Outside of sheer of boxing excellence, I could never find anything to recommend in Mike Tyson. Nevertheless I recently found myself watching the 2008 documentary movie about him, Tyson. It’s summertime when the world seems to slow down, and nothing else in the video store really snagged my attention – and it was a free rental anyway. I ended up watching it twice. There’s no way I could say I like the man, but I was fascinated at how perfectly he shows the personality of most prison inmates. Were it not for his boxing successes, fame and money, I’m certain he would be spending most of his life in prison.
Mike Tyson with probably the only person he ever trusted in his life, boxing trainer Cus D’Amato.
“Iron Mike” as he is familiarly known, turns out to be scared to death. He has lived his life in abject fear, and that fear has motivated just about all he has done. In the movie, he graphically talks about this, time after time. He nearly fled the dressing room for his first professional fight because he was so afraid. He said every time he walked into a boxing arena for a big match, he was afraid. And unlike most of us, Tyson’s fear was not for the physical pain. He was terrified of the humiliation of being beaten, literally of being found out for what he sadly believed himself to be, a bum, a loser, a worthless wretch. “I’m just afraid of being physically humiliated in the streets,” is the way he expressed it. Turns out he was a fat kid who was bullied. Obviously, he’s never gotten over it.
Prison inmates are afraid. I’ve found that to be a dominant characteristic. It’s what makes many of them so dangerous – just like Tyson. That was the first serious lesson I ever learned about inmates, and what it takes to deal with them. I had only been working in the prison a few months. An inmate and I had a disagreement about the way things were going to be. Within a group of inmates he challenged me in no uncertain terms. I didn’t back down, and he moved closer to me, an intimidating move. I wasn’t having any of it, so I got right up in his face. And when I looked in his eyes what I saw was fear. I could not have been more surprised.
When he saw I was not going to be pushed around his psyche crumbled. He looked down and backed up. I was almost afraid he was going to cry. This loss was humiliating to him in front of other inmates. The whole thing was dangerous, and I’m lucky I escaped my inexperience without encountering any kind of physical violence. If this inmate had as much fear as Mike Tyson, I’d probably have been a knockout victim.
One astonishing thing Mike Tyson said in the movie was that he was surprised to learn most people are afraid of him. His own deep fear prevents him from correctly assessing the intentions and feelings of other people. I watched him brutalize his opponents in the ring when he was young. And it seemed like there were countless news items about him getting into altercations around motor vehicle incidents or perceived slights. He was convicted of rape (probably wrongly) and did three years in prison, much of it in a control unit according to him. My impression of him was an animalistic brute with a hair trigger temper. I’m sure if I’d ever found myself someplace where he was present, I would have left. And this surprises him. It surprises him because he is the one who is afraid, and it’s his poor self-esteem that nurtures his fear.
I know very few inmates who had good family experiences growing up. Poor self-esteem is a hallmark of their upbringing. And that poor self-esteem is what prevents people from coping successfully with defeat and presumed humiliation. The kid with low self-esteem gets beaten up a few times so he gets a gun and shoots someone, or he joins the local gang thinking they will protect him from what he fears. The kid with good self-esteem, and probably a supportive family, gets beaten up and uses it as a learning experience. He may have his family talk to the school about the bullying (the very best way to handle such things) or he may learn to box or take martial arts lessons or something that will give him confidence to deal with physical aggression in the future. Either way, he grows as a human being and is more likely to be a healthy adult. The child with the low self-esteem is probably on a path to becoming a scared inmate as an adult.
Strong, mature families are so important to our society. That’s something Mike Tyson never had. The only time he was ever successful in his personal life was when one man (his boxing trainer Cus D’Amato) became a father figure whom he could trust. He died when Tyson was only 19, and I believe Tyson’s life has been falling apart ever since. If you are a parent, I urge you to use the resources available everywhere to learn the best parenting skills. One thing I do is subscribe to a free email message every weekday from Family First. It’s not the only resource out there, but it’s dependable and credible, just like a good family should be.