Featuring Mike Tyson, Afghanistan v Pakistan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, basketball in Australia, the truth in Serie A, Polish football fans, Alex Ferguson and a celebrated gifmaker
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Not many sportsmen begin anecdotes about their childhood with the line "we were beefing with these guys called the Puma Boys". But not many sports articles can mention pistols, rifles and Magnums in their first paragraph and wrap it up with the rueful jab "you never knew what you'd find when you broke into people's houses". Mike Tyson is no ordinary storyteller and, as this excerpt from his autobiography in New York magazine shows, he was no ordinary 10-year-old.
Tyson started life in Brooklyn in 1966 as a gentle child: "I was a pudgy kid, very shy, almost effeminate-shy, and I spoke with a lisp." Having to wear glasses added to his sense of alienation. He was bullied and battered. His meekness invited ridicule and he was tormented for his appearance.
One day another kid tried to steal Tyson's food and he ran home. The shame has never left him: "I still feel like a coward to this day because of that bullying. That's a wild feeling, being that helpless You never forget that feeling. That was the last day I went to school. I was seven years old and I just ever went back to class."
With his school days over, Tyson took to the streets. He became a gofer in a local gang – a "schmuck slave" as he calls it – and started to earn a name in the neighbourhood. A lot of that respect disappeared when he turned up to a disco smelling of pigeon shit. Everyone started laughing at him, he began to cry and a local tough guy looked on and sympathised. The next morning they met up and Tyson was invited to join his crew.
With his confidence growing, his first fight was not long in the making. Again, pigeons were involved. When a local kid stole on of his precious birds, Tyson protested. His rival did not relent: "He just twisted the bird's head off and threw it at me, smearing the blood all over my face and shirt."
Something in Tyson changed in that moment and he was never to be the same again. He had taken the bullying long enough and was about to stand up for himself. He flailed a few punches through the air and one of them stuck. The pigeon thief fell to the floor and Tyson's reputation went through the roof.
Tyson kept fighting and was soon known as a guy who would take on anyone for a decent wage. He wasn't yet a teenager, but he'd grind it out with grown men if the price was right.
Tyson had to sink further before he started to make anything from his aggression. He found a mentor at a juvenile detention centre in the form of Bobby Stewart, a tough ex-professional boxer who gave him a shot at sparring. Stewart invited Tyson into the ring and dropped him with one punch.
A few months after Tyson had been left vomiting in that first training session, he graduated from Stewart. The 12-year-old Tyson had broken his trainer's nose with a jab and needed to step up. Stewart took him to see Cus D'Amato.
D'Amato had trained champions and was a hard man, even in Tyson's critical eyes: "He even talked tough, and he was dead serious; there wasn't a happy muscle in his face."
D'Amato saw greatness in Tyson from the start. The very first time they met, when Tyson was only 13 years old, he told the young fighter that he would become the world champion if he could learn to listen.
Tyson was stunned: "Fuck, how could he know that shit? I thought he was a pervert. In the world I came from, people do shit like that when they want to perv out on you. I didn't know what to say. I had never heard anyone say nice things about me before."
We all know the rest. Tyson listened and learned, and went on to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history. As D'Amato put it: "Give a weak man some strength and he becomes addicted."
Few things are more boring than interviews with footballers. Now that clubs school players in the art of mundanity, journalists have taken to exaggerating stories, which has only led to a further breakdown in trust and more dull quotes. To enliven their work, La Gazzetta dello Sport have adopted a more intelligent approach: let the players speak anonymously.
The paper polled 50 Serie A players on subjects they would normally avoid, and the players have truly opened up. The results are staggering. More than half of the players said depression is a problem in the game, a third said they have heard a team-mate make a racist comment during a game, and 34% said a gay player would suffer if he came out. They think Mario Balotelli is over-rated, goal-line technology is worth pursuing and – surprise, surprise – they're not keen on the extra referees' assistants who stand beside the goals.
Taking photographs to convince the guards your camera is not an explosive device; being wary of snipers perched at every corner of the stadium; and watching on as 300 police officers with automatic rifles circle the pitch. Yes, it must be the Afghanistan v Pakistan local derby, the first match between the two countries in 37 years.
May Jeong followed the Afghanistan football team for Roads and Kingdoms and experienced a nation being transformed by the sport. Public executions were the only entertainment available under the Taliban regime, but now they have football.
The country's vast collection of AK-47s are now used to rain bullets into the sky to celebrate the national team's victories. They're still a health hazard – five people were hospitalised from falling bullets after Afghanistan became South Asia champions – but it's an improvement on how things used to be.
They're not pictures, they're not videos and no one is certain how their name should be pronounced, but gifs are all the rage in online sports reporting.
Sarah Lyall met Tim Burke, their most famed creator, for this piece in the New York Times and was more than a little impressed: "He works from home here, in what his colleagues call the 'Burke-puter', for its seamless integration of man and machine. It is less an office than an organism: a flashing, beeping, glowing, thrumming assault of screens, wires, remotes, tuners, phones, receivers, computers and general electronic effluvia wrapped around a person ('the monitor situation up there is insane', said Burke's wife, Lynn Hurtak.). Burke sits here alone in the dark day after day, for about 100 hours a week, watching dozens of sports events simultaneously."
Burke gave up his dissertation on feminist theory and poker to become a gifmaker. We salute him from afar – with 28 screens filtering through his computer at once, he may well be watching.
Jack Blocker of Vice hung around with Polish football fans for a few hours before their World Cup qualifier against England at Wembley. He found them to be a receptive bunch of guys, who were fluent in the art of repartee: "They agreed to have their photo taken on the condition that I be in it, at which point one began to playfully choke me with his scarf. It became clear that we spoke a common language. The language of 'quality banter'. That and English."
The headline says it all. But the first paragraph takes it further: "How does one make any sense of out of something like this? Journeyman bantamweight Francisco 'Franky' Leal has died after being knocked out on Saturday night and never regaining consciousness." The writing is poignant in this distressing opinion piece from Iron Mike Gallego on Uppercutting that becomes sadder with every line. It's hard to disagree with a single word.
Jon Snow isn't patronised with the congratulatory "well done" that Alex Ferguson liked to impart on TV men who had asked questions that suited him in interviews. Snow was not going to be condescended by Ferguson in this 11-minute discussion about politics, the media and leadership. Ferguson says he is more mellow than before, but his obsession with control is always lurking in the foreground.
Tommy Greer captains the Melbourne Tigers, an Australian basketball team that needs new fans. He has taken to the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald to rouse his fellow professionals: "All basketballers should be asking themselves what they are doing to help promote the game they play and love. For basketball to once again capture attention in the mainstream public consciousness, it is up to us to prove to people that we are worth the price of admission and their attention... We need to be out there in the media and in the community pushing ourselves and our brand. Going to training in the morning and heading home to rest is not going to get it done." Can you imagine a Premier League footballer having to think like that?
Jarlath Regan tends to interview stand-up comedians on his An Irishman Abroad podcast, but the inclusion of Tony Cascarino among the usual cast of displaced comics makes for a fascinating episode. Anyone who has read Cascarino's book knows has has a story to tell, and in this 43-minute chat he opens up further about his struggle with confidence, his time with the Ireland team and how an article he wrote for the Times provoked a phonecall from an angry Frank Lampard.
"It was probably one of my favourite beautiful goals. But I have many, many beautiful goals that I can look back and watch. So I am very happy." Zlatan Ibrahimovic talks us through his latest masterpiece in his inimitable style.
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