Hip-Hop 50: Why Has the Lyrical Strike from Will Smith to Mike Tyson Never Been in White?

sean malcolmAugust 7, 2023 at 1:30 pmReading: 5 min.

Mike Tyson signals Evander Holyfield’s victory over challenger Carl “The Truth” Williams in the first round on July 22, 1989 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.AP Photo/Mike Derr

Editor’s Note: In honor of hip-hop’s 50th birthday on August 11, ESPN revisited one of the culture’s main voices, who wrote about one of its favorite athletes.

“Some idiot asked me why I ran / Said: ‘A good race’s better than a bad skin any day’ / What worries my career is over to fight / But I don’t know what I felt “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” – The Fresh Prince “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” (1989)

In 1989, it was unimaginable to think that anyone in their right mind could beat Michael Gerard Tyson in any type of fight, much less a professional boxing match. However, in the confused mind of Will Smith, who was then known as hip-hop’s child prodigy ‘The Fresh Prince’, I think he might have had a fair chance against the best fighter on the planet.

Well, in theory, at least.

As one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, Smith’s insane display of arrogance was the inspiration behind “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson”, the lead single from the duo’s third album, titled, And in this corner”. ,

In the late ’80s, the Philadelphia native developed a satirical musical style thanks to songs like “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, a Grammy Award winner (the first in the new category “Best Interpretation of Rap”).

Smith’s joy and simple wordplay made the burgeoning genre palatable to a majority audience intimidated by some of the more politically direct hip-hop artists. However, in order to save money, this “safe rap” made the genre more attractive and opened the door for the cultural change that followed.

DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince at the Hotel 21 East in Chicago in 1989.Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Given that transcendental personalities of the time used to be the subject of Smith’s songs, it must have felt that Tyson, fresh off a title defense against Carl Williams that ended with a TKO 93 seconds into the first attack, The use was comic fodder.

Mentioning names was, and still is, a display of reverence and proof of your place in the spirit of the times in hip-hop. Tyson’s reign occurred during a particularly powerful cultural shift, a time when a new generation of African-American performers began to take over the film industries (Spike Lee’s masterpiece, “Do the Right Thing”, comedians three generations of stars – Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy – starring in “Harlem Nights”, Denzel Washington’s Academy Award-winning performance in “Glory”), television (debuting “The Arsenio Hall Show”), music (Prince, Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson) topping the Billboard charts) and The Game (Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson). Even of all time guys, Tyson took Corona and could decide that it was the face of this Ola.

Coming from the gritty environs of Brownsville, Brooklyn, it was totally a pop culture phenomenon.

Tyson (left) strikes Michael Spinks in a 1988 FIB title fight in Atlantic City.Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

For many of us, children of the ’80s (more specifically, a New Year’s boy from Ochoa, Flatbush, young, impressionable and richly blues from the streets of Brooklyn) who would someday write the words that you Reading now) Tyson was to us what Muhammad Ali was to our fathers and what Lewis was to their fathers. Many African American children from across the country reflected in Tyson.

The story of their origins was one of despair, poverty and hopelessness at all times and it resonated with the city center population struggling to survive during one of the most tumultuous moments of the 20th century. They faced conditions similar to those they admired, children who were on the front lines of a kind of brutal trauma that undeveloped minds would never have to see.

When I was a teenager, living in a verbally abusive household with no outlet fueled my own bubbly teenage angst.

This happened every time someone judged my calm demeanor and slightly overweight stature.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to draw comparisons with Tyson. Fighting was not just a rite of passage, but a necessity in my neighborhood. The display of strength, toughness and willingness to demolish it was worth genius points. That’s what we saw when we saw Tyson enter the ring. Yes, Marvin Hagler was maraviloso and Sugar Ray Leonard’s skills were cool, but Iron Mike was standard. That’s why we love you, especially Brooklynites.


We are a proud group in Kings County. Perhaps it is our invalid nature, born of generations of blue-blooded morality, that our old folks so clearly contrast with our vecinos paid for on the other side of the bridge.

Rightly or wrongly, we are left with our Muchachos. That’s why we encourage it. So we pray for our priests who stayed awake this afternoon and watched their fight on pay-per-view and HBO. That’s why we created Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! It was one of the best selling video games when it was released in 1987.

That’s why we swore he was unbeatable, which Smith acknowledged at the end of the song.

Sean A. Malcolm is a 21-year media industry veteran who was once editor-in-chief of King magazine and has written for Rolling Stone, The Players’ Tribune, Afropunk, Viacom and many others.

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