The new trailer for James Toback's documentary Tyson has me thinking about sports lately.

I've never been the biggest sports guy. Growing up, Portland only had one professional sports franchise - our beloved Trailblazers - but none of my parents were ever particularly interested, and despite the infamous "Rip City Rhapsody," the team wasn't stitched into the fabric of everyday city life like I imagine it must be in Green Bay. I played soccer and skied a bit as a kid, but in high school I began to posit an identity based in opposition to the "normal" kids.

Searching in vain for visual signifiers that might set me apart, my closet filled up with outré clothing and my attitude evolved into one of righteous entitlement and intellectual superiority. I began - aggressively, firmly and wholly - to occupy space typically reserved for fuck-ups, burn-outs and misfits. I hung out in that corner of my high school campus that belonged to the goth kids and weed dealers and taggers, if only to separate myself from the straight-laced squares who dominated school life. We talked about music and drugs, philosophy and art, and our 14 year old steel-trap minds reeled at the myriad possible meanings of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Sports weren't a part of this world, and in fact served as a general totem of derision. Jocks were idiots, nothing more than brain-dead sheep destined to become regional managers or accountants, the paradigm of safe and boring. And while I dismissed team sports outright, some bit of me nagged and longed for the spirit of competition engendered by them. Turning to my heroes for inspiration, I realized I had a few options that would allow me to both indulge my need for sportsmanship and still maintain an air of detached and writerly cool. But it turns out I could never fully give in to the calculated romance of Bukowski's ponies, I'm generally put off by the sight of shivering greyhounds, and was (and remain) without the means to fly to Spain to catch the bullfights with any regularity.

When I was fifteen or so, and making the long commute from NE Portland to Beaverton for high school, I would often stop off downtown in the afternoon, mostly to get coffee or go to the record store. It was during one of these after-school dalliances that I first discovered PDXS, a biweekly alternative rag that- along with the also now-defunct Rocket- began to serve as my guide to the local underground.

In addition to being my introduction to Dan Savage, PDXS also piqued my interest in boxing. When We Were Kings had come out around this time, and it seemed that boxing had a history of producing interesting and charismatic characters: the magnetism of Muhammad Ali was undeniable. And the notion of boxing as something that transcended mere sport had entered my mind before, mainly due the endless artistic expressions of the sport (there is boxing in the Iliad after all, not to mention the Miles Davis record A Tribute to Jack Johnson, etc.)

Anyway, Katherine Dunn, who wrote the grotesque, touching Geek Love- a book that had a profound influence on my literary aesthetic when I read it as a 15 year old- contributed a weekly boxing column to the paper. I read it regularly, fascinated by her high-literary musings on the brute force of men who regularly don silk shorts as part of their job description. In early July, 1997, Dunn authored an essay defending Mike Tyson's infamous ear-biting in his match against Evander Holyfield.

Dunn's deft intellectual refutation of the prevailing "Tyson is a monster" party line further calcified my increasing suspicion that boxing was the sport for me. Couched not in the rhetoric of sports hyperbole but in the analytic (if occasionally sarcastic) tones of academia, Dunn's piece adroitly exposed the latent racism fueling the uproar over Tyson's alleged transgression. It read in part:

"...the verdict has already been shrieked from the headlines and TV sets of America. TYSON BAD! The cover of Sports Illustrated magazine blasts "MADMAN !" in huge type. The tag is "A crazed Mike Tyson disgraces himself and his sport." Columnist Dave Anderson of the New York Times describes Tyson as a "mad pit bull." The adjectives are flying thick and nasty--"dirty, disgusting, repellant, bestial, loathsome, vile, animalistic, vampiristic, deranged, maniacal, cannibalistic, murderous, cowardly..." Bill Clinton was horrified. John Sununu and Geraldine Ferraro held a Crossfire debate on "Tyson Bite" which degenerated into a "Ban Boxing" rally. The press could scarcely be more enflamed if the guy had reached up Holyfield's rectum and ripped out his heart in front of the TV cameras. The conviction of Tim McVeigh didn't trigger this kind of venom. In fact, we haven't seen this much hysteria since the first O.J. verdict. "Bad" black men drive the press batty..."

The way Dunn wrote about boxing had me convinced that the sport was indeed a kind of high art, worthy of serious critical and intellectual engagement. For her, boxing was as much about cultural analysis as it was about two men beating the crap out of each other. And it made sense to me; boxing's history was not only romantically ancient, but inexorably enmeshed with the US's realpolitik of 20th century race- and classism.

Make no mistake, the crowd is not cheering for Johnson when he knocks Jefferies to the ground: they're chanting "Kill the nigger!"

But try as I might, no amount of intellectual compartmentalizing could keep me interested in the sport: the whole thing seemed so burdened. And while I get that some find an athletic purity in the idea of two technicians wailing away at each other, the subtle differences between in- and out-fighting, jabs and hooks, or the occasional employment of a bolo-punch keeping the mind stimulated and the bloodthirst whetted, the whole endeavor makes me squirm a little. As articulate as Ali once was, there's no denying that decades in the ring have destroyed his mental faculty. There's nothing terribly romantic or erudite about losing one's mind to Parkinson's.

As I've grown older, I've allowed the appeal of sports to exist untethered to notions of literary romance; I'm no longer concerned that my interest in the Trailblazers (or, for that matter, my disinterest in European "football") will brand me a philistine. I'm content to watch the game, preferably over beers at Daddy Mojo's, and I'm comfortable knowing that I'll never really care about boxing, no matter how compellingly Katherine Dunn writes about it. Besides, I was never that great at sports anyway, and generally fared about as well as Little Mac in the clip below.

Dunn's new book One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing, which includes the Tyson essay in its entirety, will be out in May.

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