Iron Clad: Mike Tyson’s Place in History Part I
By Kevin Kincade from Boxing Scene
Is Mike Tyson an All-Time Great? That is, without a doubt, the $64,000 dollar question. There are those who worship the ground he walks on and those who claim he is the most overrated fighter to ever don gloves. So many of Mike’s detractors harp on how Mike failed to live up to his potential and salivate through an evil grin while pointing out Mike’s moral shortcomings. First of all, a fighter should be judged on his deeds, not the expectations placed upon him by fans and pundits. A boxer must never be placed or misplaced on what they could have done; but solely on what they did do. Secondly, we, as boxing fans and members of the human race, could debate unendingly on the personal Mike Tyson; but seeing as how none of us are without sin, let’s cast no stones and stick to what we, collectively, can debate with no personal judgment; the significance of his career and how he measures up to those that came before him.
Since a fighter is best judged alongside his competition, I've taken two of Mike's contemporaries, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, and compared their respective ring accomplishments to his for the purpose of determining who was the better champion of the three. By examining the differences and similarities between their title reigns and his, we can determine if Mike measures up to two fighters most agree are Hall of Fame Bound. If Mike's accomplishments are anywhere near theirs, then, conversely, he should also be Hall of Fame bound and, possibly, should be considered an All-Time-Great, in his own right.
Due to the detail which all of this compare/contrast demands, I've divided the article into two acts: Earning a shot at the belt and actual title reigns and a scrutinizing analysis of these three champions’ accomplishments. Perspective is one of the more important aspects when examining a boxer’s career. When looking at the stats of who beat whom and how, it is important to remember chronology; or where each fighter was in their careers at the times of certain fights. For example, one cannot fairly compare William Joppy's stoppage over Roberto Duran with Marvin Hagler's decision over “Manos de Piedras” and say Joppy was a better fighter because he beat Duran more convincingly. Such a comparison would be ludicrous.
Now, with the criteria outlined, let's start with Evander Holyfield, the man who defeated Tyson twice. Evander began his heavyweight campaign stopping a shopworn James “Quick” Tillis in five rounds in 1988; but his most significant pre-title fight came eight months later against the former WBA Heavyweight Titlist, Michael Dokes, who was 37-1-2 at the time. Evander picked up the most impressive heavyweight win of his career, up to that point, stopping Dokes in 10. Holyfield would also go on to knock Adilson Rogriguez cold in 2 rounds and hand the 24-0 (24) Alex Stewart his very first professional defeat in a war that was stopped on a cut in round 8. All in all, leading up to his first title shot, Commander 'Vander stopped two former World Champions, Dokes & Pinklon Thomas, and two contenders, Rodriguez and Stewart; not a bad resume. “The Real Deal” definitely earned his shot at the belt.
Going into the Holyfield fight, Buster Douglas was coming off the crowning achievement of his career: the shocking 10th round knock-out of the perceivedly invincible Mike Tyson; undoubtedly the biggest upset in boxing history. Other than the Tyson fight, Douglas had been a so-so fighter, with wins over Randall “Tex” Cobb, fellow fringe contender Oliver McCall, and former paper titlists Greg Page and Trevor Berbick. However, his biggest black-mark was when he quit in an IBF title bid against Tony Tucker; a fight he was winning until he ran out of gas and will to win in the 10th. Still, having beaten the unbeatable “Iron” Mike, he was given a good chance to win against Evander and eventually meet Tyson again in a multimillion dollar showdown. Guaranteed $20 million dollars for the Holyfield bout, Douglas returned to his pre-Tyson form and came in under prepared and unmotivated and promptly “quit” again, or so it seemed, after being decked by a Holyfield counter right in the third. Holyfield's first title reign did not begin without questions; questions that could only be answered by fighting one man: the previous holder of the belt.
