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  LIFE AS A LOSER #89: "PUNCHED OUT."  
   
   
 

 We all have our demons. Some of us have been so hurt by past relationships that we canít 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 canít handle heights, some of us are mortified by snakes, some of us are freaked out by clowns. Whichever. Thereís always something.

My demon lay dormant for about 12 years, but he returned last week, unrelenting as ever.

My parents, different, I suspect, than many today, had a problem with their children watching too much television. They wanted my sister and me 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 neighborhood. Not only did I have no idea what was happening on any of the hot cartoons, but I was also so dorky that (get this) I didnít even have a Nintendo. Thatís right; while the other kids were mastering Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda, Excitebike and Metroid, I was plopped in the driveway with a basketball, a book and an admonition to ďstay outside and get the damned stink blown off ya.Ē

Iím 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 Iíd play their Nintendo. Poor bastards. Iíd show up at their door, theyíd sigh, let me in, direct me to the playroom and hand me the controller. Occasionally, weíd 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 Tysonís Punch-Out. It was all I wanted to play and all I wanted to think about. Iíll never forget the first time. I was visiting my cousin Taylor, and he told me about this awesome new game. ďAt the end, you get to fight Mike Tyson. But I canít get that far.Ē 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 friendsí parents, if I suddenly became a serial killer and they were interviewed by the local news as a ďconcerned neighbor,Ē would have little more to say than, ďHe 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.Ē

Kids today must wonder about societyís fascination with Mike Tyson. Heís now (justifiably) considered a monster, a rapist animal who bites people in the ring, forces beauty-pageant contestants into sex and threatens to eat other boxersí children. He is feared in the same way we fear the wild-eyed, unshaven man screaming at nobody in the subway. He is unpredictable, unhinged and pathetic, a circus sideshow, a car wreck we canít take our eyes off. He is a disintegrated man.

But itís important to remember, in the late í80s, 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 Spinksí legs quivering from Mattoon, Illinois. 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, those of you familiar with the game 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 couldnít 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 heíd beat me, and heíd 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 Illinois basketball game that night and would occasionally flip over to HBO to make sure we didnít miss the inevitable Tyson knockout (such was the lack of hype for the fight that it wasnít even shown on pay-per-view). 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: Heíll find that one punch and heíll drop this chump. And he did, almost. He flattened Douglas with a quick uppercut, but the big dude didnít stay down. And then, in the 10th round, the unthinkable happened, and Tyson went down, and he didnít get back up, and someone had solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, slaughtered Jabba the Hutís 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 high school, and 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 of friends completed a night of intense alcohol consumption by dropping by their place. There, I saw that parental replacement, the Nintendo. And sitting next to it, Mike Tysonís Punch-Out. I was helpless against its charms. I grabbed the cartridge, blowing the dust off it like Iíd learned to a decade before and 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 Bullís charge, Glass Tigerís weird magic circle thing, Mr. Sandmanís devastating super uppercut. I beat everyone, including Super Macho Man, setting up a rematch that was 11 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 friend, 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 canít stand the disappointment. I canít come this far, this many years removed, just to lose again. You can beat him. I want to see him beat. I canít handle another loss.

The other friend spoke up. ďFor Christís sake, Will ... quit living life like itís your column. If you keep thinking youíre a loser, youíll always be one. Youíve earned this match. Youíre good at this. You can beat him. Donít walk away now because youíre afraid to lose. You canít live life trying not to lose. You have to play to win. Now go beat him.Ē

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 drunken 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 Knute Rockne speech. I eyed him closely.

ďI think Iíve proven my point.Ē I then flipped him the controller and left, more certain than ever that playing not to lose in life is the safest, most self-preserving option Iíve come up with so far.

 

*BT*

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