The Police Athletic League building stands on a large, unkempt lot in Atlantic City. It is a forlorn edifice with damp walls and a cracked facade. Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams, who fought Mike Tyson in July, is a regular visitor to the boxing gym on the upper floor, where the athletic young men – mostly black and Hispanic – spar in a raised ring, thrash oblong leather bags, pump metal, skip rope, and stalk their own images in three or four large mirrors, with a fury that must be reducing the life of the building still further. To stand at the centre of the gym in mid-afternoon is like being astride a pneumatic drill. The floor and walls vibrate with a combination of pounding feet, drubbed bags and jabbering speedballs until the frenzy of noise levels out to a sustained hum.

On an average day, two or three professional boxers will work out in the gym, under the avid gaze of their trainers, including Carmen Graziano, a portly, voluble white man in his late fifties who hangs over the ropes shouting instructions at the sparring fighters. Graziano could be seen in July in The Truth’s corner for the fight against Tyson in the Atlantic City Convention Centre. For Graziano, the event was a disaster, as, indeed, it was for Williams. Yet The Truth was scarcely the first casualty in the Tyson saga – merely another brave contender prepared to lie down and be counted. In this case, it was a left hook which put him away after 93 seconds (two seconds more than it took to deal with Michael Spinks last year). The Guardian reporter said the critical punch sounded ‘like an axe going into wet wood’. On TV it looked less impressive. Besides, Mailer used that image to describe the death of Benny Paret in Madison Square Garden 27 years ago at the hands of Emile Griffith.

Tyson’s record as a boxer is now becoming a liability to himself and the promoter, Don King, whose silver hair stands reverently to attention as the dollars file towards him in their solemn millions. The problem is simple: Tyson can no longer command a big gate, since he is likely to put his opponents away within a couple of rounds and send the fans home for an expensive early night. On the Bruno fight in February, the Las Vegas Hilton announced an estimated loss of $3 million. Similar losses may well have been incurred in July. Yet the money earned by Tyson in the time it takes to fry a scallop is generous by any standard – $20 million for flattening Spinks – and well beyond the likely lifetime earnings of all the PAL gym boxers combined.

Relative to the championship venues, the gym where Graziano and Williams worked has an abject air, like a community centre starved of resources. Indeed, its manager Bill Johnson, a lean black man with three fighting sons of his own, does sometimes talk like a social worker. Johnson maintains that what is at stake for a fighter from a bad neighbourhood is whether he can stay off the streets, steer clear of heroin and crack, and keep his nose clean: intelligent self-defence is as much the impulse in this account as hungry aggression. The mottos on the gym wall back him up: ‘Do Sports not Drugs,’ ‘It is Better to Build Men than to Mend Boys.’ For most young fighters who want to turn professional, the prospect of big money may well be the main attraction, but the physical and mental commitment required for a decent career is enormous, and the promise gets spread very thin across the daily grind of training.

People say that the successful fighter is the one who can always detect the sweet taste of reward in this monotonous diet of pain and effort – and who will stake everything on it. But the stakes in boxing are quite different from those of the baize tables and fruit machine halls in Atlantic City, which sees out-of-towners pouring from buses to be martyred like so many Saint Catherines on small enamel wheels covered with bells and greengages. It’s an interesting fact that the boxers who train at the PAL gym dislike the gambling houses intensely. I once tried to arrange a meeting with one of them in the lobby of a hotel-casino. He refused, explaining that such places were ‘bad’ – and indeed they are. They are full of disappointment, boredom and misery. Through the tacky walls of the rooms in the Tropicana Hotel you can hear the guests in top form. ‘I swear all I need,’ said a man’s voice in the room next to mine, ‘is another two hundred and fifty.’ A woman’s voice answered: ‘There’s nothing left. You know there’s nothing left.’ And then, after a pause, she says: ‘So get out of my life.’

Pleasure and misery in Atlantic City are two sides of the same coin: drudgery. If you don’t get the hang of them, you begin to feel like a loafer. Your head aches with the piped music and the ersatz glitter; you begin to see America as a world peopled exclusively by little old black ladies and obese Caucasians with a mass of white lava erupting from the rim of their trousers. Contempt must play a large part in the local boxers’ dislike of this environment: a life of exacting discipline leaves them little patience for the sluggishness of the bused-in lotus-eaters, the endless drinking and smoking, the feathery tropical fish suspended like sodden peonies in the aquariums at the back of the bars.

Yet the boxers are sometimes obliged to bob and weave their way through the casinos to take part in prize bouts. It is at the glitzy end of town that they can make some money, after days spent sweating in a rough neighbourhood in pursuit of a craft that is far from being its own reward. At the Showboat casino, I saw a young boxer from the PAL gym lose on points to a much tougher and more able opponent over ten rounds. There were five bouts on the card and Ralph Ward was boxing in the second. By the end of the fight he had been hurt. Quite a few of his companions from the gym were there to cheer him on. Not many bothered to stay for the remaining contests.

