By Paul Upham: November 22 marks the fifteenth anniversary of Mike Tyson becoming the youngest man to win the heavyweight title, when he defeated Trevor Berbick for the WBC belt in 1986 by second round knockout. Fifteen years is a long time by any definition and even though Tyson will fight on in 2002 at the age of 36 years, regardless of what he may or may not accomplish in the future, does Tyson deserve to be considered one of the greats in heavyweight history?
My esteemed colleague Patrick Kehoe will have you believe that Tyson’s accomplishments are just a figment of imagination, when really, the facts plainly show that “Iron Mike” is among the 10 top heavyweights of all time. When analysing Tyson’s career and accomplishments, we must separate his achievements from inside the ring to his controversies, scandals and jail sentences outside of the ring.
Surviving the tough streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn was a feat in itself for a youth who saw so much trouble and family despair, spending his early years in juvenile detention. Through Bobby Stewart and then legendary trainer Cus D’Amato, Tyson was given the opportunity to pursue a dream with the help of D’Amato’s assistant Kevin Rooney and managers Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs.
Overcoming the death of D’Amato, Tyson went on to fulfil the prophecy that the old trainer had predicated, and become heavyweight champion of the world.
For a 20-year-old to rise so quickly and defeat Trevor Berbick, a solid professional only 20 months after his debut was incredible in its own right. But when you factor in the buzz that Tyson created with his devastating knockouts, he was one of the main reasons for the sport to experience a significant rise in profile in mainstream media.
Tyson was 27-0 (24) going into his fight with Berbick and had beaten name opponents Jesse Ferguson, James Tillis, Mitch Green, Marvis Frazier and Jose Ribalta along the way.
“Iron Mike” would go on to defeat James “Bonecrusher” Smith for the WBA title, defend the WBC/WBA titles against former title holder Pinklon Thomas, before winning the IBF title from Tony Tucker and becoming the undisputed champion of the world in August 1987, at the age of 21.
After the reign of Muhammad Ali in the 1970s, the heavyweight division had descended into organised chaos in the early 1980s and even thought Larry Holmes was the standout champion of that era, there were numerous boxers calling themselves world champion and swapping the WBC, WBA and IBF belts.
People will try to dilute Tyson’s achievements by claiming that his opponents were of poor standard, but the fact remains that Tyson was the only man who was able to unify the belts at that time and if his opposition was so sub-standard, why wasn’t anyone else able to do it before his arrival?
Tyson knocked out the former long-reigning champion Larry Holmes, stopped Tyrell Biggs who was the man who beat him for a place on the 1984 USA Olympic team and broadened his international appeal with a knockout win over another former champion Tony Tubbs in Tokyo, Japan.
During the time that Tyson was unifying the three major belts, many people were still calling Michael Spinks the rightful linear heavyweight champion with good reason after his two defeats of Larry Holmes in 1985 and 1986. Spinks had been stripped of his IBF title for electing to face Gerry Cooney instead of No.1 contender Tony Tucker. When he finally faced Tyson in June 1988, many believed that Spinks would be the first man to defeat the hard-hitting champion.
In a fight titled, “Once and For All”, Tyson destroyed Spinks in only 91 seconds in what was arguably the finest performance of his career to stamp himself as the dominant boxer of that era.
However, Tyson’s personal problems began to intensify with the death of co-manager Jim Jacobs, the dismissals of trainer Kevin Rooney and Bill Cayton and his short marriage to actress Robin Givens. Tyson joined forces with Don King and even though he recorded wins over Frank Bruno and Carl Williams, Tyson was not at his best and finally lost his crown in February 1990 to James “Buster” Douglas.
Tyson’s critics had a field day with his loss to a man who was an average heavyweight putting in the best performance of his life to win the title. Full credit to Douglas who was totally focused on the fight while Tyson was experiencing the complete opposite end of the spectrum, where chaos ruled.
Tyson may have lost but any heavyweight in history would have been hard pressed to handle the pressure that the 23 year-old was under and, just as Lennox Lewis did with Hasim Rahman this year, Tyson underestimated his opponent and paid the ultimate price.
Just as we do not penalise a come-backing Joe Louis who lost to Ezzard Charles and Muhammad Ali who lost to Leon Spinks in our final estimations of them as true heavyweight greats, Tyson’s loss to Douglas should not discredit what he achieved in becoming the undisputed champion of the world.
Tyson’s shot at new undisputed champion Evander Holyfield in 1991 was cancelled after his trial and imprisonment for rape. Locked up for over three years, Tyson returned to the ring in 1995 and won the WBC title from champion Frank Bruno in March 1996. Although Bruno is not remembered as a great champion, Tyson’s achievement of coming back and winning the title after such a long time out of the ring imprisoned was a commendable effort.
The low point of Tyson’s life and boxing career was the biting of Evander Holyfield’s ear in their June 1997 rematch. He was suspended for one year and fined $3 million and although his name and reputation were forever tarnished, it does not mean that he should not be remembered as a great.
Tyson is a boxing enigma, with critics clamouring to denigrate his every action. Although many fans have expressed outrage at his behaviour inside and outside the ring, he is still a compelling attraction and love him or hate him, Tyson is still the biggest name in the sport.
When assessing Tyson’s standing in the sport, fans will always remember the way in which he forever disgraced himself for what he did to Evander Holyfield and he will carry this with him for the rest of his life.
The ugly act committed by Tyson has seen many people attempt to erase the memories of his earlier achievements. However it is impossible to ignore the fact that during his peak from 1986-1989, Tyson defeated every quality opponent in the division, was the undisputed champion of the world and one of the all-time heavyweight greats.
Read Patrick Kehoe on why Tyson failed to archive greatness. Click here for his story >>
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