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Bright Light City Gonna Knock Me Out
by Lucius Shepard
February 21, 2002

Can anybody tell me why the mean lady from The Weakest Link was sitting in with the Nevada Boxing Commission on January 29th? Her hair wasn't as red as it appears on network TV, but I could have sworn it was her. Sure looked to me like she was dying to get all gussied up in black vinyl and give Mike Tyson a pants-down spanking.

Maybe what Iron Mike needs is a little Victorian discipline.

Who knows? A couple of weeks on a short leash trailing behind Mistress Ayoub or Agwe or whatever the mean lady's name was, might be the most effective training he ever had. Maybe French-kissing her high-heel sneaker every night before curling up at the foot of her bed would put him in touch with his feminine side.

Scary thought, that.

Frankly I don't care if I ever see Mike Tyson fight again, because he's become a bore, but the exercise in sanctimony performed by that august body, the Nevada Boxing Commission, was much more of an atrocity than Tyson's quasi-rumble with Lennox Lewis and friends before the press in New York City. There was Dr. Flip Homansky, ring doctor to the stars, doing his Sensitive Nineties Guy impression and evoking memories of Nancy Reagan by saying with a look of pale regret writ large upon his face, "It was just time that someone said. No."

Gosh, Flip.

That statement's right up there in its simple-minded perspective with, "Can't we all just get along?"

(I think Wink Martindale with a fake goatee should play you in the movie.)

Then there was Bailey, the new guy on the commission, with his brow-furrowed ultra-sincerity and that I-really-want-to-understand-you-Mike spiel--the man's apparently watched way too many Richard Dreyfus flicks.

Tyson himself, appearing old and tired (make that very old and very tired), overweight and sad, promised solemnly to be a good boy and never do it again. "It" being anything that the Weakest Link lady might disapprove of, which--judging by her clenched demeanor--probably included the thinking of impure thoughts.

And his droning gray eminence of a lawyer doing that logically-evasive-yet-somehow-forthcoming lawyer thing we've all come to loathe and love courtesy of LA Law, Law and Order, The Practice, and the Clinton administration . . . that was sweet, huh? Even his suit looked like it had died of boredom.

It was, in sum, a lounge act from hell, far less entertaining than the usual lame dance number featuring bare-chested gay guys armed with teensy whips chasing around half-naked hookers pretending to be ponies to some marshmallow disco tune, while a seventy-year-old Jewish comedian wearing a sombrero tells sixty-year-old fart jokes.

But no doubt it played in Peoria.

And this, the applause emanating subsequently from the heartland, helps to convince me that the commission's vote to deny Mike Tyson a boxing license in the state of Nevada--more pertinently, in the suddenly family-oriented enchanted kingdom of Las Vegas--was in essence a marketing decision.

Since the tragedy of last September 11, our country's self-image has been transformed from a brawling, confusing menage a 300 million into a red, white, and blue poster for noble enterprise and enduring freedom, with pre-pretzel George W. playing the fife, head wrapped in a bloody bandage, and ol' Enron-loving Dick Cheney waving a tattered battle flag, leading a parade of soldiers, paperboys, waitresses, factory workers, farmers, et al, black and brown and white together, all with shining countenances and all fervently committed to spreading the gospel of the American Dream to the ends of the earth. Even junkies and armed robbers, poltroons and deviants of every stamp, are now given to sporting flag pins and pasting anti-Osama stickers on their bumpers. But while the war on terrorism is a commitment worthy of our passion, the fallout from the war effort is strictly commercial. Patriotism is once again box office. Morality sells. Simple values are in vogue. No matter what your belief as to how deep a hold these values and passions have on the American public, it's plain that profit-taking and exploitation are, as always, also in vogue. Thus it is my fervent and deeply held belief that the Nevada Boxing Commission, after receiving counsel from various and sundry millionaires with vested interests in the outcome of their deliberations, recognized that the quick hit of 200 million that would be generated by Tyson vs. Lewis was small potatoes by contrast to the long-term gains that might be accrued by consolidating Las Vegas' image as oasis of family fun, and that this, not any semblance of a moral consideration, informed their decision. And it was apparent from watching the commission in action that this decision had been made long before their ludicrous dog-and-pony show.

Perhaps they acted with some reluctance. Two hundred million in hand is a great temptation. But they did so realizing that they could not afford to swim against the tide of generic media-sponsored virtue that is washing shore-to-shore, and were therefore forced to have faith that this tide will continue to run long enough for their judgment to show a profit. Given the public's short attention span, it's unlikely that their faith will be rewarded.

Though the four members of the commission who voted against the issuance of a license to Tyson have assured us that their decision was based not upon the dust-up with Lewis in New York, but upon their concerns over Tyson's pattern of behavior during the past year, this is patently false. Nary a whisper of said concern was heard prior to the press conference. Everyone knew a license would be issued. But after the press conference, once the media had freshly demonized Tyson, portraying him as a creature of darkness, yet another insane adherent of Islam, the members of the commission were on the tube night and day, expressing their angst over the vast moral dilemma with which they had been confronted.

