This is the first in a series of blog posts on those who will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., on Sunday.
Mike Tyson wasn’t a showman, television analyst Al Bernstein pointed out. He walked into the ring with a plain white towel over his shoulders, no robe. He wore a menacing glare but showed no personality whatsoever. He never acknowledged the fans.
Then the opening bell rang and you couldn’t look away. The riveting violence he wrought in his prime rivaled that of any fighter in the history of the sport.
The fans held their breath when he ruled the sport in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, waiting for the inevitable moment when one of his Tyson’s mighty fists would relieve his opponent of his senses and notch yet another knockout on his sterling record.
Rarely were they disappointed. If you missed a Tyson fight, you didn’t ask, “Did he win?” You asked, “Which round?”
The peak years didn’t last long for Tyson, who will be entering the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., on Sunday. He became the youngest ever to win the heavyweight title when he KO’d Trevor Berbick in 1986 at 20 and lost it to Buster Douglas in 1990 when he was still 23.
However, that brief period now is a precious chapter in boxing lore, an unforgettable string of one spectacular knockout after the other that captured the attention of the world and hasn’t even been approached since in the sport’s glamor division.
And, of course, the Tyson story didn’t end with the stunning loss to Douglas. Not long afterward he spun out of control and into prison for rape, after which he returned a bitter, often-disgusting man who became a villain even as he regained the championship.
Then, in the third act of what Bernstein called a “three-act play,” he has evolved in retirement into a somewhat sympathetic figure who expresses regret for his behavior.
“I think it’s interesting that a lot of people, almost a generation now, doesn’t know him as a snarling, difficult guy. They see him as a Hulk Hogan-like figure. They might’ve heard that that was part of his past but they really don’t know. They’re not really hip to the whole story.
“Was he a phenomenon? The whole thing was a whirlwind, that’s for sure.”
Bernstein was the color commentator for ESPN for a number of Tyson’s early fights and then never called another until his final two fights, in 2004 and 2005.
Tyson had been an outstanding amateur and seemed to have the tools – quick hands, good combinations, creativity in the ring — to become a good heavyweight but no one could’ve seen what was to come.
That was the case even though he stopped each of his first 19 opponents, 12 in the first round.
“Everyone knew he was an exciting young heavyweight,” Bernstein said. “The problem is that you never know. Everyone is conditioned to think that you can’t tell if young heavyweights are good until they face somebody who punches back and isn’t afraid of them and has skills. During that time, he didn’t face anybody of that description. I can name 30 guys who looked like killers in their first 30 fights and didn’t pan out.
“… Once [Tyson] got to end of the run of fights we had him on, we knew there was a chance he’d be a very good heavyweight. And obviously he was.”
When Tyson turned 20, on June 30, 1986, he was 23-0 (with 21 knockouts) and already had victories over such capable heavyweights as Jesse Ferguson, James Tillis and Mitch Green. Victories over Marvis Frazier and Jose Ribalta would soon follow, which led to his historic title shot.
By this time, Tyson had become the talk of the sports world as word spread around the globe knockout by knockout.
Tyson put Berbick down twice. The second time, he got up, fell, got up, and fell again for good, a perfect illustration of the destructive punching power of the young champion. And this was only the start. He successfully defended his belt nine times – and added two more along the way – against the best in in the division over the next three years.
That run might be Tyson’s version of Joe Louis’ “Bum of the Month Club,” given the limited number of talented heavyweights, but no one seemed to care. They wanted knockouts and Tyson provided them.
That included a 91-second KO of then-unbeaten but terrified Michael Spinks in 1988, perhaps the very peak of Tyson’s career. He seemed invincible.
“Tyson was like Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, fighters who were anywhere from relentless to reckless, willing to take the highest risks to impose themselves on their opponents,” said TV analyst Larry Merchant, who worked many of Tyson’s fights for HBO.
“People found that dramatic. No one complained about waiting weeks or months for a Tyson fight then watching it on TV and having it end violently and early. It was the same with all the great power punchers in prize fighting.
“I don’t think people wanted to see someone stretched out on the canvas with his leg twitching. An emotional element of boxing is the possibility that anything can happen. With Tyson, it was, ‘What are we going to see happen tonight?’
“People forget that he created such a standard that when he didn’t take the guy out, there was a lot of disappointment. That’s why he was must-see TV.”
The drama for which Tyson became a household name was nothing compared to the drama of Feb. 11, 1990 in Tokyo, when Douglas, a 42-1 underdog, did the unthinkable by stopping Tyson in 10 rounds – one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
Tyson, as well as the perception of him, would never be the same.
The now-former champion was arrested in 1991 on charges he raped 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington and was convicted the follow year, after which he spent three years in prison.
Upon his release, in 1995, he resumed his string of knockouts and regained one of the heavyweight belts when he stopped Frank Bruno in three rounds in 1996. And he was as intimidating as ever. No one who saw it will forget Bruno crossing himself repeatedly as he entered the ring, apparently begging God not to let him die.
However, this wasn’t the Tyson of Act 1. Tyson the fighter would defend his belt once and then lose it by knockout to Evander Holyfield. Tyson the person overshadowed what he did in the ring, the profoundly ugly side him revealing itself time and again.
The ear-biting incident in the rematch with Holyfield. The leg-biting incident with Lennox Lewis at a press conference. The endless stream of disgusting, profanity-laced comments. Example (to a female reporter): "I normally don't do interviews with women unless I fornicate with them. So you shouldn't talk anymore … Unless you want to, you know." A number of altercations with a variety of people outside boxing.
And that doesn’t include a long list of personal problems – martial, financial, familial — that have come to define him.
Thus, few shed tears when Tyson lost the tools that made him a Hall of Famer and was beaten up by Lewis, Danny Williams and Kevin McBride (his last fight) between 2002 and 2005.
Still, even with faded skills and a litany of misdeeds, Tyson commanded attention. He does to this day.
“Tyson scared a lot of polite society, I’ll put it that way,” Merchant said. “He was convicted of rape. That’s a very serious thing. He bit guys ears off inside the ring. That’s serious. He was an anti-social, almost psychotic figure who didn’t seem to have any control over himself. … His predecessors – Dempsey, Marciano, Frazier – had predatory styles but they seemed to be in control outside the ring. They didn’t have complete control; no one does. But they weren’t antisocial.
“His kind of recklessness didn’t seem to be controllable. There’s something mesmerizing about that.”
If we can forget the Tyson who Merchant just described for a moment, if we can hone in on the young, relatively polite Tyson who knocked out one unfortunate opponent after another, we see something special.
The young Tyson – before all the craziness – was a precious gift to anyone who appreciates the raw appeal of boxing. “Iron Mike” was the ultimate fighter, the baddest man on the planet, a gladiator who ripped an opponent’s head off with such speed and ferocity that you were left in awe.
In short, how many athletes leave us as breathless as Tyson did when he was at his best? A precious few. The sport desperately needs another Tyson, minus the dark side.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Merchant said. “I’ve often said that boxing needs a Tiger Woods or a heavyweight Oscar De La Hoya. I think that more than ever now because in the past, when there was no dynamic heavyweight, we had other fighters we connected to like Leonard, Duran, Hagler and Hearns in the ‘80s.
“So, yes, we need a figure that the little old lady from Des Moines knows about … even if she might never turn on the TV to see him.”