Boxing combines the best elements of sport--its competition, its physical nature, and its pop-culture relevance--in a potion that even the most devoted of sports fans sometimes find too heady. Its appeal is at once easy to explain and as elusive as the silence before the ring of a bell. Great heavyweights, meanwhile, not only reign over a sector of society that prizes competition at its most basic level, but come to epitomize the era to the society in general. At least, they always have. The eras without a great heavyweight--such as the last ten years--seem a little diminished for the lack of a great fighter. Those days, now, are over.
Last Friday's heavyweight title bout between Mike Tyson and Larry Holmes posed certain problems for the city's sports fans. Broadcast on the HBO cable network, it was--like the very concept of cable itself--all the more tantalizing for being just out of reach. Like the great majority of Chicago households, mine is not wired for cable, and so the relative availability of the fight (as opposed to bouts broadcast on pay-per-view television or screened in theaters) was almost meaningless. I had to either rent a hotel room equipped with HBO or go out to a bar that has a satellite dish. I didn't want to have to go to one of the meat markets downtown (the only bars to advertise in the papers) and neither did I want to put up with the so-called sports fans standing in line outside the so-called sports bars. I wanted a neighborhood place, smallish but not tight, preferably with a projection TV. I wanted an air of sophistication, but without the snottiness or the bows toward slumming typical of places that, on rare occasion, condescend to allow boxing on the big screen. Most important, the place had to sound right--loud but not raucous, with conversations ranging in topics but, in general, concentrating on sports. Good draft beer was a plus.
I'd feel bad about blowing the whistle on the Gaslight Corner if I hadn't found out about it myself in reading one of those "best Chicago bar" or "best sports bar" articles in one of the dailies a few years ago. The bar was recommended as a place where The Baseball Encyclopedia is kept on the bar for ready availability in trivia conflicts--a detail I am happy to report is true. Last fall, a friend and I finally made our way to the place, because we were feeling adventurous and I had always wanted to try it out. We caught the end of the football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cleveland Browns, the one where the Niners proved that they were peaking toward what appeared to be a certain Super Bowl victory. The game was not on broadcast TV, but on ESPN, the cable sports network, and I made a note of it and--when looking for a suitable place last Friday afternoon--called and asked if they also had HBO and if they'd be showing the fight. Yes.
Last Friday, the Gaslight showed itself to be a busy place with a large regular clientele--most people knew the bartender as Doug--and, evidently, a number of stray customers who came to see the fight. I walked in a little after 8 PM--the fight was set for 9--and took one of the last two stools at the bar; the other was soon gone, so that the friend I was waiting for would have to stand through the fight, along with the rest of the people who soon cluttered the aisle. The Bulls were playing on the projection television as the place continued to fill. Two things struck me about the people: they were incredibly polite ("A Bud when you get a chance, Doug," one said; another, greeted by Doug on a first-name basis, made it plain that there was "no rush" on his cheeseburger order) and they knew their sports. The Bulls elicited some interest--although everyone seemed distracted in anticipation of the fight--but all around me hummed the conversation of sports fans. Some people talked about the Blackhawks, while one person explained the difference between a knockout and a technical knockout ("A TKO is when you just can't go on, a knockout is when you wake up and you're not in Kansas anymore").
I first heard of Mike Tyson in a United Press International story of a few years ago, back when he was only beginning to establish himself as one of the high-ranking contenders, back when he was undefeated in some umpteen fights as opposed to today's 33-0. This was the era of several different heavyweight champs on several different continents, and this story would have been just like any other--"so-and-so knocked out so-and-so in the eighth round"--except for one Tyson quote that appeared in the body of the story. "I try to catch my opponent on the tip of his nose," he said, "because I try to punch the bone into his brain."
Say what you will about this quote, it is unlike anything I have ever read about the sport from anyone, and it has come to epitomize one half of the Tyson persona--the half, thus far, that has been stressed in the media--the image of Tyson as an almost unnatural force of destruction. Tyson's street-tough past is usually cited to bolster this image: he used to roll drunks, now he beats on people, but either way he wants what he doesn't already have and is willing to do almost anything to get it. This image is so unfair as to be quite nearly bigoted, and the important thing about the Holmes fight is that it showed the other half of the Tyson persona without diminishing the legitimately fearsome visage of what immediately presents itself to any fan coming at this point to boxing: that Tyson is one of the great destructive forces ever to step into the ring.
