The most recent incarnation of Mike Tyson might be the strangest. In the cable animated series Mike Tyson Mysteries, the former boxer himself voices the title character, who solves crimes along with his adopted daughter, a drunk pigeon, and the ghost of the 18th-century English nobleman who invented modern boxing. Cartoon crime-solver is only the latest of a long list of guises that Tyson has adopted in his improbable emergence as pop-culture icon. Do any of these roles point to the real Mike Tyson? Do we really care if they don’t?
To hear the name Mike Tyson is to experience uncertainty. Uncertainty about which of the many Mike Tysons is being referenced, uncertainty about the direction of the conversation. Is one talking about the Mike Tyson of late 1980s knockout fame? The Mike Tyson of late 1990s ear-biting notoriety? The aging Tyson who threatened to consume his opponent’s children? Or the adolescent Tyson who perfected his peek-a-boo style under Cus D’Amato’s watchful eye? In most cases, Mike Tyson is considered either good or bad. Fans and anti-fans alike try to pin him down and pass judgment accordingly. A Manichaean logic structures imaginations of the heavyweight.
But Tyson is slippery, and recently he has baffled spectators with an array of bizarre cultural productions. After colossal failures in the ring and transgressions outside it, Tyson took to rehabilitating his image through the culture industry. In 2008 he appeared in the documentary Tyson. Directed by James Toback, Tyson presents a highly sympathetic protagonist determined to achieve redemption. With great vulnerability, Tyson explains the inner chaos and psychic pain created by a brutal childhood, drug addiction, criminal forays, and sexual promiscuity. He recounts his unconditional love for D’Amato and the moral compass he lost when the man who trained him died. The Tyson of Tyson convincingly repents and asks for forgiveness. Both unexpected and endearing, the documentary temporarily gives the audience a way to make sense of the man.
In the summer of 2012, Tyson reappeared in a new guise, this time on the Broadway stage in the one-man show Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth. Directed by Spike Lee and written primarily by Kiki Tyson, Tyson’s third wife, the show is an almost complete reversal of the documentary’s confessionals. Undisputed Truth presents a brash and defiant Tyson, who takes aim at everyone who has ever wronged him. An impressive act of stamina, the show runs roughly two hours and reveals some acting talent, but it is almost unwatchable. Verbal attacks on boxing personalities such as Don King and Teddy Atlas, who otherwise warrant vitriol, are excessive and tinged with unrestrained anger. Obsessions with lawsuits from people like Mitch Green, who sued Tyson after a street fight in 1988, are incomprehensible and just weird. And tirades against the women who suffered greatly at his hands are blatantly misogynistic. Though the online version presents an overwhelmingly African American audience, at the show I attended the audience was comprised of white men in collared Oxford shirts with expensive leather messenger bags, who cheered and clapped for Tyson during his most outrageous monologues. Boxing historian Theresa Runstedtler and I slumped in our seats, flabbergasted. Was this merely another version of black masculinity commodified for white men’s pleasure? At best the show was uninteresting, at worst deeply offensive.
On the heels of the Broadway show emerged a book version of Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth. The 580-page autobiography was released in 2013 and dedicated to “[a]ll the outcasts—everyone who has ever been mesmerized, marginalized, tranquilized, beaten down, and falsely accused. And incapable of receiving love.” With room to elaborate, the autobiography is more nuanced than the stage performance. It doesn’t capture the thoughtful Tyson of Toback’s documentary but much of the vulgarity of the Broadway show is absent or at least scaled back. This doesn’t save readers from a literary roller coaster, on which Tyson alternates between blaming his woes on his environment – poverty, racism, and the superstructure of boxing – and on predatory women. Cus D’Amato emerges as the hero of the text, righting the wrongs of Tyson’s mother, even though readers can see the extent to which D’Amato used Tyson for his own purposes as well as the ways the D’Amato’s anxious training took a toll on the already incredibly nervous young boxer. After D’Amato’s death Tyson lost protection and grounding, and many of the themes of drug use, sexual promiscuity, and psychiatric struggles are rehearsed. The misogyny is intensified: women are represented as scheming against him, disrupting his plans, forcing him to act out, or not supporting him enough. At the end of an already disjointed text, Tyson stuns the reader with a truly bonkers elucidation of the centrality of Islam in his life. Anyone trying to locate the real Mike Tyson remains befuddled.
Traditionally, psychoanalytic theory subscribed to the idea that there is something along the lines of what Winnicott called “true” and “false” selves. Individuals have a real core, out of which we develop an authentic sense of being while the false self functions as a façade that prevents genuine experience and relationships. With the post-structural turn, psychoanalytic theory moved away from the true/false binary and looked instead to the idea of self-states, which overwhelmingly reject the self as a fixed, non-changing object, and instead argue that we are patterns of behavior that change over time. Feelings, ideas, and actions are constantly in flux, shaped by emotions, memories, goals and, most importantly, social context and the people in it.
Though we all have a multiplicity of self-states, some people, especially those who have suffered trauma or who have more porous boundaries between self and other, such as Mike Tyson, pass more rapidly through self-states. This swift movement not only generates unease among onlookers but also leaves the individual vulnerable to projections. And we certainly project onto Tyson. We project onto him masculine fantasies, racial fantasies, fantasies of the American Dream, fantasies of loss and failure, fantasies of therapeutic recovery, and fantasies of religious conversion. Mike Tyson stands at the crossroad of most American ideological formations and in that location, there is little that cannot be projected onto him. He simply hands us back our projections packaged in the form of documentaries, Broadway shows, and autobiographies.
But projective identification is also communicative. What we project is as important as the individual onto whom we are projecting. So who the real Mike Tyson is doesn’t seem as important as who we are asking Mike Tyson to be and why. And that answer is: everything. We want Mike Tyson to be an empty vessel for our shifting collective fantasies. Fans and non-fans have no interest in seeing his full psychic integration. The pleasures of watching his rapidly cycling self-states, along with our attendant assessment of good and bad, override our desire for certainty.
What gets lost in our collective projections is the fighter Mike Tyson. In all three genres – the documentary, the Broadway show, and the autobiography – Tyson’s athletic accomplishments are rarely referenced and downplayed when discussed at all. We lose sight of Tyson’s training – his incredible discipline and regimentation, which was among the most rigorous of the time. We lose touch with the excitement of the 1980s, when this remarkable young boxer took down opponent after opponent quickly and definitively. We lose connection to his expertise, knowledge, and strategizing, all of the qualities that made him one of the best heavyweights in history. For to see Mike Tyson in his prime – rushing from the corner across the ring to his opponent – is to experience certainty: total and complete corporeal certainty.
Lucia Trimbur is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is author of Come Out Swinging: The Changing World of Boxing in Gleason’s Gym. Lucia is on Twitter at @lbmnemosyne.