The following day they were all working in the gym as usual. Bill Johnson and Carmen Graziano both philosophical about Ralph’s defeat. But a glum, morning-after mood prevailed and Johnson’s distaste for the gaming empires emerged for the first time in the four days I spent with him. We stood outside the dilapidated gym and looked across a middle ground of ramshackle houses with their warped verandahs towards the hotel-casinos towering over the boardwalk. In the tone of a bashful father Johnson confessed that Ralph was a ‘little bruised’, dwelling on the vowel, and continued in a resigned voice about the pledges made to the city when gambling was legalised. ‘We were all going to share in the wealth, that was the word. The fact is there ain’t hardly any money from the casinos coming into neighbourhoods like this.’ It was Johnson’s oblique apology to a sore-eyed young boxer living in a wasteland well beyond range of America’s shrinking civic imagination.

Out on the margins is still where millions of black people live. Mike Tyson spent the first two years of his life in a tenement in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the area of Brooklyn portrayed by the black American director, Spike Lee, in Do the Right Thing. When the family broke up, Mike’s mother Lorna was forced a little further down the ladder, her three children clinging on her back, until she reached Brownsville, Brooklyn’s bottom rung. For little Mike, however, it was the start of a steep ascent into the Tyson myth. By the time he was 23, he would be undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, having fought and won 37 professional bouts, of which 17 were stopped in the first round. He would have grossed roughly $75 million. In the ring, he would always look like a killer. Or as he put it ‘I do not come to pitty-patty.’

Peter Heller’s biography of Tyson* is a blend of cool hyperbole and keen insight into the logic of the boxing business: matching your fighter with the right opponents, boosting his prestige by dosing his appearances, nudging up the value of the purses, sewing up cable and television network deals, and so on all the way to the bank. Heller’s effortless grasp of the Tyson saga derives in part from his special relationship with Tyson’s former trainer, Teddy Atlas, a capable young man from New Jersey who stayed with the young fighter through his early ordeals in the ring as a nervous amateur.

Heller’s Tyson is a creature of misfortune with a very mean streak developed during his childhood. In Brownsville, he was a docile little fellow whose lisp earned him the nickname ‘Fairy Boy’ – a sobriquet to bear in mind the next time this squat hulk with a 19¾-inch neck steps into the ring and sizes up a contender like King Kong preparing to scale the Empire State building. The Tyson myth, which Heller relays without ado, is that Fairy Boy was the object of endless provocation until one day he could take no more. The event which transformed him into Iron Mike took place at his pigeon coop on top of a tenement, when some loveable Brownsville youngster tore the head off one of his pigeons. (A similar fate met Terry Molloy’s entire coop when the washed-up boxer testifed against the union villains in Schulberg’s novel Waterfront.) ‘Mike pounced on the bigger boy,’ says Heller. ‘For the first time in his life, he fought back.’

Heller is not concerned to winnow fact from fiction in these early years. The book begins in earnest with Tyson’s move to Catskill at the age of 14. There are good background chapters on the people who made Tyson – especially Cus D’Amato, who rescued him from his delinquent career and, as legal guardian, mentor and profiteer, turned him into a boxer, with the help of managers Bill Cayton and Jimmy Jacobs, Atlas and another young trainer, Kevin Rooney. Some of the best material concerns the falling out between D’Amato and Atlas after the young Tyson went to live with D’Amato in the Catskills. ‘Often he would come home from the gym and not change his sweaty work-out clothes. One day Camille (D’Amato’s common-law wife) told him to take a bath. Mike tore into the 78-year-old woman: “Fuck you, you piece of shit,” he told her. “You take a bath.”’ It wasn’t the manque de finesse in Mike’s repartee that troubled Atlas, so much as D’Amato’s failure to keep him in line. In the end, Atlas was forced to walk away. Heller sees him as the Invisible Man of the Tyson story, written out before he had a chance to reap the rewards of his commitment to a difficult and violent adolescent.

There is much to recommend this book, and good reason to follow Tyson’s career beyond 1989. For if Tyson is a champion, it is still unclear whether he is a great one, in the tradition of Marciano or Louis or Muhammad Ali. For the moment he is merely unbeatable. The test will come, so the fight buffs argue, when he is faced with a boxer who can give him a problem. There is a more interesting question too – that of Tyson’s meaning, of the resonance of his title in the Eighties. Will Tyson come to stand for his era, for quick killings and serious money, for an irresistible, deregulated Nature which makes the skills of his opponents look like quaint restrictive practices? One doesn’t have to be a semiotician or a boxing fan to suspect that Joe Louis embodies the values of the New Deal and, when he knocked out the German Max Schmeling in 1938, of a tentative American anti-Nazism. Ali, too, was a boxer who fought with the stylish magnanimity of his time, juggling its characteristics in a tremendous show of grace and truculence, beauty and vanity, audacity and mere recklessness. Ali is also still remembered for his refusal to fight in Vietnam.

Will a comparable historical moment attach itself to Mike Tyson? He is scarcely the figure to represent phased nuclear arms reduction. Nor is he quite the right man to deplore the greenhouse effect; oceans rise visibly in the knees of every opponent who attempts to face him down. Nor, indeed, does Tyson speak for the compact, fastidious self of the Eighties – that of the young professional who runs every morning, who can’t enjoy his coulis of basil and apricot in the same room as a cigarette end, who smiles at his children nine times a day and sleeps, after scrupulous sex, as though each night were an investment in longevity. This archetype is better represented by Tyson’s antithesis, the great Sugar Ray Leonard, who, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, can sometimes box like ‘a yuppie lawyer’. Despite the fierce intelligence which Tyson brings to the ring, he is a cruder proposition. The sense we make of him will depend on his performance over the next few years, and thus on the emergence of a strong contender.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences