Taking a true measure of Tyson's legacy

During his heyday, Mike Tyson won as much with fear and intimidation as with his considerable skills. Getty Images

There will come a day in the future when my 3-year-old sons uncover my undying passion for the sport of boxing. And inevitably, the topic of Mike Tyson will surface.

I'm sure they'll have questions ranging from, "Could he have been the best ever?" to "Did he really eat that man's ear in the ring?" Or, just as likely: "Are you telling me the guy on TV that kisses pigeons used to play sports, too?"

That's the unique and surreal reality of Michael Gerard Tyson. He is without definition; having lived the life of 10 men over nearly 45 years, Tyson has been rich, bankrupt, loved, despised, jailed, pitied and just about everything in between. But after hanging around under each stereotype just long enough to set his feet, he has reliably made a leap to the next chapter of his improbable life.

Now, with his post-boxing career and image reinvented through the eyes of pop culture, Tyson is just as likely to be remembered by this generation as the comedic icon from "The Hangover" as he is recalled by the previous generation for threatening to eat another man's children.

But neither of those is the Mike Tyson that I'll tell my sons about.

For all the time spent analyzing what Tyson could have been as a boxer historically, we miss out savoring what -- for a painfully short season -- he actually was. Tyson, who headlines the 12-member 2011 class for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on Sunday, was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

The term "Baddest Man on the Planet" will never do it justice. Neither will simply watching a collection of his early bouts. Go ahead and throw around statistics such as his record-breaking run to the heavyweight title at 20 years old or the meteoric 19 straight knockouts to start his career, including 12 in the first round. Only scratches the surface.

Tyson was a one-man show who had to be seen in the context of his day to be appreciated. He transcended not only boxing but sports in general, rising to fame in a perfect storm during the colorful and excessive 1980s alongside MTV, Michael Jordan and Hulk Hogan. He's the only athlete whom my father -- never a sports fan -- and I ever truly shared.

When critics attack the list of opponents that Tyson defeated in his unbeaten prime as underwhelming, they miss the bigger picture of his real legacy: Tyson captured a moment of time in American culture and truly made it his own.

He was a movie character come to life, part hero and part villain at the same time. This probably was his most underrated (and most marketable) trait. An endearing and vulnerable superstar with a sinister edge, helped along by his iconic attire of black trunks and shoes with no socks, and a plain white towel fit around his neck in place of a traditional robe.

Nothing Tyson did was traditional. He was an urban assassin who, unlike image-conscious athletes of his day, stayed true to who he really was as a counter-culture hero who came from nothing. He had more street cred than any athlete in history, and everything he did -- including the way he rapidly paced the ring before the start of a fight like a caged animal -- came off as genuine, and in fact was authentic. It was that wildly unpredictable transparency that made him a reality TV star years before the genre even existed.

Tyson's honesty and uncompromising promise of violence fueled his two greatest strengths as an athlete. First was his ability to sell tickets as the sport's most dynamic box office attraction in history, whether he was selling knockdowns or, later in his career, meltdowns. The other was his ability to win fights before they began, through fear and intimidation (see: Tyson's 1988 knockout of unbeaten Michael Spinks in 91 seconds).

Despite always being, at 5-foot-10, the smaller man in the ring while fighting in an era that spawned the birth of the super-heavyweights that we know today, the Tyson of the 1980s reduced opponents to shambles. He stripped them of whatever game plan they entered with and instantly transformed their climate into survival mode. Even before Tyson ran across the ring at the opening bell to bob and weave in his custom, Cus D'Amato-taught style, before exploding upward to land his patented left hook-right uppercut combination, he already had them.

No coincidence, he had us to.

The same fear he instilled in opponents resonated even more deeply with the viewer at home. He made Ray Lewis look about as terrifying as Carl Lewis. There was a palpable electricity in the air before every Tyson fight. Somehow you felt excited, nervous and guilty all at the same time, as if you were about to watch an organized crime play out in front of you -- and yet a TV screen and thousands of miles of distance weren't adequate protection from it.

And then there was the destruction Tyson left in his wake. It plays like hyperbole today, but most truly believed -- albeit while caught up in the moment during the fighter's three-year run as champion -- that Tyson would retire undefeated. Suddenly, it didn't matter the level of competition he was facing or the predictable nature of the outcome. It was like watching the NBA's Olympic "Dream Team" play -- only if the game were being played on an episode of "The Sopranos."

Today, Tyson's life continues to take uncharted turns into the realms of actor/entertainer and calm family man. And I wouldn't be surprised, considering his popularity and unmatched presence, if he one day takes the reins from Muhammad Ali as boxing's worldwide ambassador.

The tragic thing about introducing Tyson to a new generation as a "tragic hero" is that it forever depreciates the glorious time he once spent serving as, simply, "a hero."

Someday, my sons will ask about Tyson, and I'll tell them what I know about who he is and was. I'll also tell them that there never was anyone like him before, and there never will be again.

Brian Campbell is an ESPN Mobile editor and contributor to ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BCampbellESPN.