Being a sports fan becomes, at a certain point, a constant mocking timeline measuring your own age. This is not a problem when we're young, when we need our teams with the weirdest and deepest hunger. But as we get older and the perspective widens as it must, things shift -- the athletes are younger than us, then they become much younger than us. This has not yet hit the vanishing point of total abstraction for me, but I'm nearing it -- I am the age of outfielders getting make-good minor league contracts, and just a tick younger than the fringe-y slowballing journeyman LOOGYs with the craggy, haunted faces of longtime bartenders. Before the decade is out, I will see a Major Leaguer born the year I graduated college hit a homer off someone born while I was in high school. Turn, turn, turn and so on.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Because while there are draggy parts of getting old --too many for a parenthetical, but suffice to say that you do what you've always done, and one day you just wake up as David Paymer -- there is also the added benefit of knowing and remembering things. Crow's feet are not actually that bad a price to pay for firsthand memories of Michael Jordan or the old, good, loathsome Dallas Cowboys or even Invincible Era Barry Bonds. It's almost a bummer, but not quite. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and… oh, you're definitely too young to get that, aren't you?
But, but: for all the creaks and grumps and indignities of aging out -- the realization that there will never be a big league debut, even if you learn the knuckleball; that it is increasingly unlikely that a NBA team will discover your homemade playground highlight reel -- it's still better to remember than never to have known. This is the challenge: not to slip grouchily into some early-onset curmudgeonhood, hiking up the old-guy pants and bitching about The Younger Generation With Their Tattoos into the uninterested middle distance, as everyone shuffles sort of slowly away. But the burden of recollection can be heavy, sometimes.
Say, for instance, that you remember Mike Tyson as a boxer -- a functional orphan born into a Hobbesian neighborhood, nearly lost but for the talent for violence that made him for a while fearsomely implacable, unstoppable, fully able to take his sport apart simply by being meaner and faster and stronger than anyone who could've fought him. Say, too, that you remember what came after that -- excesses that were colorful and then unforgivable, a conviction for rape and a subsequent jail sentence, a post-incarceration comeback defined by an eclectic and entirely incoherent militancy and an assault-by-tooth on Evander Holyfield's ear in a title fight he was probably going to lose.
This is, admittedly, a lot to remember. But that's Mike Tyson. So, imagine remembering all this, knowing all this, and then finding out that Mike Tyson is going to be the lead in "Mike Tyson Mysteries," which promises to be a prototypically stoned show on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim about, wait for it, Mike Tyson solving mysteries. The promotional copy reads, in part: "Armed with a magical tattoo on his face and a trusty associate by his side -- a talking pigeon -- if you have a problem that needs solving, Iron Mike is in your corner." There are a lot of things to feel strangely about here, but let's go with the obvious one for starters. If you are old enough to remember Mike Tyson as Mike Tyson -- that is, as both a churning and terrifying and brilliant champion, as well as a loathsome criminal -- then it is strange in the extreme to watch him become quite literally a cartoon.
Mike Tyson's offenses are on him, and they're nothing to forget. What a court found him guilty of having done in Indianapolis in 1991 was as bad a thing as anything anyone could do. That boxing gave him a second chance can be seen to reflect poorly on boxing, if you want -- this is a sport currently dominated by a man who recently spent months in jail for beating the mother of his children, after all. But Tyson's comeback was also the market at work, which means it comes back to those of us who clamored to see Tyson fight again, and treated his jail sentence as the functional equivalent of time off spent rehabilitating a serious injury. But he came back and we paid to watch him fight, even after it became clear that he had little left. Watching Tyson fight, at the end, was like visiting a ruined temple or getting a photo taken on the Golden Gate Bridge -- it was tourism, and mostly rote.
There's a short, bleak Andrew Vachss story called "Homeless" -- it's in this anthology --about how this all might have gone for Mike Tyson. It's about a fighter who slips down and down from tenuous respectability; his gift for violence declines in value as it grows more vast, until he is committing murder for an audience of no one. Mike Tyson is not this person, and anyway was too great for that particular fate or a decline that precipitous. There was always a wrestling match that needed a celebrity referee, or a movie that could use his crazy-eyed charisma and recognizable face. And Tyson, who was broke after earning hundreds of millions of dollars during his career, was not going to say no.
Still, there is something queasy about the way in which Tyson has become -- grinning and lisping, broke and willing, still a little unbalanced-seeming but maybe less so than he was -- a sort of benign caricature of the colorful ex-champ. This is a thing that happens to fighters, too, when their fates are left in the hands of show-business people. It's predictable, since character-manufacture is after all what show business does, but also because boxing -- its violence so elemental and essential and foregrounded -- requires this sort of filtering and framing. Mike Tyson, in his dazzling and awful fullness, is a lot to confront -- as complicated as any human, worse in some ways but also formed and malformed under the pressure of doing violence for money while flashbulbs popped and people paid-per-view.
Boxing is a hard and cruel sport, one that for all its finer points still doesn't necessarily feel quite ethical to watch; there's a whole lingo and ritual to it, and while there's information, there it also feels like something of a smokescreen, a big colorful excuse for ourselves watching something that is at least a little perverse. And yet I watch it, I like it: boxing is, for all the tales told of its decline or demise, as gripping and immediate and great as any sport anywhere, still. But because it is what it is, and because it is so fraught and mean and weird, there's a tendency to overdo and overstate it -- all those novelists at ringside, devising new metaphors for and desperate metaphorical significances to one man punching another in the face until he falls down. That's one way, and the other is to make the thing that boxing confronts us with -- that we like this, in short -- jokey and fake and unreal. Cartoonish, is another word for it.
Mike Tyson was a great fighter, and so is a great subject for this sort of self-justifying -- even as it is otherwise quite justified -- literary abstraction and extrapolative parsing. Tyson's wild charisma and relentless weirdness and outsized talent helped dictate his caricature even when he was the greatest and scariest fighter on earth; it has, as Sam Eifling writes at Deadspin rather appallingly absolved him of a shameful crime.
Spike Lee directed Tyson in a one-man show on Broadway last year; the echoes of "Raging Bull" were loud, but also mocking and harsh. Filmmakers as variously ambitious as James Toback -- in "Black and White," where Robert Downey Jr. improvised a very scary romantic flirtation with him -- and The Hangover Bros have cast Tyson as himself in movies. He's been an avatar for any number of things, an icon for hire, but never either engaged or engageable as himself.
Mike Tyson -- a champion long ago and since a convicted felon and demonstrably a handle-with-care dude in both a literal and symbolic sense -- is now no longer even that. He is Mike Tyson in quotes, Mike Tyson in abstract. His bright memory is utterly forgotten, fully replaced. He was a cartoon, in short, long before the Cartoon Network got around to animating him.