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Tyson’s honesty overpowers reunion with Holyfield

October 16, 2009

Tyson-Holyfield reunion

Heavyweight boxing legends Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield met today on Oprah, their first conversation since Tyson made sports history twelve years ago, biting Holyfield’s ear during their infamous WBA championship bout. Tyson of course always makes for watchable television, but his incredibly uncomfortable candor, so fascinating in his solo appearance on Monday’s Oprah, here cancels out his former rival’s sportsmanship and turns the reunion into wooden television.

I’m not saying anything new by noting Tyson is an off-script phenomenon, but this becomes extra clear in his Oprah appearances where he skirts all easy narratives and, despite the show’s formula, almost rejects any sort of redemption or tidy explanation for his demons. When Holyfield enters later in the segment, his professionalism and camera ease next to the contrite Iron Mike does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do — it makes him appear cold and calculating and it sucks the life out of the interview.

tyson-biteTyson always went lengths to prove he wasn’t a dumb brute. His comically random, often inaccurate, large vocabulary has been one of his defining characteristics; but his scholarly appetite for boxing and boxing history has always been evident. He may forever be lumped in with the brawlers of boxing’s villains gallery, but he has an informed appreciation for the sport that deserves respect. That said, one of the best parts of the interview is where Tyson explains why he bit the ear; he respected Holyfield so much as a boxer, knew his history and loved his style so much that he just wanted so badly to beat him. And man, we’re fed so many soundbites nowadays that hearing something that real sounds like sirens.

But then there’s palatable Holyfield, who downplays any animosity between the two and says he never harboured bad feelings over the incident. There’s really no reason for him to be playing this game, not with Tyson so willing to take the rap and so against having niceties come to his rescue, but Holyfield does it anyway because, well, that’s what people do on television. By the end, Oprah asks them what’s next and why this and Holyfield responds that he, of course, wanted kids to know they can overcome any conflict if he and Tyson are able to once again peacefully touch gloves — though Oprah has to prod this moral from him and he barely looks at or addresses Tyson throughout the entire segment. Tyson? Again being too real to be easily packaged, randomly but passionately says he wants to fight for the immigration rights of Mexicans.

The most affecting moment is before Holyfield even enters, when a viewer reaches out to Tyson saying the boxer’s Monday appearance gave him the strength he needed to face his own daughter’s death (Tyson’s four-year-old daughter died earlier this year). Instead of accepting the compliment or offering further emotional guidance — or even talking to the man — Tyson clarifies that he hasn’t really dealt with his loss at all, and that he still struggles with the violent urges he feels when he reflects on it. Tyson obviously has no desire to dish out inspiration, and while part of this is perhaps him avoiding responsibility or fearing another backlash against his character, I can’t help but think what he’s showing us of himself is far more valuable than any rote role modeling. Idols are for kids and obviously Tyson isn’t — but for those of us who grew up in awe of him, his honesty regarding anger and anguish, especially in an arena of this kind of artifice, hits just as hard as his punches did.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. jessekg permalink*
    October 17, 2009 2:00 am

    This combined with the Tyson documentary redeems him of every fucked up thing he ever did. I love how honest and candid Tyson comes off in all this shit. It’s like he’s reached a point in his life where he is finally looking back on everything, and just going, shit, did I say I was gonna eat that guy’s children?

  2. Simon permalink*
    October 18, 2009 7:07 pm

    I don’t know if I’d agree with using the word “redeemed”. That connotes Tyson atoning for his life, which I think hasn’t happened as much as we simply know enough in hindsight to feel sorry for that crazy sunovabitch.

  3. October 21, 2009 6:13 pm

    Hmm, wish the videos hadn’t been (inevitably) taken down, I would have loved to watch that.

    Nice write up, Jef – very perceptive. The redemption narrative is so inescapable in American culture, it’s bizarrely heroic of Tyson to resist it. Holyfield always seemed so ready and eager to wear the white hat, he seemed rather boring. No redemption is possible if you don’t fall first. But Tyson fell repeatedly, and fell so willfully and spectacularly that it’s fairly dangerous to go out on a limb and say “he’s learned a lesson, the story is done.” I mean, the elements of Tyson’s life are almost corny – the hardscrabble ghetto childhood, his Mom dying, Yoda-figure Cus D’Amato taking him in, then D’Amato dying on him… God, I haven’t even got to the first championship, here, much less prison.

    If Tyson would rather own his demons than engage in some kind of public morality play on Oprah, good on him.

    • October 21, 2009 7:28 pm

      Ah, found the video…

      It’s funny, Oprah is ramming that redemption narrative down Mike’s throat, but he’s not swallowing much of it. My god, the psychobabble that just drops so easily out of her mouth. “He (Tyson) created a space for you to open your heart”, to a man whose daughter had died but somehow found inspiration from Tyson. Yeech.

      Well, now I see that old Mike didn’t much escape the morality play. Holyfield leapt willingly on the stage to play his part, but it does seem clear that Tyson is not so keen to be anybody’s role model. But if Oprah can put a man in the White House, how you gonna deny her a heartwarming moment on her show?

      • October 23, 2009 12:28 am

        Sweet, thanks for the new link Pete. And “bizarrely heroic” is a great way to put it.

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