Reviewing Mike Tyson’s Fights

While growing up, I had a fascination with the phenomenon that was Mike Tyson, but access to footage of his fights was a rare thing in the pre-internet, pre-streaming video days.  Tyson’s career was largely locked behind expensive HBO pay-per-view events.

Years later though, the fights have been rebroadcast and can be found online with relative ease.  As such, I decided to watch every single one of Tyson’s 58 fights between 1985 and 2005.

The first few went quickly and largely seemed to exist to establish some sort of record for Tyson.  Keep in mind that Tyson didn’t come out of nowhere though, as he’d been a top amateur fighter who missed out on the 1984 Olympics… he’d lost twice to Henry Tillman, a man he would not fight as a professional for another five years.

Every single one of Tyson’s fight #s 1-10 ended in either a knockout or a TKO.  Most ended in the first round and only one made it to round 4.  Throughout those first fights, Tyson was typically knocking guys out who he’d recently knocked down.  So, Mike would get the knockdown, the ref would check the guy and allow the fight to continue.  Then Mike would almost immediately down the guy again for the KO.  A couple of those KOs happened in less than 40 seconds.  By fight #10 you can really see in the videos how hard Tyson’s ‘normal’ punches were

In fact, it was not uncommon for an announcer to mention seeing a flaw in Tyson insofar as his matches were too short.  And that was ultimately, perhaps, an issue but we’ll see that it was also maybe an overblown critique.

The ‘classic’ Tyson look, with black shorts and shoes was still to be established.  He frequently fought in white shorts during most of those early fights, only deviating to a dark blue in fight #10 and then returning to white in fight #11.

An observation that blew my mind was how there was a run going on with Mike’s first 30 or so fights in 1985-1986 (before he got his first belt) where he was basically fighting every 3-4 weeks.  A few in there where he literally fought a week or two after a fight.

Perhaps the single most important event in this early period of Tyson’s career happened in the middle of the two weeks (!) between fight #11 and fight #12, seven or so months into Mike’s pro career.  Cus d’Amato, the genius trainer who had essentially found Tyson and, while acting as a quasi-father figure, made his career, was dead.  You wouldn’t have otherwise known that Tyson had such a massive distraction going on outside of the ring.  Tyson kept rattling off a run of first round wins in the early-to-mid teens with only fight #13 against Conroy Nelson making its way (barely) into the second round.  The management void that d’Amato left would be a thread to keep an eye on though, as Tyson continued his rapid career progression.

Mike in the black trunks for fight #14 against Sammy Scaff, an otherwise unremarkable fight that lasted all of 89 seconds.  Note that Scaff looked hilariously like an easy target… a big chubby white guy who might have been more at home on a fighter’s security team.

Things started to really get interesting around fight #20 and fight #21 where Tyson suddenly went 10 rounds with two guys in a row.  In those fights, the bouts with James Tillis and Mitch Green went the distance and resulted in unanimous decisions in favor of Tyson.

With fight #22, a second fight in a row at Madison Square Garden, this time against Reggie Gross, it was back to domination with a first round TKO.  Another run of KO or TKO wins for Tyson followed, with the next seven fights ending in that fashion.

Fight #25, when Tyson beat Joe Frazier’s son Marvis in 30 seconds, felt particularly notable.  Marvis Frazier actually thought that HE was the guy whose career was on the move up but he gave a dazed quote to the contrary after losing. “Tyson was just another guy who was going to be a statistic. Yeah, that’s what I thought. I threw a jab and that’s all I remember.”  Either he was being revisionist – Marvis’s career peaked three years earlier in 1983 with a loss to Larry Holmes – or really was that naïve.

In that run of seven fights, fight #26 easily went the longest at 10 rounds.  That was against José Ribalta on a big HBO special.

If one really wanted to pinpoint where the magic started to happen though, it just might be fight #28, when Tyson won the WBC title off of Trevor Berbick.  This fight had all of the buildup, with the pre-fight presentation putting a big focus on the Tyson-Cus story and this being the culmination of the dream as Tyson took his shot to be the youngest heavyweight champ ever.

