By Thomas Hauser
Boxing, more than any other sport, is dependent upon a single great athlete at any given time to enter the public consciousness.
On June 8th, Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson did battle at The Pyramid in Memphis. Each man hoped to establish his greatness. But their encounter was also viewed as a confrontation between good and evil.
There's a debate as to whether Tyson has suffered more at the hands of society than society has suffered at the hands of Tyson. However, it's clear that the bar has been set so low as a standard for his behavior that he draws praise for simply being surly and not breaking any law. Alan Hubbard of The Independent has called him "a deranged parody" and noted, "The last time anything of substance came out of Tyson's mouth, it was Evander Holyfield's ear." Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger referred to Lewis-Tyson as "a fight between a guy in a white hat and a guy in a ski mask."
In the weeks leading up to the bout, a dark cloud hovered over the Tyson camp. At times, it seemed as though people were ducking just to get out of the way of his words. Tyson's conduct decimated the pageantry that normally accompanies a heavyweight championship fight, stripped the occasion of its niceties, and reduced the event to its brutal essence; two men trying to inflict maximum physical damage upon one another.
Much of what leads up to a major fight is a dominance ritual. Purses, the color of trunks, who enters the ring first. Here, in many respects, the entire promotion deferred to Tyson's peculiarities. It was more than a matter of keeping the fighters apart to avoid a pre-fight brawl like the one that occurred at their January 22nd press conference. It was keeping Tyson away from everyone. During fight week, Showtime and HBO couldn't even get him to sit down and talk civilly with the media for ten minutes despite the fact that this was a $150,000,000 promotion.
Tyson's conduct engendered a near-unanimous rooting interest within the media
against him. But the same reasons that led many people to feel that the fight shouldn't take place made it even more compelling drama. And underlying it all was the fear that Tyson would win.
Tyson has never gone to jail as champion. Were he to do so, some posited, it would wreck havoc with boxing. Hey; if Tyson won, street crime might rise by 10 percent. One got the impression that, if he'd thought of it, Iron Mike would have gone to Graceland and masturbated on the toilet where Elvis Presley died.
By contrast, the Lewis camp hosted an elaborate buffet luncheon for the media followed by a full press-conference and light workout by the champion. And no one talked about smearing brains on the canvas or called anyone a "pussy bitch."
"My mother brought me up a good boy," said Lennox. "It was important for me to grow up and be the best that I can to make her proud. You know, when she goes to the store and people say to her, 'You've got a good son,' that kind of thing makes her feel good."
"I don't hold no hate for Mike Tyson," Lewis continued. "We're two competitors. The way I look at it, I'm going to be fighting within the rules. If he's coming in with something else, I'll deal with it. But I'll fight him within the rules of my sport because, for me, there's nothing in winning as a dirty fighter. I'm not interested in that. I'm a gentleman boxer. I fight with honor. I know there's people out there who love a train wreck. But sorry; I can't be a train wreck for them."
All of this took place in Memphis, Tennessee. But once everyone got past the issue of whether Lewis-Tyson would take place at all, there were questions regarding how many people would be there to watch it. Initially, the promotion announced that all 19,185 tickets had been sold at prices ranging from $250 to $2,400. But soon, that pronouncement took on the look of a pyramid scam.
Some folks on the inside got greedy, and it cost them. The Lewis camp engendered resentment among British fans by buying $4,000,000 worth of tickets and trying to resell them as part of expensive tour packages. Three thousand sales were expected. But the number wound up at four hundred, and suddenly modern-day Paul Reveres were shouting, "The British aren't coming! The British aren't coming!" Meanwhile, rumors began circulating that local promoters had held back several thousand tickets in the hope of scalping them.
On May 29th, the sellout fantasy-bubble burst when 3,500 newly-released tickets went on sale to the public at the Pyramid. As the fight approached, ducats were selling at discount. By noon on June 8th, $1,400 seats were available on the streets of Memphis for $500, and $900 tickets could be had for $300. The final announced paid attendance was 15,327. Almost 4,000 seats were empty. The reported live gate was $17,500,000; still a record, but well below the previously trumpeted total of $23,000,000.
Meanwhile, during fight week, things were getting dicey. Boxing in Tennessee is regulated by the Tennessee Board of Boxing and Racing, which is one of seven divisions within the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance. But Tennessee has very little experience with big fights, and both camps felt that outside help was desirable. Thus, Larry Hazzard (commissioner of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board) was brought in to deal with certain contingencies, and Eddie Cotton of New Jersey was designated as the referee.
