God, it would be good to be a fake somebody rather than a real nobody.
—Mike Tyson

The afterlife of a champion boxer recalls Karl Marx’s remark about history repeating itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Even when the boxer manages to retire before he has been seriously injured, it is not unlikely that repeated blows to the head will have a long-term neurological effect, and the accumulative assaults of arduous training and hard-won fights will precipitate the natural deterioration of aging; it is certainly likely that the boxer has witnessed, or even caused, very ugly incidents in the lives of other boxers. As welterweight champion Fritzie Zivic once said, “You’re boxing, you’re not playing the piano.”

Ken Regan/Camera 5
Mike Tyson and his trainer, Cus D’Amato, before Tyson’s first professional fight, Albany, New York, 1985

The boxer has journeyed to a netherworld of visceral, violent experience that most of us, observing from a distance, can have but the vaguest glimmer of comprehending; he has risked his life, he has injured others, as a gladiator in the service of entertaining crowds; when the auditing is done, often it is found that, after having made many millions of dollars for himself and others, the boxer is near-penniless, if not in debt to the IRS, and must declare bankruptcy (Joe Louis, Ray Robinson, Leon Spinks, Tommy Hearns, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson,* among others).

Ironic then, or perhaps inevitable, that the afterlife of the champion boxer so often replicates this tragic role in farcical form: recall Joe Louis, one of the greatest heavyweights in history, ending his career with two ignominious defeats at the hands of younger boxers and a brief interlude as a professional wrestler, then impersonating himself as a “greeter” in a Las Vegas casino. Arguably the greatest of heavyweight champions, unmatched in his prime for spectacular ring performances, Muhammad Ali too ended his career after a succession of humiliating and battering defeats, exploited by his manager Don King and badly in debt; in his visibly diminished state, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, and unable to speak, Ali is frequently displayed on public occasions, often in formal attire, face impassive as a mask.

Mike Tyson, at twenty the youngest heavyweight champion in history, and in the early, vertiginous years of his career a worthy successor to Ali, Louis, and Jack Johnson, has managed to reconstitute himself after he retired from boxing in 2005 (when he abruptly quit before the seventh round of a fight with the undistinguished boxer Kevin McBride). He became a bizarre replica of the original Iron Mike, subject of a video game, cartoons, and comic books; a cocaine-fueled caricature of himself in the crude Hangover films; star of a one-man Broadway show directed by Spike Lee, titled Undisputed Truth, and the HBO film adaptation of that show; and now the author, with collaborator Larry Sloman,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.