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Mike versus Mac

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Most of the people reading this weren’t alive during the Moon landing. Most of the people reading this weren’t alive during the Kennedy assassination. A few might be too young to remember 9/11. Somehow, history refuses to be convenient. Somehow, history happens without us being there.

I think about this as I drive through Los Angeles on my way to a certain house in Carson. Most of the people in the neighbourhood are Filipino, and I even pass Jollibee, a restaurant franchise which has almost all of its locations in the Philippines. It's one of those boring residential areas that you'll never see in a Hollywood movie. Finally I pull into the driveway of a modest home and before I even open my car door the owner comes out and shakes my hand. How are you, he asks. How was the drive?

I’ve never had an interview subject so eager to talk to me. Before I know it I’m ushered through the house and into the den. “This is where I keep my old stuff,” says my new best friend. There might have been several things on fire in that room but I don’t notice because my eyes are drawn to a poster on the wall. It’s screaming about a boxing match set for October 3, 1987. Two men - one white, one black - face off with grim determination. Mike versus Mac, it says. The Battle of the Decade.

For my generation, that fight was our Moon landing. It was our Kennedy assassination and our 9/11. "Where were you for The Fight?" we ask each other sometimes. "Where were you when Little Mac lost?"

The bare facts of the fight are as follows: on October 3, 1987, Mike "Iron Mike" Tyson and John "Little Mac" MacAlistair fought for nine rounds before Tyson won by knockout. The fight took place at Sealand, a former British oil drilling platform turned international no-man’s-land conveniently out of reach of pesky sporting regulations. An estimated five hundred million people around the world watched the fight live, with many more watching re-broadcasts and buying the tapes and the DVDs afterwards. For months and even years afterward, whenever someone mentioned “the fight” they were talking about this one. Modern boxing has never reached such heights again.

Which is all well and good, but there’s a story behind that story. Mike Tyson’s side of things is well known, being the kind of sordid journey that afflicts sports stars nowadays. But Little Mac has famously been reticent about his part in this drama, despite the overwhelming clamour from his fans. Until now, that is. When I ask him why he changed his mind he says that sometimes a story’s too good to keep to yourself.

Little Mac's journey to his greatest fight began at an out of the way gym hidden in a Brooklyn cul-de-sac. Today it's a Chinese bakery but twenty five years ago it was the place where young men from the community learned to fight. Even back then it was obvious that the gym couldn't stay there much longer, that the neighbourhood was moving on beyond such things as young men beating each other senseless.

"I was just sick of getting my ass kicked all the time," says Little Mac when I ask him what drew him to Doc Louis’ boxing gym. "You ever seen Karate Kid?" (Of course.) "Things were like that for me before I got into boxing. There was this one guy who just kept riding my ass. I’m not even sure why he hated me but everyday he’d shove me into a locker or knock my books into a puddle. It’s like he was working out of a school bully handbook. I thought, fine, I know how this story goes, I'll learn how to fight back. I’m going to get stronger and tougher and I’ll face you down man to man. That’s why I joined Doc’s gym.” I nod in encouragement, already composing a hackneyed article about overcoming adversity before Mac adds, “That plan kind of went nowhere, though."

I ask him why not. "Well, it wasn't just me getting bullied, it was a whole bunch of other kids. It turns out we were all sick of it. So us guys, we all got together, we brought our baseball bats and tennis rackets and loose floorboards, then we beat the living shit out of that one guy. He ended up in a wheelchair so he left us all alone after that. But I stayed with the gym 'cuz it turns out I liked boxing."

I’m not sure what to say to that. “I think that guy’s parents sold their house to pay for his medical bills,” adds Little Mac helpfully. He may have mistaken the look on my face for curiosity instead of consternation. I’m told I look kind of inscrutable that way.

Little Mac goes on about his early days of training. This part should be familiar to anyone who’s ever trained in a sport. There were long hours, minor injuries, and various setbacks, leavened with much coaxing, cajoling, and grudgingly-bestowed praise from his coach. Doc Louis, rest his soul, knew what he had in front of him. When Little Mac talks about his training I see the same thing in him that what I’ve seen in other professional athletes, the same thing that Doc Louis must have seen.

What keeps a professional athlete training, day after day, pain and family and bills be damned? Look at that poster of Little Mac and Iron Mike facing off and you’ll see the answer in their eyes. We’ve all heard the silly jokes about how it looks like the two fighters are about to make out, but that joke isn’t actually far off the mark. The lust in their faces isn’t for something as easy to satisfy as sexual desire. It’s lust for victory, for championship, for domination. It’s the hunger to be the best. A very few have it. Most of us don’t.

Still, you can’t eat lust. Hunger gets you moving, but winning gets you paid. Behind the sport of boxing there’s another level of play. You need to win to become a champ, and you need to do it so you don’t get hurt too badly. You’ve got to keep your strength in reserve for the big fights.

You see, there’s a certain badly kept secret in boxing. The hungry fighters are the champs. The ones who aren’t? They’re the chumps.

A fighter needs zero losses if he wants to be the champ. Boxing fans are almost superstitiously obsessed about the idea of an undisputed champion. One loss, and that’s all she wrote. Fans want a winner, so the boxing organizations give one to them. After a fighter gets noticed and starts to get fans, and after a few backroom deals have been made, the high muckety-mucks start lining up nobodies for the fighter to beat. The fighter gets to pad his fight record, and when he beats enough losers, he fights another contender. Maybe he wins, maybe he doesn't, but either way, someone with an undisputed record eventually gets to the top. In boxing, a champ needs to fight chumps.

