Two of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time never got a chance to go toe-to-toe in the ring, but Reid Farrington creates a dream match-up that never was in his multimedia presentation Tyson vs. Ali. Extended at 3LD Art & Technology Center through February 2 as part of PS122’s Coil festival, Tyson vs. Ali takes place in a full-size boxing ring, with the audience sitting cater-corner on two sides. The hour-long show is timed like an actual fight, with three-minute rounds separated by sixty seconds each. Actor and playwright Dennis A. Allen II, actor Roger Casey, athlete, actor, and dancer Femi Olagoke, and professional boxer Jonathan Swain continually switch up playing either Mike Tyson or Muhammad Ali as the two champs spout off about their life and career and mow down opponents. In the early rounds, the men get in the ring two at a time and blast away at each other, mimicking the action in archival footage of Tyson and Ali, which is projected onto screens moved around by actor, producer, and Photoville cofounder Dave Shelley, who serves as referee (as well as several of Iron Mike’s trainers); video is also projected onto the two back walls. The movement is choreographed beautifully by Laura K. Nicoll, who has worked with Farrington on such previous shows as The Passion Project and A Christmas Carol, making it feel like a real boxing match, especially as the sweat flies. Although the performers may not be throwing their hardest punches, they connect with some pretty tough shots in this intensely physical performance that is sure to take its toll on them.
A longtime boxing fan, Farrington (Gin & “It”), with script writer Frank Boudreaux, does an excellent job bringing the sweet science to the stage, examining the hype surrounding the champs, delving into their backgrounds and religious beliefs, exploring why they fight, and displaying their unique styles in and out of the ring. Ali fought from 1960 to 1981, while Tyson battled from 1985 to 2005, so their careers did not overlap, although they did both fight Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, and they have a father-and-son connection as well, as Ali went up against Joe Frazier twice and Tyson knocked out his son, Marvis. (They also fought the Spinks brothers, with Ali splitting two fights with Leon and Tyson destroying younger sibling Michael.) So it’s a thrill seeing Ali duke it out with Tyson with the gloves on and off, pounding each other with both physical and vocal jabs, body shots, and uppercuts and waxing poetic in between rounds into microphones that hang from the ceiling and are set up just outside the ropes. The rounds, which follow the slowly building pace and energy of a heavyweight championship bout, have such titles as “The Body,” “Beauty and Brutality,” “Origin Myths,” “Endurance / Strategy,” and “Race/Lineage,” as Tyson and Ali pay tribute to those who came before. They also pay tribute to themselves and, in a 1990 clip from The Arsenio Hall Show, each other. “Once I’m in the ring, I’m a god. No one can beat me,” Olagoke says as Tyson. “I know I have him. He goes down. He’s out. I’m victorious. The greatest fighter that ever lived.” To which Allen as Ali responds, “The stage is set for me to be ranked the greatest of all time!” Who really is the greatest? You’re going to have to see the show to find out.