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30th June 2020
By: Noah Abrahams
The greatest of all time or an over-hyped undisputed world champion? Today’s birthday boy Iron Mike Tyson divided opinion in his prime and continues to do so as rumors suggest that he’ll step out of retirement.
Best remembered for conquering heavyweight boxing aged just 20, ‘The Baddest Man on The Planet’ was so much more than just a couple of losses to Evander Holyfield.
Turning 54 amidst a return to the ring, Tyson has been a global superstar for almost all of his adult life. Primarily a boxer, the American’s celebrity proved more dangerous than any pet tiger or any knockout.
Famous for his love of birds, a frequently mocked passion proved the catalyst as Kid Dynamite threw his first punch. Retaliating to the theft of his pet pigeon as a child, the same force later contributed to a legendary victory over Frank Bruno.
A fascinating character, Tyson’s story was the perfect fairy-tale and one craved by boxing fans. From poverty, crime, and violence to stardom, money, and power, Iron Mike was a regular on the front pages as well as the back.
Interviewed by Graham Bensinger in 2011, Tyson explained that a life of crime was the only option following his childhood move to New York’s rougher suburbs.
“I stopped going to school and I started crime. With no education, you are taught crime. I was a big wimp, but when backed up I had courage. Being a boxer was the last thing on my mind,” he said.
In juvenile detention at 13-years-old, Tyson was introduced to Cus D’Amato, “a cold-blooded disciplinarian” in the eyes of a prodigy who some believe (including the likes of Anthony Joshua) could have stopped Muhammad Ali had they competed in the same era.
“D’Amato was a crazy guy. He started planning out my whole career and life,” Tyson told Bensinger.
“The plan was to win local tournaments, national tournaments, the Olympic trials and then the heavyweight title as the youngest champion of the world.”
Winning gold at the 1981 and 1982 Junior Olympic Games, a terrifying amateur turned professional. A pipe dream transforming into a reality, Tyson relied heavily on D’Amato – a father figure who not only trained, managed, and cared for Iron Mike, but who eventually adopted him.
Using untraditional methods, the legendary cornerman encouraged a ‘peek-a-boo’ style of boxing. Tyson would put feelings aside and protect his face at all costs. The former champion even revealed that D’Amato had used hypnotic training methods.
“Cus used to have me professionally hypnotized two or three times a day – before sparring, before training, and before fights,” Tyson told US television host Joe Rogan.
In March 1985 the hard work had paid off. Beating Hector Mercedes by a first-round technical knockout on his professional debut, Iron Mike would go 19 fights and five years unbeaten before tasting defeat.
“I’m the best ever. My style is impetuous, my defense impregnable,” he said.
Just eight months after Tyson’s burst onto the professional scene, however, D’Amato passed away. Speaking with BBC Sport’s Mike Costello, Iron Mike explained the effect that Floyd Patterson’s and José Torres’ trainer had on him.
“Cus had an extraordinary impact on my life. He made me aware of qualities that I didn’t have before, qualities that helped me accomplish,” Tyson said.
“I don’t know what he saw in me, but he saw it. He was so happy when I won, he was like a little child calling all of his friends. He’d light up like a lightbulb.
“Cus was a father figure to me. We dealt with life as a father and son.”
In need of a trainer following his idol’s death, Tyson was mentored by fellow Catskill Boxing Club member and D’Amato prodigy Kevin Rooney. Coming to blows with Rooney, who supposedly put a gun to Kid Dynamites’ head further down the line, the two initially won the World Heavyweight Championship together in 1986.
On Team Tyson’s 28th bout, the WBC Heavyweight Champion Trevor Berbick was stunned by technical knockout in the second round of a historic evening in Las Vegas. Iron Mike aged 20 years and four months old was crowned the youngest heavyweight champion in history. The Telegraph’s late boxing reporter Donald Saunders said:
“The noble and manly art of boxing can at least cease worrying about its immediate future, now that it has discovered a heavyweight champion fit to stand alongside Dempsey, Tunney, Louis, Marciano, and Ali.”
Daily Express boxing writer Niall Hickman shared exclusively with Boxing Guru his opinion on the notorious knockout artist:
“By no stretch of the imagination was Mike Tyson the greatest of all time. Whilst you can only beat what’s in front of you, I don’t think he would have stood a chance against Ali.”
Defending the WBC belt with the WBA and IBF titles following suit, the late 1980s, and early 1990s was prime time Tyson. An estimated net worth of over $300 million, boxing in some respects took a back seat for its most famous name.
