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Friday, June 14, 2019

June 14, 2019: Boxing and America: Tyson and Celebrity

[On June 13th, 1935, underdog boxer James “Cinderella Man” Braddock won a stunning upset decision over heavyweight champion Max Baer. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that story and other ways in which this complex sport reflects American histories. Leading up to a weekend post on some of the undisputed champs in the realm of boxing films!]
On three stages in the bizarre public arc of a 1980s boxing champion.
American athletes had also been (or at least had the potential to be) celebrities since at least Babe Ruth’s era, if not indeed that of the first professional football player, Pudge Heffelfinger. But the mid-20th century rise of the television age brought enhanced such possibilities for athletic celebrity (with my Wednesday subject Muhammad Ali a prime example; seriously, just watch the first couple minutes of that hyperlinked 1963 interview and you’ll see just how much the camera loved Ali [then still known as Cassius Clay] and vice versa), and the late 20th century emergence of the multimedia and cable news era brought even more opportunities for telegenic athletes to become global celebrities. Magic and Michael in basketball, Doc and Darryl in baseball, and Montana and Marino in football were all great examples of that trend in the 1980s, but I’m not sure any 80s athlete became more famous than heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. At the height of his boxing success Tyson was making as much as $25 million for a single fight, and raking in far more than that in endorsements and television rights and the like.
Some of the other 80s athletes I mentioned dealt publicly (and have continued to deal) with serious issues (especially drugs for Doc Gooden and, later, AIDS for Magic Johnson), but of that cohort only Mike Tyson went to prison for a violent crime. By 1992 Tyson had undergone a serious of public failures, including his 1988 divorce from actress Robin Givens (after she accused him of spousal abuse, in a televised interview, natch) and his 1990 upset loss of his heavyweight title to Buster Douglas. But it was a 1991 accusation of rape by Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington that led to Tyson’s February 1992 jury conviction of that crime and his three-year prison sentence with the Indiana Department of Corrections. That jail time was in no way the end of Tyson’s boxing career, however: at least some of those aforementioned ginormous paychecks came for fights after Tyson’s release from prison, which reveals (among other things) the extent of his celebrity, the degree to which such uber-celebrity is always driven by a desire to watch potential trainwrecks unfold, and the lack of seriousness with which American culture takes the crime of rape. Not surprisingly, this second act in Tyson’s boxing career ended with another shockingly violent moment (ie, not the usual boxing violence about which I wrote on Monday, but unsanctioned such violence), this one in the ring.
That 1997 scandal more or less ended Tyson’s pro boxing career; but his career as a public celebrity has continued and even deepened in the two decades since. There have been various signal moments along the way of this unfolding third act, but I think a particularly salient one would be Tyson’s surprise guest starring role in the blockbuster comedy film The Hangover (2009). Tyson was, of course, playing himself in that film, or perhaps purposefully playing an even-crazier (and apparently heavily drugged) doppelganger of himself. Our inability to be sure about which of those possibilities was the case, and indeed the blurring of the line between Tyson’s actual self and the performance of that self in public (see also: his appearance at the roast of Charlie Sheen, which began with Tyson accurately quoting William Shakespeare, again natch), seems to be precisely the point. At least from this outsider’s perspective, the world of boxing overall (at least at its most publicly famous level) feels as if it has become quite close to reality television in the last couple decades, and so this third iteration of Mike Tyson, while far from the boxing ring, might well be one more stage of athletic celebrity.
Boxing films this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other boxing stories or histories you’d highlight?

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