Last week, I sat in a dark room in the New York Public Library to hear an author read from his new book. Although a screen on the side of the stage advertised an upcoming event with Pulitzer Prize winners Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz, I wasn’t there to see a literary novelist read about the postmodern condition. I had come to the library to see a a heavyweight champion best known for his facial tattoo and the night he bit off another boxer’s ear. Yes, I was at the library to hear Mike Tyson read from Undisputed Truth, his new celebrity memoir co-written with Larry Sloman.
While it was a bit odd that Mike was standing on the same stage Toni Morrison would speak from a few weeks later, he was full of profound (and also stupid) statements. He schooled the moderator on ancient history and said, “A room without a book is like a body without a soul.”
Yes, several minutes later he said to that same moderator, “What are italics?” when asked why he wrote a passage in italics, but it was clear that both at the library and on the page, Mike’s story is more moving than any novel written by some jagoff from the literati. He openly discussed the effect of having a prostitute for a mother, how the legendary boxing coach Cus D’Amato discovered him and gave him a real home, then died a few years after his career took off, and how he burned through millions of dollars thanks to cocaine.
The critics agree. “Parts [of the memoir] read like a Tom Wolfe-ian tour of wildly divergent worlds: from the slums of Brooklyn to the high life in Las Vegas to the isolation of prison,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in a rave review in the New York Times.
Regardless of what you think of Mike Tyson as a person, it’s impossible to deny that he has led a tremendously interesting life. I called him this week to talk about his obsession with ancient history, how his pet pigeons turned him into a fighter, and whether his is a story of redemption or the story of a troubled man struggling to turn his life around.
VICE: Why did you decide to write a memoir? Mike Tyson: My wife, Kiki, told me people were going to write a book about me anyway. If they’re gonna write a book, why not have people hear if from your own mouth instead of somebody else’s mouth?
At your recent book reading, you talked about your obsession with the history of ancient wars. Why are you interested in ancient history? A long time ago, I was at the table, sitting down, and either one of the boxers or Cus said something about Alexander the Great. He said Alexander was 6’ 6”. He must have been a giant back then. This struck an interest in me, but then I found out Alexander the Great wasn’t a giant—he was really a runt. In real life he wasn’t tall, and since then I’ve read about men of war. I relate to the psychology of war. Tom Cruise said when he’s performing he’s like a soldier of war. Men of war are really deep guys, really hardcore people, as far as humans are concerned.
Katerina Tarnovska is a Ukrainian preschool teacher, a kickboxing world champion and a self-proclaimed descendent of the legendary warrior women of the Amazon. In 2002 she founded Asgarda, a martial art exclusively for women that is inspired by the tribal traditions of the Scythian Amazons. In the past decade, more than 1,000 ladies have been entrusted with the teachings of the Asgarda, which Katerina says is the only fighting style specifically tailored to the female form.
Katerina’s influence extends well beyond teaching women how to turn their bodies into deadly weapons. She has written instructional Asgarda books, composed countless Amazon-themed folk songs, and produced aerobics videos in which the 34-year-old looks like a cross between Jane Fonda and Tank Girl, boxercising to what sounds like a Ukrainian version of Rammstein.
I recently joined one of the Asgarda’s training sessions in the Carpathian Mountains, which was a bit like an all-girl summer camp but instead of arts and crafts classes the ladies learned how to hack attackers with sabers, axes and scythes. Before meeting Katerina I imagined that we would mostly be discussing things like what it’s like to be a woman in Ukraine’s patriarchal society—the country’s parliament is more than 90 percent male, and domestic violence is a major problem. But she was more inclined to talk about how to win a warrior man’s heart in order to realize her eerie nationalistic plan to breed a new generation of Ukrainian warriors.
VICE: How did the Asgarda first begin? Katerina Tarnovska: When I learned that Amazon women once existed on our territory, I came to the conclusion that their spirit has been genetically passed on to the Ukrainian women. It was the spirit I was born with. Ukraine’s warrior caste was destroyed, very little of it is left. The rebirth of this caste depends on women’s capability of raising boys to become warrior men. That’s what brought about the whole idea of forming the Asgarda. As a person who is professionally involved in martial arts, this is my warrior path.
But didn’t Amazons hate men and want to kill them? No. Men who were afraid, specifically ancient Greeks, wrote those myths about cruel women because Amazons often fought them, and there are even myths of the Greeks losing. If you research the historical sources, you’ll find that the Amazons loved men and got married and had children with the Scythians. I can, with confidence, say that I am an Amazon woman and that doesn’t interfere with me falling in love and having children.
Not every report that comes out of Syria is bad news for Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president. While the world’s media worries about recently radicalized jihadists flying from England to Aleppo to gun down the embattled leader’s soldiers, there’s another type of international engagement playing out in the country—and this time, it’s playing out in the regime’s favor.
Since the conflict began in 2011, far-right groups from across the world have been courting the Syrian government. On the slightly more moderate end of the scale, BNP leader Nick Griffin rode into Damascus a few months back to have his photo taken with the prime minister, Wael Nader Al-Halqi, and publicly rail against the Free Syrian Army. On the more extreme end, fascist Greek mercenaries may now be training in Syria to help defend Assad and have formed a European support network to spread pro-regime propaganda.
Just over a month ago, the Irish-Greek blogger Glykosymoritis sent me an article translated from the right-wing Greek newspaper, Democratia. The clipping contained an interview with an obscure far-right group called Black Lily, who were making bold claims about having a “whole platoon of volunteers [who] are fighting side by side with Assad’s government forces.”
