when boxing's on the front page it's usually bad news, often the death of a fighter. This time, at least it's only a chunk of an ear that's gone.
Mike Tyson, who at one time looked like boxing's savior but has spent most of this decade embarrassing himself in various ways, bit a piece out of WBA champ Evander Holyfield's ear in their title fight in Las Vegas Saturday, and then moments later bit Holyfield's other ear, earning himself a disqualification and the righteously (and rightly) indignant scorn of pretty much everybody who doesn't count the former champ as a meal ticket. The biggest story of the night may have been that Don King had nothing to say. But President Clinton, a heavyweight from Arkansas, weighed in: "I was horrified by it and I think the American people should be," he said.
Well, I am. And I like boxing. Hell, I even like Mike Tyson. But I also hate boxing. And I think Tyson's a bum. Welcome to the mind of a boxing fan -- and former boxing reporter. It gets rough in here sometimes.
Like many, I was a lapsed fight fan who was brought back to the sport by Tyson. He was a brilliant and brutal fighter, blindingly fast, hard to hit and possessed of a paralyzing punch. He was also a great story -- the whole street thug taken in by kindly old Zen master/boxing trainer (Cus D'Amato, who had trained Floyd Patterson) and turns his life around thing. Smarter than his fierce posturing and relative inarticulateness would lead you to believe, Tyson could even be kind of charming at times. He was refreshingly aware of boxing history and his potential place in it. He studied the boxing film library of another mentor, Jimmy Jacobs, and modeled himself after Jack Dempsey, right down to his look -- black trunks, no socks, high-and-tight haircut.
In 1986, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion ever. By 1989, he was at the top of his career, dispatching Michael Spinks, a terrific fighter, in a minute and a half, about the average length of a Tyson fight in those days. That same year, thanks to some fancy footwork and fast talking, I started covering the pugs for the local blat, the San Francisco Examiner.
There's a lot to love about boxing. It is, as George Foreman put it, the sport to which all other sports aspire. It is competition at its most basic: no teammates, no equipment to speak of, no funny bounces of the ball and basic rules, like no biting. Though it might look like two thugs beating on each other (and sometimes it is), the sport is also an art and a science. As Yogi Berra said about another sport, 90 percent of this game is half mental. Mike Tyson is now the pathetic shadow of his former self, not nearly the fighter he was when he KO'd Spinks. He's now a very beatable heavyweight. But Tyson's decline isn't physical: He's in great shape, and he only turned 31 yesterday. His problems are "upstairs," as boxing people refer to the head, and they've been evident for years. He no longer does the things he needs to do to win: He doesn't move, he doesn't jab, he doesn't worry about defense, he doesn't seem to really care.
As a reporter, I watched fighters fight and I watched them train and I talked to them endlessly about the mental side of boxing. I tried to understand how they did it, how they endured the physical pain of a clean shot to the face, a left hook to the kidney, a couple hundred sit-ups at a time.
I learned from them that you can probably take more than you think you can take and you can probably do more than you think you can do. I watched all these misfits and runts and angry young men transform themselves. "What is pain?" Tony Lopez asked me, sincerely, Socratically, when he was the junior lightweight champion. I shrugged, so he answered for me, smiling: "It's only pain, man."
And yet, and yet, and yet. It wasn't all gritty inspiration. There were times when I was sitting ringside, watching two undercard fighters pound on each other, when I'd think, "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?! What are we doing here?! This is nuts! Two grown men are hitting each other, and all these people have paid to watch it, and they're screaming for blood! It's barbaric!"
I'd watch Don King ruin the careers of promising heavyweights (including Tyson) with his thievery and scheming. And I'd watch great fighters get robbed in major fights (like Pernell Whitaker beating Julio Cesar Chavez pillar to post in 1993 and having it called a draw). And I'd watch the awful politics of the sport, the politics that give us four fighters in every weight class calling themselves champions, but not fighting each other to settle the claim because it's more lucrative to have four champions. That way, you can have four times as many "championship" fights.
And I got tired of it. It's hard to keep an affair going with such an erratic lover. Sure, I leap to boxing's defense when someone talks about banning it, but that's easy (boxing is a dangerous sport; banning it would send it underground and make it more dangerous; end of argument). It seems that every time I start to get interested again, every time there's a great fight on the horizon, like the Holyfield-Tyson rematch could have been, boxing just reaches up and bites me on the ... ear.
So the copy is flying and the air waves are humming. Will Tyson be banned for life? (Answer: Are you kidding?) Will boxing finally clean up its act after this latest fiasco? (Answer: Are you kidding?) Will the next pay-per-view fight be worth our 50 bucks? (Answer: You must be kidding.) And I'm tuning out again. As the heavyweight division goes (goes the saying), so goes boxing. Well, I've seen the heavyweight division, and -- with all due respect to Evander Holyfield, a marvelous champion and a swell guy -- I'm going.