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The Player
by Brendan "Shaddax" Welsh-Balliett

"Mike Tyson style/animal dunns we live wild...."- Mobb Deep

"All nights I perform like Mike/any one, Tyson, Jordan, Jackson, action, pack guns...."- Biggie Smalls

In the big rush to put the finishing editorial comment on the career of Mike Tyson following his one-sided loss to Lennox Lewis (which seemed to begin roughly half a second after Lewis' final crushing overhand right put a mercy-kill ending to a fight which was long past the competitive stage), those who choose to comment seems to have self-selected themselves into two basic camps: those taking a moralistic, "good-the-bad-man-got-what-was-coming-to-him" stance, and those who did a slightly-guilty-at-their-own-enjoyment reminiscence back to younger days and Tyson's effective reign as a world class fighter from 1987-1990, until Buster Douglas shattered his aura of invincibillity in Tokyo. In some respects, it's hard to blame your average commentator for taking this sort of self-writing column route; the fight itself was an utterly predictable technical mismatch, as a champion in his prime with a huge size advantage simply beat up a smaller, half-trained and shot fighter without the skills to get past a stiff jab and a brutally effective right hand. In his prime, Tyson was a miracle of controlled violence, his quick movements and head-bobbing getting him close enough to unleash combinations as devastating as any in the sport's history, combining the power of an Ernie Shavers with the will to violence of a Sonny Liston. By the time he faced Lewis, Tyson had been reduced by indifference, age, and inactivity to not much more than a right hand, and a small man trying to remember how to use it. In the end, there's not much to say about a fight that looked like a father slapping his child about; for most writers the interest is in Tyson as the recipient of the whupping rather than the dispenser, and not the actual, rather meager, content of the fight itself.

Thus, most of the media content in the days following the fight was of the sort to follow the easy contours of the moralistic approach, occasionally broken up by a peice such as Bill James' column focusing on the thrill of Tyson as a performer back in his prime. And for as far as they go, both approaches are unquestionably valuable. In his prime, Tyson was perhaps the most dominant heavyweight fighter, relative to his era, of all time. From 1987, when he burst on the scene, to 1990, when things came crashing down for him in Tokyo against the unheralded Buster Douglas, Tyson was essentially unchallenged by anyone; and in fact, it takes something of a boxing historian to even remember a great many of the people he fought in that time period. For every Larry Holmes (aged, but game) there was a Mitch Green, distinguished primarily by their total inabillity to hide their fear of the man across the ring from them. In a weak era for the heavyweight devision, Tyson was a wrecking ball tearing through tissue paper; the only comperable periods of domination would be, perhaps, Jack Johnson in the early part of the last century or Larry Holms' prime, though both of those were, even more than Tyson's era, related to the essentially mediocre level of talent at those times. At the same time, the story of Tyson's public dysfunction as a member of society is so well know as to be barely worth repeating; from the truly unconscionable (his rape conviction) to the merely painfully stupid (misdemenor assault convictions, attempts to permanently cripple and maim opponants, "I want to eat your kids") his behavior has more than earned him every bit of the public opprobrium which he has received. He's a nasty little thug, and the rare sports figure in America today who deserves all the hate and revulsion directed at him, and more besides.

And yet, and yet. After the conclusion of the Tyson fight (and make no mistakes, Lewis was the champion and the better man, but this was still the Tyson fight) I tuned on New York's Hot 97 radio station; and the mood that night was not disimilar to the night when Lisa Lopes died, as out-of-perspective as that seems. It was a stilled air, a vibe of, if not quite sadness, then disappointment. And yet, over on ESPN, the mood was more in a smirking vein, somewhere between professional analysis and a winking satisfaction that the self-proclaimed "barbarian king" had met his match (again). The striking thing was the difference in attitude; the fight, and it's outcome, clearly meant very different things to the two groups. At a superficial level, it might seem to suffice to chock the difference in attitude up to some combination of regional prejudice (Tyson being from Brownsville, Brooklyn) in the New York audience and professional disgust from the ESPN crew with an athlete who, beyond his generally reprehensible behavior, was always good for an act or three of contempt towards the press. But in the wake of Tyson's admission that a great deal of his pre-fight behavior (comments, at any rate) were prearrainged as publicity tactics, I can't help but think something more is at work to create this disconnect. And I think, in the end, it boils down to the difference in these two populations, and how they perceive the public character of Mike Tyson, and his role in culture.

It would be fundamentally inaccurate to view this as a system of dualities: racial, socio-economic, culturally "mainstream"/culturally marginalized. Yet, with all possible recognition and ackowledgement of exceptions on both sides and he myriad subtlties of the reality of human variety, the key to understanding the lasting appeal of Mike Tyson lies in the essential difference between cultures, or portions of culture, which these two groups embody.

