I went to the Civic Hall in Wolverhampton feeling uncharacteristically charitable, I really did. It was an interview on the telly that got me all warm-hearted.
Interviewers-cum-autocue readers keep shtoom about Charlie Kennedy’s drinking, for example, but as soon as a boxer pops up, albeit one with a dodgy reputation, then bam! No punches pulled. When Dermot Murnaghan asked Mike Tyson about the death of his four-year-old daughter after an accident this year, the question seemed not so much direct and tough as callous and gutless.
There are many victims in Tyson’s extraordinary story: the countless boxers smashed to smithereens in the ring (of one, Tyson said: ‘I wanted to hit him one more time in the nose so that the bone would go up into his brain’); Robin Givens, his manipulative first wife, who also felt the power of Tyson’s fist; his sleeping six-year-old brother, whose arm Tyson slit with a razor; the sister-in-law of one of his trainers, Teddy Atlas, whom Tyson molested; Desiree Washington, whom Tyson was convicted of raping; and countless others who have crossed him
But there is no doubt that Tyson himself is a victim of sorts. Born to circumstances few would escape from without deep scarring – born, in his own words, to ‘an alcoholic and a pimp’.
Great wealth came and great wealth went, so that before his second fight against Evander Holyfield – which was to be a $30 million (now about £18 million) pay-day – Tyson felt compelled to say: ‘I’ve been taken advantage of all my life. I’ve been used. I’ve been dehumanised. I’ve been humiliated and I’ve been betrayed.’
Tyson laid flowers at the grave of Johnny Owen this week, but it has always been Sonny Liston, the great heavyweight who died with needle marks in his arm, whom Tyson has associated himself with most of all.
It is almost as if Tyson is becoming the victim of a self-fulfilling prophesy. The great estates in Nevada, Ohio, Connecticut and Maryland now but a memory, he finds himself on the after-dinner circuit at the Civic Hall, Wolverhampton. Nothing against the Civic Hall, you understand, but it’s hardly Caesars Palace. ‘It’s an odd place to find Tyson, wouldn’t you say?’ I said to the man to my right. ‘Yeah, it’s nice and low-key.’
Still, he drew a crowd, of sorts. An hour before the event there was a handful of autograph hunters and a solitary snapper, when years before you would have been blinded by the flashlights. But half an hour after the doors had opened, three quarters of the venue was full. Two thousand, three tops, most of whom had paid £25 for the privilege, with a few hundred VIPs (the MC would refer to them throughout the night as not VIPs but vips), who had shelled out £200.
It was a sympathetic audience. When, at the beginning of the evening, the MC described Tyson as ‘a complex man with a heart of gold’ and a ‘lovely, lovely guy’, there was a murmur of approval.
It was 8.30pm by now. I looked at my ticket again: An Evening with Mike Tyson; doors open 7.00pm, show 7.30 pm. Suddenly, we were confronted with a boy band from Wales called 4th Street Traffic who emitted an incomprehensible sonic boom, that had the vips, just metres from the speakers, wondering if they had made the right choice after all.
Now it was time for Ken Buchanan, a great former champion who has had enough troubles of his own, to shuffle up on stage. ‘Sit yourself down here!’ roared the MC, patting a stool so hard that clouds of dust were sent into the air. Dapper in a waistcoat, Buchanan was given a respectful welcome.
Next, Alan Minter, another great champion, who came on blowing kisses to the audience as if he was about to get going at Madison Square Gardens. He was forgetful at times; the years, and bouts, have caught up with him.
The crowd were getting itchy now, their mood not helped by the news that it would not be Tyson next but a tribute artist called Miss Understood. Two heavyweight vips at the front of the room began to foxtrot as Miss Understood thundered out her tunes – this was turning into a bizarre, even grotesque, evening.
It was 9.45pm now and the organisers were beginning to misunderstand the crowd’s mood. Slow hand-clapping, catcalls and no Mike Tyson. The MC blundered on, dragging to the stage half-a-dozen auction items – ‘unique opportunities for your boardroom, ladies and gentlemen!’ – which were flogged off for hundreds a time. The mood was beginning to turn ugly. The MC called a break at 10pm – just a short one, you understand. Only five or ten minutes for our comfort. By 10.30 the crowd were becoming visibly angered.
Did Iron Mike turn up? I could not tell you, because three and a quarter hours after the show was due to start, I had to catch the last train home. I did ring the man sitting on my right, who had brought his father, hoping to give him a night to remember. He said that shortly after 10.30pm, more auction items were flogged off, and then those vips who hadn’t had their promised photo with Tyson were whisked away. At 11.04pm, Tyson appeared and spoke for 40 minutes. ‘He was enigmatic but very listenable, too,’ my neighbour said.
Sports fans tend to be charitable to their former heroes. They are like the newspaper editor in Ring Lardner’s story, The Champion, who did not want his reporter to write about the boxer knocking down his mother and disabled brother. Why? Because he was the champion. But it pays not to take the piss.
There are many victims in the extraordinary story of Mike Tyson. There were a few in the Civic Hall, Wolverhampton, on Wednesday night, too, and it would take someone of an extremely charitable mentality to say that Tyson was one of them.