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This excerpt of "The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway's Ghost in the Last Days of Castro's Cuba" by Brin-Jonathan Butler is printed with the permission of Picador USA. For more information, please visit www.us.macmillan.com/author/brinjonathanbutler
Check out Butler's conversation with Only A Game’s Bill Littlefield.
CHAPTER ONE: HOW DID THIS WHITE MOTHERFUCKER GET INSIDE MY HOUSE?
MAYBE THE REAL SUBJECT of every interview is how you really can’t learn much about anyone from an interview.
Back at his gym in Los Angeles, the only instruction Freddie Roach, the world’s most famous boxing trainer, gave after offering Mike Tyson’s phone number was a warning: “Don’t blindside him. It doesn’t matter if I sent you. If you see Mike and you blindside him, he’s capable of attacking you.”
“I’m not looking to blindside anyone here,” I lied.
“Be careful, son.”
And then a couple months later, on Easter Sunday of 2010, I entered the front door of Tyson’s Vegas home into a thick cloud of marijuana smoke while he descended the stairs toward me with just one question:
“So how did this white motherfucker get inside my house?”
* * *
On June 27, 1988, a twenty-one-year-old Mike Tyson made in excess of twenty-one million dollars for ninety-one seconds of work. That’s how much the world wanted him. To put that into perspective, it took him just over fourteen seconds to pull in more money than Michael Jordan, in his prime, made for an entire season of work that year. But maybe you never cared much about sports or athletes and prefer art instead. So you might accept Andy Warhol’s dictum that you can measure the worth of an artwork by what you can get for it. At Tyson’s pay rate that night, after another round or so (227 seconds, to be exact), the work of art he created in the ring would’ve earned as much as Vincent van Gogh’s efforts on a canvas—Irises had become the most expensive work of art in the world just several months before Tyson’s fight, selling for 53.9 million dollars.
For most people, Tyson’s legacy was staked on two equally shocking extremes. On November 22, 1986, at the age of twenty, he had become the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history. And only three years later, he was on the losing end of the biggest upset in sports history when he was beaten by Buster Douglas. At his peak, critics used to laugh and tell you Mike Tyson never had a style, he just fought everyone as if they stole something from him. “All things truly wicked,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “start from innocence.”
* * *
Long before I ever had a chance to blindside him, Mike Tyson had blindsided me.
Even though we’d never met, seeing a reprinted photo booth picture of Tyson as a little boy saved my life. Mike Tyson’s identity as a destination didn’t mean anything to me until I’d gone back and packed some of his luggage to understand the journey he made. But I guess “Kid Dynamite,” like most boxers, was like any other powder keg made out of commonly found household items.
Start off with where the center of his universe is located: Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the bleakest dungeons of poverty and violence America could dish out. Install an abusive pimp for a father and have him abandon the alcoholic mother before Tyson’s third birthday. Make sure the mother sleeps with everyone in the neighborhood so the household and its inhabitants gain a glowing reputation from well-wishers in the community. Contaminate his soul with a sense of how worthless a human life can be as people he recognizes overdose or get robbed or raped or murdered. Make him an even more attractive target with no friends or any hope of protection in the neighborhood. Don’t let him walk in any direction without it feeling like a plank. Never allow him to turn a corner without fearing for his life. And when anything catches up with him, make him too timid and sensitive to ever fight back. Hang cowardice as another millstone around his neck. And after you’ve torn his heart out, why not fan the scent? Best of all, when he begs for help, make sure his voice is so high and delicate he’ll be afraid to scream no matter how much he wants to. And if the pathetic little faggot everybody has always insisted he is ever caves, why not give him a lisp as well. As far as he knows, he’ll be dead and forgotten before he blows out the candles for his thirteenth birthday.
But before you finish him off, give him one place to hide. Offer him a hideaway where he can take refuge from the world. Let him stumble onto the rooftops of those abandoned tenements of Brownsville and fall in love with the pigeons up there. Watch him spend every dime he can scrape together for feed so he can reward the pigeons from his coop for doing what he can’t: fly away. Make the relief of this refuge something that marks him forever and leaves a trail that others can find and hunt down.
Soon, some rapacious, observant predator in the neighborhood can observe the change in Tyson and follow him up there. He can trespass undetected into Tyson’s most private world and savor the pillage to come. Let him find Tyson fully exposed, feeding and caring for his birds, and allow him to at once grasp the whole story behind it, the whole pawnshop of broken dreams in Tyson’s heart. Let him hatch a plan to finish off another boy’s life that’s better than just pulling a trigger or pushing him off the roof. That way, when Tyson returns the next day to the rooftop and discovers one of his pigeons being choked inside the fist of this sadistic fuck he’ll beg him not to hurt it. Tyson can helplessly watch as the bully takes his time soaking up Tyson’s entreaties and savoring the spectacle of a shattered human being unraveling before twisting off the head of the pigeon and laughing at the heartbreakingly predictable outcome.
