Tyson: Greatest ever?

You might think so if he beats Lennox Lewis. In which case you'd be nuts.

Topics: Boxing,

Everybody seems to agree that Mike Tyson is bug nuts, but I’m worrying about his trainers’ sanity.

Oh, I know they’re just hyping a fight, but I spent an hour on a media conference call with Ronnie Shields and Stacey McKinley last week, and what they said defied logic with such derring-do that I had to smack my head against the desk for 10 minutes before I could think straight again. Maybe the Tyson camp is hoping that Lennox Lewis will do the same thing after reading a transcript. Might soften him up a little for their heavyweight title fight June 8 in Memphis, Tenn.

Shields and McKinley spoke with reporters from Tyson’s camp in Maui, Hawaii. Let me try to boil down their main points:

  • Tyson is the best fighter in the world today.
  • We should disregard the past 10 years of Tyson’s career, because he says he “stopped fighting” 10 years ago.
  • Tyson is a gentleman who “has respect for everyone.”
  • Tyson is the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, with the possible exceptions of Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis.
  • Lewis is “an A-minus fighter,” a coward who was in his prime in 1993-96 but hasn’t been the same since, or since he was knocked out by Hasim Rahman last year, depending on who’s talking. Lewis is a fellow who “does not have the best chin or the biggest heart.”
  • If Tyson beats Lewis next month, that would put him above Ali and Louis and confirm that he’s the best ever.

    I guess we should take them one at a time.

    “As far as I am concerned, I think Tyson is the best fighter in the world today,” said Shields, a widely respected trainer who is working with Tyson for the first time after guiding Vernon Forrest to a stunning but convincing January upset of WBC welterweight champ “Sugar” Shane Mosley — thought by many to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world before the fight. “You have to look at his past. He is back at the top where he belongs. I would not call it an upset” if Tyson beats Lewis.



    So let’s look at his past. In the last 10 years, since he supposedly “stopped fighting,” Tyson has eight wins, two losses and two no-decisions. The no-decisions came when he hit Orlin Norris on the break and Norris claimed an injured ankle after going down, and when he refused to take a drug test before his fight with Andrew Golota, who quit on his stool after two rounds. Tyson later tested positive for marijuana. Considering that Norris is a blown-up cruiserweight who was in his prime about when Tyson “stopped fighting,” and I don’t care who smokes marijuana when, I’m willing to consider those Tyson wins. So that’s 10 wins in 12 fights, mostly against tomato cans like Golota, Norris, Peter McNeeley and Bruce Seldon. The only quality fighter Tyson has faced since the early ’90s was Evander Holyfield, who was also past his prime and who beat Tyson twice.

    Even if you go beyond 10 years, back to 1991, before he spent three years in prison for rape, Tyson struggled mightily to beat Donovan “Razor” Ruddock, an ordinary fighter whom you’ve heard of only because he gave Tyson trouble in those fights, before it was clear that Tyson, then only 24 years old, had already tanked his career. Tyson hasn’t been the same since his knockout loss to Buster Douglas in February 1990. His trainers say he’s the best in the world because he’s looking so good in training camp.

    I’ve been to training camps. Everybody looks good.

    Even before he was beaten by Douglas in what is rightly considered among the greatest upsets in boxing history, Tyson had stopped doing the things that had made him great in those glorious first few years of his career, when he captured a share of the heavyweight title at 20, became undisputed champ at 21, and won 37 fights in a row. He’d stopped boxing, stopped punching in combinations, stopped moving his head. What had made Tyson special wasn’t his power but the combination of that power with his blinding speed and quickness. He had already, at 23, become a plodding headhunter vulnerable to a fighter, like Douglas on that night, with a good jab to keep him off balance.

    If Tyson didn’t learn his lesson from that embarrassing performance, there’s no reason to believe that suddenly, 12 years and 16 fights later, in the twilight of his athletic years at 35, he’s learned it now. Especially given Tyson’s erratic public behavior of late, which has included press conference brawling and way-beyond-the-pale statements to reporters. This is not a guy who’s matured and gotten his act together.

