Tyson’s Rags-To-Riches-To-Rags Story Was ESPN-Born And Bared

By Kevin Iole
Updated: December 30, 2006

LAS VEGAS — Twenty years ago, there were thousands of young American boys who dreamed of being Mike Tyson. Today, I’m pretty sure not even Mike Tyson wants to be Mike Tyson.

Tyson was arrested early Friday in Buckeye, Ariz., the latest in an arm’s-length list of battles with the law.

It was big news, of course, on ESPN on Friday, despite the fact that the so-called “worldwide leader in sports” pays about as much attention to boxing as it does to curling.

Boxing skills, knockout power, defensive artistry and a granite chin won’t get you airtime on ESPN. Getting arrested with a couple of bags of cocaine in your back pockets will.

The first 20 years of Tyson’s life began very low — he was born into poverty, was a petty thief and was sent to reform school for incorrigible boys — before ending very high. At 20 years old in 1986, he became the youngest fighter in history to win the heavyweight title.

Tyson’s second 20 years began very high — he won the undisputed title and knocked out previously unbeaten Michael Spinks in one of the most anticipated bouts in history in just 91 seconds — but they’re destined, it appears, to go full circle and end very low.

He has little left of the $300 million he earned in the ring. It has been 10 years since he has had a title belt around his waist.

His only salable skill, it seems, is being Mike Tyson.

Being Mike Tyson — in a word, being outrageous — is his only way to make a living. It’s also a guarantee of future appearances on the “worldwide leader.” But instead of appearing with gloves around his fists, he’ll be shown with cuffs around his wrists.

Tyson never was the maniac that many thought him to be or that, in later years, he portrayed himself to be. He was surprisingly insightful and had a kind heart. He was always a sucker for an ex-fighter with a sob story.

He’s the one with the sob story now, but no one is listening. None of his so-called friends has heeded his many pleas for help.

But he became what he is because that’s what sold. Just being a knockout artist, even one of the greatest of all time, wasn’t enough. The more outrageous he was, the zanier he acted, the more attention he received and the more money he made.

There was no reason that his 2002 fight with Lennox Lewis should have been the largest pay-per-view bout in history because it was clear to anyone with even a basic understanding of the sport that Lewis was, by that stage, the superior fighter. Tyson hadn’t had a meaningful win in more than five years.

But it sold 2 million pay per views because Tyson was, well, Tyson. He threatened to rip Lewis’ heart out and swore he would eat his children. He acted like a lunatic, all in the name of pitching a fight, and we loved it.

He’s still acting like Tyson, though he no longer makes any fighters melt, and, of course, no one is buying.

Acting like Tyson now is a sure way to wind up back on ESPN. And that’s not a good thing.

In his prime as a fighter, Tyson had blindingly fast hands and the power to knock over a horse.

He put punches together in combinations that heavyweights rarely did. He was a master at hooking to the body, though everything he threw to the head got a lot more attention.

But as the hands slowed, the power faded ever so slightly and the mystique that surrounded him was lifted.

He was a decent, though hardly great, fighter, with as many flaws as strengths.

With few actual fighting skills, his bizarre behavior suddenly wasn’t seen as a ticket-selling opporunity but, rather, it became a law enforcement situation.

Tyson became this mythic figure in part because of the power of ESPN. He was a staple of the still-fledgling network in his pre-title days, running off a series of spectacular knockouts.

Tyson is proof that boxing is not dead, or even dying. ESPN helped build the legend by showing his first- or second-round knockouts on a biweekly basis.

His knockouts weren’t fly balls that scraped the back of the fence as they left the park. They were always Reggie Jackson, upper-deck shots in the final game of the World Series.

A nation grew transfixed watching, and the legend of Mike Tyson was born.

ESPN is no longer part of any basic cable service and it has the broadcast rights to televise NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball games. It has more important things to worry about than showing a boxing highlight.

Michael Gerard Tyson isn’t going to grace ESPN’s airwaves any longer for anything he does inside of a boxing ring.

Sadly, though, he’s probably going to have a recurring role on the network that made him famous.