Mike Tyson: The Afterlife of the Champion and Further Notes on Boxing as Myth and Theater

By Clarissa West-White

I am a hypocrite. Sports are to blame. I admire many boxing greats but am no fan of boxing. I love football but not the NFL. I love the Steelers but not Big Ben. I see flaws; management barks out rules to protect some but not all, the game mistreats black bodies, black minds and black protests. But I too am a hypocrite: I buy jerseys and tickets.

Joyce Carol Oates’ discussion left me reflective, and tight and cringing at my hypocrisy. She presented boxing as theatre, a spectacle, as “deep play” akin to an elegant waltz where one leads and the other follows, then reverses.

Joyce remarked that boxers know the history and tradition of boxing. They know what awaits as they climb into the ring and out. This may evoke awe, but is it noble? Are the peaks worth it when the outcome is the permanence of the valley? I’m unsure but believe audiences play a predictable and pretentious role. This explains why people wear formal attire to a brawl. Boxers behave badly; bouts aren’t an operatic production worthy of  fanfare. They know who they are.

Pause.

If it’s true that you meet the writer in their work, as Oates also remarked, are boxers truthful in their performance in the ring? And are we just in our over-analysis? Hope can be seductive and blinding. Boxing amplifies the egregiousness of other sports, however it’s not the violence that offends. I have witnessed violence in sports that caused me to tighten my core, clutch my body. I recall the repeated blows absorbed by Rodney King.

If boxers resent their role, as Oates suggests, then why do they box? If they have studied the history of their predecessors, why believe there’s an alternative ending?

Lifting up boxing to the realm of a high-culture sport seems counterproductive to bringing the average person to the boxer’s level. Although I have never witnessed a bout in person, I suspect my soul would lament the way it did when I attempted to watch the combines. When I turned to the program, a man, a white man with gloves (although I’m not certain if the gloves were actually present or if after almost two decades I imagine they should have been), was examining the form of a skimpily-clad black body and I quietly caved.

The man’s hands moved from the black calf to the torso and ended with a quick inspection of the athlete’s teeth. I have never watched again. It was too much. Too reminiscent of slavery and auction blocks. Yet, I love football. I am a hypocrite, the league’s accomplice. Is this why tuxedos are worn to boxing matches, to bring a level of Oscar-affirming beauty?

I thoroughly enjoyed Oates’ description of events that led to interviewing Mike Tyson. Entré is not easily extended or received. I also admire her presence at a handful of matches. If cable packages to access a bout is any indication of cost, then I’m way out of my league. Perhaps, tuxedos are appropriate after all.

Distinguishing boxing from common fighting is hazy. The bout betrays itself. I have witnessed fights. I am not unnerved. Nor am I bothered by the spectacle surrounding weigh-ins. I often believe this is where the first round should occur. Throw your best punch and fight. Brawl. Just go after each other. All that rehearsed bravado seems wasted. The actor returns to notions of athleticism and clobbers the clown who just insulted him. After all, as Oates stated, it’s the blow you don’t see that knocks you out.

I am a hypocrite and I hate it.

Clarissa West-White is a reference librarian and instructor at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. She is the recipient of a 2020 Teacher and Librarian Scholarship.

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