    In spite of this behavior, by the way, Tyson “has handled himself like a gentleman” in camp. That’s according to Shields, who was referring to sparring sessions. Tyson’s sparring partners have been trying to frustrate him in various ways, in anticipation of Lewis’ doing the same, and Tyson hasn’t gone wild. Shields, a wise old head, declined to comment on Tyson’s outside-the-ring behavior, but McKinley, who’s been with Tyson for much longer, said, “He has respect for everyone. His personal views in life are his own. In camp, he treats all of us with nothing but respect.”

    Well, good for him. But treating some of the people with respect some of the time while acting outrageously and disrespecting other people at other times doesn’t qualify you as a gentleman, or even as respectful.

    But we don’t pay $54.95 to watch Mike Tyson be respectful and gentlemanly, do we? We pay it, if we pay it, because we think that he’s going to put on a show of some kind. Some of us, I think a lot of us, keep believing that this time, Tyson’s going to revert to form, recapture that old magic, deliver the old Tyson fury one last time. A few of us pay because we don’t want to miss the circus. We want to be there when Tyson bites an ear, attacks an opponent after the bell, screams that he wants to eat someone’s children. I might be wrong about which reason drives more people, but I think those are the two main motivations for paying to watch Tyson fight.

    In a world where “Fear Factor” passes for entertainment, I can’t judge the people who tune in for the circus, so let’s talk about Tyson the fighter. McKinley says Tyson’s among the top heavyweight champs ever, and if he beats Lewis, he’s No. 1. “I think this is his legacy fight that puts him on top over Ali and Joe Louis,” he said.

    It certainly looked as though Tyson was on his way to validating such claims in the late ’80s, when he was routinely dispatching pretty good fighters like Michael Spinks and Carl “The Truth” Williams in one round. The complaint at the time was that there weren’t any opponents compelling enough for Tyson to prove his greatness against. Ali had Joe Frazier, for example, but who did Tyson have?

    Eventually, he had Holyfield, the former cruiserweight champ who won the heavyweight title by knocking out Douglas in the latter’s first defense. A Tyson-Holyfield showdown was in the works when Tyson was accused of rape in 1991, and by the time Tyson got out of prison and they got together in late ’96, Holyfield was 34 and had been in a succession of wars with the likes of Riddick Bowe, Burt Cooper and Michael Moorer. He still beat Tyson, and beat him again in the famous ear-biting fight in ’97.

    With no significant wins after the age of 23, and only a few before then — most of his 10 title-fight victories prior to the loss to Douglas came against fighters the likes of journeyman Pinklon Thomas and a washed-up Larry Holmes — it’s ridiculous to say Tyson has somehow passed Jack Dempsey or Jack Johnson or Rocky Marciano, guys who dominated their eras back when the heavyweight division was stocked with good fighters. (By Tyson’s day, other sports had drawn away far more of the top athletes.) You’d have to do some fancy arguing to convince me that Tyson was even the greatest champion of the 1980s. Holmes defended his belt successfully 20 times from 1978 to ’85.

    And that’s not to mention Holyfield, who not only beat Tyson twice but also walked through the guy who had knocked Tyson out. But Shields and McKinley think that Tyson is greater than Holyfield because he probably would have beaten Holyfield if they’d fought in the late ’80s? Perhaps it’s not just fighters who should be drug-tested.

    At least Shields and McKinley admit that Ali and Louis are ahead of Tyson, but if Tyson beats Lewis, he’s the greatest of all time. This despite the fact that Lewis isn’t much of a fighter, according to Tyson’s men.

    “Lewis is an A-minus fighter,” said McKinley, who called Tyson an A-plus. He also repeatedly either insinuated or outright said that Lewis is a coward. “After being knocked out by Rahman, he was not the same,” McKinley continued. “He was knocked out by a guy that was a decent puncher, but not a devastating puncher … Lewis knows he does not have the best chin or the biggest heart.”

    Shields said that “Lewis is a great champion,” and then he said that Lewis was in his prime in 1993 to ’96, but that after he got knocked out by Oliver McCall, “he changed as a fighter.” That happened in 1994. You figure it out.

    Actually, I agree with what is clearly Shields and McKinley’s basic proposition, that Lewis isn’t a great fighter. I’ve always thought he was overrated, a good if mechanical boxer who lacks heart, and I wasn’t particularly surprised by either of his knockout losses. What I don’t get is how beating this guy would vault Tyson over Ali and Louis.

    If you figure it out, let me know. I’ll be over here banging my head against the desk.

  • King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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