A decade that saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall and almost that of Tony Tucker, “The Ultimate” was perhaps the most enjoyable bout of the 1980s. The 31st Iron Mike clash may have been the best. One of the last under the guidance of Rooney, ‘TNT’ Tucker possessed the IBF belt, Tyson the WBA and WBC titles.
For the 1988 Unified Heavyweight Championship of the World, Tucker proved the aggressor early on and won the first three rounds. Tyson responded and found his rhythm through rounds four to seven. The final third of the bout resulted in Tucker taunting Tyson. Winning, though, on a unanimous decision, Tyson became the first Undisputed Heavyweight Champion since Leon Spinks ten years earlier.
Flying high as the 90s rolled in, Tyson dropped Rooney at the insistence of legendary promoter Don King. Widely considered as a pivotal mistake, late manager Jim Jacobs would have turned in his grave.
The first Iron Mike loss can be compared to Ali’s Ken Norton defeat 13 years prior. Beating Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks, no-one expected Tyson to taste defeat as he put his belts on the line against James ‘Buster’ Douglas in Tokyo.
Whilst Tyson hadn’t knocked out a Henry Cooper or Sonny Liston prior to his first loss, he had beaten Frank Bruno and even a man who Ali simply couldn’t. Billed as ‘Heavyweight History’, one can make comparisons to Joshua vs Klitschko as Tyson destroyed an out-of-touch Larry Holmes in 1988.
Dropping ‘The Easton Assassin’ on three occasions during round four of their bout in Atlantic City, Tyson’s outcome was to be completely different against Douglas in 1990. The tiger-keeping multi-millionaire who referred to money as “paper blood” made ‘Buster’ a fortune. The Mirage Casino in Las Vegas presenting Douglas as a 42-to-1 underdog, the bout that was presumed as a warmup for Evander Holyfield resulted in a controversial upset of the ages.
“It was a bad day at the office. I wasn’t training properly, but I knocked ‘Buster’ Douglas out in the eighth round. It was a 13-second count,” Tyson said.
Tyson’s protest, backed by King, was ultimately unsuccessful. The previously unbeaten champion was knocked out for the first time in his career. A slugfest, the defeat was so unexpected that Team Tyson supposedly failed to prepare ice packs. Iron Mikes’ swollen and almost closed-up eye was treated with a tap water-filled latex glove.
American boxing journalist Larry Merchant famously once said:
“If Mike Tyson, who loves pigeons, was looking for a pigeon in this bout, he hadn’t found one.”
The tenth-round stoppage was brutal. Douglas used his 12-inch reach to perfection. Whilst knocked down by Tyson’s sheer power and a right uppercut in the eighth round, ‘Buster’ fought back and withstood attacks from his fellow countryman in the ninth, the champion all but finished as he relied on the ropes entering the 10th round.
Snapping Tyson’s head upwards with a huge uppercut in the final three minutes, ‘Buster’ followed on with a rapid four-punch combination to the head, ‘The Baddest Man On The Planet’ falling to his knees and struggling to pick up his mouthpiece lying on the mat next to him.
A new world heavyweight champion was crowned.
Failing to protect his thrown, Douglas immediately lost his titles. Defeated by Holyfield just eight months post his famous triumph, there was only one person to take on the newly appointed champion, ‘The Real Deal.’
Before convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison, Tyson had twice defeated the number two-ranked heavyweight, Donovan “Razor” Ruddock in 1991. Hungry to return to the top, a promise of a blockbuster fight with Holyfield was on the cards.
The beginning of a new era for the sport little did Tyson fans know that they would have to wait six years before their star man would eventually re-gain his belts. Let alone challenge ‘The Warrier.’
Several supporters shifted their interests to the likes of Lennox Lewis and Bruno as Iron Mike served three years between 1992 and 1995.
“I was a simple guy in prison. I wasn’t a big shot. I was institutionalized and comfortable in prison. I had no stress,” Tyson told American television channel HLN.
As with Ali, Kid Dynamite was prevented from competing as he found himself on the wrong side of the law. As with Ali, Tyson was victorious on his return debut.
In a bout coined ‘He’s Back,’ Tyson in peak physical condition thumped Peter McNeeley. An overwhelming financial success, even if not a Rocky-Esque return, ‘Hurricane’ was beaten in 89 seconds.
Streaming the fight live were 1.52 million American homeowners. It’s fair to say that the majority wanted Tyson to destroy McNeeley. That’s exactly what he did. The underdog’s corner stepping in after a hounding from an athlete fresh out of prison, referee Mills Lane had no option but to disqualify McNeeley.
