"Iron" Mike Tyson - His Place in History

By Murali Para

25.09 - In the mid 1980s, the heavyweight division was still hurting from the retirement of Ali, and when the devastating, explosive, Mike Tyson burst on to the scene and notched up a 19-fight streak of KOs, he filled a void - much like Clay, Marciano and Louis before him. After only 20 months and 27 fights in the pro ranks, Tyson challenged Trevor Berbick in 1986 for the WBC title; he destroyed him inside 2 rounds to become the youngest heavyweight champion ever. Subsequently, he went on to unify the title with one-sided decision victories over 'Bonecrusher' Smith and unbeaten Tony Tucker. Further impressive KO wins followed over former champ Larry Holmes and the linear heavyweight champ of the day, Michael Spinks.

A small fighter of 5'10 or 5'11, Tyson bore comparison to Frazier, Marciano and especially Dempsey in terms of his demeanour and his style. But while these fighters were limited technically, Tyson was the complete fighting machine. Well instructed in the Cus d'Amato art of boxing by Kevin Rooney and d'Amato himself, Tyson had a masterful 'peek-a-boo' defense and a lethal combination of speed and power. He made himself small and hard to hit, fighting as he did out of a crouch. Notably, his combinations were as fast as a lightweight's, and his power comparable to that of Foreman or Liston. Tyson was also very adept at manoeuvring himself inside an opponent's jab with his quick footwork, his lateral movement and his bobbing head.

Tyson's period of absolute dominance was 1986-1988, culminating in his 91-second KO of Spinks. Admittedly, Spinks was a light-heavyweight rather than a natural heavyweight, but still he failed to land a single right hand out of the 9 he threw, as Tyson disposed of him ruthlessly. Generally, it is typical of smaller heavyweights like Frazier, Marciano and Dempsey to have short, blazing careers and Tyson is no exception to this trend. His style did not lend itself to a long reign like that of Ali or Holmes, especially in view of the complications in his personal life. Nevertheless, before Tyson was convicted for rape, his record stood at a fine 41-1 (36); he made 9 successful defences of his WBC title, and his only loss was to "Buster" Douglas, in a contest Tyson fought on antidepressants.

The major issue here is quality of opponents. Many will argue - not without some justification - that Tyson's opponents from 1985 to 1991 were almost all second-rate. Certainly, Tyson's resume at this point fails to include a fighter of the calibre of Holyfield, Bowe or Lewis. Even so, in all but 1 instance, the manner of Tyson's victories was very convincing; Tyson lost very few rounds and often fought well within himself. In his wins over Thomas and unbeaten Tucker, he proved that he could box skilfully as well as pack dynamite in either fist. And on the few occasions when Tyson did get caught with shots, he displayed a granite chin and tremendous heart.

Henry Cooper commented in the build-up to the Lewis-Tyson super-fight that prison took Tyson's best years, and there is certainly some truth in that assertion. Great things were expected of the Mike Tyson who emerged from the Indiana Youth Centre in 1995, and many still spoke of him as being comparable in stature, at least potentially, to Ali and Louis. Unfortunately, after his 3-year hiatus, his physical and mental conditioning was greatly impaired. And he was not prepared to take on all-comers as he did in former years. On the contrary, his first 2 opponents were the low-tier McNeeley and Mathis Jnr., while step-aside money was paid to Lennox Lewis, in order for Lewis-Tyson not to take place in the mid-'90s.

In terms of his boxing skills, Tyson was now without the dexterity, the timing and the balance of his heyday. He lunged with hooks and uppercuts that were often way off target and, partly to compensate for this, he relied even more on the 'intimidation' factor in his contests. We only have to think of Bruce Seldon hitting the canvas from a punch that was never actually thrown - or a terrified Frank Bruno putting up no resistance against a ring-rusty Tyson. Almost all the critics, though, expected Tyson to triumph in style over Evander Holyfield. They were, of course, mistaken.

Even so, Tyson performed far better in the 1st Holyfield fight than in his recent defeat to Lewis. He was competitive and managed to sting Holyfield with some good shots, especially hooks and uppercuts in the 5th round. In my mind, the Tyson of '86 or '88 would have followed up at that point with his trademark, lightning-fast combinations and gone on to eke out a points win or force a late stoppage, in spite of Holyfield's battling qualities. For me, Holyfield's repeated use of head-butts - from round 6 of the 1st fight onwards - taints his wins over Tyson somewhat, although he was the better man overall. And of course, there is no place in boxing for Tyson's retaliation in the rematch.

The most recent phase of Tyson's career is by far the least significant, involving as it does blatant foul play, and the further erosion of Tyson's once-formidable skills. Against Botha, Norris and Savarese, Tyson's conduct in the ring left much to be desired, as he broke rules by attempting to break an opponent's arm and by punching after the bell on more than one occasion. Tyson really has become more of a puncher now than a boxer. This is partly due to his ongoing problems with a mood disorder; he takes prescription drugs on and off - sometimes tapering them off for fights, other times staying on them in spite of sedation and weight gain. If not for financial reasons, the Tyson who was demolished by Lewis should probably have called it a day.

Ultimately, Mike Tyson will be remembered as a fighter with sublime gifts who never fulfilled his true potential. He was hindered in his career by many unfortunate events in his personal life as well, admittedly, as some definite character flaws in his make-up. In hypothetical match-ups, I very much believe the Tyson of '86 or '88 would start as the favourite against Holyfield and Lewis at their respective peaks. His elusiveness, speed and power, and focus and stamina made him a superb all-round fighter. I feel that in terms of what he has actually managed to achieve inside the ring, he still merits a place in the 2nd half of the list of the top 10 heavyweights of all time, below his contemporaries, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield.


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