On Sunday night, families gathered together and turned on their televisions for a night of wholesome bonding: to see if Mike Tyson will be eaten by a shark. Or, conversely, to see if a shark will be eaten by Mike Tyson.
Unlike Evander Holyfield circa 1997, in Tyson vs. Jaws: Rumble on the Reef, everyone comes out unscathed, ears and all. “The Bite Fight: Part II,” it was not.
For the amount of words written in recent years on the dramatic and consequential ways in which TV has changed, a major and perhaps underserved part of that story is the evolution of shark programming in the summer.
If you can believe it, Shark Week celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018. There were 10 programs in Discovery’s inaugural 1988 lineup, launching with the show Caged in Fear. Ratings were double the network’s normal average. Now, over 20 hours of Shark Week programming kicked off on Sunday, following National Geographic and Nat Geo WILD’s own swath of specials last month.
These are sharks and we are people, all of whom have graduated through the universal milestone of watching Jaws when we were probably too young and spending several months afraid to so much as take a bath. Therefore it makes sense that the splashy titles of these specials—not to mention the ominous scoring of the adrenaline-pumping shots of sharks thrashing in water—capitalize on those Spielberg-induced fears.
At a time when stunt programming remains one of the only ways for linear networks to drum up live viewers and communal viewing experiences, there’s no underselling the role Shark Week has played in escalating and celebrating the idea of what could be Event TV. (There’s a reason that Discovery refers to the programming eternally as its Super Bowl.)
Recent years have seen a concerted and admirable effort to inject these specials with real science and conservation messages—and retreat from forays into docufiction about Megalodons—to counterbalance overblown shark-attack fear-mongering. Of course, this is still TV and ratings matter, so we’re still going to get Sharkcano. But it’s going to erupt with a healthy dose of education, too.
That said, there’s something just so refreshingly dumb and silly about Sunday night’s Mike Tyson extravaganza. Sometimes you just want to watch something fun.
Tyson vs. Jaws played it all gloriously straight. The idea is that the former heavyweight champion-turned-celebrity menace-turned-pop-culture punchline is coming out of retirement, training to face off against the “perfect opponent to match Tyson’s raw power and animal aggression: A shark.”
It was utter, diverting nonsense. The entire time it was on I was thinking, “I really can’t believe I am watching this;” yet also at the same time, “I am very much enjoying watching this.”
The competitors’ stats flash on screen, as if this was a real boxing match. Nicknames: Baddest Man on the Planet vs. Apex Predators of the Sea. Age: Over 54 Years vs. Over 400 Million Years. Record: 50-6 (44 Knockouts) Since 1986 vs. 1454-109 (Attacks-Fatalities) Since 2000.
It might shock you to learn that at no point in this special did Mike Tyson actually fight a shark.
He did, however, swim with them, which automatically places Tyson vs. Jaws leagues above my previous favorite tongue-in-cheek, trolling celebrity shark special, 2017’s Phelps vs. Shark: The Battle For Ocean Supremacy, in which Olympic legend Michael Phelps swam 100 meters in the ocean by himself and scientists timed a shark swimming somewhere else. It was an SAT math problem masquerading as celebrity meal time.
The idea was that Tyson was going to go “three rounds” with sharks in the Bahamas. First he was going to do a cage dive, then an open-ocean dive without a cage, and then finally the main event: putting a shark to sleep with his bare hands. It’s a technique called tonic immobility that involves rubbing the electroreceptors on a shark’s snout with your hands until it goes into a natural state of paralysis to make it safer to study them, sort of like animal hypnosis.
See: education! Science! Conservation! Also...Mike Tyson cursing 100 times a minute because, it turns out, he’s absolutely terrified of sharks and clearly does not for one second want to be there!
There’s a certain kind of brilliance here. If I were going to think about a celebrity it would be funny to watch flipping out in a cage while being circled by sharks, Mike Tyson is a pretty damn good one, to be honest.
Tyson’s “cornerman,” so to speak, in the fight is a shark expert named Paul De Gelder, who is himself a shark-attack survivor. In 2009, while working with the Navy as a clearance diver, he got attacked by a 9-foot bull shark. It came up from underneath him and grabbed his hand and his leg in the same bite. He survived, but he lost his forearm and his leg.
“Before I got attacked by a shark, I hated sharks,” De Gelder says. “To be honest, I didn’t see the point of them at all. But then I learned about sharks. I learned about the plight, about the dangers to them. About the 100 million that humans kill a year, as opposed to the seven people that die a year from sharks. I want to help Mike overcome possibly a preconceived notion about sharks. I want Mike to learn about the important role they play in the ocean, so Mike might be a cornerman for sharks just like I am as well.”
When Tyson meets De Gelder, his jaw drops when he sees that the man who is supposed to be training him is missing two limbs. “Looking at you, I don’t think I’m going to come out too well,” he says. That’s funny!
The pure entertainment of this special is spending an hour watching Mike Tyson complain about the situation he has gotten himself into.
He’s in a cage surrounded by more than 30 sharks: “Why am I doing this? What the fuck am I doing? I’m stupid to do this.”
He’s asked if he’s comfortable: “No.” He’s asked how he’s feeling: “Scared to death.” He comes back to the boat and is asked if it was as bad as he thought: “Yes.”
You watch as the shark experts and scientists snicker over how utterly and completely exhausted he is when he climbs out of the water. “This was a pretty basic dive, but Mike looked like he had just gone about 12 rounds,” De Gelder says. “That’s not really a good sign because we didn’t really do anything.”
When Tyson musters up the courage to do the open-ocean dive without the cage, he has no patience for the enthusiastic encouragement of the other divers, or the science lessons they’re trying to teach him through an earpiece: “Cool fucking story, Craig. But I’m concentrating on these big fucking sharks circling me.”
To be fair to Mike Tyson, what he is taking part in does appear to be absolutely insane. As easy and gratifying as it is to be snide about the fact that the special is a bit of a bait-and-switch—Tyson did not fight a shark—it is wild to see him sitting on the ocean floor while nine-foot sharks swim right into him.
The thing of 2020 is the constant question of how much fun you let yourself have. So of course it’s worth noting the confusing, deplorable thing that has happened over the years, in that we’ve held Mike Tyson up as some sort of jovial, pop-culture jester—even, I would say, branding him as a family-friendly entertainer—despite the fact that, whatever else you might think about him, his boxing career, and his public persona, he is a convicted rapist.
It’s become such a faint footnote when we talk about Tyson now that I frankly don’t even know how to square it with everything I just wrote about what fun it was to watch this Shark Week special.
Is writing about this show the space to be discussing how ridiculous it is that we still cheer on his career, despite that past? Honestly, maybe it is. Maybe it’s negligent of me to not have turned it into this article’s entire focus.
It does add another layer to things, though. It makes it all the more rewarding to fantasize about the unlikely probability that, at some point, he was actually in danger of being attacked by a shark. The chump is chum.
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