Good Morning Generation

I watched an excellent documentary last night on Mike Tyson which I had been meaning to see for the past year or two now.  It is essentially Iron Mike giving a first person account of his life story all the way up to his last fight with Kevin McBride.  The film does a fine job of simply letting the champ talk, if that makes any kind of sense.  You get to see his mind at work on camera as he makes his case to the viewer and the world on why he is the way he is.  He goes on these five to ten minute monologues that seem to blend the myth and the facts of his career in a way Michael Jordan could be proud of. 

It’s vintage Tyson in that you can tell there’s a ton of intelligence and effort being put forth into the camera, but it comes out of his mouth completely distorted by the years of heavy drug and alcohol use that no doubt took a toll on his brain.  His messages are littered with malapropisms, exaggerations, and raw emotion.  Tyson of course experienced one of the first major career melt downs to be captured by mass media and television and it was this idea that got me thinking of another famous athlete going through a tough time right now.

If you didn’t know by now, Tiger Woods announced yesterday that he won’t be participating in the British Open this year and many golf writers are now calling for him to just take the rest of the year off…again.  He hasn’t won a major in his last twelve tries and it’s been nearly two years since he won any kind of golf tournament at all.  Stuck at 14 major titles, the opportunity to surpass Nicklaus’ record of 18 now seems like an impossibility.  At this point we might just be content if he’s able to consistently find himself healthy and actually playing golf again.  And just like Tyson, Tiger experienced an equally great fall from grace, albeit one that didn’t involve actually breaking any federal laws (assuming he didn’t take HGH). 

I find the timing of Tiger’s announcement and my watching of the Tyson documentary interesting because yesterday I read an equally fascinating piece from the website Wired which examined a theory called “The Superstar Effect.”  Here’s how they explain it: “The effect occurs when competitors are so intimidated by the presence of a certain player, such as Woods and Federer, that they start playing far worse.”  I happen to subscribe to this theory on athletics and competition as well and I think there’s no better explanation for Tyson’s success as a boxer than the one described there.  Consider that Tyson boxed in the heavyweight division and was never more than 215 lbs or so.  Consider also that the heavyweight division has no current weight limits and merely allows all boxers over 200 lbs to compete.  And finally, consider that Tyson is only about 5’10.  It’s pretty remarkable that he was 50-6 during his career against men who were largely bigger and taller than him, with nearly all those losses coming during his last ten fights.  To put it simply, he f—ing dominated.

And what exactly made Tyson so successful?  Obviously he had been blessed with a blinding mix of speed and power that hadn’t been seen since Muhammad Ali.  You can’t discount that.  But the biggest advantage Tyson had, more than any boxer who’s ever lived, is that his opponents feared him.   They were scared.  In the documentary, Tyson describes how in his prime he’d merely walk out to the center of the ring before a fight and stare a guy down.  If the opponent made any kind of flinch or twitch, a tell, if you will, Tyson immediately knew he was going to win.  And the fight was going to be quick.  And it was likely ending in a TKO. 

Go back and watch the knockout of Trevor Berbick which gave him the title for the first time.  Berbick is the heavyweight champ and the first move he makes is to backpedal.  He was terrified!  And it was like that for most of his career.  The opponents were so frightened by the big bad bully that when they got out into the ring they completely forgot about game plans and years of training and basically just let Tyson make them a personal punching bag.

I’d argue it was the same deal with Tiger.  The article I described above details how they have actual statistical evidence now that Tiger’s presence alone in a tournament caused scores to rise across the board.  We often tried to describe this effect and the feeling of inevitability that his opponents must have felt when they went up against him and now we have proof that it existed.  Tiger, like Mike, was blessed with physical gifts as well, most notably the shocking distance he could achieve during his early career.  But the biggest advantage was always in the space between the ears.  Can you imagine what it was like for these two?  Just the idea of one of them showing up caused boxers to sweat at night, tour players to suddenly get the yips.  

Both were juggernauts in the true sense of the word.

Which all leads me to a pretty horrible conclusion about where Tiger’s career is going.  The first chink in Tyson’s armor came when he was shockingly upset by Buster Douglas in Japan.  The tactic Douglas employed to beat Iron Mike?  He simply bullied the bully.  No one had ever really gone out and tried to outpunch Tyson before that and you can imagine the shock he felt when this no name refused to back down.  Couple that with Tyson’s heavy drug use and his claim that he was incredibly out of shape for the fight and you have the recipe for a gigantic upset.  I’d argue he was never the same fighter after that.  He got exposed and the mental advantage ceased to exist. 

Same deal for Woods.  In the 2009 PGA Championship, he shockingly lost the first major of his career in which he led after 54 holes.  The challenger?  YE Yang, at that time an absolute no name who hit one of the best “knockout punch” shots in the history of golf.  Faced with a distant second shot and with Woods creeping down his neck, Yang hit the now infamous hybrid shot into the 72nd hole to ten feet for the birdie and the win.  Couple that with the divorce and a series of injuries that basically tamed his game that left him without his distance and, well, Tiger hasn’t been the same since either.

So I guess what I’m meaning to say is that we do have a historical precedent for Tiger’s career arc.  Golf may have never seen anything like him: a player who seemed to just utterly dominate his opponent’s by his force of will.  But boxing certainly did.  Tyson looked like he was going to be the greatest fighter who ever lived (and he still might be), but his legacy was forever tarnished by his shocking out of ring life decisions and behavior that he exhibited.  It finally caught up to him in the ring and he lost the focus necessary to mentally dominate his opponents.  Same deal with Tiger.  The affairs finally caught up to him on the golf course and he’s never come close to exhibiting the same focus again, most visibly on the putting green.

This leads to some great questions about these individual sports.  Does an athlete have to maintain that ridiculously high-stakes lifestyle in order to stay on top mentally?  Tyson describes that the answer, quite simply, is yes.  He explained that he’s the type of person who has to have hundreds of millions of dollars or none.  Which goes a long way to describing his life in general.  He’s either got to be partying all the time or never.  He’s either got to be sleeping with a ton of women all the time or remain completely monogamous.  There is no middle ground to be found for competitors like him.

Tiger Woods?  I’m sorry, but it’s over.  There is no middle ground for a bully.  You’re either beating everyone or