The same thing happened with Little Mac. Look at his fight record and you’ll spot the chumps immediately. Half of the guys he fought were pushing forty. One was overweight, another was an alcoholic, while yet another was a nervous hypochondriac. But they all did what they were supposed to, which was lose convincingly to Little Mac.

“I’ve gotta admit, things were going pretty good for me then,” says Little Mac. “I remember seeing Any Given Sunday and seeing that part with the football players doing blow off a naked hooker’s titties. When I saw that I was thinking, yeah, that’s what winning looks like.”

I mention my surprise that someone with such a clean-cut public image should admit to buying drugs and hiring prostitutes, to which he replies, “I never actually paid for them, it was always my manager or a security guard or someone in my crew. I just sat back and took coked-up blowjobs in my locker room.” He shakes his head ruefully. “Shit, as long as I was winning I could do anything.”

There’s an added layer of corruption to this seedy backstory. Little Mac doesn’t mention it but he should never have fought most of his opponents in the first place. When you look at it all on paper it’s clear that shenanigans were involved. How else could a 107 lb. flyweight have been fighting boxers twice and even three times his weight?

The blindest of organizers could see that the crowd loved Little Mac, who unfortunately wasn’t a heavyweight. That was a problem since the biggest audience and the biggest money has always been in the heavyweight bouts. But the problem wasn’t anything that a lot of administrative skullduggery couldn’t fix, and presto, a flyweight became a heavyweight contender.

Even the most crooked setup still needs some semblance of legitimacy, so Mac finally ended up going after a boxing championship. Everyone had been screaming for it for a while, but the powers that be had finally arranged it: The Fight was coming.

Technically, while the Tyson-MacAlistar fight was for a boxing championship, it wasn’t for any existing championship or even specifically for boxing. The gross unfairness of pitting a flyweight against a heavyweight was obvious even to the cheerfully dishonest organizers. They came up with the barest of fig leafs: this fight would be for the championship of Sealand, a micro-nation off the coast of Britain unrecognized by almost all countries and home to a handful of iconoclasts and lunatics whose rulers were open to an injection of foreign currency into the economy. Rather, the fight was for a championship. The organizers were careful to never mention that the championship was for boxing and in fact even pretended that the bout was a mere sparring match between private individuals.

All of this was unknown to most of the people clamouring for the fight, though, and the ones who knew mostly didn’t care. Little Mac was fighting the champ! Who cared how this was happening as long as we got to watch?

Watching the tapes of the fight with Little Mac is eye-opening. He’s clearly watched them many times over, as he re-enacts his side of the fight perfectly in front of the TV. “I came out dancing,” he says. “I knew Iron Mike was going to kill me if he connected so I made sure he didn’t.”

On the screen, Little Mac whirls and twists around Tyson’s attacks. He bobs, he weaves, he boxes. He even throws a few punches. It’s almost like Little Mac had already seen the fight and was dodging according to moves he’d memorized. “I was doing pretty good here,” said present-day Mac, breaking my focus on the TV. “I was going to let him swing himself tired, then go for his head and get a KO. Otherwise, my punches weren’t going to hurt him.”

I hadn’t realized it but more than half an hour had passed. The ninth round was starting. “Here we go,” says Mac. On screen, Little Mac comes out dancing yet again. His speed has noticeably decreased, but he’s still confident and agile as he avoids Tyson’s blows. At the one minute and forty-seven second mark, disaster strikes. Tyson throws a right hook which Little Mac barely skirts. Little Mac sees that Tyson swung a bit too hard and is slightly off balance, so he goes to throw a free shot at Tyson’s head. Mac moves forward but Tyson’s pulled himself back and now it’s obvious he was throwing his famous right hook-right uppercut combo. Little Mac tries to dodge but it’s too late, and now Tyson’s uppercut is connecting. Little Mac is flying, flying, then he’s falling, down to earth and down to a life without the championship.

Neither I nor Little Mac say anything as we watch the referee lean over him and determine that he was utterly unconscious. The ringside medics move in and Tyson is acclaimed as the champion of Sealand. Meanwhile, the world was reeling at the defeat of one of its heroes. The tape ends, clacking loudly as it finishes.

After that fight Little Mac disappeared from the public eye. Impossibly, he’d saved his money and had built up a decent nest egg for himself. Ever since then he’s lived a life of ease and plenty away from the limelight. Until, of course, a week ago, when he contacted my magazine saying that he’d let someone interview him. I ask him again what prompted his change of heart.

“Well, it’s a long story,” he starts. “Actually, it’s a short story. I’m running out of money.” After the past hour I’d been expecting his answer to be something of the sort. “I like this interview money but I think you could turn my story into a book. I didn’t even tell you half of what what I did when I was on my way up. Did you know I once made out with Piston Honda?”  I admit I did not.

“I’ve got a lot more stories like that. I’ll share them with you, you’ll write the book, and we’ll both get rich. Whadda you say?”

What do I say? What could I say? I’m a reporter, I need to report. It’s in the job description. I look Little Mac in the eye and say, “Yes.” 

He smiles.

“Also, tell me more about the time you made out with Piston Honda.”