Back to winning ways but never truly the same after his time spent behind bars in Indiana, the pugilist visited in prison by Tupac was restored by the WBA, WBC, and IBF boards as the number one-ranked heavyweight. Steamrolling a previously undefeated Buster Mathis Jr in the third round of the second Tyson comeback, it wasn’t long before the New-Yorker wanted a bigger and more prominent name: ‘True Brit Bruno.’
The second Bruno bout was held at Maddison Square Garden on 16th March 1996. Following Tyson’s triumph via a fifth-round knockout in 1989, British boxing fans would have been left even more disappointed as an arguably worse-for-wear Kid Dynamite dropped the Londoner seven years later. Dodging a Bruno jab, the American punished the Englishman, Lane, the man in the middle, concluding the fight after a brutal Tyson stoppage in round three.
Perhaps the last notable victory for Iron Mike, a famous loss followed just eight months after. Billed as ‘Finally’, it was the fight that the world had waited for. On 9th November 1996, two warriors went to war in Las Vegas. Tyson the WBA Heavyweight Champion, Holyfield the challenger.
First acquainted years earlier while preparing for the 1984 Olympics, the reunion was far from friendly. A battle shelved as Tyson paid for his crimes, Holyfield’s hunger had increased. Whilst not ‘The Bite Fight’, it wasn’t far off for entertainment value.
An 11-round thriller, Holyfield matched Ali and won the Heavyweight Championship for the third time. Utilizing his strength, ‘The Real Deal’ won by technical knockout as he forced a second-best Tyson onto the ropes and offloaded his ammunition. The new top dog, Holyfield was accused of headbutting his opponent. The late, legendary referee Mitch Halpern felt as though proceedings were fair and that the match-up needed to be halted. Halpern later said of Tyson: “The man was out.”
Face tattoo aside, Iron Mike is best remembered for taking a chunk out of Holyfield’s ear on 28th June 1997. Officiating the re-match, Lane deducted two points for the first bite and disqualified Tyson for the second. An iconic evening, the challenger had lost the first three rounds and decided to take the law into his own hands. Avulsing a one-inch piece of cartilage from the top of the right ear, Tyson later explained to Oprah Winfrey why he snapped:
“I was angry that Holyfield kept butting my head. He did it in the first fight and he did it again. I was enraged and it’s not an excuse for what happened, but I wanted to inflict so much pain. I was pissed off that he was such a great fighter too,” he said.
The bout and the respect of the boxing world were subsequently hindered for ‘The Tiger King’ when, after a medical stoppage, Tyson scarred the left ear of Holyfield just minutes later. Several boxing experts predict that the bite occurred so that knockout humiliation could be avoided for Tyson. A costly move, the Nevada State Athletic Commission revoked the then 37-year-old’s boxing license and fined him $3 million. A drop in the ocean when considering the $180 million that the fight made.
Bouncing back was a common theme for Iron Mike. He did so again when his license to box was re-instated in October ‘98. Knocking out Frans Botha in his last victory of the century, the new Millennium proved disastrous for the Boxing Hall of Fame inductee. As with Ali, he lost three out of his last four professional bouts. Beaten by Lennox Lewis in Memphis, Danny Williams in Louisville and Kevin McBride in Washington, journalist Niall Hickman exclusively told Boxing Guru that:
“Tyson was never the same again after the Holyfield loss. The aura had gone.”
Rumour has it that the never-ending career of Mike Tyson will continue in 2020. Hanging up his gloves in 2005, a permanent retirement now seems unlikely. An exhibition seems promising at the end of this year. Although no opponent has been announced, Dillian Whyte fears the worst for the New Yorker:
“We’ve already got enough darkness and enough mud thrown on the sport as it is, we don’t need anymore,” he said.
The Body Snatcher added: “You can think you’ve got it and you’re still this and that and you’re going against these young guys. We’ve seen it happen time and time again with older guys coming back and fighting for a long time. It’s just like, what’s the point?”
Tyson Fury has revealed that he was offered $10 million by ESPN to fight Iron Mike. He explained that it’s a ‘lose-lose’ scenario:
“You’re damned if you take the fight and you’re damned if you don’t. I’m sure Mike Tyson is still sharp and so if he hits me with a few shots, people will say that a 55-year-old man beat me up. If I walloped Mike in the first round, then I’m a bully.”
Whatever the future holds for Tyson, his past will always be reflected on as one of excitement, controversy, and drama. Whether double dating with Madonna, starring in The Hangover or featuring in The Simpsons, Iron Mike is one of a kind and a true boxing legend!
Happy Birthday, Champ!