Not everyone was comfortable with the choice of Hazzard. The last time he'd supervised a heavyweight "title" fight was in Atlantic City in 1997, when Shannon Briggs was awarded a 12-round decision over George Foreman in one of the most egregious examples of judicial indiscretion ever witnessed in boxing. Hazzard was also the final authority when Roy Jones, Jr. was disqualified for striking Montell Griffin, who was counted out by referee Tony Perez after taking a knee in their 1997 title bout. That ruling raised eyebrows because, under similar circumstances in 1994, referee Arthur Mercante had disqualified Riddick Bowe for whacking Buster Mathis, Jr., who had taken a knee, but Hazzard then overruled Mercante and declared the bout "no contest." Adding to the discontent was the fact the referee for Foreman-Briggs had been Eddie Cotton.
The Lewis camp okayed Hazzard and Cotton in part because of the longtime relationship between Hazzard and Gary Shaw. Since October 1999, Shaw had been chief operating officer for Main Events (Lewis's American promoter). Prior to that, he had worked with Hazzard. But 10 days before the fight, the Lewis camp learned that Shaw would be leaving Main Events after Lewis Tyson and intended to set up his own promotional company. One of his first fighters, it was believed, could be Mike Tyson.
Once segments of the Lewis camp lost confidence in Shaw, Larry Hazzard was viewed with greater suspicion and it was decided that Greg Sirb (chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission and former president of the Association of Boxing Commissioners) should be imported to help oversee the fight. The Tyson camp objected to Sirb's involvement because, after the Nevada State Athletic Commission denied Tyson a license, Sirb had urged other states to follow suit. But the Lewis camp threatened a walkout, and Sirb came to Memphis.
Meanwhile, things had grown uglier in the Tyson camp with the addition of Stephen Fitch and Panama Lewis. Fitch goes by the name of "Crocodile." He wears combat fatigues, shouts a lot, and is basically a motivator.
Panama Lewis is something else. Once a successful trainer, he spent time in prison and is banned from boxing for life as a consequence of having tampered with a fighter's gloves; an act that led to permanently impaired vision for the fighter's opponent.
"Panama Lewis is famous for dirty," acknowledged Zab Judah, a Tyson friend and confidante.
Some people felt that the presence of Fitch and Panama was par for the course. "When you invite the circus to town," said Lou DiBella, "you shouldn’t be surprised when wild animals and clowns appear."
But Emanuel Steward was displeased. "Crocodile is back from the swamp," he told the media two days before the fight. "And then they went to the swamp and got Panama Lewis. That's too bad because it brings things back in the direction of it being a freak show. We have a big enough problem with Mike's reputation and integrity without bringing in Panama Lewis. I don't want Panama Lewis or Crocodile anywhere near the ring on Saturday night because, when they realize that Mike is about to get knocked out, they could resort to anything."
The fighters weighed in separately on Thursday. Tyson tipped the scales at 234-1/2 pounds and Lewis at 246-1/4. There was a school of thought that the scales were five pounds heavy, but neither camp made an issue of it. However, there was another matter that the Lewis camp saw as a big issue -- drug testing.
Prior to the fight, Tyson's primary adviser Shelly Finkel and the rest of Team Tyson refused to answer questions from the media regarding drugs that Tyson might have been on during the preceding months, or was still on. Tyson's trainer Ronnie Shields said he was in the dark. And Tyson's previous trainer, Tommy Brooks, acknowledged, "When I was working with Mike, I didn't know if he was on medication or not."
However, it was known that one of the medications Tyson had been on in the past was neurontin.
Neurontin is commonly used to treat mood disorders. But it was originally developed as a anti-seizure drug and acts on the receptors along the spinal cord so that pain is not perceived as acutely as it otherwise would be. In other words, neurontin can help a fighter "fight through pain" because there is less pain to deal with.
Tennessee doesn't have its own rules on drug testing so, after much debate, it was agreed that the state would follow standards set by the Association of Boxing Commissioners. That was significant because the ABC's rules require steroid testing, and there were those in the Lewis camp who suspected that Tyson was on steroids. Thus, if Tyson won and tested positive for steroids, he could be stripped of the title, which would have had enormous financial implications vis-a-vis a rematch.
As for neurontin; the subject was addressed in conversations with Tennessee authorities and at the World Boxing Council rules meeting the day before the fight. And it was ruled that there would be no test for neurontin. However, by then, the Lewis camp had done its medical homework and determined that, in addition to deadening pain, neurontin slows reflexes. "I don't know if Tyson is on neurontin or not," said Pat English, the attorney for Main Events. "But if he is, we'll take that trade-off."
