In early 1990, I was utterly uninterested in any sport except boxing. All others, it seemed, were some convoluted route to what boxing was at it’s very core: two men in a fight. In boxing, men didn’t set out to chase a ball or perform a feat against gravity, they sought to physically beat another man into submission. That was consistent with what little I knew of the world at that age, and no man was more feared than Mike Tyson. By then, he was approaching 40 fights, all of which were won, and most by knockout.
When he faced off against James “Buster” Douglas, all smart money was on Mike Tyson. Buster landed a beautiful right, left, right cross sending Iron Mike to the canvas, there was a sense of disbelief as Tyson wobbled until the referee called the fight a knock out. I always wondered what that did to Mike Tyson.
Growing up, I didn’t have the luxury of being a great fighter, so I was humble from the beginning. What was it like to have crushed 37 dudes in the ring? I knew the feeling of catching a beating pretty well by the time I left my teens, so I viewed every fight as a prospect to lose as little as possible. It was never really about winning.
Self Esteem – Doggonit, people like you
The concept of self esteem isn’t anything new. It’s got roots that go back to the 1800’s, but I remember it going full tilt in the 1990’s. There were psychologists, motivational speakers, talk show hosts, and even comedians talking about it. There was a groundswell of positive self talk, appealing to adequacy, and a disentanglement from peoples’ status symbols from their selves. This was a nice idea in the clear waters of polite society, but it meant nothing to me. Feeling good about myself, after all, wouldn’t stop some crackhead from punching me in the face. A shotgun would. Friends would. A reputation might, too… but that wasn’t built on looking in the mirror and saying nice things. In the muddy pools that formed in the cracked streets of societies underbelly, a more powerful filter than self esteem was needed.
To me, it started to look like self-esteem was bullshit, and headed for problems.
Sinking Titans, Exploding Dirigibles, and a little Humility
Long before self esteem was a thing, we had arrogance. In droves. I love listening to the gentry from times passed because their way of speaking is so smug it’s comical. Hubris was in full tilt with the unsinkable Titanic, and shortly after that, the fiery end of the Hindenburg. These innovations were thought to be indestructible feats of engineering, despite the overwhelming evidence that things that float can sink, and things that fly ultimately reunite with gravity.
Self esteem, the act of esteeming oneself, seemed a key ingredient in the tragedies. In a similar way to Mike Tyson’s humbling defeat, man-made machinations have always been subject to time’s relentless subtractions. In those moments, there’s a strange fork in the road that teaches men a great deal.
Mike Tyson did a podcast with The Pivot not too long ago and the Buster Douglas fight came up. When asked, Mike said something that would solidify his story as one of sports most fascinating redemption arcs, at least to me…
I was shocked. I expected he would have been crushed. He continued:
“Fighting Buster was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he said. “I was so stressed out being the champ. My hair was falling out. I was stressed out, but I was playing it out like I was a hard guy. Scared to death. Little kid and you’ve got the whole sport on your back. Everyone is trying to get your money and they’re trying to sue you.
You know what Buster did for me and to the world?. He made me human. I wasn’t an animal savage. It made me human and it made me a better fighter.”
From the opposite side of everything, what Mike Tyson said resonated with me. The world had, afterall, done a good job making me human.
So if self esteem was the gateway to this endless loop of Icarus stories, where then was a man to derive self worth? What was it that we’re looking that had left us in a disgraceful state en absentia? If we didn’t know what we were looking for, it would be mighty hard to find. Especially with the mentality of “I just hope everyone can be themselves and have fun!” permeating the 90’s.
As I said before, I wasn’t a great fighter. There are a lot of guys who were much better than me, both in society and in the military. Even so, I’d managed to find pretty solid footing, over and over, with the guys who were good. I remember at the end of a training bloc, the instructors “jumped” me into the infantry. I held my head up and fought back, because, of course you fight back. If an ass whooping is coming, set your jaw. Afterwards, I realized that several members of the class jumped in to fight with me. That moment, I think more than any other, was my final salute to being a scared young man. I had won something from two sides; my opposition and my comrades. Their esteem. And it meant way more to me than any positive talk ever would.
A whole lot of challenges would come afterwards, but I never felt like Tyson did. I wasn’t anticipating the inevitable defeat. It wasn’t me against an entire world of challengers. My worth had become a mosaic of those I had encountered, worked with, fought with, fought against, and the honesty that created. It wasn’t a bed of laurels, it was on lease and the payment still comes due daily.
I’m also not saying that I’ve cracked the code. We all have our struggles. Tyson had peer esteem. In droves, yet it just served to build up expectations that, on a long enough timeline, were doomed to be smashed.
But losing and fighting brought me to similar place as fighting and losing had brought Iron Mike. Not the same, obviously, but close enough that I feel it when I hear him talk about being made human. That humility forces us to diversify the streams that feed into our well of self-worth. If we stand on a mountain alone, it’s not too different than living a life of abject mistrust.
“No matter your starting point, your destination is determined by the strength of your determination.”Mike Tyson
Taking that shot that cost him his first K.O. didn’t destroy Mike. Success did. In the same way it always does, ‘pride cometh before the fall’, but with some humility and determination, the little losses just condition us to carry the weight to the destination. Mindset pieces are always tough. When people like them, I never find out. Personal pieces as well. We’ve maintained from the beginning that ISG is not a platform for self-aggrandizement… it’s, as Joe Friday would say “just the facts, ma’am.”
With that acknowledged, times are changing quickly. We’re going to be facing the types of problems ISG was created to help solve. We are in a Type III Emergency now, and as it continues to spool up, we all need to be ready for the increase in pace and intensity that will bring more smaller emergencies to the meso- and microscale. The ones that affect us as individuals, families, and communities. It’s important that the strength of our determination is capable of taking us where we want to go, but it’s also important to acknowledge that we’re going to take hits along the way. We might even get knocked to the canvas once or twice. We are all going to be humbled.
So, to close this out, the era of self-celebration that has blanketed martial culture in the wake of gun culture 2.0 is a toxic miasma. You’re going to need to build skills, and have friends who’ve done the same. You’re going to need trust, hope, and people in your corner who you can help when they’re down and out. Who, in turn, can help pick you up when you get knocked down.
Don’t fear the canvas.
Let it make you a better fighter.