The Sports Section | Sports | Chicago Reader

The Sports Section 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Theatre has arcs of large, bare light bulbs overhead, lined up along the rafters. Down front, the stage is framed by a golden facade, open in the middle, inscribed with the names of the greatest composers--Verdi, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Haydn, Schumann. At the top of the facade is a wall painting, apparently some sort of Christian allegory; the overhead lights are mainly for ornamentation, and in the dimness the painting can be barely made out. Only figures, not specific persons or characters, can be distinguished; the figures march in two rows--one to the left, one to the right--toward the center, but even in the dim light a person below can make out that one of the figures carries a cross. The low lighting is meant, I believe, to create an atmosphere of reverence, a quiet tone in the audience, although a more coarse individual--a fight fan, for instance--might say it is meant to give the Andy Frains an excuse to use their flashlights. Outside, in the lobby, the tile floors and wall lamps are only slightly less ornate than the fittings in the theater proper, and the atmosphere--on this evening--is a bit more abrasive. Even the bathrooms, as I recall, are impressive in this place. I say "as I recall" because my previous visit to the Auditorium had been to see Mikhail Baryshnikov, several years ago, while the purpose of this visit was to see the Tyson Spinks heavyweight championship fight, on closed-circuit television, which--as we all know by now--lasted a mere 91 seconds, leaving no time at all to allow oneself to get caught remarking on the bathroom fixtures.

We had wanted to see this fight as much as we had wanted to see any sporting event this year, and its shortness, its abrupt and seemingly easy end, should not allow us to diminish its impact or its importance. This was the heavyweight fight of the decade, easily eclipsing Spinks-Holmes, because both these fighters had beaten Larry Holmes and neither had lost to anyone else. Likewise, we knew, before the fight took place, that only an upset victory by Michael Spinks could keep the bout from retaining its title as heavyweight fight of the decade, because after Spinks there was and is nothing for Mike Tyson. Spinks was the only man on the planet believed capable of even merely challenging Tyson, and the brevity of the bout and its indisputable end serve, again, not to diminish the match but to elevate Tyson to greatness.

We played our seats very cool, however. Ticket sales, we heard, were slow, and so we felt comfortable waiting to join the last-second rush. Boom-Boom called around Monday morning the day of the fight, in fact, to get the prices and a feel for the various sites we could choose from. Ditka's, we knew, would be $100 or $150 a seat--this price was well advertised--and the other "VIP" location, Park West, would be equally bad. The Vic, our early choice, turned out to be $75--still not right. The Stadium was $30, we found, but when the Boomer called to say that not only could we see the fight at the Auditorium Theatre but seats were a reasonably priced $40, the choice was made. "Great, I saw Baryshnikov there," I laughed, and the sense of displacement was as deliberate as the joke, because given a choice between seeing Mike Tyson fight or Baryshnikov dance I'll pick Tyson every day of the week.

Because Tyson, like Baryshnikov, is at the top of his field--he does what he does better than anyone else--except that Baryshnikov's claim to this position is probably now in a bit more dispute than Tyson's claim to the same rank, both because Baryshnikov is older and a bit past his prime and because the main benefit to ranking boxers as opposed to ranking ballet stars is that ballet's standards are aesthetic and subjective while boxers rank themselves.

And according to boxers' rankings, there is no doubt these were the two best fighters on the planet. Don't dismiss Spinks for his quick demise. One of the main attractions of this fight, for me, was that, although I favor Tyson over all other boxers, I've always liked Michael Spinks too. Spinks was winning an Olympic gold medal when I was getting my driver's license, and I've always liked his awkwardly effective style. If there was anyone to give Tyson a decent bout, I believed it was Spinks. He matched up well. His spidery attack was meant to fight Tyson--if any style of attack is--and while he's no graceful "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" sort of boxer, I believed he could use stick-and-run guerrilla tactics for several rounds and perhaps, if he was savvy enough and strong enough and lucky enough, come away with a decision (my pick, however: Tyson by knockout in the eighth to tenth round).