But instead, for the first time in his life, Tyson stood up for himself and summoned everything that once made him weak to unleash the first bars of his own Ninth Symphony with his fists. “Fighting to me is what theory was to Einstein,” Tyson later explained, “or words were to Hemingway or notes were to Beethoven.”
I used to wonder how long after that moment, when the world first heard that melody, it took Tyson to realize what real problems were in store for him. I used to wonder how long it took Tyson to get a whiff of us, and how, as Norman Mailer once said of George Foreman, a previously nightmarish boxer America had a fetish for, “Anyone is supposed to prepare to defend himself against the thoughts of everyone alive.”
At a certain point Mike Tyson and I reacted to violence a little differently. After my first fight, I was afraid to leave my house for three years, while Tyson became the heavyweight champion of the world. But, at first, our cowardice and trauma defined us both.
In the summer before tenth grade, back in 1994, I wrote a letter to inmate 922335, inside the Indiana Youth Center in Plainfield, Indiana. I’d never mailed a letter to anyone before. Up to that point the only letter I’d ever written had been a suicide note.
The week before, totally by accident, my mother had seen an interview with Tyson broadcast from prison, and at the end of it she was crying. I only caught the last few minutes. My mother was terrified of Mike Tyson for the same reasons everybody was terrified of Mike Tyson—yet, by the end of the interview, she loved him. I could see in her face the battle raging between her head and her heart. All I’d heard him talk about in the interview was reading books in the hole and how badly he’d been bullied in childhood. She filled me in on the rest.
I was writing a convicted rapist a thank-you letter. It’s true that I didn’t know whether or not Mike Tyson was guilty of raping an eighteen-year-old beauty contestant in Indiana, a crime for which he’d been convicted. But I did know without a doubt that he was responsible for sending me two places I’d never been on my own before: a boxing gym and a library. And, more important, I knew as clearly then as I do now, those places saved me.
And, later on, those places led me to Cuba, a place infamous around the world for resisting the most powerful nation on earth: the United States.
Mike Tyson had visited the island in 2002 while I was there training as an amateur boxer. Ostensibly that was why Freddie Roach had agreed to give me Tyson’s phone number in the first place. At that time, Roach was training Guillermo Rigondeaux, the most notorious Cuban boxing defector in history. For Cuban boxers, America and Cuba had been distilled to the choice of fighting for Don King or Fidel Castro. Rigondeaux had already filled me in on what it was like fighting for Fidel; I wanted to hear Tyson shed some light on King.
* * *
So, once Mike Tyson got down the stairs, I answered his question about how this white motherfucker got inside his house. “You brought me here.”
After I’d explained to him how I’d come full circle and ended up in his living room, we both sat down opposite each other and he shook his huge head and smiled before asking:
“Is that all true?”
“What do you think?”
“So I’m guessing you being here, in my home, sitting across from me right now—I’m guessing this is pretty intense for you right now, huh?”
On Easter of 2010, the day I interviewed him, Mike Tyson’s boxing career had been over for nearly five years. At this point, Tyson was more famous as a national punch line for biting off someone’s ear than for any career achievement or even squandered potential. Besides that, a country sixteen trillion in debt mocked and remained endlessly fascinated by the question of how someone like Tyson could possibly have pissed away his entire fortune. The last picture I’d seen of him, taken a couple months before, showed a man who had ballooned to well over three hundred pounds. Though he had miraculously dropped most of it since then, he looked deflated from his championship days. Tyson lived in a gated community just outside Las Vegas in the town of Henderson, Nevada.
When he was only eighteen, Tyson’s managers would market him with posters reminding you that if your grandfather had missed Joe Louis, or your father Muhammad Ali, you didn’t want to miss Tyson. But what they didn’t mention was that Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali were a boy’s dream of a fighter. Before long Tyson understood his customers a little better and modified the sales pitch. Tyson figured out, in his era, that America really craved a nightmare.
Tyson’s first trainer, Teddy Atlas, had said this of his star pupil and America’s addiction to him: “People are full of shit. They want to see something dark. People want to feel close to it and in on it, but, of course, only from the distance of their suburban homes. They want to have the benefit of comfort, security, safety, respect, and at the same time the privilege of watching something out of control—even promote it being out of control—as long as we can be secure that we’re not accountable for it.… We wanted to believe that Mike Tyson was an American story: the kid who grows up in the horrible ghetto and then converts that dark power into a good cause. But then the story takes a turn. The dark side overwhelms him. He’s cynical, he’s out of control. And now the story is even better.”
“Okay.” Tyson glared, leaning forward in his chair across from me. A Sandra Bullock rom-com was muted on the flat-screen TV beside us; some of his children’s toys were scattered by my feet. “You said I was your hero growing up. I wanna know who your other heroes are then.”
