Today, we found out that Mike Tyson is going to have his own cartoon featuring a talking pigeon with whom he solves crimes. If you only know Mike Tyson from his Hangover crooning moments or guest shots on late night talk shows, you probably don't see anything amiss here. But, for those of us old enough to remember "The Baddest Man on the Planet" in his prime, this is a strange turn of events.
Certain sports are indelibly linked to music. Baseball shares rock n’ roll’s widespread appeal, its inoffensiveness, its essential Americana. Football, with its heart and soul in the Southern US and a soundtrack by Boceephus and Faith Hill, is new country. Boxing is rap.
Rap. It’s a virtual onomatopoeia when placed alongside the sound of leather-wrapped fists colliding with human flesh and bone. Rap. Not hip hop, mind you. The Black Eyed Peas might produce music that some would call hip hop, but they’re decidedly not rap. Rap is testosterone amplified by the Hubble Telescope, it’s a nine-millimeter tucked in your waistband at the club, it is oversized gold chains that proclaim your status and affiliations, it is unadulterated swagger. When two rappers compete, it’s a battle. When Lynard Skynard didn’t care for one of Neil Young’s songs, they slipped a subtle allusion into Sweet Home Alabama. Tupac wrote Hit Em Up.
Today, one boxer best epitomizes the ethos of rap: Floyd Mayweather. From his absurd collections of ostentatious clothes, cars, and gold chains; to his oversized entourage; to his full-length rap sheet, Mayweather seems to have gone to near-comic lengths to emulate the lifestyle glorified by rappers. He even managed to find time to feud with corrections officer-turned-rapper Rick Ross, who responded with an entire music video attacking Mayweather – the first time a mainstream rapper had gone after a professional athlete with that level of vitriol since E-40 took on Rasheed Wallace in the mid-90s. But Floyd Mayweather has nothing on the first man to bring rap to boxing.
Rap music stormed onto the mainstream airwaves in 1986, when the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill became the first rap album to top the Billboard charts. The three 20-year-old kids from New York City quickly became the toast of MTV, and established rap as the soundtrack of a new generation. At the same, a few channels down the dial, another 20 year old from New York City was about to do the same thing for boxing. His name was “Iron” Mike Tyson, and he had just become the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history.
Tyson did not just emulate rap, he helped define it. His fashion sense – a taste for the color black, gold chains, and athletic gear – were quickly copied by almost every rapper in the business, as was the trademark fade haircut with a slash down the middle. His name has been shouted out by every rapper from Tupac and Biggie to Will Smith, who – long before he played Muhammad Ali on the screen – would record a smash hit about a fictional encounter with Tyson. Tupac and Tyson became so close that Tyson entered the ring to Tupac’s music before his fights for years; and Tupac himself met his end in Las Vegas just hours after assaulting a rival gang member he encountered at one of Tyson's fight. Even today, Tyson’s legend persists: When Rick Ross engaged in his aforementioned feud with Mayweather, he added a barbed reference to the young Tyson, reminding Floyd, “even your name’s lame, ain’t no Mayweather Punch-Out.”
Rap took hold in 1986, but it matured in 1988. Even today, the work produced that year remains legendary. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. Straight Outta Compton. Strictly Business. Even some of the lesser albums portended big things to come: Will Smith made his debut with He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper and MC Hammer made his major label debut with Let’s Get It Started. The kid from Brownsville would also come of age in 1988, and it would happen in 91 thrilling seconds against the undefeated heavyweight champion, Michael Spinks.
Michael Spinks was many things Tyson was not. He was an Olympic gold medalist. He had beat a number of top fighters from 175 lbs all the way up to heavyweight, where he had unseated the previously undefeated Larry Holmes to win the most important of the alphabet soup championship belts. He was an experienced professional fighter, the sort of guy who could take a raw young talent apart with his wiles and powerful right hand.
None of that mattered. Tyson was a force of nature that night. He needed only seven punches to flatten the undefeated champion. Spinks made it to his feet, but only briefly. A single punch from Tyson – a punch so quick that neither Spinks nor most viewers saw it until it was too late – ended Spinks’s undefeated streak and his career in the blink of an eye.
The most giant stars exist only briefly; then they explode their outer lawyers in a supernova while their innards collapse into a black hole. Tyson’s performance against Spinks was his supernova. It was a display of destructive force so overwhelming that it seemed to light up the entire universe but it left nothing in its wake. Shortly after the fight, he shed the last few people in his life who would tell him “no," including trainer Kevin Rooney, and replaced them with a collection of remoras who would rob him of his fortune and the best years of his life. He would make only two more title defenses before being stunned in Tokyo by Buster Douglas. His life spiraled downward: a miserable, high profile divorce from actress Robin Givens; a conviction for rape; the ear-biting incident against Evander Holyfield; bankruptcy; drug addiction; the loss of his daughter in a tragic accident. The man who earned more than a half billion dollars in his career even briefly lived in a homeless shelter. Against all odds, Mike Tyson the man has recovered remarkably well, but Mike Tyson, the star, never shined so brightly after the glorious win over Michael Spinks. But we will always have those 91 seconds. And, for millions of us, that is all we will ever need. Well, that, and a talking pigeon.