Spinks is an admirable boxer, even in light of his performance against Tyson. After the Olympics, he established himself as a pro, but then halted his career, choosing to help his brother Leon in Leon's pursuit of the heavyweight crown. When Leon pissed his short-lived title away, Michael--almost by design--set about capturing the light-heavyweight crown and then moving up a weight class for the big one--a move that had never been accomplished. Yet he whipped Larry Holmes twice to claim the title--a title he then had unceremoniously taken from him. Remember that, throughout 12 years as a professional boxer, not only had he never lost but he had never even been knocked down. He had every right to claim he was still heavyweight champ, which made the Tyson match perfect for both contestants.

The circus atmosphere around Tyson, meanwhile, did not complicate this fight--nothing, it turns out, could complicate it--so much as embellish it. Tyson seemed as comfortable with his newfound position of magazine cover boy as some of his fans seemed looking at the ornate interior of the Auditorium. The question was whether the distraction would hurt his performance. In their usual fashion, the media went about first building Tyson up, then questioning the buildup, which only built him up more, and then outright attacking him from below. (When his wife, Robin Givens, was shown on the screen at the Auditorium, the response was reminiscent of the sort of treatment Yoko Ono used to get at campus screenings of Let It Be.) To put this in simple perspective, Tyson was fighting his most difficult opponent amid the most trying conditions the media could create--almost as if to establish a true test of his greatness.

Our seats, bought that very morning over the telephone, were extraordinary: on the aisle, eight rows off the orchestra pit. The screen was set in the center of the facade, and it was huge, 20 feet high maybe, although I imagine it was still a squint from the balcony. The tickets said 8 PM, with Tyson-Spinks set to go off at 9:50, and the fights of the undercard were already under way when we got there, shortly after 8, with announcers giving that hurried, quickened commentary that puts one immediately in the mood for boxing. We adjourned, briefly, to the lobby for cigars and drinks (Studs Terkel doing likewise nearby). The crowd was an odd and--in this town, at this time--welcome mix of white and black, the dress everything from suits to sweat suits. It was, of course, a very male crowd, but with a smattering of females, including a few pairs on an unusual girls' night out, and one or two boss fight chicks in miniskirts out of the Victoria's Secret catalog.

The crowd was, if not subdued, at least calm. It was a crowd that liked the favorite, Tyson, but that respected the challenger, a crowd that wanted a good fight. I think they got it.

We went back in to watch the end of the Trevor Berbick-Carl Williams fight (to establish the top challenger, it was said). The two typified everything boxing was before Tyson came on the scene: they huffed, they puffed, they threw a few punches, but mostly they hugged and beat each other about the kidneys. Then came the long prefight production, including taped interviews with Tyson and Spinks, and then the actual coverage of the usual prefight rigmarole.

No member of the Spinks entourage was present when Tyson had his hands taped and gloved, and although this oversight was entirely the fault of Spinks's men, Spinks's manager used the incident to hold up the fight 15 minutes. Our crowd was impatient, its responses tinged in sexual metaphors: "Let's do it," "Let's get it on." At the actual fight site, this was the usual garbage, but the usual garbage is what fight ritual is all about, and it was hard not to feel present at the meeting of the tribes--our best man against yours--when Spinks and then Tyson came out, each amid his men, and they pressed through the crowd to the ring. Instructions were given. Tyson has looked meaner and more menacing; he looked, in fact, calm, and I thought for a moment that perhaps all this prefight commotion had taken something away from him. But it was a gambit.

A rumbling filled the Auditorium Theatre, a rumbling unlike any Baryshnikov or his artistic cousins have ever heard. We drummed our feet against the wood of the floor, and the bell rang. Tyson came out in the most unusual fashion, on the jog, with an exaggerated, almost cartoonish gait, his legs lagging slowly behind with each step. Then his face curled back (imagine the way a cat pulls, back its ears when fighting) and he launched an amazing offensive, throwing himself directly at Spinks with a hurried, spinning, unfocused combination of blows. Boomer later said it was like a buzz saw, and in this case the cartoon cliche fits. People have said Spinks panicked, that he never got to his strategy of stick-and-run, but he really had no chance. Tyson subjected him to a full onslaught from the get-go. There was no hiding from it; the only alternative would have been to sit against the ropes and hope that, like a tornado, it would pass.