Lennox Lewis, on the other hand, never received his title shot. Going into his title eliminator with “Razor” Ruddock, Lennox's biggest victories were over the highly touted 35-0 Gary Mason for the British Heavyweight Belt, ancient former WBA titlist Mike Weaver, and Tyrell Biggs, who had just fought impressively in a losing effort to Riddick Bowe. Lewis won all three by TKO in seven, six, and three rounds, respectively. While relatively inexperienced, the undefeated Brit seemed to be on the “do not fight” list of most ranking heavyweights at the time.
Prior to his showdown with Lewis, Ruddock's biggest claim to fame was fighting and losing to Mike Tyson twice; once by controversial 7th Round TKO and once by lopsided unanimous Decision. Ruddock's biggest wins were earlier in his career over former paper champs James “Bonecrusher” Smith and Michael Dokes. Since the back to back defeats to Mike, the “Razor” had come from behind to stop former WBA titlist Greg Page and handed the untested 25-0 Phil Jackson his first loss by 4th round stoppage.
Ruddock was the favored fighter on Halloween Night, 1992; but it made no difference. The Jamaican-Canadian tried boxing the first minute of the fight, only to begin attempting pot-shots halfway through the opening stanza. Towards the end of the round Ruddock jabbed to Lewis's body and left the punch lingering a tad too long as Lennox crashed a right hand into his jaw, which was hanging out like a lantern in the storm. Though he rose to his feet as the bell sounded, the handwriting was on the wall. Lewis dropped him twice more in the second, and earned his rightful place atop the WBC's mandatory list of challengers, only to be denied a title shot by Riddick Bowe's abdicating the WBC strap for reasons known only to Riddick and his manager Rock Newman. Together, they cheated the boxing public out of a highly anticipated showdown and helped Lewis begin his first title-reign auspiciously by being awarded the title by default rather than in the ring.
Comparatively, Mike Tyson, on the rise fought no former world champions; but did defeat fringe contenders, Jessie Ferguson, James Tillis, Marvis Frazier, and Jose Ribalta. While three of those names are recognized as journeyman of the late '80's and early '90's, in the mid 1980's, they were still in the title hunt. At the time Jessie Ferguson climbed into the ring with Tyson, he had a record of 14-1. The “Boogeyman” had beaten rising contender James “Buster” Douglas; and his sole loss was a hard-fought 10th round TKO to the highly touted Carl “The Truth” Williams in a match he probably took too soon in his career. James “Quick” Tillis was 31-8 with 7 of his losses coming against Mike Weaver in a title shot, rising contender Pinklon Thomas, who would become WBC champ, a still young Greg Page, who would become WBA champ, top ranked Tim Witherspoon, who would become both a WBC and WBA titlist, Gerrie Coetzee, who had just lost the WBA belt and top contenders, Marvis Frazier and the still undefeated Carl “The Truth” Williams.
At the time of Frazier's :30-second destruction at the hands of “Iron” Mike, Marvis was coming off wins over Tillis, Ribalta, and James “Bonecrusher” Smith, who would soon be a WBA champ; and his ONLY defeat had come at the hands of Larry Holmes in a title shot in his 11th pro fight. Jose Ribalta…..who hasn't beaten Jose Ribalta, right? Well, at the time, Jose only had 3 losses on his resume, two of which came to Marvis Frazier and James “Bonecrusher” Smith and neither of those was a stoppage.
That's not that bad of a resume. Combined, those four fighters had a record of 84-13-1, with all but 2 of those losses coming to reputable competition. What made Tyson a lock-in as a top contender was the way he beat these men. In 1985-'86 the “top” fighters were taking on each other more so than they are now and Mike was, by far, the best of the lot when he challenged Trevor Berbick for the WBC strap.