Thus, only one medical battle remained to be fought. It was important to the Lewis camp that drug testing be conducted after the fight; not before it. Emanuel Steward was insistent on that point, and he prevailed. Part of his motivation was founded on reports that, when Aaron Pryor devastated Alexis Arguello in 1982, Panama Lewis had prepared a "black bottle" for Pryor that contained a mixture of orange juice, honey, and cocaine.
As the final hours ticked away, both camps expressed confidence. Normally, Tyson wears Everlast gloves. But for this fight, Lewis had demanded Reyes (which are known as "punchers' gloves"). According to Shelly Finkel, "The first time Mike tried a pair on, his eyes lit up."
"I could kill him with these," Tyson told Finkel.
"I fought on a lot of Mike's undercards," Zab Judah added. "And most times, he wasn't that interested in the fight. He was out shopping and going places. But here, Mike is living the fight. He's sleeping it; he's talking it; he wants it bad. Mike is looking to hurt this guy."
Still, for all the talk, there was no hard evidence that Tyson had gotten himself into fighting shape. Thus, Emanuel Steward was concerned but confident.
"I haven't slept too good," Steward admitted shortly before the fight. "I'm more nervous about this fight than any fight I've ever been involved with. Mike didn't get to where he is being as small as he is without being a very good fighter. And I think that Mike will go to the top of his game and use whatever he has left in this fight. Either guy could land a big punch in the first ten or twenty seconds and this fight could be over. I worry about Tyson cold-cocking Lennox. Anybody who fights Tyson and doesn't worry about that is crazy. So, yes; there's a possibility that Lennox will get hurt in this fight, and we've discussed that. You don't beat Mike Tyson easy."
But Steward went on to say, "Everyone is holding onto the image of Mike Tyson from ten or fifteen years ago. But that Mike Tyson is gone. The natural instinctive moves are gone. To be honest with you, I don't think that Mike Tyson deserves to be fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world. There's only one thing that Tyson can do based on his skills and physical structure; just come out and attack. And when a fighter rushes you from the opening bell, you have to fight with him. But if you look at the record; big fights, tough fights, dangerous fights; that's where Lennox is at his best. Plus, to beat Mike Tyson, you have to challenge him. You have to pressure Tyson and not give him time to set his traps; make him fight when he doesn't want to fight. And Lennox is prepared to do that. Lennox Lewis has not been intimidated by Mike Tyson. Never has been; never will be. Lennox went out of his way to make this fight. You don't go out of your way to make a fight with a guy you're afraid of. Lennox has no fear at all of Mike Tyson."
Said Lewis, "The talking is done; it's time for action. Lions don't run from hyenas."
Still, there was the matter of those one-punch knockout losses to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman. Achilles had his heel, and Lennox has his chin. The prevailing view was that Tyson could afford to make a mistake and Lewis couldn't. By fight time, the Las Vegas odds in favor of the champion had dropped from 2 to 1 down to 8 to 5.
"Whatever happens," Lewis's mother said shortly before the bout, "Lennox will always be a champion to me."
The fighters were scheduled to enter the ring on fight night at 10:15 p.m. But at nine o'clock, the Pyramid was two-thirds empty and long lines of ticketholders were backed up outside at security checkpoints. That raised the fear of lawsuits by fans who had paid thousands of dollars to come to Memphis and might miss the fight. There was also concern that civil disturbances could result. But delaying the start of the action would dramatically increase the cost of satellite time; and in some areas of the world, it was possible that the satellite feed would be lost altogether. Thus, at a hurried meeting attended by the mayor, police chief, security personnel, and representatives of both camps, it was decided that the settings on the checkpoint magnatometers should be changed. "We're looking for guns, not nail files," one attendee explained later.
Walking to the ring, Tyson looked like an unhappy child. Once, Iron Mike stood for the proposition, "Don't go near that flame because you'll be badly burned." But the smouldering fires that burned within have long since been replaced by a deadness inside. Waiting for Lewis to enter the squared circle, Tyson stood passively and stared down. It was a far cry from the young Mike Tyson, who snarled and paced angrily like a tiger eager for the kill.
By contrast, Lewis entered the ring looking belligerent and defiant.
A historic beating followed. Like Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield, Lennox fought, not the myth, but the Mike Tyson he found in front of him. He kept Tyson at a distance, where he could fight and Tyson couldn't, and totally dominated him.
