Skip to main content
Original Issue

Freak Act

Richard Hoffer has lived in the belly of the beast that is
heavyweight prizefighting. The result is A Savage Business. The
business is, of course, boxing, but this behind-the-scenes
narrative of "the comeback and comedown of Mike Tyson" is about
much more. It is a reflection of America from a most
unflattering angle. Never has the nation looked more like Sodom
and Gomorrah.

The story commences on the day in March 1995 that Tyson emerged
from an Indiana jail, a kufi cap on his close-cropped head. This
led some innocent souls to hope that Iron Mike might have chosen
to live under the steadying influence of religion.
Fuhgeddabowdit. The only steadying influence in his life for the
next three years would be Don King, who had never smelled so
many greenbacks as on the day Tyson was sprung. The reason, as
Hoffer, a senior writer at SI, convincingly argues, is that for
Tyson, "raping a teenager had turned out to be a great career
decision." The crime burnished the fighter's image as a
man-monster--part Darth Vader, part Willie Horton, all Clubber
Lang--and King knew that Americans would be willing to pay
millions of dollars to see him pummel other people.

So bring on the tomato cans at, as Tyson put it, "30 million a
whop": Peter McNeeley, Bruce Seldon, Frank Bruno. Whop, whop,
whop. Surprisingly, though, the more money Tyson collected, the
more angry, miserable and degraded he became. Tyson was no
dummy. He was no Stephen Hawking, but he certainly knew boxing
and could see perfectly well that he was being paid "to act the
freak in Don King's circus," as Hoffer writes. And when, for the
second time, Evander Holyfield began to turn Tyson's face to
purple mush on pay-per-view, the entire world could see it, too.
No wonder Tyson tried to chew off Holyfield's ear.

But what's most hair-raising about Hoffer's unflinching look at
the "savage business" is not the flying fists (even the author
gets decked at one point) nor the outrageous characters (there's
a fascinating and hilarious dissertation on why heavyweight
boxers are "so prone to spectacular disintegrations of spirit")
nor the billion-dollar stakes (the MGM Grand Casino grew so wild
after Tyson-Holyfield II that there were $1,000 chips literally
rolling around on the floor). No, what is most hair-raising
about A Savage Business is that it is entertaining as hell. Both
the book and the business. God help us all.

--Charles Hirshberg

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON & SCHUSTER A Savage Business by Richard HofferSimon & Schuster, $23 [Cover of book]