And now, out there in the hinterlands, solid middle-of-the-road citizens are saying to themselves, Y'know, now they kicked that no-good expletive deleted outa the place, maybe it's time I took granny and the kids to Las Vegas for some good ol' All-American Keno and craps.

At least such is the commission's hope.

There is no doubt that to a great degree Mike Tyson brought all this down on himself, that he enabled the commission's hypocrisy by his continued malfeasance. Surely he and his advisors understood the tenor of the times; surely they understood that Tyson's image was such that even the slightest misstep would create a media furor and cause him to be cast in the worst possible light. If, as has been suggested, the display of testosterone by Tyson, Lewis, his bodyguards, hairdresser, dogwalker and best friend Pete at the press conference was a staged event, Tyson's advisors should have kept its dire potentials in mind and never have bought into it, knowing the volatility of the circumstance. I have no personal knowledge of Tyson, and as stated, I don't care if I ever see him fight again, because his shtick has become tiresome and he's no longer much of a fighter. (Then neither do I care if I ever see Lennox Lewis or any other of the current crop of heavyweights fight again, for more-or-less the same reasons.) Whether he is man or man-beast is beyond my capacity to determine--I am not so prescient or well-grounded in the study of psychology as are, it would seem, those journalists who assess the measure of his soul on a daily basis. Obviously Tyson has problems, but many athletes have had disturbing histories and, rightly or wrongly, have been granted leniency under the law and the absolution of the media. But Tyson has never warranted this tender treatment. He is the Bad Man from the Streets and, as such, plays into the stereotypes that fund a reflexive judgment on the part of the fools who command the bully pulpits along press row.

It's quite possible that Tyson is a terminal asshole who is dangerous to himself and others, but that fact, if true, should not occlude the ultimately more salient fact that those who sit in judgment upon him, be they members of the Nevada Boxing Commission or gentlemen of the press or ravers on call-in shows, are for the most part motivated to damn him not because he is who he is, but because they are who they are. Whether they are purely cynical in their stance or are giving voice to a morality they glean from television and have learned to parrot, or be they the so-called opinion-makers who preach only what they believe their audience can accept, only what they want to hear, Tyson has become for them all a kind of pornography. They can't wait for him to fuel their arousal, to provoke an incident that will allow them to vent their crypto-sexual outrage. He is the target of a national focus that longs for him to perpetrate a final tragic act, a murder or a self-immolation of some sort, and being at the center of this million-eyed stare, perhaps he will be prompted to satisfy that longing. For it is clear that whatever the extent of his personal darkness, the nature of his culpability, the quality of his rage and duplicity, he is tormented by this focus, challenged and even goaded by it. Perhaps one day soon he will provide us with the profound yet fleeting gratification of seeing his celebrity displayed post-mortem in all its bloody and broken hubris on the cover of a dozen tabloids. The demon whom we have exhorted and exalted, whom we have licensed to play out his creaturely life before our eyes, now brought low not by his actions alone, but also by the radiation of our distaste for this charmed and charmless icon that we have partially created out of our need for demons, for figures that have the power to eat our sin, to absorb our own darkness and shape it into a form that we feel comfortable in condemning.

What the Nevada Boxing Commission did on January 29th is, in the end, irrelevant. The fight will or will not take place. Tyson will likely die horribly or diminish into a pitiable state. September 11th will fade into history and be remembered on national occasions with speeches and shows of grief, both actual and contrived. And scarcely anyone will be left to wonder why the mean lady from The Weakest Link sat in on the licensing hearing. But the commission's actions are valuable in one regard. Irrelevant and fundamentally meaningless though they are, their very insignificance, the smallness of their scope, succeeded in sharpening the general focus to such a degree, it had the effect of a flash bulb going off, allowing us to take a snapshot of the culture that mostly illuminates not the state of Mike Tyson's soul, but the state of the national consciousness, spots and all. In the image of the tired, declined athlete, the aging bad-boy monster surrounded by his bland mouthpieces and wishing for his Zoloft; in the serial blah blah blah of the commissioners; in the prurient glee of the media; in the shabbiness of the entire business; anyone who wanted to look closely enough could see the operations of the forces that employ us to their ends, the reactive nature of our morality, the deprived condition of our spirits, the randomness of our days. For that alone, even in its hypocrisy and sanctimony, the commission and that bright light city whose imperatives they serve should be congratulated. The sport of boxing can hold its head high--it has joined the great parade and now can proudly go oompah, oompah, oompah with all the rest of the Uncle-Sam-come-latelys. And the image cultivated by the resort, the idea promoted that it is home to larger-than-life figures in their decline remains intact. Gone are Elvis and Frank, but hey, Iron Mike lives on in the desert.

For a while, anyway.

Viva Las Vegas.