By Rabbi Charles E. Savenor
On February 11, 1990, the fortunes of two men changed for all time. Mike Tyson lost the heavyweight boxing crown, and Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years.
The two headlines stuck out because both events were so unexpected, almost unfathomable. “Iron Mike” appeared indestructible as the undefeated and undisputed heavyweight champ, and Mandela seemed destined to languish in prison for life.
But perceptions can be deceiving.
Tyson was in a free fall in and out of the ring. As his rocky relationship with Robin Givens unraveled, his knockouts in the ring had started to look perfunctory. After four years as the heavyweight champion and the youngest to achieve this honor, Iron Mike’s strategy seemed to just rely on his past successes.
Thousands of miles away at Victor Verster Prison, Mandela, who had rejected several offers from the government for a conditional release, was less an encumbered prisoner than a spiritual warden of a post-apartheid South Africa. In his cell, Mandela envisioned what his beloved country could become: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
And on the very same day in February, 1990, their worlds turned upside down.
At the beginning of the 10th round in Tokyo, the underdog, Buster Douglas, knocked Tyson out for the first time in his entire career. Oceans away in another arena – this one penal as much political, Mandela walked with dignity out of the prison gates, stopped for a cup of tea, and proceeded to a rally where the actualization of his political vision commenced.
On the surface, these events could not be more unrelated. But digging deeper, we discover that these positional disruptions are integrally connected to how each man approached his respective challenges.
Favored by 42 to 1 odds, Tyson appeared unconcerned about this title defense as reflected by the champ’s training, or lack thereof. By discounting his challenger’s drive and determination, he was down for the count when it mattered most.
By contrast, Mandela used his prison term to prepare the soil for a harvest of social change. Intentionally delaying his release until the moment was right for his movement to achieve its goals, the future President of South Africa understood that his imprisonment had become a galvanizing symbol more powerful than just one man.
February 11, 1990, was not the first time that the fates of men were reversed. Four years earlier in 1986, Natan Sharansky, the iconic Jewish human rights activist imprisoned for challenging the discriminatory practices of the Soviet Union, walked to freedom across the Glienicke Bridge between West Berlin and East Germany as part of a prisoner exchange.
Sharansky asserts in his book, Defending Identity, “In prison, I learned that without a commitment beyond yourself, the fear of death will inevitably control you.” Essentially this former refusenik survives the Gulag by not only understanding that his struggle represented something larger than himself, but also holding steadfast to his core beliefs about the liberating powers of freedom and democracy.
In today’s world advocating for these values can frequently feel like a struggle in a boxing ring. Online and in the public sphere, antisemitism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and terrorism go toe to toe with the values of justice, freedom, love, inclusion, and equality.
Mandela, who coincidentally had once been an amateur boxer, once remarked that this sport “teaches you when and how to attack and to defend. And how to pace yourself over what could be a long contest.” Thirty years after marching out of prison, his insights still pack a punch about the resolve required to elevate our society beyond the zero-sum game unfolding each day.
The experiences of Mandela, Sharansky, and even Buster Douglas, illustrate that a commitment to our higher values and relentless determination enable us to achieve long-term success that can topple corrupt regimes and even knock out seemingly invincible adversaries.
For anyone who imagines a better tomorrow, February 11th gives us hope that the long walk to freedom begins with a single, intentional step and, perhaps, even a cup of tea along the way.
Rabbi Charles E. Savenor serves as the Director of Congregational Education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.