Saturday, 6 April 2013

Mike Tyson: Tainted legacy?

The rise in popularity of Ultimate Fighting and Mixed Martial Arts is due in part to the rapid decline in entertainment value and the credibility of professional boxing. Among all the causes for that decline, the actions of Mike Tyson are a part.

When you hear the name Mike Tyson many images come to mind: that odd tattoo on his face; him spitting out a piece of ear he bit off Evander Holyfield; charges of domestic abuse; and time in jail.

Yet there was a time when he was the greatest boxer in the world. That was an undisputed fact. In the 1980s he mowed down every challenger in his path on his way to unifying the World Boxing Council (WBC), World Boxing Association (WBA), and International Boxing Federation (IBF) championships. It was a site to behold when he walked into the ring with all three of those belts tied together.

More than the sheer force and certainty of each knockout victory, was the reality Tyson fought more than anyone, as many as four times a year. He always seemed to be on TV, destroying James “Quick” Tillis, or Marvis Frasier, then Canadian Trevor Berbeck for his first title, the WBC belt, in 1986, then James “Bonecrusher” Smith for the WBA title and Tony Tucker for the IBF title, both in 1987. This clip illustrates in full force the pure power Tyson possessed. The problem was it was cable TV. Peasant vision never carried much boxing beyond the odd bout on CTV's "Wide World of Sports", or Canadian fighters on CBC "Sportsweekend", so I never saw an actual Mike Tyson fight – until the fall of 1987.

First fight
The first time I ever saw a complete Mike Tyson fight was when he was already well on in his career. It was actually his 32nd fight, his first title defence after beating Tucker to unify the heavyweight division. It was in October of 1987, against Tyrell Biggs, the 1984 Olympic champion who I have to say I did not like. In those 1984 Olympics Biggs beat Canadian Lennox Lewis in the super-heavyweight division. Lewis, along with Shawn O'Sullivan and Willie DeWitt were our best medal hopes in the ring, so I was disappointed when Biggs beat Lewis in the quarter-finals. Lewis would return, and move on to achieve greatness as an Olympian and a professional. Tyrell Biggs would not.

We were living in res, and me and my roommate and best friend Chris Vining had made some friends on another floor, so we went down there to watch the fight. We took Rick Taniguchi along with us. He was from Lethbridge and lived across the hall from us, and he was a big boxing fan. He was in physiotherapy, so he was always studying. Even then, he took some flash cards to study during the fight.

The TV room was packed with anticipation. It turns out Mike Tyson hated Tyrell Biggs a lot more than I did. Vining told me Tyson was still mad at not making the 1984 Olympic team, and resented Biggs who had. Well, it sure showed as he took his anger out on the reigning Olympic champion. Tyson absolutely dismantled Biggs, bloodying one eye, then the other, then his nose. I still remember seeing Taniguchi look up from his flash cards just in time to see Tyson land another haymaker, and all he could say was, "Ooooh." That happened a few times. Biggs' face was a meaty pulp by the time Tyson finally knocked him out in the dying seconds of the seventh round.

After the fight, Tyson showed little class, claiming Biggs was crying in the ring. It cemented my dislike for the champion. He must never have heard the phrase: "When you lose, say little. When you win, say even less." However, he was a wrecking machine like Clubber Lang in "Rocky III", with the mouth to match. I hoped someone would take him down, but was certain he would never lose. Boy was I wrong. 

What could have been: A Canadian aside
“I can’t believe it,” Mike Golding said. “Did you hear?”

I was sitting in the hallway at Lister Hall chatting with some friends of mine. It was February of 1990, just over two years after the Biggs fight and a lot had happened.

“No,” we said.

“Mike Tyson lost!”

Unknown Buster Douglas had not only beaten Tyson, but knocked him out en route to the victory. It had come as a shock to everyone. Tyson was virtually unbeatable, but he had lost.

That fact left us all with a question: what could have been? Tyson had been scheduled to fight Canadian Razor Ruddock in November of 1989 in Edmonton in what was being dubbed the "Cold War". Yet Tyson pulled out. After his loss to Douglas, suspicions began to surface he had not taken his training seriously and it cost him. The reason his trainers pulled the plug on the "Cold War" was they feared Tyson would lose to Ruddock. Instead, an easier opponent was chosen. We all wondered if Tyson had fought Ruddock in Edmonton, would the Razor have been world champion? We’ll never know.

History shows the two of them would fight twice, and Tyson would win both. The first was by a controversial technical knockout, and I still blame referee Richard Steele for that debacle. The second was a 12-round decision. I still believe it all came down to timing. Tyson was vulnerable in 1989, and everyone knew it. By 1991, he was angry again.

Mike Tyson taking a shot from Razor Ruddock. Tyson would
eventually beat Ruddock twice, once with a controversial
technical knockout, then in a 12-round decision.
Tainted legacy?
It is truly unfortunate Mike Tyson's career ended the way it did, becoming a three-ring circus of trash talk, tattoos, and jail time. It is hard to separate the man from his sport, especially when he brought some of that bizarre behaviour into the ring. Read here, biting Evander Holyfield's ear, or claiming he wanted to eat Lennox Lewis' children. Yet, at his peak there may have been no one better. He never ducked an opponent, he defended his title against all comers, and he put on a good show.

When I saw him absolutely destroy Tyrell Biggs for the better part of seven rounds, it left an indelible impression – he was unbeatable.

His legacy as a boxer, pure and simple, is as a devastating champion. It is only tainted by the fact good boxers aren't necessarily good people.

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