After the match, the announcers went over the title unification plan.  HBO’s Heavyweight Unification Series was an 8 fight ‘tournament’ that was conducted over a period that ended up being 18 months.  In my opinion, that is pretty darned awesome.

James Smith had the WBA title and Tyson won that in a 12 round unanimous decision for fight #29 (again, who said that Mike couldn’t go the distance?).  Tyson then had to defend both titles two months later against Pinklon Thomas in fight #30 and he did so with a TKO six rounds into the fight.

Fight #31 with Tony Tucker was special, as it too went 12 rounds and ended in a unanimous decision for Tyson.  That win gave Tyson the IBF heavyweight title.  Tyson probably won most of the rounds but it was still a great fight.

Funny enough, when Tyson fought again eight weeks later in Fight #32 he was deemed ‘vulnerable.’  In that fight, Tyrell Biggs was going to take him down in a giant 15 rounder but that match only made it to the seventh round before Tyson won in a TKO.  At was during this match that I noticed how there was constant talk of Tyson actually being 5’10” when he was always billed at 5’11 1/2″

The Michael Spinks showdown in fight #35 felt like an epic match, although it had been teased for so long by this point that it was perhaps overdue in a not-positive way.  Tyson won The Ring heavyweight title, essentially complicating the unification series, doing so in dramatic fashion with a first round knockout of Spinks.

Frank Bruno actually lasted a bit longer with Tyson, going into the fifth round in fight #36 before Tyson scored a TKO.  Then it was back to a quick first round TKO in fight #37, when Tyson dropped Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams in just over 90 seconds with a brutal punch.

And then it was on to Buster Douglas in the infamous fight #38.  Tyson’s first loss and the loss of his titles.

As notorious as this match has become, the reality of it was much more interesting than the legend.  A key point being that I’d forgotten about the long count controversy.  That was a HUGE talker at the time.  Don King sued to have the match thrown out, etc.  turned on buster (who he was also promoting)

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tyson would later admit that the night before the fight, he held a rager of a party in his hotel room in Tokyo.  He hosted 12-16 hookers while snorting cocaine and drinking.

Vegas sports books had no odds on the fight.  So, basically few bet it due to Buster being such a longshot.

Tyson later said that one could trace all of his troubles (professional, financial) to Don King entering the picture.  Don King had also replaced Tyson’s longtime trainers over the prior two years and the guys in his corner were some buds from back home who didn’t know what they were doing; they forgot a key icing tool that would have easily taken care of Mike’s eyebrow damage in round 8.

Right from the first round, both myself and the announcers were sort of shocked with how fast and in-shape Buster was in the ring.  Tyson wasn’t ineffective though.  As the eighth round was winding down, Tyson hit Douglas with a right punch that was brutal, vintage Tyson.  The referee would later admit that he started his count two counts late and somehow Douglas being down for 14 seconds was only given a 9 count.  In fact, the referee seemed to know that he’d screwed up as the bell rang to end the round… but the fight went on.

The next round was brutal for both men and in the tenth round Tyson went down.

Had Tyson taken the win with Buster counted out, it would have eventually set up an Evander Holyfield showdown.  Obviously, Tyson fought Evander 5 years later and lost twice but that was after the whole prison thing for Tyson for a few years and Tyson wasn’t the same guy anymore.  Boxing fans never got the prime showdown between the two.

Tyson had a solid rebound from Douglas when he fought Henry Tillman in fight #39 three months later, in June of 1990.  Tyson had notably lost twice to Tillman as an amateur and Tillman won the 1984 Olympic gold medal in boxing.  Tillman’s professional career had never amounted to much though, so while the matchup might have looked interesting for the rematch factor the odds were heavy against Tillman and Tyson made short work of him, taking care of business in the first round for a win.

By fight #40, a TKO win over Alex Stewart, things had gotten weirdly bad between Mike and HBO Sports, to the point where Spike Lee (!) was brought in to film a pre-match profile movie instead of the usual HBO producers.

The first fight against Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock took place in fight #41.  This botched fight included a hilarious scene with the ref calling the fight too early – Ruddock hadn’t even gone down before it was called.  In response, a big brawl broke out in the ring.

