We all have our demons. Some of us have been so hurt by past relationships that we can’t open ourselves up to other people anymore. Some have been stricken by family tragedy and have trouble seeing a reason for anything. Some of us can’t handle heights, some of us are mortified by snakes, some of us are freaked out by clowns. Whichever. There’s always something.
My demon lay dormant for over two decades, but he returned last week, unrelenting as ever.
My parents, different, I suspect, than many today, never had a problem with their children watching too much television. We were always encouraged to go out and play, sports, hide-and-seek, hell, even doctor, anything to get us out of the house and away from the brain rot of popular entertainment. In the long run, this might have been beneficial for me, but at the time, it made me the lamest kid in the neighbourhood. Not only did I have no idea what was happening on any of the hot cartoons, but I was also so nerdy that (get this) I didn’t even have a Nintendo. That’s right; while the other kids were mastering Pac Man, Frogger, Excitebike and Metroid, I was plopped in the driveway with my siblings with a football, a book and an admonition to “stay outside and enjoy the fresh air.”
I’m not sure these restrictions had the desired effect. Rather than roll in the weeds and become one with nature, I instead found friends who had cooler parents, and I’d play their Nintendo. Poor bastards. I’d show up at their door, they’d sigh, let me in and hand me the controller. Occasionally, we’d find a two-player game like Contra or Tecmo Bowl, but usually, I had only one game in mind, a game that could only be played solo.
I had an obsession, recklessly unhealthy, with Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. It was all I wanted to play and all I wanted to think about. I’ll never forget the first time. I was visiting my cousin Sheldon, and he told me about this awesome new game. “At the end, you get to fight Mike Tyson. But I can’t get that far.” He handed me the controller and I battled Glass Joe, notoriously the worst video boxer since the advent of sound. In a three-round slobber-knocker, I defeated him with a TKO at 2:54, and I was hooked. I wanted Tyson, and I would do whatever it took to take him out. I am certain that there are friends’ parents, if I suddenly became a serial killer and they were interviewed as a “concerned neighbour,” would have little more to say than, “He was a quiet sort. All I remember is him playing Nintendo. That boxing game. Actually, it did seem like he was screaming a lot at the television. Had violent outbursts.”
Kids today must wonder about society’s fascination with Mike Tyson. He’s now (justifiably) considered bit of a caricature, and before that, a monster who bit people in the ring and threatened to eat other boxers’ children. He was feared in the same way we fear the wild-eyed, unshaven man screaming at nobody in the street. He was unpredictable, unhinged and pathetic, a circus sideshow, a car wreck we couldn’t take our eyes off. He was a disintegrated man.
But it’s important to remember, in the late ’80s, when Tyson was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, a 250-pound, tightly wound, ready-to-snap mound of endless muscle, no man was considered more indestructible than Kid Dynamite. Grown men who were paid millions of dollars to punch other men in the face, men nearly a foot taller and a decade older than Tyson, would cower at the mere mention of his name. Michael Spinks, considered one of the best boxers in the world at the time, faced Tyson in a match hyped as an impending classic. But when the bell rang, you could see Spinks’ legs quivering from outer space. Ninety seconds later, Spinks was flat on his back, spasming, humiliated, and Tyson was forever a chiseled god, the physical incarnation of the power of intimidation. He was 21 years old, and he was the baddest man who ever lived.
And he was mine. I worked myself up through the ranks, compiling the Minor, Major and World Titles with nary a second thought. My eyes never wavered. Tyson was toast. After easily dispatching the pectoral-gyrating Super Macho Man, I faced Tyson for the first time. Now, any of you familiar with the game (anyone?) will know that in the first 90 seconds of a match with Iron Mike, any punch he hits you with will knock you down. It took 30 seconds for me to be floored three times. But I practiced and practiced, even discovering the code you can plug in to skip all other fighter and battle Tyson directly. I eventually figured out how to avoid all those 90-second punches, and how to knock him down, and when to dodge, and when to sneak in a quick uppercut. But I couldn’t beat him. I would be far ahead on points, needing only to survive the third round. I would always choke. Somehow, someway, I would blow it, and he’d beat me, and he’d flex his deltoid and wink at me. I hated that fucker. Nothing I tried worked. All my friends, they could take him. Some could even knock him out. Not me. He haunted my dreams. I played so much I started to think my father looked a little like Piston Honda. But when it came to Tyson, I was always pushing that rock up the hill.
Then came February 10, 1990, in Tokyo, against Buster Douglas. My father and I were watching an English football game that night and would occasionally flip channels to make sure we didn’t miss the inevitable Tyson knockout. Every time we flipped back, however, we were amazed to find the fight was still going. In fact, Tyson appeared to be, what?, losing. No matter: He’ll find that one punch and he’ll drop this chump. And he did, almost. He flattened Douglas with a quick uppercut, but the big dude didn’t stay down. And then, in the 10th round, the unthinkable happened, and Tyson went down, and he didn’t get back up, and someone had solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, slaughtered Jabba the Hut’s underground pet, penetrated the impenetrable fortress.
That night, I stayed up late and fought Tyson. I beat him on points. But I played him again the next day, and he destroyed me as he always had before. As the mysteries of pubic hair began to reveal their true purpose, my enthusiasm for the game wavered, and eventually I gave away my Nintendo to a younger cousin and went to college, and grownup land, and all that fucked-up shit that never allows you to win on points. And I never beat Tyson again.
Then, the other night: a couple mates and I were helping a friend clear out his garage and lo and behold, there sitting on a shelf was that parental replacement, the Nintendo. And sitting next to it, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. I was helpless against its charms. Work had to stop. I grabbed the cartridge, blowing the dust off it started up against Glass Joe. It was amazing how quickly it all came back to me. I remembered how to beat each guy. I withstood Bald Bull’s charge, Glass Tiger’s weird magic circle thing, Mr. Sandman’s devastating super uppercut. I beat everyone, including Super Macho Man, setting up a rematch that was years in the making.
And I got scared. I told my friends the whole story, about how I always choked against Iron Mike, how much pain and misery and self-doubt this stupid game, and that stupid guy, had caused me. One of the guys, the one who owned the Nintendo, scoffed, saying that beating Tyson was second nature to him at this point. I begged him to take over for me. I can’t stand the disappointment. I can’t come this far, this many years removed, just to lose again. You can beat him. I want to see him beat. I can’t handle another loss.
Another mate spoke up: “For Christ’s sake, David… If you keep thinking you’re a loser, you’ll always be one. You’ve earned this match. You’re good at this. You can beat him. Don’t walk away now because you’re afraid to lose. You can’t live life trying not to lose. You have to play to win. Now go beat him.”
And I was fired up. My revenge against Tyson was delayed, it would not be denied. I grabbed the controller out of his hand, to the cheers of the crowd. I pressed start, and we were off. I avoided the first 90 seconds of punches and went on the attack. The first round ended with neither of us being knocked down. I had his power low, however, and I took him down early in the second. He got up and peppered me with some nasty jabs, and I was down. But Little Mac popped back up, and we were into the third round. Down he went again. I now had enough points (6,000, if memory serves me correctly) to win, if only I could survive. The room was silent. One minute to go. One poorly timed jab. Down I went. I did not get back up. With six seconds left, Iron Mike flexed his muscle and winked at me.
I looked at my friend who had delivered the rousing speech. I eyed him closely.
“I think I’ve proven my point.” I then flipped him the controller and went back to the garage, more certain than ever that playing not to lose in life is the safest, most self-preserving option I’ve come up with so far.