For an ESPN air jockey, or a newspaper writer, or the endless suburban hordes they represent and write for, articles of the type which appeared after the Tyson/lewis fight are the easiest thing to write ever; they invite the warm sense of moral superiority with one's morning coffee, a chance to gawk and tisk at the bad, bad man and feel better for having done so. Best of all, they're right; Tyson really IS a bad, bad man, and they really are better than him by almost any resonable moral standard. But the essential quality of their relationship with Tyson is that of reasearcher to specimen, with him, or his public figure, in the role of some alien Other to be picked apart and analysed at length, as some foreign body so far beyond the realm of usual human discourse that he has transcended even the seperation of the popular athlete-figure and traveled into some new realm of total charicature and cartoonishness. He's drifted even out of the orbit of MTV Cribs-style fetishization of unreachable otherness, into a public conception of him as some sort of cross between a whole different species, and a comic book style Mr. Violence. Criticizing him in the press is easy and palatable, because it requires nothing more than a little tsk-tsk and a little self-righteousness from the audience.

But the relationship of the Hot 97 audience to Tyson, or the Tyson character as publically portrayed, was and presumably is, wholly different. The overwhelming sense, following the loss, was that THEIR man had lost; the DJ at the time (Red Alert, I believe, or possibly Fat Man Scoop) presented the news not in the way of reporting the outcome of a sporting event of public interest, but of reporting the sad news of the gallent failure of a favored son. The tone was, after an hour of ESPN analysis, striking. And yet, after an hour of music, hardly surprising.

The lyrics of current mainstream hip hop music are often criticized for beaing, among other things, repetitive, mysoginistic, and materialistic; and so far as that goes, it's both immensely true and wholly beside the point. mainstream rap tells the myth of hip hop culture, the myth of The Player: the person (usually male) who can have whatever he wants, when he wants, with no repercussions of any sort from the law, other people, or his own emotions. It's a somewhat general myth, though the particular legalistic, fight-the-law manifestations of it are probably explicable as being part of black American heritage; several centuries of socio-political oppression will tend to cultivate something of a dislike for institutionalized state authority, and the celebration of the individual who makes himself successful in direct opposition to the oppressive state edifice.

It's also a myth that Mike Tyson, from Brownsville Brooklyn, was born into and brought up with; and it should be no surprise that he should make use of it in his professional life, as so many others have. not for nothing have inumerable rappers name-checked Tyson in song; they recognize in him the same sort of presentation they themselves engage in, and ally themselves with it. When Tyson makes claims to "eat" an opponant's children, it's no different than rapper Notorious BIG rapping "...your daughter's tied up in a Brooklyn basement/face it, not guilty, that's how I stay filthy/richer than Richy, till you niggas come and get me". When Tyson says he wants to "drive [an opponant's] nose into his brain" it's no different from Jay Z or Mobb Deep rapping about killing people. It's code language, image theater for those who know what they're hearing; it's presentation of character, construction of the myth, and that is what the Hot 97 audience feels in Tyson- someone who speaks their language and dreams their dreams, even on this most superficial of levels. Tyson taps into the preexisting myth of the Superman, here in his guise of The Player, and does his best to construct his public persona around that ideal. He says things, does things, to construct around himself the image of a do-anything, say-anything tough guy in line with the culturally collectively understood concept. Of the culture, but understanding it on at least a semi-conscious level, he chooses to embody that image. And because it is, in many ways, a true representation of him, with his propensity to violence and more-or-less safety from repurcussions for his actions; and for that matter, his skin color. And because he taps into and represents this cultural understanding and aspiration, people who share his cultural affiliation respond. That, much more than the "what will he do next?" factor, or, god forbid, actual interest in a top-level athletic contest, is responsible for his continued success at the box office long after his reputation in and out of the ring among "the mainstream" decayed to the status of sideshow.

And it's that kindred affiliation which the ESPN talking heads, for the most part, miss. In the rush to judgement and finger-wagging, they obscure the larger, cultural truth with the lesser truth of Tyson's imorallity, and are left ending each peice on Tyson with some specualtion that "maybe THIS will be enough to end Tyson's popularity". They never inquire into the nature of the root of that popularity in the first place; into the complex cultural, racial, and in the end essential issues which it brings to the surface. A thousand books have been written on the theme of sports as a metaphor for life, to the point where the concept itself has been taken to the point of overstated, hackneyed absurdity (the "Field Of Dreams" phenomenon). But the fate of the modern sports media seems to be to miss these issues if they don't arise out of a neatly defined cultural envelope. It's easy to pick apart the position of the Baseball player's union of steroids, or at best, contemplate the value and impact of title IX on the American sporting world; it's not so easy to explore the cultural underpinnings of the popularity of a multiple-time convicted felon whose career as a top level performer ended half a decade ago, at the outside. And that failure, in and of itself, raises questions about the capabillity and vision of the mainstream sports media itself. If he's never done anything else worthy of true praise, we can at least than Mike Tyson for that.

Brendan Welsh-Balliett
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