Thursday, May 8, 2008

That Book-Leg Guy: "The Last Great Fight" by Joe Layden (a/k/a The TBGaithersburg Travel Diary – Part 2)

So, when we last left, uh, myself…I was deplaning down in Dallas/Fort Worth. I love DFW's airport because they refer to "restrooms" as "toilets" on all their signage, which sounds like the 19th century tradition and terminology the entire state is stuck in. I now also love DFW because it's the first airport I've seen with a Popeye's Chicken inside. Unfortunately, I noticed this after I'd already paid $3.00 for a cold, butter-drenched cinnamon sugar pretzel from Auntie Anne's.

Anyways, the rest of my layover and ensuing flight into Dulles was rather uneventful. I did, however, finish a book that I started before I boarded in San Diego. Segue!

I've been thinking about the precise moment that the sports world, as I once knew it, became lobotomized by ESPN, the internet and those damn, dirty bloggers. Specifically, I'm wondering when the 24/7 sports cycle begun, because it certainly wasn't there in 1990.

18 years ago it was unfathomable that world would forget Bo Jackson – the single greatest force of nature to ever step on to the field. Similarly, Michael Jordan had yet to win a championship and was routinely labeled as a selfish, me-first player who didn't make his Yankees Bulls teammates better. Joe Montana was still the gold standard for quarterbacks, but, by 2008, he'd be eclipsed in the media's eyes by a pill-popping alcoholic who'd lead his team to ¼ of the titles.

How quickly you forget.

I still remember where I was on February 10, 1990.

My dad had the remote control and he was clicking back and forth between the NBA's All-Star Weekend festivities on TNT and the Mike Tyson/Buster Douglas fight on HBO.

Back in the day, I was a HUGE basketball fan – mostly because the hated Lakers (who my dad adored) were in decline. I was only a casual boxing fan, but this was still a Tyson Fight and, as such, it was an event.

I still remember how infrequent the channel changing became when it was obvious that Mike Tyson was getting his ass handed to him by the unheralded Douglas. By the sixth round, we'd lost interest entirely in the manufactured Caucasian drama of Rex Chapman in the Slam Dunk contest.

Tyson would be knocked out in the tenth round and his fearsome mystique would never return.

Today, I can't help but laugh when people slap that "upset" label on Appalachian State beating Michigan or Golden State defeating Dallas. Unfortunately, the passing of time – and, Tyson's emotional, physical and psychological collapse into caricature – has dulled the moment for those of us who watched it unfold or eliminated it entirely as the sport of boxing has been dead to the mainstream media for over a decade.

Thankfully, Joe Layden has put together one hell of an attempt at a time machine.

What Aaron Liked: Layden meticulously details the build to the Tyson/Douglas fight and how it came to be. In particular, the "quitter" profile of Buster Douglas (he essentially surrendered during a 1987 title bout) was one I hadn't heard before and serves as ominous foreshadowing for Douglas' first – and only – title defense. The author knows that Mike Tyson's story has been told 10,000 times, so his build is brisker, while stopping to spend a little more time celebrating Tyson's apex (the 91-second destruction of Michael Spinks) and the beginning of his downfall (Robin Givens, car wrecks – both literal and figurative). Douglas' story, before and after the Tyson fight, is poignantly painted against the backdrop of a father he could never please, while the center represents the one night when it all came together. Douglas' full cooperation with the book allowed for an intense first-person account and adds an infinite number of layers to a man who entered and left the public's consciousness in less than a calendar year. Two of the book's most heartbreaking moments are its biggest highlights: (1) Tyson/Douglas fight referee Octavio Meyran, who speaks in detail about how the fallout ruined his career and (2) the deaths of Douglas' parents.

What Aaron Didn't Like: The book persuasively argues that the Douglas loss might've actually been the most valiant moment of Tyson's career. However, after Layden covers the last of the angles from that fateful night in Tokyo, the book ping-pongs from the decay of Tyson's career (which reads more like summarized newspaper clippings) to the more fleshed-out (HAW~!) "Whatever Happened To" pieces on Douglas. According to Layden, Tyson only offered minimal participation, which doesn't really hurt the book (is there anyone who doesn't know about Tyson's affinity for ear?) but, it does make things feel a little one-sided. The retroactive rip job on Tyson's fight skills (mostly from historian Bert Sugar and commentator Jim Lampley) might be accurate, but I find it hard to believe Layden couldn't find anything in the way of a rebuttal from someone. And, as much as I enjoyed this book, I was surprised to read how many times Layden described an African-American as "well-spoken". I hear in Washington DC, we're even allowed to ride in the front of the Metro!

Steal, borrow or buy it? Layden has an easy-to-read writing style that restores the shine to one of my favorite sports eras ever. Buy it if you're a boxing fan or if you were a self-aware sports fan at the time of the fight. If you see it at Borders, flip to the fight (around pages 150-170) and thank me later for making a few minutes breeze by.

Next: An unintended two-and-a-half hour tour of Maryland and I come face-to-face with another longtime Bootleg reader for the first time. Do I survive the encounter? I'm not telling!

1 comment:

Tom said...

I was surprised to read how many times Layden described an African-American as "well-spoken". I hear in Washington DC,

I feel like qualifying a boxer as "well-spoken" is totally fair. There's Ray Leonard and.... well.... Ray Leonard.