In round one, Lewis jabbed tentatively and let Tyson dictate the pace, tieing up the smaller man when he got inside. Then, in the second stanza, Lewis began working his uppercut and jab.
The Tyson camp had promised the Tyson of old; but instead, the world saw an old Tyson. A fighter can't disrespect his body for the better part of ten years and make it up in ten weeks. Tyson might have been in shape, but he wasn't in fighting shape. To get him into the ring, a lot of people lied to him. He showed no head movement, threw virtually no combinations, and landed an average of six punches per round. To the extent that he tried to get inside, he did so by lunging forward rather than working his way in behind a jab, slipping punches, and countering.
In round three, Lewis began landing straight right hands and Tyson started making silent compacts on the inside, allowing Lennox to tie him up. He looked very much like a man who understood that he was going to lose. By round four, Lewis was trading with abandon and Tyson was out of gas.
From that point on, Lewis beat up Tyson the way Tyson used to beat people up. In the vernacular of Memphis, he turned Tyson into "wet ribs" -- a slab of beef oozing red.
For most of round five, Tyson wasn't throwing punches anymore; just catching them. Round six was more of the same. In round seven, Lewis turned it up a notch. And in round eight, he destroyed Tyson with a roundhouse right that left him stretched out on the canvas with blood streaming from his mouth, nose, and cuts above both eyes.
All totalled, Lewis landed 191 punches (including 84 power shots) to Tyson's 49. And this was a night when the term "power" punch was more than mere nomenclature. Against Lennox, Tyson was Joe Louis knocked through the ropes by Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali taking a blow to the kidneys from Larry Holmes.
"That was one of the most thorough and systematic beatings a heavyweight champion has given to a legitimate challenger in the history of boxing," Emanuel Steward said afterward. "Lennox just played with him. If Mike had been a sparring partner in camp, we would have gotten rid of him."
The only sour note as far as Steward was concerned was the conduct of the fight by the referee, Eddie Cotton.
"I thought it was bad, and I thought it was obvious," Steward said later. "The whole night, Eddie Cotton was looking to protect Tyson and for an excuse to act against Lennox. He was a bigger threat to Lennox than Tyson ever was. It's like he was on a mission to give the title to Tyson from the opening bell. The warnings he gave Lennox early on for tieing Mike up inside were ridiculous. Then he took a point away on what should have been called a knockdown for no good reason at all. He gave Mike time to recover a bit in the eighth round when he called a knockdown that wasn't; not that it made a difference. And on the final knockdown, when Lennox took Mike out with that big right hand, it looked like Cotton was getting ready to penalize Lennox again for pushing Mike down. All that talking I did in the corner -- 'He's dangerous; don't fool around; take him out now' -- Mike wasn't dangerous. By that time, Tyson was gone. It's the referee who was dangerous. As long as Tyson was standing, I was afraid that Cotton would find a way to give him the fight. That's why I was so frantic. 'Get him out of here, please!' I was afraid Cotton would find an excuse to take another point away from Lennox and disqualify him."
"I agree with Emanuel," concurred HBO commentator Larry Merchant. "I thought that Cotton's misofficiating of the fight was blatant and brazen. What it amounted to, really, was a failed coup."
Still, Lewis-Tyson was good for boxing. The fight engendered 1,800,000 pay per-view buys, second only to Holyfield-Tyson II. The $105,000,000 pay-per view gross was a record. And more significantly, the sport now has a dominant heavyweight champion.
Whether or not Lewis will continue in that role is subject to speculation. After the bout, he told reporters, "Basically, I believe it's a good time for me to retire. I can see that, but preparing for Tyson was not the time to give it much thought. I didn't have time for saying 'what if this' or 'what if that.' I have some more thinking to do. Nothing is going to happen in the next two weeks or so which can change anything. I'm still going to be the greatest boxer in the world for a little while. I know there could be no better time for me to go, after beating the man who overshadowed me for so long without fighting real fights for ten years. But then, I also think that maybe I don't need to go just yet. There's a lot of money to be earned out there, fighting people I know I can beat. The good thing is that I'm now free to retire any time. Beating Tyson has given me that option."
Lewis is obligated by court order to defend his IBF title against Chris Byrd by December or relinquish the belt. But at this point, the belts are largely extraneous and he has other options. If Kirk Johnson beats John Ruiz for the WBA crown in July, Lewis and Johnson (both of whom grew up in Canada) could face off in a showdown north-of-the-border. Alternatively, if Wladimir Klitschko triumphs over Ray Mercer in their WBO title bout later this month, Lennox could take on the Ukrainian giant and eliminate the one fighter who is seen as a legitimate potential successor to his throne.