One could almost smell the fear on Berbick as he climbed through the ropes in Darth Vader-esque attire. If not, you sure as hell could after Mike chased him into the ropes in the opening stanza, rocking him with that big right, to say nothing of the knockdown early in round 2, regardless of the not-so assuring nod by Berbick after he got back to his feet. After tasting the canvas for only the third time in his career, Berbick, for whatever reason, decided to stay on the inside with Mike; a mistake that would prove fatal. Towards the end of the round, Mike landed two punches, a right-left hook combo, which didn't appear to be that hard until Berbick went down three times……from the left hook……just one punch, three knockdowns. That was impressive; and Mike Tyson became the youngest man in boxing history to hold a version of the Heavyweight Title.
When Mike knocked out Berbick for the WBC belt, the division was in a mess, much as it is today. Tim Witherspoon was the owner of the WBA Title, and Michael Spinks, the IBF title holder, was widely regarded as the real champ, based on his defeat of Larry Holmes. Not long after Tyson vanquished Trevor, “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon found himself on the canvas three times in the opening round at the unlikely hands of “Bonecrusher” Smith and Spinks found himself strapless as well, due to his refusal to face the IBF’s #1 contender, Tony “TNT” Tucker. So, Tyson, wanting to unify the title, signed to fight Smith in what many believed was going to be Foreman-Lyle all over again; but Mike Tyson has a strange effect on many of his opponents whether he knocks them out or not. For 12 of the dullest rounds anybody has ever witnessed, Tyson performed an interesting magic trick turning the Bonecrusher into the Bonehugger before our very eyes. Two down, one to go…..or was it two?
Shortly after the IBF stripped Spinks of his belt, Tucker signed to fight the #2, a fellow by the name of James “Buster” Douglas, for the right to be called “champion”, according to the International Boxing Federation. The result of the pairing was Douglas dominating 8 ½ rounds before running out of gas and quitting after a Tucker barrage in the 10th. The main event the night Tucker won his paper belt was Mike Tyson defending his two titles against the once defeated former WBC Titlist and one-time “future of the division”, Pinklon “Pinky” Thomas. Thomas was a good boxer with a stiff jab, who had an impressive resume, highlighted by a decision over Witherspoon for the title and a knock out of former WBA King, Mike Weaver, before losing over 12 to Berbick.
Tyson wouldn’t need half that time to do away with Pinky. Tyson started off fast, winning the first two rounds easily before Thomas got his jab going and began to put some distance between himself and “Kid Dynamite”. However, all of the boxing was for naught when round 6 rolled around and Mike put Thomas on the seat of his pants for the first time in his career; he didn’t get up.
Next was Tony Tucker, the new IBF belt-holder. Tony’s biggest wins besides the Douglas stoppage were a 12 Rd decision over James Broad and a 10 Rd decision over an ancient Jimmy Young. Tucker stunned Mike and the crowd in the early seconds of round 1 with a perfectly timed uppercut and proceeded to give Mike fits for the first half of the fight. Then, Tyson’s trainer, Kevin Rooney, calmed his man down into “boxing mode” and Mike easily dominated the rest of the fight on way to a unanimous 12 round decision and the first “unified” heavyweight championship since Leon Spinks upset Muhammad Ali in February of 1978……well, nearly.
Ironically, another Spinks, Michael, still had a legitimate claim to the throne. No fighter had ever taken his “belt” in the ring and many believed that was reason enough for him to be the sole heir to John L. Sullivan. Tyson-Spinks had to happen just as Ali-Frazier had to happen nearly 17 years before. However, Butch Lewis and Spinks would not enter the ring with this young phenom without proper financial compensation, so the games began. In the meantime, young Mike was hungry for fights and had some more “cleaning out” to do.
First on the list was 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist, Tyrell Biggs. At 6’ 5”, with a record of 15-0, Tyrell had beaten Quick Tillis, Renaldo Snipes, and David Bey; and reminded some of a young Ali with his dancing feet and snappy jab. Biggs took the first round; but Tyson took his heart over the next 6 stanzas, finishing his man off in Round 7.
Now, Mike was ready for the official “torch passing” ceremony as 38 year old Larry Holmes came out of retirement to challenge Mike for the belt he once held, just as Muhammad Ali had come out of retirement to challenge Larry for his gold eight years before. Larry had lost his last two to Michael Spinks, the last one under a cloud of controversy. Did he have enough left to unseat this young upstart? The jury was only out for 3 ½ rounds before the verdict came in…..NO. In round 4, Mike Tyson would drop the legendary former champ 3 times and give “The Easton Assassin” the ONLY knock-out defeat of his long career.
Next in line was former WBA Titlist, the once defeated Tony Tubbs. Tubbs’s biggest opponent since losing his title to Witherspoon a little over two years prior was Jerry “Wimpy” Halstead, a journeyman’s journeyman…that’s a compliment, by the way. Tony was a slick boxer, one of those fighters you don’t put your guy in with unless you have to. Even years after the Tyson fight, Tubbs proved to be a dangerous foe, upsetting young contenders Bruce Seldon and Alexander Zolkin and some would say he also beat a rising Riddick Bowe as well; but the judges didn’t see it that way.
In March of ’88, the setting was Tokyo, Japan, a city which would play a fateful role two years later for the “Iron One.” Tubbs looked good in the first round, slipping and sliding, juking and jabbing the young champion; but one round later, that was all forgotten. Two thirds of the way through the second round, Tyson landed his “right to the body, right uppercut to the head” combo which stunned Tubbs. Smelling blood, Mike went in for the kill and finished things seconds later with a solitary left hook which drove Tony into and down the ropes. His corner jumped in to spare him further punishment….as if he could have beaten the count any way.
After defeating six men who either held or had held the distinction of being “world titlists” and one Olympic Gold medalist, only one man remained: Michael Spinks. Before we examine the fight that would be Mike’s high-water mark, let’s look at our two other contestants during the early days of their title reigns and see how they measure up.
At the time Holy took the reigns as Undisputed Heavyweight Champion with his 3rd round stoppage of James “Busty” Douglas, a former King of the Ring was beating the publicity drums for a shot at the title he had lost to a legend nearly 17 years before. It’s a given that a young champion has the option of taking an “easy” fight for his first defense; and you can’t get a much easier opponent than a 40 something former champion who had been out of the ring for 10 years and had fought a bunch of no names, never-weres and a couple of has-beens in his comeback, right? Uh, yeah. Holyfield’s 12-round decision over George Foreman was anything but easy as the old man had come to fight. Ultimately, Evander’s speed proved to be too much for Big George; but it was far from an impressive victory for a man many saw to be the world’s most finely tuned athlete. At least he got a good pay day out of the ordeal.
Next up for Commander Vander was the fight that was to legitimize his title: a showdown with…..“Smokin’” Bert Cooper? Bert Cooper?! In all fairness to Evander, he had signed to fight Tyson until Mike ran into a little trouble in Indiana. Then he was supposed to fight Francesco Damiani, the once-defeated former WBO Champion; but he injured himself a week before the fight. Enter Bert Cooper. Cooper was as good a last minute replacement as you could find in those days, depending upon which Bert Cooper showed up, that is. In his biggest fights, Bert had quit after 2 rounds of steady pounding by George Foreman, given Ray Mercer hell while losing over 12, and been blitzed by Riddick Bowe in 2. In November of 1991 Bert was on a rare 4-fight winning streak, highlighted with victories over Loren Ross and Joe Hipp and he gladly signed to fight for the biggest prize in sports on a week’s notice.
After being knocked down in round one, Coop came back well in round two and dropped Holyfield for the first time in his career in round 3. This is a Journeyman?! Angered by the embarrassment in front of his hometown crowd, Evander turned on the jets in round four and began finding a regular home for the uppercut. By round seven, the referee had seen enough and rescued Cooper from further punishment; but the damage had already been done to Holyfield’s reputation.
