By Patrick Kehoe: There's a long standing consensus in US boxing circles that soon after Brooklyn, New York's Mike Tyson lost to Henry Tillman at the 1984 US Olympic trials something special was born. Staking and slaying his way through the heavyweight contender ranks the 218lbs fury established himself as a force in the making with 17 straight knockout wins. And when the young Tyson hit opponents he hurt them, in fact he rocked their world!
A unified world title and international acclaim followed but, by his 23rd year Tyson had landed on his butt, grovelling for his mouthpiece in a ring in Tokyo, his right eye ballooning, bludgeoned from his myth-in-the-making monstrosity by a 60-1 underdog appropriately nicknamed ‘Buster,’ James Douglas. What all good Tyson fanatics fail to remember or simply deny is that though Tyson showed himself capable of greatness in just 91 seconds against linear heavyweight champion Michael Spinks June 27, 1988, he was from there on in a shell of himself.
Can a fighter be considered on par with Johnson, Dempsey, Tunney, Louis, Ali, Holmes, Holyfield and Lewis having been ground down by the age of 23? Surely, that strains credulity at the very least. The near sociopathic behavior that lead to his rape conviction and numerous altercations with the justice system, including another jail term in the mid-1990s did in all likelihood stay his professional execution. Tyson has, in effect, lasted into this millennium due to having been restrained from his own destructive tendencies for long periods of time and barred from the ring. Larry Holmes' prediction of Tyson self-destructing unfortunately became truth and legacy.
For even when he re-annexed boxing legitimacy, by bowling over Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon, his claim at anything like top all time heavyweight status took a hiding when a though-to-be-shot Evander Holyfield dismantled the newest, baddest Mike Tyson in 1996. The blueprint of Douglas' 1990 winning effort found a perfect interpreter in Commander Evander, who established his own legendary status in heavyweight boxing by proving that Tyson was a talent wasted, a pressurizing slugger who's best days were but a brief shining moment in the late 1980s. It was Holyfield who proved that his professional dedication and religiously based work ethic was the true inheritor of Ali's mythic thrown. Tyson had succumbed to his propensity for randomness, self-indulgent vacuity and eroding fundamental professional principles.
Sadly, what Tyson became was the martyr to his own compulsions and an unchecked paranoia to everyone around him. Still, the residual effect of Tyson's early wins and short- circuited supremacy has made indelible the notion of Tyson's eternal return. The myth of Tyson's prime being only one great performance or excellent training camp away has remained and abiding notion for this generations of boxing fans.
The inevitable comparison to Joe Frazier - the preceding generation's short, all or nothing bomber - falls short for one main reason. Yes, their reigns were similarly short and intense - but at the summit of his powers Frazier confronted the talent laden reprieved figure of Muhammad Ali, hot to regain his omnipotence. Frazier carried his body into the war zone of Ali's best on March 8, 1971 and managed to inflict a victorious beating, even in absorbing a career defining one. Near the peek of his ring talents, the 23-year-old Tyson was out boxed, out gamed and out gutted by a man on a mission, indeed, but a career contender level fighter of mere mortal fistic gifts. Having endured that and heading into the fight with Holyfield six years later, with pundits concerned with Holyfield's health, it was Tyson who was savaged in 10 and one half rounds.
Thus, if an exclamation point had to be added to the mitigation of the myth of Tyson's greatness it was provided one year later. The Bite of the Century as it is now un-fondly remembered - the 1997 rematch against Holyfield - proved that Tyson was simply not able to mentally withstand the cauldron of top level heavyweight boxing when facing a fighter who wouldn’t collapse in fear. As Holyfield proved with his unyielding spirit and Don Turner conjured skill set, Tyson was menace and melt, fury and fabrication all rolled into one, the brilliance blighted by the true test that greatness must pass in order to remain pristine and genuine. All else in sport and in life is projection and promise.
To make the argument that Mike Tyson was an all time great heavyweight you, essentially, have to declare the Tyson from 1986 till 1989 the proof of that assertion. And the justification seems to be almost worthy, but what of quality of performance over time or the measure of defeating the twin monsters of loss and uncertainty itself? When faced with those foes in the guise of Douglas and Holyfield, Tyson crashed and burned. And that reminds us that statistics are better as quantification than qualification, because we still only note three losses on the Tyson record. “The guy’s only lost three times, give me a break!" You can hear the cries of the Tyson faithful to this day.
But 1988 and Michael Spinks was a very, very long time ago - 13 years and counting.
Tyson, the fighter of rousing promise and prognosticated legend, in fact, became the biggest pay-per-view mega-star the ring has ever seen. There is no reasonable argument to be made against his economic status in boxing. The ability to knock people out cold will do that, remember the failed celebrity marriage, consider his tabloid bad boy/ gangster rap image, gold teeth promising to eat Lewis' children and you have a made for TV horror show with boxing gloves.
And let's be fair, understand the moralizing world has taken aim at his head and soul, his youth was also never a proper foundation on which to build an exemplary life nor was he lucky to find compensating love in friendships or partnerships, until it seems now. But the dye has been cast; he has admitted the scars have taken root and every day is a struggle to survive himself, his personal history and the implosion he seems to see awaiting him around almost any tomorrow.
We only make the summary judgement here that Mr. Tyson was something unique and almost exceptional in a boxing ring, but not outstanding enough, not for a sufficient period of time necessary to be considered one of the top heavyweights of all time. But it feels like he should have made it to that level and the contention advocated here that he didn't does not diminish that sense of something left unproven, unrealized. Perhaps, it's that loss of proof, the fact the promise of his youthful providence was misspent or a necessary illusion continues to tantalize us, love him or hate him.
Now the former undisputed champion seems to be defined more substantially by his losses than the fervent nature of his victories. But he knows better than we do how cruel boxing history can be because he's lived it and become part of it. He also knows too well the inhumane forces of living on the cusp of unreasonable expectation.
Perhaps it's OK to admit he's been amazingly compelling if not what once we thought he would be. Besides, he's dominated the imaginative elements of his time, as he has captured the headlines of this period in boxing. He acted out more compellingly the role of a legend - anti-hero as victim - than most who have bettered his accomplishments in the ring. It's just that he didn't win the fights he was supposed to win, when the full bloom of his powers was within his awesome command.
And it's easier now to wish him well by wishing him peace.
Contributing Editor Patrick Kehoe can be reached at pkehoesprint.ca
Read Paul Upham on why Mike Tyson is one of the all-time heavyweight greats. Click here for the story >>
Have your say on the great Tyson debate. boxingeditorialboxingeditorialsecondsout.com