I had never seen him fight. That is the plain and simple reason for being in the Gaslight last Friday. I'd only read about him and talked about him with friends who are seriously into boxing, some of whom said he is the greatest, most indestructible fighter of all time, others who said he may be a wrecking ball but he isn't any boxer. Tyson's quotes reflect an awareness of these varying opinions--held, one or the other, by almost every boxing fan--and his best response to date appeared in a New York Times article. I don't remember the exact quote, but it was simple enough; it's easily reconstructed. "If I'm such a bad fighter, how come they can't find anyone to beat me?"
Larry Holmes was heavyweight champion from 1978 to 1985, but he is not one of the great heavyweights. He came out of retirement after almost two years to fight Tyson, saying Tyson had never beaten a great fighter. (That is still the case; at 38, Holmes is probably a passable but not a great fighter.) And in saying this, Holmes forgets that he never fought Muhammad Ali in his prime and never fought Ken Norton or Joe Frazier in their primes. He is a tall, agile, strong boxer, and was certainly the best of his time, but to compare him with Ali is to say that he had been designed with all the same basic strengths but without any attention to style. He could move, and he could punch, and he was a decent tactician, but he was not a great boxer.
The man who had left boxing only two years before saying that Rocky Marciano (the only heavyweight champ to retire undefeated) couldn't carry his jockstrap suddenly set himself up as elder statesman in coming out of retirement. In a Tribune story, he said of Tyson, "He's not a sportsman. He said he wanted [Tyrell] Biggs to feel the pain the rest of his life. He wanted to bust Trevor Berbick's eardrums. Is that the kind of champion people are supposed to look up to?"
Holmes, too, resorted to the stereotyping of Tyson to psych himself up for the fight. Tyson, meanwhile, showed an awareness of history by citing Holmes as a childhood hero and one of the great fighters. He said that saying Holmes wasn't a great fighter would be like saying Larry Bird isn't a great basketball player. Then, in the most telling quote, he said, "I hope I won't have to take pity on him because I'm not that kind of person."
This is the quote that pins Tyson down in his complexity. The phrase "It's my job" has become a cliche in the sports world in recent years, as young athletes pressured for their opinions on what just happened--in some cases, games they lost for throwing a single poor pitch--refuse to analyze themselves because it is too difficult or simply too painful. "It's my job," they say, covering themselves with a professional's defense mechanism. Tyson comes across as the consummate professional, but not without a hint of self-awareness, and he expresses himself with brutal honesty. In this quote, he recognizes that, if he does what he expects himself to do, at some point during the fight he will put himself in a position where almost any recognizably human person would require himself to show mercy, and he will have to deny that impulse, because it's the nature of the sport and it's the nature of his greatness within it to deny that humanity. The telling moment of the fight would come--as it usually does--when one side was weakened, and the other would be expected to finish out what he started.
That moment came sooner than I expected. I didn't think Holmes would win the fight, but I thought that--even at 38--he would be big enough and savvy enough to survive Tyson's onslaught for at least most of the 12 scheduled rounds. In the first three rounds of the fight, Holmes tied Tyson up whenever he approached him. Holmes was fighting the fight in the decadent style that typified his reign as champion; boring, cautious boxing, heavy on clinches, in which one side tries to outpoint the other and hopes to land a big punch in the meantime. Tyson, however, is incapable of fighting a boring fight. From the opening bell, he was the aggressor. To say he stalked Holmes is not quite right. Smaller than Holmes and with a ten-inch reach disadvantage, he attacked Holmes in a manner resembling the attack of the fice dog upon the bear in the William Faulkner story, except that in this case the smaller, scrappier, younger opponent was also stronger and almost as big. Holmes grabbed him every chance he had. Tyson landed more punches. First three rounds--the first most decisively, the others almost even--all to Tyson.
