Offside, 17 June
Don't hit Tyson when he's down: 'Iron' Mike was once a truly terrifying fighter.
A mighty giant has fallen. A sporting legend that once sent opponents quivering towards defeat even before the contest had begun has collapsed. And yet, said legend is still the subject of bizarre fascination.
But that’s enough about Manchester United. Last Saturday night, Mike Tyson stumbled to ignominious defeat against a handpicked bum in another attempt to revive his career and keep the taxman at bay for a bit longer. Tyson was candid. ‘I feel like Rip Van Winkle’, he said the day after the fight. ‘My career has been over since 1990.’
Some seem to have forgotten the storm caused by ‘Iron’ Mike when he burst on to the boxing scene in 1985. He had his first professional fight in March that year, and by December he had fought 16 times, winning every one by knockout – mostly in the first round.
By the end of 1986 he was the youngest heavyweight champion ever, beating the experienced Trevor Berbick in two rounds. That fight ended with Berbick staggering around the ring, apparently conscious but with no capacity for meaningful communication between his brain and legs.
Within months, Tyson had unified the three major heavyweight titles. The high point of his career was his 1988 fight against Michael Spinks. Spinks, a former title holder and regarded by some as still the legitimate champion, lasted 91 seconds. And the most striking thing was that Spinks was absolutely terrified of Tyson.
Tyson’s problem was that he came to be seen as the saving grace of the heavyweight division, which had been deadly dull since the days of Ali, Foreman and Frazier (with all due respect to long-standing champion, Larry Holmes). The circus that surrounded Tyson, the death of his mentor Cus D’Amato and his brief marriage to actress Robin Givens triggered a rapid decline from glory.
In February 1990, a bored and under-trained Tyson was beaten by the unheralded ‘Buster’ Douglas in Tokyo in what was supposed to be little more than an exhibition bout. In 1992, Tyson was convicted of rape and spent three years in prison. Upon his release, he won back the title by beating Frank Bruno (again) but lost to Evander Holyfield (when he infamously bit a chunk out of Holyfield’s ear) and Lennox Lewis.
Yet Saturday’s fight, and Tyson’s apparent decision to retire, brought a wave of revisionist commentary. ‘The truth is…Tyson the fighter was of remarkably weak character, a champion bully, a champion quitter, and in the words of his former trainer, Teddy Atlas, “a coward”’, said Steve Simmons of the Winnipeg Sun, a sentiment echoed by many others.
In truth, at his best Tyson was up there with the all-time greats. As Owen Slot notes in The Times (London), ‘I still believe that the Tyson of the late Eighties bears comparison to almost anyone. He did have phenomenal skills to justify the reputation; he had that intense ferocity, awesome power and also a defence mechanism that made him extremely hard to hit.’ Truly stellar boxers like Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis or Jack Johnson would probably have beaten him; but Tyson against Liston or Foreman would have been a real ding-dong.
Tyson was the unbridled embodiment of everything professional boxing is really about: the vicarious enjoyment of one man imposing his will on another, through sheer bloody violence.
This meant that Tyson was completely out of kilter with a politically correct world in which being aggressive and male became the definition of evil. Admittedly, his tendency to express anger outside of the constraints of polite society did much to encourage this image. ‘I want to rip out his heart and feed it to him’, he said of Lennox Lewis. ‘I want to kill people. I want to rip their stomachs out and eat their children.’
Tyson became the one black man, and the one Muslim, that anybody could say what they liked about without fear of criticism. The argument boiled down to this: ‘If you want to see how men really are, particularly black men, just look at Mike Tyson.’ There is something deeply screwed up about a society that accepts a troubled man from New York, who made his living beating people up for sport, as a guide to the true nature of humanity.
For Tyson’s critics, doing anything ‘like a man’ would be an insult. But I’m glad to say that Tyson took his defeat that way. ‘I just don’t have the guts for it anymore’, he said. ‘I don’t want to disgrace the sport. This is a great sport. It can take men from humble beginnings and have them rub shoulders with royalty.’
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