It was no surprise that there was a Ruddock rematch.  What was a surprise was that it came in fight #42 a mere three months later in June of 1991.  The result was a 12 round unanimous decision for Tyson.

And then whatever comeback Tyson was mounting came to a halt.  He was convicted of rape and spent three years in prison.  It was August of 1995 before Tyson stepped into the ring for fight #43, a quick 90 second KO of Peter McNeeley in a little over 90 seconds.  Mike was super pumped, McNeeley had this whole nervous energy bit going on, but the result was a wacky tune-up of sorts for Tyson.

Mike had a pre-fight interview with John Madden (?!), talking about becoming Muslim in prison before getting in the ring for fight #44 against Buster Mathis Jr.  The result was a third-round knockout.

A seven-years later rematch occurred in fight #45 with Tyson challenging Frank Bruno for the WBC heavyweight title.  Tyson won back the belt in a third round TKO, falling to his knees in the ring in a big display of emotion.  The comeback seemed to be happening.

Tyson then collected the WBA title in a quick 1 minute 49 second fight #46 against Bruce Seldon.  The crowd seemed unimpressed with Seldon’s effort.

Then fight #47 was a huge one… Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield.  Tyson would lose in the 11th round with a TKO but the match was controversial given the use of headbutts by Holyfield.  That seemed to enrage Tyson and lead to the infamous ear biting incident in their rematch six months later in June of 1997.  That fight #48 – Tyson vs. Holyfield II – ended in the third round when Tyson was disqualified for actually biting off a chunk of Holyfield’s ear.  It was quite the sight.  Strangely, it wasn’t actually Tyson’s first bite that got him disqualified… that initial bite only led to a 2-point deduction and the fight continued.  The problem came when Tyson bit Holyfield again in the third round.

I’d forgotten that Tyson had gone back to prison for several months in prison in 1999 due to some wacky auto accident incident.  So, it was a couple of years before the next chapter, with January 1999 beginning a new era for Mike Tyson, as he had fight #49 with the ‘White Buffalo’ Franz Botha, a fifth-round knockout.

Fight #50 against Orlin Norris was a wacky snoozer.  Norris twisted his knee early in the fight and actually requested a no contest in the first round!

Then Mike went to England three months later for fight #51 against Julius Francis and it was a total circus.  Politicians had to let Tyson into the country due to his past legal issues and he rewarded them by having a controversy with a feminist protest group whose members he accused of wanting to be men.  With all that drama around it, the actual fight with Francis only lasted two rounds before Tyson got the TKO.

The next several fights were all short-ish and strange.  It was Tyson against ‘journeymen’ and Tyson took care of business.  Fight #52 against Lou Savarese only lasted thirty-eight seconds before a first round TKO.  Fight #53 should have been a Tyson win against Andrew Golota but then had it declared a ‘no contest’ after Tyson failed a drug test.

One could say that perhaps fight #55 was Tyson’s last BIG fight.  Four titles were on the line against Lennon Lewis, so it was yet another chance for Tyson to suddenly be back on top of the dysfunctional boxing world.  Of course, Tyson made it a trainwreck from the start.

Instead of trying to help people forget the biting antics from the second Holyfield fight, Tyson kicked off the Lewis fight by biting Lewis’s leg at the press conference!  As if that weren’t enough, Tyson also reminded people about his rape conviction when he yelled at a photographer – entirely on camera – that he would “f*ck you until you love me…”  That brawl at the press conference for this fight was named The Ring magazine’s Event of the Year for 2002.

The highly-anticipated fight did last eight rounds, ending with Tyson failing to get up after being knocked out in the eighth round.

Tyson was back on HBO for the fight for the first time in roughly 12 years, since his peak career break from them for Showtime.  Hilariously, they brought back the commenter guys who Tyson had feuded with at the end of the HBO days (guys who had called most of his rise) and the Lewis fight production closed out with the main commentator saying that in the pantheon of boxing, Tyson was no better than Sonny Liston!  Talk about a low blow to bookend Tyson’s career.

