It takes a superhuman to survive 15 rounds in the ring with celebrity

September 16, 2005

Boxing is a sport of tensions and contrasts. Joyce Carol Oates has written memorably on the beauty that lies beneath the savagery, the complexity underneath the madness; and the binary tensions between rich and poor, black and white and life and death are writ large through the history of the sport. Ellis Cashmore has used Mike Tyson as a vehicle to explore these themes.

Tellingly, his book is placed in Polity's series on "celebrities", with a roster that so far includes Frank Sinatra, David Beckham and Muhammad Ali.

All these are iconic figures whose importance and relevance extends far beyond their original niches, and all of them fascinate in different ways.

This fascination lies at the heart of Cashmore's book - why do we find the Tyson story so compelling? What makes him such a box-office draw more than a decade after his sporting prime? What does the story tell us about society? Indeed, Tyson is a social construct, and by placing him in the context of society as a whole, Cashmore's book tell us as much about ourselves as it does of Tyson himself.

The book itself reflects the man. Cashmore notes that the Tyson story is, like the man, fragmented and disjointed. To reflect this, Cashmore writes in a a non-linear fashion, with the text dancing between different points inside and outside Tyson's life. Important antecedents are considered as part of the narrative. Key among these are the Sonny Liston story, the civil rights movement and the rise of rap music. This method works well in the main, and helps to situate the Tyson experience within broader notions of American, and more specifically African-American 20th-century history, while capturing the essence of a life Tyson appears to be unable to control.

As would be expected, Tyson's most (in)famous episodes are well covered.

The power and brute force of the young athlete as he rose to become undisputed world heavyweight champion, the rape conviction and the savage biting of Evander Holyfield's ear are covered in depth. Although these of themselves tend not to tell us anything particularly new about the events, they do illustrate the often bizarre notion of celebrity. In an interesting chapter, Cashmore identifies Tyson as emblematic of a new type of celebrity: "There was insatiability about the way we craved information about Tyson ... There is probably no individual in history who has commanded more curiosity. Just watching him fight didn't come near satisfying the interest. We wanted to know everything about him, everything."

The book is at its strongest and most illuminating as it tries to make sense of the fascination with celebrity. This fascination is considered alongside the potential of a sport such as boxing to provide a way out of the ghetto. (Of course, hip-hop, with which Tyson has been heavily identified through friendships with Tupac Shakur and others, is also considered to hold the same escape potential.)

How we read the Tyson story is interesting; there are probably very few who would have much empathy with the man, yet Tyson sees his life as a victory - he could barely have dreamt of the riches, women and success that boxing and celebrity culture have afforded him. More and more, we see sport as something more than just a sport.

Consider the responses that accompanied US billionaire Malcolm Glazer's takeover of Manchester United. In purely business terms this was unspectacular, someone taking a publicly listed company into private hands.

But the strong traditions and history of sport made the takeover the subject of concerted fan protests because Manchester United represented something more. Cashmore identifies this tension, and shows Tyson for what he is, crucial not only to the history of sport but to modern life itself.

His account is a well-written and fascinating attempt to help us understand this. It will undoubtedly appeal to a large readership. It is not a purely academic read, but neither is it a trashy hagiography. As such, it deserves a broad audience outside of what is traditional for an "academic" book.

Guy Osborn is senior lecturer in law, University of Westminster.

Tyson: Nurture of the Beast

Author - Ellis Cashmore
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 3
Price - £50.00 and £12.99
ISBN - 0 7456 3069 3and 3070 7

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