Tonight's heavyweight showdown between Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye is the biggest attraction provided by the centrepiece division of the sport since Lennox Lewis successfully defended his titles by knocking out Mike Tyson in 2002. Of course, 'Iron Mike' was a shadow of his former self by this point, and subsequent losses to Britain's Danny Williams and the journeyman Kevin McBride served to illustrate the scale of his decline. However, in 2002 Tyson still possessed a 49-3 record and was great box office. After steamrollering a terrified Lou Savarese in Glasgow with a one-minute barrage of punches, each one loaded with unrefined murderous intent, Tyson, not content with the victory, carried on the assault after ref John Coyle had stepped in to save his overwhelmed opponent, Coyle copping one round the side of the head himself for his troubles.
After this non-fight, not only did he pledge to beat Lewis, the self-proclaimed 'baddest man on the planet' pledged to "eat Lennox's children". The fact that Lewis had no children was something we could conveniently overlook - the fight was sold, and there were many who saw it as the night that the part-man, part-myth that was Iron Mike in the late 1980s would warp himself into the present more than a decade later to reclaim the title that was rightfully his. As was almost a custom of a bout involving Tyson, the press conference descended into a cocktail of kicks, punches and bites on the leg (I'm sure you can work out who did the biting). This was probably no more than an attempt to unsettle a man who was in reality a vastly superior fighter, certainly by this point and possibly at any in their respective careers. After a charge from the challenger in the opener, Lewis took full control of the contest and eventually closed the show in the eighth.
I'm no stranger to a boxing forum or five, and have seen the myth of 'peak, prime zenith Mike Tyson' eulogised to an extent which wildly inflates what he actually achieved. I've come across people who clearly possess some knowledge on the sport and regard him as the best heavyweight fighter of all time - certainly as a man capable of beating anyone in history on a given night. I find that a baffling conclusion when one thinks of the likes of Louis, Ali and even a prime Larry Holmes who went before him, as well as Lewis and Evander Holyfield, both the older man in the ring when they comprehensively beat Tyson. 'Iron Mike' was indeed a very good fighter circa 1985-88 - his speed, exemplary peek-a-boo defence, lateral movement and explosive power on the inside were more than enough to take care of the heavyweight competition that stood in front of him.
This was a massive part of the problem - much of the division in the 1980s (where Holmes reigned supreme prior to Tyson's emergence) comprised of fighters who were old, fat, just not very good, or distracted by the cocaine revolution which symbolised the decade as much as rubix cubes and odd socks. With his wilder instincts initially kept under control by his mentor Cus D'Amato, Tyson stormed through what he faced and took out Trevor Berbick to become the youngest ever world heavyweight champion in 1986 with a knockout they still show in highlights reels now (attached at the end). The deposed champion's repeated and failed attempts to get up are in part fairly amusing to watch, while also serving as testament to the punching power of a man who walked to the ring wearing only a towel as opposed to the robe preferred by most fighters.
A large part of Tyson's early success was down to the sheer sense of terror felt by the man in the opposing corner. Michael Spinks, a unified champion at light-heavy and eventual conqueror of Holmes, found himself caught in the headlights and was brutally run over in 90 seconds. The aura and general sense of menace surrounding a man whose short fuse was by now landing him on the front pages as well as those at the back was more often than not enough in isolation to render the opposition little more than a stationery target. Evander Holyfied, a quick, technically solid and diligent fighter who showed no fear, always said he fancied his chances against Tyson in the ring. How would Iron Mike fare against a rival with good fundamentals, sufficient athleticism to slip his punches while asking questions of his own, and a refusal to be bullied?
Probably my favourite book of all time is 'the Last Great Fight' by Joe Layden - a wholeheartedly recommended read to anyone with a passing interest in boxing and even one or two for whom the sport leaves them cold. Layden's brilliantly crafted work sets the scene of Tokyo in February 1990 and tells a story of two men - James 'Buster' Douglas, an outsider who produced his finest hour that night, happening to coincide with the worst performance Mike Tyson would ever offer. By this point, Tyson appeared to regard training as an optional extra, and had ditched the tough love of Kevin Rooney for the services of inferior men who would at least indulge his sense of status.
Douglas, seen as a fighter of some potential who had under-achieved, was inspired by the death of his mother weeks before the fight. Concluding that Tyson could not hurt him any more than life just had, he sought to make best use of his snappy jab, natural athleticism and punching power, and the outcome of the contest was in many ways a fulfilment of the prophecy 'fail to prepare, prepare to fail'. Douglas, a 42-1 underdog with the bookmakers, dominated all but about thirty seconds of the fight, where Tyson dragged his one-punch power from the memory bank to drop his man in the eighth round. Much was made of the 'long count' that the challenger received, but in truth 'Buster' was set and ready to rise after three or four seconds, and would have done so whenever the count of the ref had reached nine. The attempts to invalidate the victory which Douglas eventually achieved in the tenth (with Tyson scratching around on the canvas looking for his gumshield - yes I've attached that too) were more the work of the pugilistic vampire that is Don King than Tyson himself, as the fallen man's half-hearted engagement with the quest for 'justice' demonstrated.
Of course by 1992, Tyson was behind bars for the rape of Desiree Washington at a Miss Black America pageant. It would not be wise to enter the subject of whether Tyson 'did it' or not, for there are only two people who will ever know the answer to that question, but what is clear is that the fighter who emerged from his three years inside was a greatly diminished operator from he that had ruled the roost at the end of the 1980s. Yes, he battered a fading Frank Bruno who had concealed an eye injury prior to the fight to secure a final payday, while Bruce Seldon practically threw himself on the floor at the earliest opportunity in their WBA title bout. However, Tyson was noticeably slower, easier to hit and lacked the head movement that had been as much a part of his trademark in those early days as his punching power. Whenever he looked across the ring at an opponent with a solid jab and an absence of fear, Tyson invariably lacked anything resembling a Plan B. Holyfield and Lewis would, in my view, have taken any version of Iron Mike to the cleaners.
What we need tonight more than anything is a compelling fight which lives long in the memory. With talk of heavyweight boxing being dead, a great contest between two Europeans would show up at least some of this line as the American-centric nonsense that it is. Just because there are no good American heavyweights does not mean that the division as a whole is not worth bothering with, and I hope that when I head towards Deansgate in an hour's time, this one lives up to all of its hype - while I dearly wish for a Haye victory, a part of me worries that the jab of Klitschko is going to be too much for him to get through without taking serious risks. With the fight in Germany and Haye therefore unlikely to get a points decision from the judges, he will have to open up at some point in the middle of the contest, and I would not expect it to last much longer from there. The most likely outcome in my view would be that of Haye going for a home run and walking onto the straight right of the Ukranian. I sincerely hope I'm wrong.
Here's hoping for an epic and c'mon Hayemaker...