Prizefighters aren’t usually revered for the richness of their interior lives. It’s a stereotype that Tyson vs. Ali wants to put on the ropes. Kicking off the 2014 edition of PS 122’s COIL festival, this production from 3-Legged Dog knows how to throw a punch, in more ways than one. For starters, it stars an impressive, four-strong cast of stunt boxers, who somehow manage to trade physical blows for a solid hour and still deliver their lines with humor and poise. For another, the story, by new media artist Reid Farrington (better known as a technical artist for the Wooster Group) and writer Frank Boudreaux, is a surprisingly poetic reflection on both the high-stakes, over-mediatized world of professional boxing and the individual lives and aspirations of two of the sport’s most famous figures: Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali. Finally, as this is a 3-Legged Dog piece, at its state-of-the-art home, the 3LD Art & Technology Center, it relies on Farrington’s merging of archival footage of matches and video projections of the actors, in a fast-moving dodge and parry of images both real and created.
To watch Tyson vs. Ali is to be reminded, first of all, how integral boxing once was to American culture, making household names of fighters like Jack Dempsey in the 1920s, Sugar Ray Robinson in the 1940s and Sonny Liston in the 1960s. The most popular of all, though, was Muhammad Ali, thanks to his provocative and entertaining “trash talking” and good-natured sparring with the sports commentator Howard Cosell. But whereas Ali was a sportsman of both tremendous skill and commendable values (championing racial equality and conscientiously objecting to the Vietnam War), the man who replaced him as boxing’s star in the 1980s, Mike Tyson, was his opposite: as crude and violent in the ring (he notoriously bit the ear of Evander Holyfield in their 1997 rematch) as out (a 1991 rape conviction finally finished his career). Ali’s golden years and Tyson’s bad boy streak marked the apogee of the sport, at least in the minds of the general public, and I was struck, watching Tyson vs. Ali, how the era is still enshrined, albeit somewhat perversely, in my own memory.
The Greatest and Iron Mike never fought each other, however, and the idea for Tyson vs. Ali comes from that fact and the question it raises: what would a fight between these two very different heavyweights have been like? But rather than answer it, the show uses the setting of a boxing ring and the framework of a match to build a sort of cubist portrait of the two fighters, as we see them from various angles and perspectives, an impression emphasized by the stunt boxers’ ceaseless dancing around the ring. We discover not only how the two fighters prepared for and fought their matches, but how they first came to the sport, what they thought of it and why they finally tired of it. While the stunt boxers square off again and again in different pairs, the show’s focus at times moves far outside the ring and deep into the minds of these two champions. The show is composed of “rounds” or tableaux that are titled to indicate the nature of the realities these boxers faced and how they confronted them: “Beauty and Brutality,” “Prayers,” “Real Reasons for Doing This,” “Endurance/Strategy”, and so on.
No knowledge of the sport is required to appreciate this imagined face-off, but it certainly enriches the experience. Boxing fans will recognize each fighter’s characteristic style and will grasp the significance of the matches and events that are mentioned. But even if a lot of this flies past you like a missed uppercut, the show’s careful construction on multiple narrative planes is a feat, the ring doubling as a canvas for many layers of film and video. Footage of Tyson’s and Ali’s fights are projected onto screens that a fifth actor dressed as a referee moves around the ring, so that the stunt boxers’ movements as they bob and weave blend into the filmed images. Clips from “The Arsenio Hall Show” when both men appeared together and from an episode of “This Is Your Life” devoted to Ali when he was still Cassius Clay provide glimpses into the men behind the gloves. Real-time and pre-recorded video of the stunt boxers’ injured faces loops through the show.
Nevertheless, the story is told mainly through words, as both fighters were almost as famous for their brash, witty and sometimes tragic declarations as they were for their fancy footwork (Ali) and left hook (Tyson). Farrington judiciously gives these lines to the actors – these muscular but unfamiliar boxers – rather than rely on recordings, a choice that helps us imagine these mega-champions when they were still amateurs and the question of their talents and trajectories loomed large in their minds. Their reflections on race and identity, their hardscrabble origins and introduction to fame and fortune, as well as their preparation and attitudes in the ring enlarge the popular image of both men, but more particularly of Tyson, whose brutality the press delighted in both demonizing and inflating. A simultaneous “chorus” of both fighter’s voices, early on in the show, contrasts their emotional styles but underscores the singular focus of any champion, which could be summarized by Tyson’s famous line about how his opponents tried to outsmart him: “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Tyson vs. Ali comes out swinging and rolls with the punches both real and figurative of professional boxing. No one can say who would have won their match-up if it had ever taken place but both heavyweights come out winners in this empathetic look at their careers and struggles, at a time, now long gone, when prizefighting was still the sport of kings.