There are few things in the world that reveal a person’s character more clearly than how they deal with the pain of a loss. The context of the loss barely matters because the mere fact that a person was present and accountable in a scenario means they had a stake to protect. And they came up short. But the sun came up the next day and they had to decide what they were going to do with it.
One of the things that you learn when you study the stories of people who have won big in life on one level or another is that in most cases, they freely discuss their losses. The pain and the lessons they learn remain fresh in their minds and they converted it into a clean-energy fuel to power them through the days that followed. When opportunities for redemption arose, they were prepared. As it turns out, those losses were even more instrumental to them as any win they ever enjoyed along their journey to the big score that made them forever famous in their field of choice. Frankly, Steve Jobs’ story is most dramatic because of the loss that he suffered when was summarily dismissed from Apple. His comeback from that loss defined him as much more than a technology visionary. It elevated him to the status of cultural icon.
The reason why sports attracts the attention that it does in our society is that for better or worse it often serves as a microcosm of life. The big difference and appeal is that there is an immediate gratification pay-off to performance. Wins and losses are definitive. In the major sports, objectivity reigns supreme and subjectivity is always problematic which is why those sports rarely break through to major status (probably because it is too much like real life).
So if we are playing a game and ten thousand people are watching, everybody can look to that scoreboard and see that I scored 59 points and you scored 61. You won and I lost. Everybody knows it, there is no question about it, and no matter what excuse I may come up with, that result is final. That certainty is psychologically appealing to us, even when we don’t like the result. So to illustrate a point about the character revelations and implications of losses, we will turn briefly to the world of sports- boxing specifically.
Mike Tyson was one of the most popular fighters in the history of boxing. People were attracted to the tenacity of his attacking style and he became the youngest heavyweight champ in history. Stars from other fields clamored to be around him from hip hop stars to Hollywood actors. They made songs about him, games bearing his name and universal adoration followed. Women from every walk of life were at his disposal. Those from his Brownsville roots to those who clearly should have known better alike. And all of that endured even after his record was blemished by a freakish upset at the hands of an unknown fighter out of Ohio late one night in Tokyo.
Tyson was a god, or at least a demigod. But a funny thing happened to Iron Mike on November 9, 1996. The cultural icon from New York City with the loud-mouthed entourage came up against a plain spoken church going fighter from Atlanta who was unburdened by fear and emboldened by preparation. In a fight that had been in the making for years Evander Holyfield beat the hell out of Mike Tyson. Knocked him down and out in the 11th round. He dominated him from start to finish until the referee stepped in to stop the beating. It was one of the greatest upsets and most exciting fights in boxing history.
So when they locked up for the rematch 7 months later, the stakes could not have been higher for Iron Mike. After the first three rounds, he knew what was coming. Evander was kicking his ass again and the whole world was going to see that he was not the unstoppable savage beast that he had been built up to be. He was a talented but undersized heavyweight who had won on intimidation and hype as much as on skill. And Holyfield was proving he was the better man. So at the top of the 4th round, Mike Tyson acted like an untrained zoo animal and bit down hard on Evander Holyfield’s ear- twice. The second bite drawing blood and leaving a chunk of steaming flesh on the canvas.
The only thing more disgraceful than that cowardly act was the wave of rationalization, justification and excuse manufacturing that followed from Mike Tyson’s famous friends and apologists. When he was facing the greatest challenge of his life, Tyson was looking for a way out. He did not want to go forward but he did not want to wear the label of coward and quitter so he opted for the label of savage and cheater. That label was easier for him to square with that bullshit New York tough guy act he had built his legend on.
No one should be surprised to know that Mike Tyson never regained the championship that Evander Holyfield took from him. He got another title shot years later because the heavyweight division was utterly bankrupt of talent but Lenix Lewis gave him the ass whipping he so richly deserved. Lenix had listened to him and his minions call him a “faggot” and discussing how he would be raped in prison for months leading up to the fight. Tyson talked about eating Lewis’ children. So when they got in the ring, the dignified Brit just pounded Mike for 8 straight rounds until the referee took mercy on us all and ended the slaughter.
Mike Tyson’s loss to Evander Holyfield revealed what he really was- at least at that point in his life and his fight career never recovered. Where his physicality was strong, his character was weak. Where his emotions would rage, his mind would collapse. So after being the most famous athlete in the entire world he became a punch-line. But God was good to Mike and opened a door for him to have a nice post-fight career in entertainment and I admit that I’m glad to see that.
But there is no escaping the reality that he did not have the character to come back from a tough loss with dignity.
By contrast, Evander Holyfield went on to fight an epic three fight war with Riddick Bowe who towered over him in stature but who struggled mightily to win two of the three exciting battles they had. Holyfield remains the only man to knock down Bowe down in a bout and won his title back from the giant. And when Evander finally walked away, he had distinguished himself in his field as a man of character and dignity. And it was just as much about how he responded to his losses as it was about the championships he won. It is also about the fact that he was gracious in victory- embracing Mike in later years as a brother and a friend as both moved on to a life after fighting. The lesson being: Be dignified in defeat and victories will follow; Disgrace yourself in defeat and you will never recover.
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