ever world heavyweight champion he visited a high school in Brooklyn, stood on a stage and talked about the ravages of drugs and how many of his companions at school or in the street were either in prison on dead. The only way out was with his fists and his own raw aggression. Yet this was also myth as his brother escaped by simply going to college and becoming a pharmacist in California.

Tyson did more than flirt with disaster, he courted disaster and made a serious lifetime commitment to it. His first marriage to actress Robin Givens ended in bitter recriminations over wife-beating. He ran his car into a tree in what appeared to be a suicide attempt. He smashed up his family home. He was convicted of raping Desiree Washington, an 18-year-old beauty queen, for which he served half of a three-year sentence. He was sentenced to another year for assaulting two motorists in a road rage incident in 1998. In 2002 he bit off Evander Holyfield's ear in the most infamous heavyweight title fight in modern history. "I'm an animal in the ring" Mike Tyson declared afterwards.

Although the ear biting incident was clearly outside the rules, the injuries legitimately inflicted during the fights are worse. The British Medical Association explains: "the brain is encased only by the skin-covered skull and attached to its interior by fine filaments of blood vessels and nerves. (One of the most useful models to describe the structure is that of a jelly suspended in a box by threads on all sides). When a boxer sustains a direct blow to the head - which has been likened to the effect of being hit by a 12lb padded, wooden mallet travelling at 20mph - the head rotates sharply and then returns to its normal position at a much slower speed. In addition, the different densities of the different parts of the brain also move at different rates and the overall result is to create a "swirling" effect inside the brain. Resulting damage: surface damage from brain hitting against inner surface of skull; tears to nerve networks; tension between brain tissue and blood vessels may cause lesions and bleeding; pressure waves created causing differences in blood pressure to various parts of the brain; (rarely) large intracerebral clots"

So is it a genuine sport? My God, yes, boxing is the exemplification of sport. Sport relentlessly pursues a single theme: who is the strongest, who is the fastest, who is the best, who is the champion? And at the top of the tree is the Heavyweight boxing world champion. Boxing is the sport where one man is measured simply against another man, to find out who is the better animal. One man is vindicated, the other man literally beaten.

And I use the term measured advisedly. Kevin McBride's victory showed that there is unpredictability in the overall result, and clearly talent and aggression can determine the outcome. But at the end of a brutal sixth round Tyson was penalised two points for a head-but that reopened a cut on McBride's eye. This meant that the judges were split: two judges had Tyson leading 57-55 after six rounds while the third had the 32-year-old McBride ahead by the same margin.

Let us step back from that and consider - there are rules to boxing, and points are awarded. So that the animal aggression, the wilful and deliberate infliction of pain and damage of one individual upon another can be measured, compared and quantified. Statistics can be compiled and leagues drawn up. So boxing is not an ancient anachronism, it is a relatively modern invention of capitalist sport industry. The reduction of human beings to abstract physical effort, whose output is measured.

The rules were originally codified by the Marquis of Queensbury. What irony that this is the individual who destroyed Oscar Wilde in the courts for daring to love another man, yet he devised the obscene point system for deliberate violent damage by fists of one man against another - what further irony that Queensbury's barrister was the bigot Edward Carson whose violent orange shadow has lain across the North of Ireland for a hundred years.

Boxing is not uniquely dangerous. Perhaps steeplechase horse racing has a worse safety record. A plaque was unveiled in March 2005 to mark the 298 fatalities in Australian racing, and just two weeks later two more jump jockeys died within 3 days of each other. British and Irish racing has known less fatalities, but head and spinal injuries leave many Jockeys incapacitated; and deaths are still more common than in the boxing ring.

Yet boxing is unique in that the physical injury and damage in other sports is incidental: whereas in boxing it is the aim of the sport. No civilised society can condone boxing, and it should be banned. The final words must go to Tyson himself: "I've never done nothing to the Establishment but make money for them, yet they treat me like a whore."

BMA arguments to ban boxing:


June 2005


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