Spinks, however, was trying to hustle into his strategy double time like the good ex-Marine he is. He, too, was throwing punches--although they were being outnumbered two to one--and he spun off Tyson and toward the corner. Here, Tyson's two main strategic strengths became evident. We know he throws as vicious a punch as anyone has ever seen in boxing. Yet he also cuts off a ring--trims it down into various sectors that he can cover--with the skill of a mathematician, and his hand speed is amazing, especially when combined with his immense power. Quite simply, he outcounterpunched Spinks immediately. Spinks set up, led with a right, but Tyson came in under it with a punishing left uppercut, and we were on our feet without realizing it.

There was an instant, too, when we suddenly perceived that Spinks was slowed, perhaps hurt. "He caught him, he caught him," I remember saying out loud. Before Tyson himself could realize this, he hit Spinks with a right to the body, and Spinks lost his air and went down on one knee. Replays later showed that after that first punch Tyson probably could have blown him over with a puff of breath.

Spinks took a good many counts--seven, I believe--before rising. Tyson went right at him. He swung a left hand, Spinks ducked to the right, and Tyson swung a right that blew Spinks over and flattened him like a field of tall grass in the wind.

It was over so quickly our first impression--and the false impression of a good many, I imagine--was fix. Then came the replays. Tyson punches so quickly and so effortlessly that the amount of energy he expends on his blows--if delivered by anyone else--wouldn't seem to amount to much. On the replays, however, their impact was felt, and it was telling. The initial left uppercut did the damage; everything else followed like night the day. Yet the final right-hand punch was so effortless even in replays that its effect was disguised. Then there came a shot from near ringside, from behind Tyson, in which it became apparent that Spinks's feet were lifted off the mat. Then, finally, a bird's-eye camera shot out of Hitchcock--with all its connotations of fate and impending doom--that showed Spinks ducking directly into Tyson's final right hand, which connected squarely on the side of Spinks's head, and how he rolled over on his back, legs quivering, and how his eyes--wide open--rolled to the left to stare at the bright light as it dimmed.

Writers like Bernie Lincicome who suggest Tyson blew his career by finishing Spinks so quickly show an utter lack of both understanding of the sport and empathy with its practitioners. This is a most dangerous sport, with no room for mercy. To point out that the sport demands a measure of ruthlessness is like pointing out that ballet demands beauty and grace. Meanwhile, fight fans knew beforehand that if he won, this would be Tyson's last good fight for two or three years. (It will take that long for the next Olympic champion to be determined and then to gain his professional footing, and even then--in my opinion--it's not likely he'll have much of a chance against Tyson.) There are no $20 million paydays on the horizon for Tyson, but he still has his series of cable-television fights on HBO, and people will watch because they are relatively free and because he is the greatest boxer of this generation and one of the five best of all time. In the long run, poor competition didn't diminish Joe Louis, and it wont diminish Tyson. In fact, I believe the occasional bum going seven or eight good rounds against him will, eventually, become an essential part of the Tyson myth--provided, of course, he doesn't follow through on his threat to retire (a threat, it seems, deliberately meant to counter the sort of doubt expressed by Lincicome. Don't bet on it, not even at 5-1).

As we left the Auditorium, talking about the fight under the marquee lights, Boomer said the one abiding emotion he felt was fear--fear that someone could be at once so destructive and indestructible, unharnessed and yet entirely focused. I had a different feeling. Much as I admire Michael Spinks, and as much as I wanted him to do well, I left the theater laughing and exhilarated. Mike Tyson is one of the great athletes of this century. He towers above the rest of his chosen field, like Babe Ruth or Bobby Jones or Wayne Gretzky. In other words, he does what he does better than anyone else in the world, he is a marvel to watch, and we are lucky to be on the planet at the same era in time. I imagine ballet fans feel the same way after seeing Baryshnikov.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Ted Cox

Agenda Teaser

Music
Batushka, Chasm, Suffering Hour Reggie's Rock Club
August 16
Music
The Sea & Cake, Moonrise Nation Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park
August 16

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories