Legacy: Judging Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
By Mike Casey
So, then, the much battered remnants of Mike Tyson are being
ruthlessly kicked down the all-time ladder by the usual suspects who like to be
first past the revisionist post. Oh dear, oh dear. Hindsight is a wonderful
thing. We all have it. It is just that some of us claim that we could see the
future all along.
What I consistently fail to understand is how the future can
reach back and change the past, unless a clever boffin like Stephen Hawking can
You rate a prime fighter on what you see and know at the time,
the only yardsticks you have. What happens thereafter is the exclusive and
privileged knowledge of the gods. We have all been guilty of rushing to
judgement and being fooled. Nat Fleischer famously heralded a ‘new era in
boxing’ after Ingemar Johansson’s bludgeoning of Floyd Patterson at Yankee
Stadium. Sonny Liston was classified as invincible by a generation of boxing
writers. George Foreman, in the wake of his Kingston slaughter of Joe Frazier,
immediately shot straight to number two on the hastily revised all-time
heavyweight list of one trade editor.
Passion can play havoc with the most sober and knowledgeable of
minds. However, we are not always entirely wrong in our initial calculations,
especially when a fighter’s circumstances change as dramatically as those of
Mike was an almost unique case in this regard, his boxing record
arguably even a greater tale of two careers than that of George Foreman. For me,
the split in Tyson’s career is so clearly defined, one can almost see the great
wedge that is driven through it. When the tenacious young tiger with the
explosive attack and shuddering punching power journeyed to Tokyo in 1990, he
never came back. More accurately, perhaps, he never went. It is a matter of
opinion whether his career ended against Buster Douglas in that surreal cauldron
or whether the clock had struck twelve before Tyson even got on the plane. In
any event, Mr Hyde was out of the box and Dr Jekyll was no more.
As we now know, Mike’s life was in terrible turmoil long before
Buster had his day and drove home the punches that sparked the inevitable
implosion of a tough man with a soft and unstable centre.
The seeds of destruction were inherent and planted long before
the failed relationships, the disastrous dalliances and the relentless chopping
and changing of managers, trainers and confidantes. Who can forget Teddy Atlas
comforting a youthful and tearful Tyson in the comparatively gentle days of
Mike’s early career? Even then, the kid with dynamite in his fists was walking a
tightrope, lurching from one end of the emotional scale to the other in a way
that clearly wasn’t the norm.
As he tore through the heavyweights on his inexorable march to
the championship, we marvelled at how he contained the demons within to produce
such cold and disciplined savagery in the ring. The lid was always going to
blow, but how far could he get and how great could he become before it did?
Before the Buster Douglas disaster, Mike Tyson was 37-0 as a
professional and had made nine successful defences of his heavyweight
championship. Was that enough to merit consideration as one of the all-time
greats of the division? In the estimation of this writer, yes it was. But in
judging Mike Tyson’s legacy, there are special conditions. There always were. It
would be nice to freeze that 37-0 ledger and ignore everything that followed.
Tyson would stack up very favourably against the majority of his predecessors.
That, however, we cannot do.
I don’t believe that Mike ever truly wanted to fight again after
the nightmare of Tokyo. His love of the game had gone, as had the sorely needed
father figure and mentor he had in Cus D’Amato. Piece by piece, Tyson’s hunger
and desire drained away, along with the best and most protective team he ever
had in D’Amato, Bill Cayton Jim Jacobs and Kevin Rooney.
Just as Brian Wilson forgot how to write great melodies for
twenty years, so Mike Tyson forgot how to be a man apart.
However, a fighter who is no longer interested is not necessarily
a fighter who is over the hill. Tyson was still young after that first,
shattering defeat. He still had his strength, his punch and his heart. However
much of a man-child he might have been, he also had a mind of his own. With a
good deal more thought, determination and commitment, he could have avoided so
much of the ensuing damage to his life and his fistic reputation. The fact that
he failed to do so is the one damning indictment that prevents him joining the
true elite of heavyweight champions.
Certain fights and certain performances are indelibly burned into
our minds, as much for their significance as their quality and magnitude. Then
there are the special few that are genuinely seminal. I got seriously interested
in boxing around eight years of age, when I watched Cassius Clay’s shocking
victory over Sonny Liston with my father. But it was twenty-one months later, in
November 1966, that I saw what I still regard as the most technically perfect
exhibition of box-fighting in my lifetime.
Clay had not only become Muhammad Ali by then. He had also
matured into a sublime boxer and an outstanding champion who was picking off his
challengers like petals from a tree. He cut down Cleveland ‘Big Cat’ Williams at
the Houston Astrodome with a breathtaking blend of skill, speed, timing and
Williams simply couldn’t hit the fleeting athlete that skated
around him, changed direction constantly and rifled him to defeat with
wonderfully hard and accurate bursts of combination punching. When it was all
over, Ali had somehow made a slaughter appear balletic. Williams’ manager, Hugh
Benbow, said of his man’s destroyer, “He’s the real McCoy. He’s a real champion.
Let’s not kid ourselves any longer.”
It wasn’t poor Cleveland’s night. Still shell-shocked, he was
clunked on the noggin by an overhead microphone.
Such performances, of course, are very rare. They make you catch
your breath and send your heart soaring. You instinctively know that you have
seen the bar raised.
Three other heavyweights have thrilled me in similar fashion, for
performances of terrific impact that scaled the highest level: Joe Frazier,
George Foreman and Mike Tyson. Frazier’s victory over Ali in the famous Fight of
the Century was a heroic mix of courage, willpower, tenacity and ceaseless
punching. One half expected Joe to quite literally catch fire on that March
night in 1971. His gargantuan effort drained him of the ability and desire to
ever reach that peak again.
Foreman’s destruction of Frazier was shocking as a spectacle, but
marred by the obvious fact that Joe was in nowhere near his best physical shape.
Much more shattering to me was Big George’s almost contemptuous annihilation of
Ken Norton in Caracas. Norton was battered, pushed, shoved and smashed to the
deck as if he were a middleweight. Foreman would subsequently prove beyond
question that he possessed crushing power and an equal ability to take his own
Then came the long wait for Tyson, the next heavyweight to truly
fire my soul. Much like Foreman, Iron Mike would have the audience gasping for
air even before the thunder sounded and the lightning streaked the sky. How many
can truthfully say that they didn’t rate this kid after his brutally efficient
dispatch of Trevor Berbick? In the immediate aftermath of such a stunning
display, when conclusive evidence has yet to be gathered, we can only make snap
judgements. My post-fight verdict was that Tyson was one of the most ruthless
finishers I had seen, plain and simple. He was fast with his hands, he punched
viciously from long and short range with a good repertoire of shots, and his
killer instinct was on a par with the greatest of the ring’s natural destroyers.
My father, a former boxer and a very calm and conservative judge
of fighters, has always maintained that Jack Dempsey is the greatest of the
heavyweights. After watching Tyson dismantle Berbick and Pinklon Thomas, dad
said to me one day, “This Tyson kid could be the one to equal Dempsey or pass
him for sheer ferocity and the suddenness of his attack.”
Tyson’s initial impact was that significant, and I believe even
now that he could have continued to improve his technique and add to his range
of tools if he had stayed on the right track. Cus D’Amato taught Mike well and
he taught him thoroughly. For all his offensive weapons, Tyson was also an able
defensive fighter when he was still listening to good advice. D’Amato, in
typically meticulous fashion, schooled his eager young student in every area of
the game. Cus stressed the importance of movement and the art of hitting without
getting hit. He taught Mike all about body punching and the most susceptible
areas. He coached Tyson on hitting to the heart, the liver, the kidney area, the
abdomen, the floating rib and the solar plexus.
Right to the end of his career, Mike never lost the ability to
hit an opponent anywhere it hurts. But the man who could have been so much
greater forgot so much else.
Was Mike Tyson a bully? Did he lack true heart when confronted by
those who didn’t fear him? These are questions that continue to be asked of Iron
Mike and they bring us back to his dual personality.
Firstly, I cannot recall a single occasion, save for the last few
miserable and meaningless bouts of his career, when Tyson stopped hitting back
or quit in the true sense of the word. On all but one famous occasion, he went
out on his shield. He didn’t quit on his stool or loll about on his back in a
laughable impression of a man being knocked out.
He didn’t back down in prison when the inevitable procession of
toughs were lining up to test his mettle. Why would he quit against any one man
in the ring?
Quite simply, Tyson lost his self-discipline. He went back to
being an alley cat that couldn’t cope with the rules and restraints of the ring.
Most of his problems stemmed from the fragile mind that housed a ferocious
temper. Out of respect to Cus D’Amato, the young Tyson concealed and contained
his rage, as well as curbing his desire to taste the forbidden fruit on the dark
side of the street. When Cus died and the A-Team gradually disintegrated, the
devil in Mike could come out and play.
Against Buster Douglas, Tyson fought courageously and to the very
last drop of his reserves, even though he was badly trained and mentally
shredded. He scored a knockdown as he teetered on the precipice of destruction.
He tried to replace his mouthpiece and stagger to his feet when he probably
didn’t have a clue as to whether he was in Tokyo or Las Vegas. His courage was
intact but everything else that made him special had been let out of the bottle.
No longer was he the quick, elusive, weaving attacker. His head
movement had gone, as had the clever feinting and jinking of his upper body.
Rarely would we see those vital components again, yet Tyson continued to be a
major player with what little he had left. When he was stopped in the eleventh
round of his first meeting with Evander Holyfield, Mike’s critics argued that
the bully on the block had got his come-uppance. To that, I would only say that
any fighter with an attacking, dominating style is going to come across as a
bully and quite probably is. But as we all discovered when we were children,
there are many bullies who don’t obligingly run away when you give them a bloody
nose. Holyfield waged one of the great tactical battles against Tyson, following
an intelligent game plan with all the self-discipline that Mike no longer
possessed. Tyson was quite visibly rattled and irritated, but he didn’t flee or
hand the referee a sick note between rounds.
Mike’s inner anger reached its zenith, of course, when he snacked
on Holyfield’s ear in their return match and got disqualified in the third
round. Terrible as that act was, I believe it was blind rage on Tyson’s part
rather than a cynical ploy to extricate himself from a losing fight.
Even though there would be more fights to come, Mike must have
known then that the game was up and that he had squandered his great gifts. I
think he wanted to be almost anywhere but in a prize ring, but how could he stop
fighting? He couldn’t manage his life, he couldn’t manage his money and he
couldn’t make friends with the right people. He had toppled into the familiar
The Kid Stays
In The Picture
How, then, do we judge Mike Tyson’s all-time standing as a
fighter? Nearly twenty years after the greatest days he had, that question still
provokes extreme responses.
So many times, when checking out people’s opinions on fantasy
fights, I see the phrase, “Tyson would have walked through so-and-so.” But great
fighters don’t walk through fellow greats, not unless they get lucky or have the
night of their lives.
During his career as an unbeaten destroyer, Tyson was ‘walking
through’ men of lesser ability and natural talent. That is not to decry the
level of Mike’s opposition, which has become the vogue of late. From prospect to
champion, every great heavyweight is protected as much as the uniquely tough
sport of boxing will permit. Why squat too hard on a golden egg and crush it?
Any outstanding talent fortunate enough to have a great trainer
and manager is matched prudently against competent fighters who will improve his
education without doing him too much harm. The superfights against dangerous
opponents thereafter are calculated gambles that every great champion must
eventually face. However, a shrewd manager will do everything he can to keep
such taxing struggles to a minimum. Some challengers will be soft touches.
Others will be conveniently over the hill. It’s business. It makes sense.
Besides which, we do tend to miss the obvious fact that an
exceptional talent is exceptional because he is meant to be so much better than
his contemporaries. Many of his fights will be easy. Some will be mismatches.
Rare indeed is the occasion when he will clash with an opponent of similar style
and similarly abundant gifts. That is why we hunger for fantasy fights. We want
to know if Joe Louis could beat Jack Dempsey, because Louis never faced a man of
Dempsey’s calibre and vice-versa.
I rate Mike Tyson as the ninth greatest heavyweight in history,
which some might consider a little generous and others a little mean. But I
stand by that assessment, since it is based on what I consider to be a necessary
amalgam of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Whatever Mike’s state of mind, whatever his
degree of motivation, his weaknesses and failures as a fighter during the latter
part of his career cannot be airbrushed out of the picture. We can ignore the
last bouts of his sad decay, when his shell was being pummelled by every Johnny
looking to make a name for himself. We can also draw a compassionate veil over
the pitiful exit against Lennox Lewis. But Mike’s infamous fights with Holyfield
cannot be discounted, nor can other reckless performances in which he seemed to
forget every lesson he had ever learned. In those critical bouts, Tyson
displayed mental and technical flaws that would have been mercilessly exploited
by the eight men I rate above him.
Tyson loved Jack Dempsey and is so often compared to the Manassa
Mauler. There are similarities to be sure, as I have already touched upon. But
to simply lump them together as identical peas in a pod really does betray a
quite shocking ignorance on the part of those who profess to know their boxing.
Dempsey’s weaving attack was infinitely more versatile and
imaginative than Tyson’s. Jack circled, feinted, even retreated when
circumstances demanded. He constantly varied his angle of attack, depending on
the size and capability of his adversary. He protected himself well too. Gene
Tunney stated that he was unable to get a clean shot at Jack’s jaw over two
fights and twenty rounds. Gene quite accurately described Dempsey as an
extremely clever fusion of fighter and boxer. Opponents often commented on how
hard it was to nail Jack square on the chin. Dempsey’s short range punching was
also superior. All these years later, he continues to top that category, by some
distance from Joe Louis. When Dempsey was close to the end of the trail, he
knocked out Jack Sharkey with one of the shortest left hooks you will ever see.
That classic shot was fired from a distance that afforded Jack precious little
Let us remember too that Tyson was not always consistent in his
bobbing and weaving. Even in his early days, as can be seen against Berbick and
Pinklon Thomas, Mike would often be standing more or less straight up when he
moved into range, such was his confidence that he could decimate whoever stood
before him. His defence was sound, but he didn’t possess Dempsey’s clever
elusiveness. Although a devastating short range puncher, the arc of Tyson’s
punches was sometimes quite wide, but he countered that with his great hand
speed and shocking power. Mike could throw any punch too. His left hooks, right
crosses and uppercuts were debilitating blows. He could hook as well with his
right hand as he could with his left and he could bring a powerful, slamming jab
into play when he chose to.
