As boxing slowly fades away, one of its most admirable champions will send one of its least into well-deserved oblivion.
I gave serious thought to boycotting this week’s heavyweight championship bout between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. That’s what boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar is doing, and I respect him for it. Tyson’s behavior, in or out of the ring, should have been enough to disqualify him from organized boxing in any civilized country, and a boycott of any event that gives him a permit is probably the proper ethical response. On the other hand, what are we to do about Lewis, one of the most admirable boxers ever to wear a championship belt? Are we to deprive him of his big moment in the sun, withhold from him the recognition that he has fought 15 long, hard years to obtain?
I doubt if there’s an easy answer to this, or if there is, I haven’t been able to find it. I’m going to bite the bullet (or mouthpiece) and do my prediction because I love predicting big fights and I’ve almost never gotten one wrong. I’m also going to do it because it’s probably the last time I’ll ever do it.
There is no real need to ban boxing. Boxing has pretty much banned itself. That two heavyweights on the wrong side of 36 are fighting for the undisputed title tells you as much about where boxing is right now as anything else. Out there on the horizon there are no worthy successors to Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, or Larry Holmes. There isn’t even a likely candidate for another Lennox Lewis.
The economic and sociological reasons why boxing is drying up in this country are subjects for another story; for now, let’s confine them to the observation that young fighters have practically no place to go and learn their trade and the ones who do are eaten alive by predatory promoters. Twenty-five to 30 years ago sportswriters were decrying the lack of first-rate heavyweights. In retrospect we can now see that the ’70s were probably the greatest decade for heavyweight talent ever. The first level was, of course, represented by Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman, and it’s doubtful that any three heavyweights this good were active near their prime in any other decade. The second level, consisting of fighters who, on a given day, were nearly as good as the top three, consisted of Ernie Shavers, Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Jimmy Ellis, George Chuvalo, and Jimmy Young. Am I missing somebody? Well, maybe Mac Foster, and perhaps Larry Holmes, who was already a leading contender by the close of the decade.
In contrast, there isn’t a single heavyweight left who looks to be in Lennox Lewis’ class, except for Evander Holyfield, who is nearly three years older and against whom Lewis already won a rather dull decision. The one man who might have made a difference, Riddick Bowe, is collecting speeding tickets while wandering the back streets of Washington, D.C.
Tyson’s place in boxing history is difficult to assess. In truth, his period of greatness was a short one, lasting roughly from about age 19 to 23. He never really fought a great fighter; Michael Spinks, had his knees not been weakened by a series of operations, might have tested him. The only other fighter he faced who even approached greatness was Holmes, who was 38 when they fought.
Still, I’d have taken Tyson at age 22 or 23 over virtually any other heavyweight champion at his peak except Ali and Foreman. (I’m not saying that pound for pound he was a better fighter than Louis or Marciano, but simply that at around 218 pounds he was too big, strong, and fast for them.) But Tyson was a comet who burnt out quickly. That a virtual unknown like Buster Douglas could have beaten him so easily is a strong argument against ranking him with the all-time greats. Tyson’s early flameout is one of the truly amazing facts of boxing history. Tyson was just 24 when he lost to Douglas; Marciano, at the same age, had had just four professional fights and didn’t win the heavyweight title until age 29.
So where does that leave us for Saturday night? The simple truth is that nothing Tyson has done in the past 10 years justifies calling this a major heavyweight bout. Both men are 36, but Lewis is a young 36 who has accomplished that miracle of miracles in boxing — a career turnaround after the age of 30. There are those know-it-alls who claim that trainers don’t make that big a difference; let them watch the Lewis-Tyson fight this Saturday. What they’ll see is one very big man with a plan and the means to implement it, and a smaller man groping around the ring blindly feeling his way. Under Emanuel Steward, Lewis has become an accomplished boxer who throws combinations off a whistling pile driver of a left jab. He has a decent left hook that he’s not afraid to lead with and a potentially devastating right uppercut waiting for a shorter man who gets inside his perimeter. Lewis’ big weakness is his chin, or at least it would seem so from his knockout loss to Hasim Rahman. But when he is in shape and taking a fight seriously, as he showed in the Rahman rematch, Lewis looks very close to invincible. One assumes he is focused for the Tyson fight.
In contrast, Tyson has no serious trainer at all; that is, he doesn’t take orders and doesn’t tolerate trainers who try to clamp down on him. The result is that for more than a decade Tyson’s skills have steadily eroded. Tyson used to deride his opponents by saying, “How dare they challenge me with their primitive skills?” But primitive skills are all Tyson has left. He no longer jabs; he probably no longer has the hand speed. He no longer throws punches in combinations, possibly for the same reason. For such a powerful man, he is surprisingly easy to tie up on the inside; in fact, he is generally so awkward trying to pull free from a clinch that he wastes more of this own energy than his opponent’s. Worst of all, he long ago forgot everything he ever knew about defensive fighting and often seems to be leading with his chin. And as Douglas and Holyfield proved, his chin isn’t all that great. Lewis hits considerably harder than either Douglas or Holyfield.
So what’s going to happen? I’m afraid this one doesn’t leave much room for suspense. Tyson will shuffle after Lewis — his shorter arms and slower hands don’t leave him many options here, so he will have to force the fight. Lewis will retreat slowly, looking out for one of Tyson’s kangaroo-like leaps intended to land a left hook. Lewis should have little trouble blocking Tyson’s wide sweeps and less trouble tying him up tighter than a Jennifer Lopez evening gown when he gets in close. Lewis will then retaliate with a thunderous left jab, landing low at first as he finds his range, but then higher on Tyson’s forehead, the force of which will keep sending Tyson back on his heels and eventually set him up for a right hand which will start out from another area code. When will the big blows begin to come? After the first couple of rounds, whenever Lewis wants them to. In recent years Lewis has become a strong fighter who gets stronger in the late rounds. Tyson hasn’t had a strong late round since Bush the elder was president.
What will happen then? Ah, that’s why you’re really tuning in this fight, aren’t you? Well, Tyson has bitten one opponent on the ear and another on the ankle. We can only assume this time he will be going for somewhere in between and true boxing immortality.
Allen Barra's next book is "Mickey and Willie -- The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," from Crown. More Allen Barra.
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