Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On the Wisdom of Mike Tyson

Dear Mackenzie,

No one ever accused Mike Tyson of being quotable.  Yet one of my all time favorite quotes about life comes straight from the lips of the great pugilist. “Everyone has a plan,” he once said, “til he gets punched in the mouth.” Tyson was talking literally, of course.  But his quote has universal applicability.

Not long ago I was involved in a difficult movie negotiation on behalf of a client.  The producer took my side against the studio, and I was surprised not only by the fact that he jumped into the fight in the first place, but also by the skill and ferocity with which he fought.  At lunch one day not long afterwards, I thanked him for his help and told him I had been impressed by how he had handled himself. He told me he had gotten involved because he had been offended by the studio’s position. “I don’t like to fight,” he smiled, “but I know how to do it.”

But shouldn’t we avoid fighting?

Not always. I have learned in life that sometimes fighting, or at least being willing to fight, serves a very useful purpose.  I took an anthropology class in college. I learned that throughout history, when a warring tribe has encountered a peaceful tribe and each tribe interacted with the other in a manner consistent with its nature, without exception the warring tribe annihilated the peaceful tribe out of existence.

I learned this lesson myself the hard way, my sweet daughter. When we moved to the United States my parents enrolled your aunt Viv and me in the local elementary school and I entered the third grade.  At the time I didn’t speak English, and more to the point I was small for my age.  In the time honored “Lord of the Flies” tradition, other boys started picking on me.  

I pretended not to notice, or pretended that it didn’t bother me. I could outrun just about everyone in my class if need be anyway. What I couldn’t outrun was the alienation and low self-esteem I felt. I was afraid to tell your grandma and grandpa what was going on because I thought they (like any normal parent) would want to step in and talk to the teachers or the principal.  I feared that would only make things worse.

In sixth grade our family moved from Cleveland, Ohio to Augusta, Georgia and I enrolled in a new school.  By then I was obviously fluent in the language, but I was still the new kid, and still pint-sized. To make things worse, at that age boys’ testosterone starts to kick in, causing them to start noticing girls and to look for ways to impress them. The bigger boys started picking on me again.

Brenda Nance changed my life forever. Brenda was this beautiful, auburn haired girl in my class with sparkling eyes and the cutest freckles you ever saw.  She didn’t know it then (and she likely has no recollection of who I am) but in the sixth grade I had a huge crush on her.  I wasn’t the only boy in the class who did.

One morning in the school hallway, a large kid tried to pick a fight with me and started calling me names.  I almost certainly would have ignored him had Brenda not been standing right there.  I was petrified, but no way was I going to let her think I was a wimp.  So I told the bully that he should “meet me after school”. 

“Meet me after school” was a popular and ongoing event in sixth grade.  Since you couldn’t fight during school without getting in trouble, disputes were settled in the playground after school was out.  All the kids would come and cheer for whichever “fighter” was their friend.  No one got badly hurt, and the fights didn’t last long because no one wanted to miss the school bus and have to explain it to their parents. 

I spent the rest of that day in mortal fear. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t study. I couldn’t think of anything other than I was going to get an ass whooping. Yet at 3:10PM that afternoon, I arrived at the appointed place to meet my destiny. A dozen or more classmates were there to watch the new kid get beat up.  I resisted the strong impulse to run.

The bully started to taunt and shove me, and then pushed me to the ground. To this day I remember vividly that out of the corner of my eye I saw the assistant principal heading towards us to break up the fight. All I had to do was stay down another twenty seconds and it would be over. But then I saw Brenda.

So instead I got up and lunged at the other kid with everything I had, somehow landing a couple of punches.  In the movie version of my life story Brenda will look at me with something resembling young love as I knock the other kid unconscious. In real life, the moment I landed my first punch the other kid unleashed on me with a fury, and by the time the assistant principal broke it up I had both a fat lip and the beginnings of a terrible shiner.

But I had something else too.  I had the respect of my schoolmates, who saw my black eye as a badge of courage.  As importantly I had my self- respect, which from that day forward I’ve never lost.  These days, most people who know me would probably describe me as an easy-going, peaceful sort. Yet people who have confused my affable nature with weakness have regretted it.

So when should you fight, Mackenzie?  Believe it or not, you’ll know instinctively.  Don’t go looking for fights, physical or otherwise. Walk away when you can.  Give peace a chance.

If that doesn’t work, listen to Mike Tyson.

All my everlasting love,



  1. I like this post. Unfortunately, Mike has also said some other "very public and specific things" about how he had planned on defeating some future opponents, especially after he had come out of prison. (This is clearly meant for a young adult to read - I won't be going into details!) Dear Mackenzie - If you're going to fight, keep it above the belt and away from the ears. - Jason

  2. Wisdom and Mike Tyson, not something you read everyday.
    Great post.