A few months later, Tyson returned to the Pyramid in Memphis to knock out Clifford Etienne early in fight #56. There was talk of a Lennox Lewis rematch for spring 2003 (a few months later) but Tyson opted out of it, wanting another couple of tune-up fights.  Money-wise this would prove to be a very bad idea.

When Tyson faced Danny Williams in fight #57, he was a 7-1 favorite but managed to get knocked out in round 4 amid a flurry of punches from Williams.  It was a sad sight to be sure but it was about to get even sadder.

Fight #58, was Tyson’s last ‘official’ bout and it came in June of 2005.  He decided to simply not come out of his corner at the start of round 7.  This was a sad scene, Tyson acting as if he had just decided that he had had enough.

“I don’t have it in my heart any more“ were Tyson’s words in the middle of the ring, admitting that he only fought that night to ‘pay my bills.  In a fluke exhibition fight in October 2006 though, Tyson was back in the ring for four rounds against Corey Sanders, a non-scored bout where Tyson very well could have knocked out Sanders.  That unofficial fight #59 was largely forgotten.

Conclusions

Even after that last fight though, it wasn’t long before Tyson was back in favor in the public eye.  He showed up in the hit film “The Hangover” (2009) and that trilogy of films helped to soften his image.

Also acting as an image polish was “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” (2013).  This was Spike Lee basically taping a New York City performance of Mike Tyson’s one-man stage show.  It came out of a bio book that he’d written around that time.

Despite having watched all of Tyson’s fights, I would not confidently call myself a boxing ‘fan’ but I liked the pageantry of the big fights and there was a time in the later 1980s where Tyson was crowned as the savior of the sport.  With the decline of Ali and his peers in the later 1970s and the walling off of the sport by HBO in the 1980s, the sport died a slow death as an entire generation grew up being basically under-exposed to it.

Tyson was the one big blip on the radar though.  The youngest champion ever.  His compelling story as a troubled street youth who was mentored by an aging genius (Cus D’Amato), who died just as Tyson was about to realize their mutual dream of seeing him be that youngest champion.

As I said, HBO did do something ingenious as Tyson was coming to fame, putting together their 18-month tournament of sorts that would lead to a unification of the various heavyweight titles that had splintered fan interest in the sport.  By unifying the titles, Tyson’s popularity was at an all-time high and that’s why the Douglas loss was just so shocking.

As Tyson points out in the documentary though, the famous Douglas win had an asterisk… Tyson won that fight by knocking out Douglas but the referee screwed up the ten count.  That said, even Tyson seemed to understand that if it wasn’t Douglas who had beat him, it would have been someone else and soon.

Tyson addressed the rape of Desiree Washington, which led to his conviction and years in jail in the early 1990s.  He denied the accusation and you either believe him or don’t.  Your position will color how you view him.  Was his story the case of him being a victim – used by managers and promoters, and women – or was he out of control?  Maybe it was a little bit of both?

Here’s the deal – in watching the fights and the circumstances changing with who Tyson surrounded himself with at the peak of his success, it was only a matter of time before he imploded professionally (and personally?).  It’s also hard to be that dominant in any sport for so long.  On the personal side of his life, Washington didn’t have an entirely clean background but Tyson apparently had such an appetite for women that it seemed like only a matter of time before that caught up with him as well.

So, I could recommend the film as a compelling, entertaining portrait of one of the giants of pop culture and sports of the later 1980s.  That said, I couldn’t recommend it as anything authoritative.  If you want to understand Tyson’s rise and fall you have to go deeper and actually watching the fights in sequence would be an excellent way to understand the phenomenon.

Epilogue

Out of nowhere in November of 2020, Tyson actually stepped back into a ring for what would be considered fight #60.  This was an eight-round exhibition against Roy Jones Jr.  Both men were in their 50s but Tyson had looked in decent shape and talked a decent game in the months leading up to the evening.

The result was an unofficial draw that was scored by the WBC.  Public opinion probably called it a win for Tyson though.  If anything, it was perhaps a better ending to his boxing career than his last few official fights.  So, a decent ending… for now?

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