I spent the subsequent weeks emailing the group, looking for pictures or video evidence to prove that their fighters are on the ground. The group’s responses were guarded, as they were apparently worried for the safety of their members, but their claims weren’t totally implausible. “These days, more Greeks are in Syria with the Syrian Armed Forces,” they told me. “Very soon we are going to have news.”
"Watch out—there are snipers on this street," warned the ISIS fighter as my driver stopped next to him and eight other heavily armed men who were preparing to head into battle. ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, is an offshoot of al Qaeda currently operating on the battlegrounds of Syria.
He wouldn’t have guessed it, but we were all trying to reach the same place—the front line outside the headquarters of yet another of the militant groups fighting in Syria, Ahfad al-Rasul. This organization is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and had declared war on ISIS just a few hours earlier, for control of the provincial capital of Raqqa.
This was my third visit to the city in the four months since it had been “liberated,” as Syrians tend to refer to areas where rebels have managed to expel government troops.The battle against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Raqqa had only lasted for about a week—a sharp contrast to the fighting in Aleppo, where gunfights and shelling have continued for over a year since the conflict began.
Once rebels take control of an area, it is now standard procedure for the regime to respond by bombarding it with indiscriminate air strikes in the hope of killing swathes of anti-Assad fighters. But back in April, just weeks after the liberation, cheerful residents seemed to greet the inevitable trail of destruction as a good thing—a sign of the progress the rebels were making.
Recently, however, the tension has risen considerably in Raqqa and the atmosphere has completely changed, as the rebel resistance continues to splinter, pitting many groups who once fought side by side against Assad against each other. The original celebration of freedom has given way to fear and uncertainty.
A number of civil movements—both religious and secular—have also been trying to establish themselves in a bid to influence the future of the city and eventually the country. A group named Haqna, Arabic for “Our Right”, is one of the organizations leading the charge. Its logo, a hand making a V sign, the index finger marked with election ink, is spray-painted all over the city. Mostly made up of young local activists, Haqna is aiming to educate the population about their civil rights and the importance of elections.
The American Filmmaker Who Became a Freedom Fighter in Libya
Matthew VanDyke has had an interesting few years. In 2008, the Baltimore-born filmmaker set off on a three-year motorcycle expedition around North Africa and the Middle East, pretending to be either Afghani or Icelandic to avoid hassle from jihadists or anyone else in the region who isn’t particularly keen on Americans. During that time, he popped into bin Laden’s old home, went to cockfights in Iraq, visited mausoleums in Afghanistan and generally had a pretty nice time from the sounds of it.
In February of 2011, as he was finishing up his trip, Matthew was contacted by friends in Libya who explained the burgeoning social strife in the country, telling him that their family members were being arrested, injured or disappearing completely. In a bid to help, VanDyke flew out and became a freedom fighter against Gaddafi’s forces. Until March 13, when he was hit in the head during combat and woke up in a prison in Sirte, before being transferred to two separate Tripoli prisons, where he spent a total of six months in solitary confinement.
After he disappeared, Matthew was described in the media as a freelance journalist, and various NGOs—including the Committee to Protect Journalists—lobbied Gaddafi’s government to release him. After he was eventually broken out of his cell by other prisoners, VanDyke returned to the battlefield, which pissed off a number of journalists, who accused him of choosing to be a “journalist” only when it suited him—i.e., when he wanted to go back to freedom fighting.
Those journalists obviously didn’t quite understand the full details of his case—specifically that he’d never told anyone he was a journalist—but he remains a controversial figure in certain circles (circles that presumably don’t have any access to the internet) nonetheless. Matthew’s latest documentary, Not Anymore: A Story About Revolution, focuses on the human impact of the Syrian revolution. I gave him a call to talk about his new film, his time in prison and the distinctions between being a journalist and a documentary maker.
Matthew on his motorbike in Afghanistan.
VICE: Hi, Matthew. What has your time in the Middle East taught you about humanity? Matthew VanDyke: I’ve basically seen the full range of humanity, from the coolest to the worst. During my years in the region, there were times that I had problems and people helped me, showing me very generous hospitality. Some of the friends I made, especially in Libya, were higher quality friends than the ones I have in America, really. But, of course, I’ve also seen some of the worst things in Libya and Syria that I’ve ever seen. It’s the full range of human experience.
What was the worst experience you had during your time there? The worst, I guess, was when I was in prison in Libya, hearing men being violently interrogated or tortured through the walls. I’ve seen people whose feet had been beaten, I’ve seen people Gaddafi had executed – dead bodies put in graves, unmarked except for just a concrete block. On my first day in Syria, I saw a baby without a head brought into the hospital. That they would even bring the infant to the hospital had a whole other level of horror to it. They were still under shock from what had happened, I guess, so they wrapped the child in a blanket and brought it there, just hoping that something could be done.
Floyd Mayweather Used Justin Bieber as a Decoration
It was just before midnight on Saturday and no one gave a shit that Justin Bieber was in the room. Less than an hour earlier, Floyd Mayweather had badly abused Saul “Canelo” Alvarez in boxing’s biggest event in years, improving his record to 45 wins in 45 paying fights. No one seemed to mind that it was a lopsided matchup unworthy of the months of breathless hype. Now the immaculately coiffed pop star who, aside from the thick chain dangling from his neck, could’ve easily passed for Pony Boy in The Outsiders, was seated on stage as the finest boxer of his generation stood at the dais, testifying to his own greatness and fielding compliments disguised as questions from the media and fans who had negotiated their way into the news conference. That scene provided a sense of perspective on the situation: Bieber is one of the most famous celebrities on the planet, but amid the chaotic aftermath of a Mayweather fight he was a decoration, not unlike a potted plant with designer sunglasses.