And then there's the possibility of Lewis-Tyson II. After the fight, Tyson conceded, "He was too big and too strong. I don't know if I could beat him if he fights like that. I'm just happy he didn't kill me." But in the next
breath, Iron Mike asked for a rematch, adding, "If the price is right, I'll fight anybody."
Then Tyson kissed Lennox's mum and wiped a smear of his own blood off of Lewis's cheek. But before one gets carried away in praising his "gracious" behavior, it should be remembered that, after Holyfield-Tyson I, Tyson lavishly praised Holyfield and all but caressed his arm, saying, "I just want to touch you." Then, in Holyfield-Tyson II, he bit off part of Evander's ear.
One can only begin to imagine what the world would have heard if Tyson had done to Lewis what Lewis did to him -- "Every time I hit him, he cried like a woman . . . I tried to push the bone of his nose into his brain . . . How dare he challenge me with his primitive skills."
Maybe now Tyson can threaten to eat Frans Botha's children.
But having said that, it should be noted that this is a dangerous time for Tyson. Prior to the fight, Tommy Brooks observed, "Mike is a cat with nine lives, and he's on eight-and-a-half."
Make that eight-and-three-quarters now.
Tyson's reign as the true heavyweight champion of the world was brutally sweet. It began in November 1986 when, at age twenty, he dismantled Trevor Berbick to win the WBC crown and ended in February 1990 when he lost to Buster Douglas. For those 39 month, he was the dominant heavyweight on the planet. It wasn't who he beat; it was how he beat them that was so impressive.
But Tyson has now been beaten, and beaten up, by three different fighters. And more damaging to his legacy; in boxing, the great ones hit back when hit. Yet when Tyson is hit, he stops fighting. So yes; Mike Tyson can still knock out a lot of heavyweights. And on a given night, he has a chance against anyone. But if Tyson keeps fighting, the toll on his body and mind will be considerable.
"I'm scared of some things Mike does," Shelly Finkel admitted recently. "I worry about him after boxing."
But that time might be near. What will Tyson do next? He could easily make $500,000 a year from personal appearances and memorabilia signings. But that's not his style and might not be enough money to satisfy him. Thus, Tommy Brooks sounds a somber note when he opines, "I think Mike wants to go back to jail. He's not pressured there. He knows what he has to do. In jail, it's 'do this' and 'do that.' No one will throw curve balls at Mike in jail; only fastballs down the middle. And in jail, he won't be taking punches. So as sad as it seems, I think, before too long, Mike will be in jail again or in the mortuary."
Meanwhile, as for Lewis; the future looks bright. The past twelve months have been kind to him. A year ago, Lennox had been deposed by Hasim Rahman; he was being demeaned as a fighter; and Rahman was refusing to give him a rematch. But then he won a court battle that forced Rahman back into the ring with him and emerged victorious on a fourth-round knockout. Now he has beaten Mike Tyson.
Lewis is an unusual man. In public, he's controlled and never let's go of his emotions. Occasionally, he reveals a bit of his thinking. "I have a rage to win," he told reporters the day after dismantling Tyson. "But for me, that should never replace the need to think deeply about what you're doing and trying to develop all your skills. Violence will always be a big part of boxing. But it has beauty too, and I like to bring that out a bit."
Lewis-Tyson was Lennox's coronaton. There were places where he would never have been regarded as number one until he beat Iron Mike. Now, for everyone, it truly feels as though Lennox Lewis is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
Where does Lewis fit into the historical rankings? That's hard to say. His standing has been diminished by knockout losses to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman and the fact that he was unable to knock Evander Holyfield down over the course of twenty-four rounds of boxing. But to his credit, Lewis defeated McCall and Rahman in rematches. And as Tyson, Rahman, George Foreman, Ray Mercer, and others have learned, Holyfield isn't so easy to put on the canvas.
Lewis has taken on all comers. He has never avoided the best available foe. He won an Olympic gold medal in 1988 and has been competing in the spotlight for fourteen years. But lest he grow too self-satisfied, Lennox should recall the thoughts of Mike Tyson, spoken less than two months ago.
"The title is like a woman," said Tyson. "It's like love. It doesn't care for anything but itself. It doesn't care who possesses it. It's always going to be loved. The title's going to be loved until the day it dies, so it doesn't care about me, about you. It's like a woman -- 'Fuck you; I'm so beautiful, I can get the next man with more money, with a better body. He has a prettier way for me to go.'"