James Toback has just given us an incredible documentary on Mike Tyson, the youngest Heavyweight Champion to ever win the World Title. My fascination with Toback's other films, such as Two Girls and a Guy and Black and White, eventually grew into a fascination with Tyson, because Toback himself was fascinated with Tyson.
What is character?
I did everything he told me to, and I won. I won every championship at the amateur level--and I started believing in this old man . . .I turned my whole life over to boxing. He brainwashed me so much. I was like his dog. If he told me to bite, I would bite.It's like a father and son relationship even though he is my manager and trainer.Cus trained me to be totally ferocious.He spoke with me every night about discipline and character, and I knew that nobody--physically--was going to fuck with me again.
A poignant moment in the documentary comes when Tyson is recalling what D'Amato used to tell him about the different fighters in history, and what made each of them great in their own way.
I have a great deal of respect for Cus--I believe everything he said. His word in boxing is Bible to me. When he described fighters, he talked about their good points. He talked about Jack Dempsy's ferocity, he talked about Rocky Marciano's will and dedication; when he discussed Muhammad Ali, he talked about character. He said that's the only reason why Ali is the best--because he had more character. I thought that was funny--I was a young kid. As I grew older, I realized what he meant.
But I want to try to answer this question, "What is character?" Because I believe that some of us, like Mike Tyson, have enormous talent, skill, and intelligence. Remember D'Amato's words, "Each great fighter has something different; something that makes them great."
To answer this question, I hold up two icons of boxing, Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali as examples.
A boxing match provides an illuminating metaphor for spiritual fitness.
But let's be honest, who can stay on top forever? Nobody can. Which is why those with the most character stand out from the crowd--and this is not the usual crowd--this is a crowd made up of Presidents, Olympic record breakers, and world champions of every stripe from chess to literature.
In the world of boxing, Muhammad Ali was a three time World Heavyweight Champion, and "suffered only five losses (four decisions and one TKO by retirement from the bout) with no draws in his career, while amassing 56 wins (37 knockouts and 19 decisions)."(1)
D'Amato: "The only reason why Ali is the best--he had more character."
Now I think about my life and how quickly things change. States of emotion, my outlook, my thoughts. And, it seems, every day is different from the last one. Like Tyson, there is turmoil in my life, and I wonder if I can still fight like I once did.
I'm not even talking about suicide. I'm talking about being unable to fight, unable to win anymore. You need character to win. You need character to fight every day, and then to do it again the next day.
We each have our struggles. We've all been on the razor's edge before . . .
But if I've learned anything from my past, it is that there is life after death. I may sink into despair because of the choices I make. I may be unable to enjoy the most basic things, sleeping, eating, loving . . .
All it takes is a series of unlucky events, like the events that destroyed Tyson's career, to knock one of us out of the ring--