by Tom Donelson
How does one place Mike Tyson in perspective as a fighter? There are fighters that most pundits agree on their greatness. Ali and Louis are unanimously considered great fighters, the only debate we have is who was the greater? Then there are fighters where mythology often takes precedence since their days have long past and there are very little films to observe. Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson are two fighters where myth and written accounts account for our perspective since most, if not, all of the eyewitnesses are dead. Most boxing fans in the early 20th century read about the exploits of these fighters or in the case of Dempsey, listen on radio. Imagination plays a role in their perception and those perceptions have been handed down to us in its original form. The story of Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson read more like ancient classics than a sport story.
Then there are fighters who leaves us not sure and hoping that history will unravel some of the questions. Mike Tyson is one of those fighters and Roy Jones, Jr. is another. For both men leave as many questions as answers, when discussing their greatness. For Mike Tyson, his early career was a history of destruction as he left nothing standing in his path. The height of Tyson career was his 91-second destruction of Michael Spinks, then the second best heavyweight in the world. At the age of 22, Tyson reached his high point and from there, his career unraveled in a series of off court adventures and misconduct to go along with an increase disappointing ring career that left us unfulfilled.
Even today, there are those who will argue that no one would have touched the 22 year old wunderkind that was Tyson, the Tyson whose demolition of Spinks was his Picasso. Those 91 seconds are the lasting impression of Tyson for many. Mention Tyson and the memories of those 91 seconds represent what was and what could have been.
Boxing historian and writer, Frank Lotierzo, summed up Tyson career by noting that Tyson was “the youngest to win a title and the youngest to lose a title.” There is a meteoric aspect to his career as his best work was done before he reached 25 but yet his career has lasted for nearly two decades and his professional career actually was longer than many of contemporaries such as Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis. Only Holyfield can match Tyson for longevity so his career was both meteoric and a marathon.
So how can we rate Tyson? The night that he slaughtered the hapless Spinks, Tyson was at the end of his relationship with Team Cus D’ Amato. By that time, Cus D’ Amato and Jimmy Jacobs were dead and his relation with manager Bill Cayton was frazzled. His corner man Kevin Rooney was the last link to Cus D’ Amato and after that fight, he joined Team King.
Tyson was the perfect fighter for Cus D’ Amato peek a boo system. The Peek-a-boo consisted of a fighter advancing in a low crouch with hands up. The fighter played both defense and offense simultaneously as he penetrated the opponent own defenses and this style required a sturdy chin and quick hands to go along with head movement. Floyd Patterson perfected this style but his chin and slight frame doomed him when he fought bigger fighters such as Ali and Liston. Tyson had the chin and hand speed to make it work and for his early part of his career, Tyson could equally use both hands and he could jab in his way while devastating his opponent with powerful, lightening fast hands, once on the inside. His combinations were blurs and usually his opponents were left helpless in its wake.
After Tyson left team Cus D’ Amato, the first thing to leave him was the techniques. The questions remains, would Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield have beaten the 1988 version of Tyson?
I must admit I could see Tyson beating both fighters and maybe easily but yet both fighters had advantages that could allow them to withstand the Tyson onslaught.
Holyfield was a small heavyweight in an era of giants but he had heart and a great chin. This guy traded punches with George Forman, Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis. He withstood their best shots and Bowe was the only to stop Holyfield but that was a Holyfield who was suffering from Hepatitis. So we know that Holyfield could have taken Tyson best shots. (Editor’s note: Frank Lotierzo, in conversation with people from the Foreman’s camp, was told that Tyson would not fight Foreman due to a perception that his style may not been able to handle Foreman’s strength. So Tyson realize his vulnerability.)
Holyfield was a warrior who could box and when they finally did fight, Tyson was the overwhelming favorite and Holyfield was considered a shot fighter. Holyfield’s boxing skills and heart overcame Tyson and my own gut is that Holyfield could have beaten Tyson at his peak.
Lewis is another question, only because of his suspect chin. Could Lewis have kept Tyson from getting inside with his jab and from testing his chin? In their match, Lewis survived Tyson early aggression but that Tyson was capable of only attacking for one round before Lewis took command of that fight. Lewis fought David Tua at his peak and easily beat him. Tua had a concrete chin but he did not have the same ability to move inside a taller man jabs like other swarmer such as Rocky Marciano and Joe Frazier. The young Mike Tyson was able to defeat bigger fighters the size of Lewis. So an argument could be made in favor of Tyson.
The other aspect of Lewis was that he became a better fighter as he become older and more mature. The young Lewis was not as savvy in the ring as the older Lewis whereas Lewis’ contemporaries progressed faster as fighters. My own opinion was that the 1992 Riddick Bowe could and would have beaten Lewis but that is pure conjecture. The 29-year-old Riddick Bowe was a shot fighter whereas the 29 years old Lewis was entering his prime. So in the case of Lewis, it is hard to note what was Lewis’ peak whereas we know when Tyson, Bowe and Holyfield was at their peak.
Then there is Riddick Bowe. The 1992 version of Riddick Bowe, who was trained by Eddie Futch and defeated Evander Holyfield in their first fight , could have beaten Tyson in his peak. Bowe was a similar fighter to James Douglas, only better and we know what Douglas did to Tyson. Bowe’s peak was short lived as his three wars with Holyfield along with his tendency to gain excessive weight in between fights shorten his career. It was Bowe’s lack of discipline outside the ring that doomed his career. He could have been the best fighter of his era.
Much of this is conjecture since Tyson at his best was a very brief moment, whereas his contemporaries had longer careers in their prime and of course, none of these other fighters spent a portion of their prime in jail. That is what makes comparing Tyson to others so tricky. Tyson was at his best when these others were still learning their trade or in the case of Holyfield, still a cruiserweight. The Tyson that lost to Buster Douglas was a different fighter than the one defeated Spinks. The 1990 Tyson started to lose his techniques and did not have the same fluidity of the 1988 Tyson. Even in 1990 at the age of 24, Tyson began to show signs of decline. Had Tyson not gone to jail in 1991, he would have faced a prime Holyfield that easily vanquished Tyson’s conqueror, James “Buster” Douglas. I will accept the argument that the 1988 Tyson could have beaten the 1991 Holyfield but the 1991 Tyson-Holyfield fight would have ended the same way as the 1996 Tyson-Holyfield fight.
Here is the bottom line: Mike Tyson fought and lost to both Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis decisively. Tyson was only one year older than Lewis when they fought and he was the heavy favorite over Holyfield. Tyson had an excellent career that most fighters would have died for. The man was the undisputed champion at the end of the 80’s and he did capture a portion of the title against Bruce Seldon, a decent fighter, after he left prison. He was one of the three best fighters in the post Holmes era and his early career showed the potential of greatness matching either Ali or Louis. His career did not end that way and that is what left us all disappointed. There is an air of what could have been and in the end, we have to accept that Tyson was not the best fighter of his era but he did have a career worthy of being in boxing hall of fame. Tyson will always engender controversy and his early career leaves many of us shaking our head but then reality sets in. What can easily be said was that Mike Tyson was the only fighter who could match Ali’s popularity and the public imagination. It was once written that Tyson could sell out a PPV with the local janitor. It rarely matter who Tyson was fighting, for a Tyson fight was an event in and of itself.
Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield may have beaten Tyson in the ring but they would never match his popularity. Tyson was boxing riddle for we really never know how to rate him for there was two Tyson. There was the early Tyson that rose like a meteor when he flattened Spinks and fell quickly to earth when Buster Douglas unleashed his final combination in the 10th round of their fight. Then there is the Tyson who career turned out longer that we thought possible and as his career winds down, we still talking about him.