In the third, however, Holmes landed his one good punch of the fight. He caught Tyson square in the face with a right jab. Tyson shook it off the way a cartoon character removes egg from his face; he swung his jaw swiftly from side to side and everything was back to normal. It was as if nothing had happened. On he came.
Holmes came out dancing in the fourth round, circling the ring around Tyson. He had survived three rounds, and if he expected to tire Tyson and win by decision or knockout he had to start moving and scoring. Tyson--in additional proof he is not a mere puncher but an able tactician--later said he knew right here that he had won, that even in his glory years Holmes had allowed his left to hang low when he moved. Tyson moved in, and after a brief clinch about a minute into the round he threw a right over Holmes's low left and landed it solidly. It was a tremendous, immense punch. Holmes went down hard and completely, so that his feet bounced up off the canvas as his body landed. Somehow, he rose to his feet, grabbing for the ropes, by the count of eight, and we entered that area without mercy, that region in the sport where the spectator's interest, as John Schulian once pointed out, becomes an almost indecipherable mix of humanistic concern and voyeuristic thrill typical--in all of sports--only of boxing.
Throughout the fight, the bar noise had roared on, sometimes punctuated with encouraging shouts, but mostly a mix of oohs and ahs, and chatter. The best thing about HBO's coverage is that they stay with the fighters between rounds; the viewer sees their corner men encouraging and advising, the fighters gathering themselves for the next encounter. The best thing about the noise in the Gaslight is that it drowned out the commentators and left us to concentrate on the fight itself. The knockdown changed all that; not that we could suddenly hear the audio on the television, but the entire atmosphere of the bar changed, as when a quick-moving spring storm blows overhead and the temperature drops ten degrees in an instant and the wind blows suddenly in wild gusts. There were no real words or utterances heard but only a background noise suddenly higher in its pitch--that unmistakable sound of people powerless to do anything as they watch others in trouble (I remember hearing it once when a child's foot became stuck in an escalator at Water Tower). Tyson--in that situation he had foreseen--closed in again. He caught Holmes's forehead with a glancing blow that sent him spinning to the canvas; it was gravy from the first knockdown. Holmes rose again, looking somewhat more together this time, but Tyson again moved in and it was apparent that Holmes---courageous as he was--was in real danger. He flailed off a few Tyson punches and hid against the ropes. Tyson rolled on, throwing lefts and rights in sloppy but painful combinations that hit their target with increasing frequency. There weren't 30 seconds left in the round; if Holmes survived them, Tyson would have missed his first big chance. Tyson just missed with a vicious right hand and disrupted the left-right rhythm by coming back immediately with the exact same punch. Holmes rocked right into it. He went down, arms outstretched, legs stiff, and he didn't get up for two minutes.
Mike Tyson is a great heavyweight champion. In the ring, he sometimes seems like Joe Frazier, a fighter he resembles in his stature and in the way he bobs his head constantly to avoid presenting a fixed target. There the resemblances end, however. Frazier was comparatively stoop-shouldered, and he launched wide, looping left hooks that he pulled across his body with his chest. His punches came from South Succotash and threatened to knock his opponent clear into North Succotash. Tyson is bullnecked and broad-shouldered. Compared with Frazier, his punches are remarkably direct and efficient, but like Frazier he packs a wallop that can set the birdies singing. In beating Holmes, he did not beat a great fighter but he proved himself a great fighter. He worked to trash the thinking that says he is nothing but a puncher; he did so with a brutal professionalism and a fight that was as well thought out as it needed to be. He is getting better with every bout, and he remains, at 21, the youngest heavyweight champion ever. He will retain that title, not merely into the 90s, but probably for the next ten years.
We left the bar and got in my friend's auto, and as we drove away we spoke first of the fight and then of the awful sound that filled the bar in the moments between the first knockdown and the end. That sound, my friend said, gave one the same feeling as playing with fireworks, in the moment just before the explosion and when you feel the impact before you hear the bang. Except that it went on for a very long pair of minutes, and except that it was, after all, sport--so highly concentrated that it becomes almost unrecognizable as sport.