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You could see it in the second round. Mike Tyson was finished. He would see it himself in the seventh round, in a moment filled with pathos, no matter how you feel about him. He was counted out in the eighth. Lennox Lewis is still the heavyweight champion, but the speculation about what Tyson is can stop now.
He is not the one-time boxing savior, ready to reclaim his role. He is not the sport’s prodigal son, returning from his wastrel years to dazzle us again with his brilliance. He is not even the unhinged animal unable to control his evil impulses. For all the drama and lunacy that follows Tyson’s every move, for all the tragedy of his squandered talent and ruined life, Saturday night’s title fight in Memphis proved that he is that most ordinary thing in boxing: a shot fighter.
He had come out smoking, bobbing and weaving and whipping punches the way he had in his prime, all those years ago in the ’80s, when he became the youngest heavyweight champion ever, only 20, when he destroyed all comers and was hailed as the man who would revitalize boxing. Lewis, the three-time champion who has avenged his only two losses, both to lesser fighters who caught him unprepared, looked not quite comfortable. In a frantic first round, Lewis tried to time his right hand to Tyson’s rushes, then tied him up once they came together. Neither man scored effectively, but it looked like Tyson had the slight edge.
But a minute into the second round it was Tyson who was tying up Lewis. Having been warned twice for holding, Lewis proved who was holding whom by sticking his arms straight out, leaving the clutching Tyson hanging there like a treed cat. Now Tyson was looking more like the ineffective Tyson of the ’90s: frustrated, lunging, throwing one punch at a time, headhunting. He’d stopped moving his head. Late in the round, Tyson started to throw a right, then hesitated on the way in. Lewis caught him with an uppercut as he hovered there, indecisive, his right arm cocked.
This is what happens to a shot fighter. He sees the openings that he used to take advantage of, but now his body doesn’t quite respond. Since the days of the London Prize Ring rules, aging champions have felt time and inactivity hold back their punches as though a cold hand gripped them by the wrist. “I couldn’t let my hands go,” they’ve said in the aftermath of defeat. “I couldn’t get off.”
Now Tyson felt it. He is 35, a year younger than Lewis. No two 35-year-olds had ever fought for the heavyweight championship before. But it was the older man, a famously boring English gent who has quietly improved at his violent trade while living life on an even keel, who still had all his powers.
The illusion was gone that the old Tyson would somehow, one day, return, flattening opponents with blinding speed and devastating power. For all the talk that the public was interested in Tyson as a freak show, this was his real appeal: People believed that if he ever got serious about boxing again, Tyson could return to his old, thrilling form. Tyson believed it too. He told his hangers-on before the Lewis fight that his failures in the ring over the last decade — two losses to Evander Holyfield, the second being the infamous ear-biting fight, a no-contest against Orlin Norris for knocking him out after the bell, various indifferent performances against tomato cans — could be explained away by the fact that he’d “stopped fighting 10 years ago.” Now he was ready. Now he was back. This fight would feature, once again, the real Tyson.
By the end of that second round, the pattern of the fight had been set. Tyson’s initial head movement was gone. He slowed down, threw one punch at a time, lunged. Lewis kept him at the end of a stiff jab, used movement to keep him from landing big punches and dropped solid right hands in from time to time. Tyson’s right eye began bleeding in the third round, his left eye in the fifth, his nose in the seventh. By that time he’d all but ground to a halt. He stood waiting to be hit, flat-footed and glum. Lewis may not be the most exciting fighter in the world, but he can punch. He teed off.
At the seventh-round bell Tyson trudged back to his corner. He knew he was beaten, for good. He’d called on his skills, and they hadn’t answered.
He sat down and his trainer for this fight, Ronnie Shields, yelled at him. “Listen to me, champ,” he said as the cut man worked on Tyson’s eyes. “You’re fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world, again, you understand? Not many people can do that, you understand? Now look, I’m not going to sit out there and just let you do this, you understand? You have to throw your punches, you understand?”
Tyson spoke the words of the shot fighter. “I can’t get off,” he said. And then he said he wanted to quit. “I have to stop. Let me go.”
“No,” Shields said, “let your hands go. I want your hands to move.” Others in the corner gave Tyson a pep talk, saying he’d taken Lewis’ best shots and was still in there. Tyson looked like he wanted to believe them, but he knew better.
What a sad moment. Tyson is deserving of no one’s sympathy. I won’t go through the laundry list of crimes and misdemeanors, fouls and foolishness that have marred his reputation over the last decade, but suffice to say he deserves the low esteem in which he’s held in most quarters. Still, this was a man whose punching ability was once thought to be prodigious enough to be the last hope to keep the moribund sport viable, to save it from the crooks and the corruption and the medocrity, the long, slow decline that had set in and become as much a part of boxing as gloves and mouthpieces. And now his trainer was pleading with him to simply throw a punch, any punch, to do something, anything — and he was saying no, he couldn’t.
He went out again, grimly trying to land the one home-run shot that would bail him out. A minute, 20 seconds into the round, Lewis landed a huge left uppercut that buckled Tyson’s knees. He squatted, but didn’t go down. Referee Eddie Cotton ruled it a knockdown anyway and counted. Less than a minute later Lewis was landing at will again. He aimed an overhand right for a spot just to the left of where Tyson’s head was, having noticed that Tyson was ducking left. Tyson yanked his head right into the path of the punch. He crumbled and fell as Lewis, moving in, gave him a little shove. Cotton counted to 10 and it was over.
The people who wanted the freak show, who paid $54.95 to watch at home — or the real big bucks to sit in the arena — hoping to see some sort of Tyson train wreck were disappointed. He was gracious in defeat. (The world seems to have forgotten that he was also gracious after his first loss to Holyfield, saying, “I just want to shake your hand” at the post-fight press conference.) In the ring, he thanked Lewis for giving him the payday, kissed the champ’s mom, tenderly wiped blood off Lewis’ cheek during an interview and humbly asked for a rematch. “If you would be kind enough, I’d like to do it again,” he said. “I think I could beat you if we tried it one more time.”
Not if they tried it 10 more times, and Tyson knows it, though he won’t admit it now, because he needs another payday, and another one after that. He’ll go on fighting, in that way that once-great fighters, now shot, always do. But now the mystery’s gone. The paydays will be smaller and smaller because we know now that the old Tyson will never come back. All we have now is an old Tyson, and there are no boxing saviors waiting in the wings.