What surprised me about Mike was that he did so little
in-fighting, being mainly content to maul and bull his man around. Dempsey,
Rocky Marciano and Jim Jeffries were vicious in-fighters, working the body
constantly with tremendous digs to the vulnerable points.
My instinct just tells me that Jack, Rocky and Jeff, whose mental
strength and fortitude matched their physical gifts, would have found Tyson out
and hustled him into blowing a fuse. The incredible Jeffries might just have
been the man to achieve that objective most effectively. Phenomenally strong and
durable, Jeffries was a 220lb bear of a man whose strength, stamina and
durability were arguably unmatched in heavyweight annals. He was a crushing
puncher and one of the greatest distance fighters.
When Jeff defeated Sailor Tom Sharkey over 25 torrid rounds at
Coney Island in 1899, the ring was a furnace. Quite apart from being a mild
November day, the two battlers were toiling beneath 400 arc lamps in what marked
the first use of motion pictures under artificial lights.
Jeffries, a faster mover and puncher than he was ever given
credit for, was unflinching as he pursued Sharkey all the way. In later life,
Sailor Tom would offer the opinion that Jeffries would have beaten Louis and
I believe that Tyson would have grown tired and dispirited from
simply hitting Jeff and getting no great return for his troubles. Jeffries, in
the meantime, would have been slamming Mike to the body and jaw from his famous
Joe Louis, rarely a quick starter, would have endured some very
uncomfortable moments against a charging Tyson. Mike would surely have tried for
the quick knockout over Joe, possibly forcing the Brown Bomber to take a count.
But Louis could take his shots and possessed great fighting courage. Sooner or
later, I fancy, Joe’s unparalleled precision punching would have begun to
Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, two of the most cunning chess
players and ring generals the game has ever seen, would have been quick to spot
and exploit Mike’s mental demons. Jack and Muhammad had the skill and the
all-round smarts to torment Tyson, smother his initial rushes, tie him up at
close range and quite probably burn his ears with some psychological chat in the
clinches. Ali admitted as much some years ago, when he said, “I would have
fought Tyson like I did George Foreman, getting him exhausted and then opening
up with my best shots.”
And what of the mighty Foreman in his glorious prime going
head-to-head with Tyson? Now that would have been some fight! Possibly, Mike
would take George by surprise with a sudden death attack, perhaps even floor
him. But could Tyson keep Foreman on the canvas? Very unlikely. Big George had a
granite chin and only took the ten count against Ali through sheer exhaustion.
Clever as Mike was at getting close to his man, he would have had to contend
with Foreman’s booming uppercuts and superior strength.
Whereas Dempsey would probably be more circumspect against a
bigger man like George, circling and feinting, picking the right moments to
attack and possibly looking to drag Foreman into the deep water of the later
rounds, Tyson would likely gamble on a slugging match through sheer pride or
loss of temper and be out-gunned.
There is one man among my top eight all-time heavyweights whom I
believe Tyson could have vanquished: Joe Frazier. But Mike would have needed to
be at his absolute best to do so, maximising his advantages in speed, strength
and power of punch to force a middle or late rounds stoppage. I certainly don’t
share the belief of many that the prime-time Joe would have been quickly crushed
Frazier was one of the most courageous, tenacious and persistent
fighters that ever graced the stage. His will to win was equal or superior to
anyone that came before or after him. He drove himself to the very limit of his
endurance in his epic victory over Ali, with a non-stop punching performance
that continues to fire the blood whenever we see the film. Joe weighed a trim
208lbs that night at Madison Square Garden and never attained that perfect
Sadly, Frazier’s subsequent career followed a similar if quieter
pattern to that of Tyson. Having claimed one of the greatest scalps of all, Joe
could see no more mountains to climb. He eased up on his training, his weight
crept up and he paid a savage price for sorely underrating Foreman.
Nevertheless, I have to give Joe the edge over Mike in my
all-time perspective, if only because of the historical importance of the Ali
trilogy. Frazier beat the nearest version of the prime Muhammad ( a notch on the
belt that any heavyweight champion would have cherished) and so nearly
overwhelmed Ali in their life-and-death struggle in Manila.
Mike Tyson was a magnificently bright star that lit up a dull and
uninteresting sky. At his short-lived peak, he was a terrific fighter and a
barnstorming champion. But he was a man who could not tame his rampaging
alter-ego, and that is the one great knock against him.
Dr Jekyll, I feel, might just have been as great a fighter as he
wanted to be. Alas, he became addicted to the wrong formula and Mr Hyde did him
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