Tyson Agonistes

The perils of marketing gangsta authenticity

Sadiq and E-Trap were talking about Saturday's Mike Tyson/Lennox Lewis heavyweight championship fight from their stools near the stage at Big Mac's Foxy Lady Lounge, 1800 NW 79th St. in Liberty City: "Mike comes in light -- under 220 lbs.? -- he will knock that faggot out!" E-Trap predicted confidently. "Comes in fat, 230-35, like he walks around at? -- Lewis will drape all over him like a dress and wear the boy down! Den what Mike gonna do?" One of the ladies, dancing above him, stopped, put her hands on her hips, and made a moue with her siliconed lips: "He can come see me, baby," she declared righteously. "I'll do him better than that Desiree Washington bitch did him, and I won't call no cops afterwards!"

The men laughed dutifully, and dropped some rolled-up ones at her feet, which she pouted at again but quickly scooped up. Big Mac's is the kind of place that Tyson understands -- though he's been frequenting Nobu and the Delano when he's in town -- there are the payers and the paid; since shortly after he won the title against an overmatched, befuddled Trevor Berbick in 1986 to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history, Mike's been a payer. So when he's here he'll sometimes swing his limo through the people's neighborhoods -- Allapattah, Overtown, Liberty City and Northwest Miami -- and send his driver into the street, or into rough clubs, looking for "stunts" -- girls who will perform privately for his crew, at whatever luxe manse or hotel he's staying in. Though he often behaves like an "old head" (veteran thug) from Brownsville, Brooklyn (which he is), he's lived like one-tenth of one percent of the world's population for the past sixteen years, since the championship money began rolling in -- a millionaire thug -- like Brian Jones and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones were in their day. Jones never learned the lesson of separating himself from his persona as Mick Jagger did early, and Keith did late, so he is long dead. Mike's final chance, it looks like, will be the Lewis fight.

But he is such a great figure in neighborhoods like Liberty City precisely because he can't make the separation: when Sadiq and E-Trap are told, for example, that Tyson spent $4,477,498 on cars and motorcycles for himself and his friends between 1995 (when he got out of prison on the Desiree Washington "rape" conviction) and 1997, their jaws go slack in admiration; when they hear his "pet care" tabs for the same period were $411,777 (this was for a thousand pigeons, a lot of cats and dogs, and a lion), and that it cost him $239,552 for cell phones and pagers alone, they order another round and throw the dancer a five in empathy with the heroics of big spending: "Nigger ain't worryin' about tomorrow," Sadiq pronounced gravely. "He know his life be short. He packin' it up with everythang!" "S'rite!" agreed E-Trap. "Man only 35, but he lived more than ten punks who obeyed the traffic laws till they was 75! Sheeit! Mike owns three houses [in Ohio, Las Vegas and Connecticut]!"

The talk now turned to why Tyson -- who was once the darling of the white liberal New York City sports-writing establishment (Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield, José Torres, Mike Katz) -- would have gone back to the streets, in the person of Don King of Boca Raton, the motormouth fight promoter and designated Bad Guy of American boxing, who handled most of his career. E-Trap: "Don's a stone hustler. He ripped Mike off, sure, but he made him a lot of money [$300 million career total]! Whut would you rather have? A honest percentage of $30 or $40 million, or a cheated share of all that?" . . . "And don't forget both of them been in prison," declared Sadiq. "You ever been in jail? Guys been in, they know what's rilly goin' on in the world. You ain't been in? You a virgin! You still dreamin' about life. Mike trusted King as a fellow felon!"

"But now he's suing King," it was pointed out.

"That's because Mike know the game is nearly over. He tryin' to scoop up all the money he can! Mike hustled Don as much as Don hustled Mike, but you-all media fools like to simplify everything in your stories . . ." The crowd at Big Mac's cheered.

And so it emerged through the beery, titty-shaking evening that all the things that have alienated the media about Mike Tyson are points in his favor among his true constituency, the street people he's always represented, and whom the Colin Powells and Condoleezza Rices and Art Teeles of America have always denied. What's more, acts that are career-threatening to other stars only help Mike build the gate on his huge pay-per-view closed-circuit extravaganzas (HBO and Showtime, cooperating on the presentation of Tyson vs. Lewis, expect to break into boffo movie box office numbers on this event, charging $54.95 per buy, and anticipating grosses between $200 and $250 million).

So Tyson's rough talk, widely lamented as a sign of the moral degradation of professional sports by middle- and upper-middle-class critics, is just an effective selling tool for a guy whose head is still on Amboy Street in Brooklyn: "I normally don't do interviews with women unless I fornicate with them, so you shouldn't talk anymore, unless you want to, you know . . ." he told a CNN reporter; "All my antagonists," he sneered at a wave of international sportswriters ushered into his beachfront cabana in Maui for a pre-fight press conference. "I ought to close the gate and beat your fuckin' asses!"

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