In Defense of Iron Mike



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Issue #36

What is it that fascinates us about Mike Tyson?  The man is obviously in need of psychological help of some kind.  Most people needing that kind of help arouse our pity, or, if they’re prone to violence, our contempt.  So then what is it that keeps some of us rooting for Mike Tyson?

            Of course, not everyone is in Iron Mike’s corner.  He is regularly called an animal, a criminal, unfit to box, and much worse.  Garrisons of protesters meet him wherever he travels for a fight.  Perhaps our affinity for Tyson goes back to the singular way in which he dominated opponents in the 1980’s.  One round KO, two round KO, 60 second KO… he was the youngest ever heavyweight champion, and when he won the belt, he pledged to become the oldest ever to hold the championship.  He was brash, fearless, and cool.  Did we love him just because of his skill and his dominance?  No – there have been many other athletes (Sampras, Connors, Bonds) in similar situations that never inspire the cult of personality that Tyson did.  (We didn’t love Drago, either, right?)

            Is the answer to be found in his personality?  Let’s just say he isn’t among the most likely to win over Meg Ryan with an endearing e-mail campaign.  The answer lies in the ferocity he shows in the ring, and has continually shown since the start of his professional career.

            But why is it that when we see a person that has been called a deranged maniac in one corner, and a more normal guy in the other corner, why do we root for the maniac?  Because Tyson represents a wildness and emotion that we all feel at some level.  We identify with him, he is acting out a fantasy of ours. 

When your boss really pisses you off, do you dream of using a rope-a-dope strategy on him for fifteen rounds until he collapses from exhaustion?  No!  We want to go Mike Tyson on his ass.  In our most impassionedly angry moments, we know that in a way, we are Al Pacino from Scarface. We are Predator.  We are destruction.  But if you’re like me, even when you’re Al Pacino, you might shout and yell a lot but you wind up hurting your own furniture more than the real object of your hostility.  But Mike Tyson is destruction when he gets in the ring.

            Freud said that the most basic part of the human psyche is formed of impulses that have more to do with animal instincts than with civilized human life.  He called that part of us the id.  He said that we spend most of our mental energy manipulating our environment to satisfy the id without making asses of ourselves.  Mike Tyson, at times, functions as if he is pure id; he has a way of cutting right to the chase.  His instinctual impulses are not mediated by conscience, ego defense mechanisms, shame, a sense of propriety… all the things that the rest of us are relegated to working with.  In that sense, he is a hero, having cast off the shackles of millennia of human civilization, if only for moments at a time.  Whether it’s berating a reporter at a press conference, or going from mad to ferocious in the ring, he expresses himself in a manner that is uniquely free by any societal constraints.

            Tyson showed us how in touch with his id he was when he bit (off) part of Evander Holyfeld’s ear in 1997.  Freud might make an interesting interpretation of what Tyson was acting out for us:  In “Totem and Taboo,” Freud wrote about how in pre-civilized times, groups of people would consider their clans to have been descended directly from an animal ancestor, or totem.  Their relation with that animal was an interesting one: they were “forbidden to eat the flesh of the animal, or were allowed to do so only under specific conditions. A counter-phenomenon, not irreconcilable with this, is the fact that on occasions the eating of the totem flesh constituted a sort of ceremony..."  Freud would say that what we saw from Mike Tyson was a particularly pure dramatization of just these atavistic influences.  The totem animal, in this case, was the enemy; in the instance at hand, it took the form of Evander Holyfeld.  Mike Tyson was offering us a rare window into some oft-obscured parts of human psychodynamics.  How much of this “performance” was intentional on Mike’s part?  We’re forced to wonder, how much of this is boxing, and how much is performance art?  I leave that for the reader to decide.

"Be a man!  Come up here, you fucking faggot. Be a man. I'll fuck you in the ass. Bitch!"  These are the words allegedly spoken by Tyson to a reporter at the recent Tyson-Lewis press conference.  Surely Freud would have made much hey of they overtly libidinal nature of Tyson’s comments, especially the anal reference.  What would more modern psychological approaches tell us about this hero, this visionary whose life is become performance art?  The authors of a widely used reference on personality typology describe persons high in paranoia and antisocial tendencies to be “strange, eccentric, emotionally distant, and have severe problems with adjustment.”  How well does this fit Tyson?  I don’t know about emotionally distant, but the rest of it sounds right on.  

Let’s see what else we can expect from someone like this: “Their behavior is unpredictable and erratic,” we already figured that out – “and may involve strange sexual obsessions and responses.”  Some people may say that his history of alleged sexual assaults may reflect a pathological pattern of sexual obsessions, but some would say that it just represents a lack of modeling of adult romantic relationships.  Tyson didn’t have the conventional Mom and Dad childhood that most of us do, and his life has suffered because of it.   

“Usually, there will be antisocial behavior resulting in legal complications.  These individuals also lack empathy, and are nonconforming and impulsive.”  Well it sounds like this description may be more on the head than we thought…  “In their early family histories, they learned that relationships were dangerous due to constant confrontation with intense family conflicts.”  Not much is known, in the public discourse, about Tyson’s early life.  It is difficult to evaluate the extent to which dangerous early relationships may have influenced the Mike Tyson we see today. 

But why do we know so little about that?  Because most of the public doesn’t care – they see an ex-con, they see someone with trouble controlling aggression, and they immediately blame him for his own troubles and much more.  

Is Mike Tyson the suffering victim of traumatic childhood experiences?  Might he be an artist of incredible vision and perception, capable of transforming even the most crippling emotional pain into a psychodrama that even Freud would have admired? Or is he a galvanizing force, a working class hero for all of us with a misplaced rage of our own that gains its only expression with pugilistic pay-per-view presentations?

To me, the answer to this question is not obvious.  But what is clear is that there is a far deeper psycho-socio-cultural dynamic at work than any of us may have thought – at least out loud.


C. Maroussi is pursuing his Phd in Animal Behavior at BU.

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