The time had come for a real threatening defense that would garner respect from the boxing public and show Holyfield in his best light. So, he signed to fight the winner of the Ray Mercer-Larry Holmes showdown. Who knew? Larry completely embarrassed the technically underdeveloped Mercer, winning a 12 round decision and four years after his four-round destruction by Tyson, the now 42 year old Holmes was going to the big dance again. Needless to say, Evander didn’t exactly improve his credentials going the full twelve rounds to win a decision over a man Tyson had easily done away with in one-third that time when “The Easton Assassin” was just three years removed from his title reign.
So far, through three defenses of his championship, “The Real Deal” had beaten two old men and one journeyman, setting the stage for the first defining moment of his heavyweight championship career: undefeated “future of the division” Riddick “Big Daddy” Bowe. At the time of the clash between these two former Olympians, Bowe was as promising a prospect as the division had seen since Tyson. Having stopped a shopworn Pinklon Thomas in nine, crushed Bert Cooper in two, struggled with Tyrell Biggs before putting him away in eight, won a decision over former WBA Champ Tony Tubbs, stopped fellow prospect Bruce Seldon in one and, more recently, contender Pierre Coetzer in seven, Big Daddy appeared to be “the real deal”, so to speak.
Going into the title fight, Bowe was 6’5” at 235 Lbs while Holyfield was 6’2 ½” and 205. Even though he clearly lost the decision, the heart and determination Evander showed in the effort won over the respect of his detractors, especially during the epic tenth round. However, as valiant an effort as it was, the long and short of it was that Evander Holyfield’s first title reign ended with the first legitimate opponent he faced.
Now, for Britain’s first Heavyweight Champion in 100 years. Lennox Lewis, after shocking the world with his two-round destruction of the dangerous “Razor” Rudduck, faced off against former IBF Champion, Tony Tucker for his first defense. Since losing to Tyson six years before, Tucker took some time off before initiating a comeback. Once he began fighting regularly again in 1990, his biggest wins were two split-decision victories over perennial contenders Orlin Norris and Oliver McCall. Lewis, who had looked so promising in his win over Ruddock, once again raised questions with a lack-luster decision victory over a faded Tucker.
Lewis’ next defense was Frank Bruno’s third shot at a belt. Bruno, who had lost in title bids to Tim Witherspoon in eleven rounds in 1986 and to Tyson in five, four years prior to the all-British showdown, had recently put together a string of victories; most notably over fringe contender Pierre Coetzer and former contender Carl Williams. For 6 ½ rounds it was anybody’s bout, with Bruno seemingly in control of things, occasionally hurting Lewis in front of the Welsh crowd. Then, in round seven, just as it seemed Bruno had stunned Lewis, Lennox lashed out with a show-stopping left hook that immediately put Bruno on Queer Street. Refusing to go down, Frank slumped into the ropes and Lewis unleashed his finishing salvo as the referee jumped in to protect the defenseless muscleman.
Next up for Lewis was the 30-1 Phil Jackson and his padded record. Jackson had beaten no one of note and it showed in this fight. Still, he lasted eight rounds against the cautious Lewis. That’s the most I can say about this defense.
After beating two tough old salty dogs and one man who would have to aspire to be a journeyman, Lewis squared off against a true journeyman, Oliver “The Atomic Bull” McCall. Ollie had “earned” his shot at the WBC belt by defeating Francesco Damiani by an 8th round TKO….and possibly with his recent split decision loss to Tony Tucker. At the time, McCall was 24-5 with four of those five losses coming to respectable fighters such as Mike “The Bounty” Hunter, James “Buster” Douglas, Orlin “Night Train” Norris, and the aforementioned Tony “TNT” Tucker; but Lewis would not add his name to that list…..at least not on September 24th, 1994. It was all over before round 2 was a minute old and Oliver McCall was the new WBC Heavyweight Champion, thanks to a crushing right and an overachieving referee.
Comparatively speaking, so far, Mike is blowing both Holyfield and Lewis out of the water; but we’re not done yet. Stay tuned for part 2 as we get down to the nitty-gritty of Lewis and Holyfield’s reigns, the end of Mike’s; and how all three measure up against each other in the historical sense.