“They’re all suicides.”
“Is that a prerequisite or something?” he smiled.
“For a while there, to be honest, I never thought you’d ever live long enough for me to have a chance to meet or say thank you.”
“Me neither,” Tyson said under his breath, looking over at his wife in the kitchen. “I was sure I’d be dead by now, too.”
“On the way over here I drove through Las Vegas for the first time. I’ve never had a desire to see Las Vegas. I hate everything about it. Joe Louis was a hero of mine. And even more depressing than a whole city built up by all the loss and suffering of ruined lives, it’s the idea of someone like Louis, after all he did for this country, ending up broke and strung out on drugs working as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace that—”
“You,” Tyson said, pointing his finger at me. “You know what your problem is? You’re too sensitive. You probably don’t think you had enough pain in your own life so you take on the pain of other people to make up for it. Taking on the pain of my life or Joe Louis’s life doesn’t help us. It doesn’t help you, either.”
Tyson scratched the tattoo of famed African American tennis champion Arthur Ashe on his shoulder while his mother-in-law scurried into the kitchen with Tyson’s baby in her arms.
“What was the next book you read after all those biographies on me?” Tyson asked.
“Days of Grace by Arthur Ashe.” I shrugged.
“Didn’t anyone warn you that it’s dangerous meeting your heroes?”
“You’re not a very easy person to have as a hero, Mike.”
“That’s true.” He smiled. “But how am I doing so far today?”
I smiled back at him.
“That Jewish proverb is true, man. ‘The brighter the light, the darker the shadow that’s cast.’ Whatever people think of me, most countries in the world that I visit, it’s kings or presidents that want to greet me. I’ve been the most famous face on the planet. Why do you think that is? I’ve met anyone you can meet. And we’re all part of the same club. The feeling of worthlessness is what drove us to greatness. Content people don’t strive for anything. They don’t have to. I never walked out to the ring without having dreamed the night before of losing.”
“When I mentioned to Freddie Roach that you were one of the most knowledgeable boxing historians in the world he interrupted me. He said, ‘Not one of, Mike Tyson is the greatest boxing historian who ever lived.’”
“So what’s the connection with you and Cuba? That’s what my assistant mentioned you wanted to talk to me about.”
“I know you were in Cuba back in 2002.”
“How the fuck do you know that?”
“I was in Havana when you arrived.”
“Okay,” Tyson conceded. “I was there.”
“What were you doing there?”
“I wanted to meet Teófilo Stevenson, the Cuban Muhammad Ali.”
“Did you have a chance?”
Tyson shook his head. “I got in some trouble and had to go.”
“If you had to choose between Fidel Castro or Don King, who do you think would be worse fighting for?”
“Cubans aren’t fighting for money. They’re fighting for glory. They’re saying they’re better than money by turning it down. They’re better than us as human beings. All that stuff.”
“If you were born there and could only make money by leaving your family … If that was the choice you had to make. Could you do it?”
“Where I’m at now? No. I couldn’t leave my family. But I was born here. They’ll put me in the ground here. Those Cubans like Stevenson or Savón represent all that insane stuff over there, I represent all our insane stuff. You have to think that boxing is just narrative. Stories. Why was everyone willing to put more money in the cash register for mine than anyone else? Was I the best? Maybe. But I had the story they cared about most. They saw themselves the most in me, whether they admit it or not.”
“I heard you answer that question once by saying it was because you were angelic and scum. Is that America, too?”
“I saw an interview with you once where you were crying. You were young. You weren’t champ yet. But you were upset because you said how much you missed fighting when it wasn’t just about the money.”
“Listen, man. I can’t really believe this because I still can’t figure out how you got in my house today. And I can’t believe I’m going to talk about this to a stranger, but listen. You said the first book you ever read was about my life. Whatever. At least then you probably know what human being brought me more pain than anyone. And that woman, my mother, she was dead before I was sixteen. I’m the son of a pimp and an alcoholic. But if I ever brought anything home of value into my mother’s house, she knew I’d stolen it. I never saw her proud of me in my entire life. Not once. And somewhere, somewhere I always had that in my mind. I was fighting to make this woman who caused me more pain than anyone in my life—” Tyson cleared his throat and wiped his face a couple times. “Deep down, I was always fighting to make that woman … I wanted to make that woman proud of me. That’s what I was always fighting for.”
Right then a clock next to us tolled, then once more for two o’clock. Tyson cradled his face in his hand and cleared his throat again. The moment was gone and the assistant entered the room and told Mike Tyson they had appointments to meet.
“You like F. Scott Fitzgerald, man?” Tyson asked.
“He said something like, ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’ Some shit like that. Maybe I’ll prove him wrong.”
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