The epic tragedy that was Mike Tyson's rise and fall might just be a tale too big for a single author to handle in a single book. That's the conclusion I reached after reading Joyce Carol Oates' On Boxing and Joe Layden's The Last Great Fight back-to-back.
The two books were written completely independently of one another by two separate authors more than 20 years apart so any cohesion is purely coincidence. Oates' essays were collected into a hardback and first published in 1987 and the section on Iron Mike was added in the mid-1990's though it was written when Iron Mike at his peak, newly crowned the youngest heavyweight boxing champ in history.
Oates' essays constitute one of the most well-articulated arguments for the merits of boxing ever written. The section on Mike Tyson constitutes one of the best narrative accounts of his rise and original myth.
Layden's book came out in 2010 and is the definitive account of Tyson's humiliating upset loss to Buster Douglas in February, 1990. Reading it as I did on the heels of reading On Boxing, The Last Great Fight made for the perfect sequel.
On Boxing tells the tale of the teenage Mike Tyson, the virtual feral child of the Brooklyn streets, rescued by Cus D'Amato and transformed with love and a master's education in the sweet science into the most fearsome heavyweight champion since Sonny Liston.
All of the classic elements are present in Oates' telling: Tyson the apt pupil and boxing historian, Tyson the sheltered innocent, guarded and mentored by a phalanx of mentors at D'Amato's upstate boxing camp; Tyson the unstoppable terror of the squared circle, eschewing robes, socks and any of the niceties of the sport on his way to brutalizing Michael Spinks, Trevor Berbick, Larry Holmes, et al.
Oates perfectly sets up Tyson as Icarus flying towards the sun, the apex and living personification of all the primal qualities she ascribed to boxing in her preceding essay. The only thing missing is the end of his story.
And that's where The Last Great Fight comes in. Layden provides the ugly details of Iron Mike's rapid decline and fall. The ill-advised marriage to Robin Givens. The split with D'Amato pupil and master trainer Kevin Rooney and the disastrous move into the arms of Don King.
Layden also does a masterful job of telling the story of Buster Douglas and really makes the reader believe that it wasn't the case of a mediocre fighter attaining greatness for a brief instant, rather it was the case of a great fighter living up to his potential, even if only for one brief moment.
The Last Great Fight is if anything more a biography of Douglas than it is of Tyson, although the stories of both fighters are handled with sympathy and verve.