A Man Walks into a Boxing Ring

by Matt Chmiel


Mike Tyson fought fifty-eight times in his twenty-year career. Chances are, you only remember a handful of those fights. Chances are even better that his bout against Michael Spinks on June 27, 1988, is one of them. History blessed this night with an audacious moment that should have granted it pop culture immortality, but sports got in the way: It took Tyson just eight punches over ninety-one seconds to obliterate a tentative and terrified and previously undefeated Spinks in one of the fastest heavyweight title fight KOs ever. But the real story occurred minutes before the round-one bell: Tyson’s ring entrance, the slow spectacle squeezed into every big boxing event, was a masterpiece.

The ring entrance is a curious ritual, saved for boxing’s biggest bouts. It’s a necessary but forgettable part of the vaudevillian stagecraft behind multi-million-dollar sports entertainment. The weigh-in ceremony, the ring entrance, and the pre-fight face-to-face transmogrify the brutality of the ring into a Hollywood-style narrative of two titans, two half-gods, locked in glorious battle. Without these little performances, the audience might realize that it’s paid a lot of good money just to watch two regular dudes punch each other.

Google the best ring entrances in boxing, and you will see a range of spectacle. On one end, extravagant fighters wink at the audience, making a wry joke out of the whole scene; success is measured by the audacity of the joke. The most obvious and hilarious example was when Prince Naseem Hamed flew a magic carpet on a cloud of stage smoke into the ring. (He won, by the way.) On the other end, you have every boxer who has ever played LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” and stormed to the ring with a pumped-up entourage. The explicit point is always the same: This person is tough. Somehow, though, Mike Tyson discovered a third option: a fully conceived piece of performance art.

At the time, Tyson was an ascending force in the world of professional boxing. He was the youngest heavyweight champion in history, quickly collecting thirty KOs in his first three years as a pro. But Michael Spinks presented a serious challenge: He was also undefeated, and a heavyweight champion in his own right. The promoter angle for the fight was “once and for all,” with the winner becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion. So Tyson couldn’t just defeat Spinks — he had to destroy him.

Spinks came to the ring first, in a white robe, to a song that Kenny Loggins wrote after visiting his father in the hospital. Loggins once described it as “not a love song, it’s a life song.” Considering the context of the fight, the track is mildly alarming in its sentiment: “Make no mistake where you are / You’re back’s to the corner.” But it’s of a piece with the desperate energy Spinks seemed to be channeling to compel his body to withstand the awesome power of Tyson. After he made it to the ring, Spinks hopped and paced and bowed to the crowd from his corner. Muhammad Ali, wearing in a business suit, leaned into Spinks for some last minute encouragement.

Whatever power of Spinks’ entrance had immediately evaporated when a deafening drone of noise started swirling in the air. As it crescendoed into a maddening roar, the crowd at the Atlantic City Convention Center arched to follow the procession of men, all cops and security guards, emerging out of Tyson’s locker. Tyson, bare-chested and already soaked in sweat, slowly materialized from the back and meandered to the ring, barely blinking. The broadcast announcer Bob Sheridan, struggling to define the scene, played it straight: “It’s interesting Mike Tyson selected as his pre-fight music just noise; every once in a while you hear the clanging of chains. I think that’s what he’s got in mind to do to Mike Spinks’ head, but we’ll wait and see. Everything that Tyson does is intimidating.”

The “noise” was in fact a song by the British band Coil, an experimental, post-industrial noise outfit — all descriptions in the indie-music taxonomy for loud, chaotic, undulating electronic sound with a formless sort of purpose. Coil was founded by John (or Jhonn) Balance and Peter Christopherson in 1982. Their music was inspirationally weird and alienating; it conjured a mysterious force that was terrifying, compelling, illogical, and intentionally unpleasant. Producer Clive Barker said that Coil was “the only group I’ve heard on disc whose records I’ve taken off because they made my bowels churn.” The Coil manifesto states:

COIL know how to destroy Angels. How to paralyze. Imagine the world in a bottle. We take the bottle, smash it, and open your throat with it. I warn you we are Murderous. We massacre the logical revolts. We know everything!”

Coil were, in other words, the perfect band with the perfect song for Tyson’s performance, flaunting his own raw and dissonant rage and power. He wasn’t saying, like most boxers, “check out how awesome I am.” He was saying “I don’t know karate, but I do know ka-Razy.” It was a terrifying spectacle, a twisted accomplishment. It was show, don’t tell. It was art. The next time someone brings up Tyson vs Spinks, set everyone straight when they start talking about the ninety-one second knockout, because Tyson did something way more meaningful that night with his mind than he did with his fists.

Matthew Chmiel works at the design agency Code and Theory.