A couple of weeks back, doing virtual interviews to promote his “comeback” — a pay-per-view exhibition against Roy Jones Jr. that takes place this Saturday night — Mike Tyson was asked a simple question.
“When was the last time you actually wanted to do this?”
“The first Bruno fight,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation.
Tyson wasn’t in the mood to extrapolate — or the mood to do much of anything other than make people believe that the eight two-minute rounds (or less!) against Jones, with both boxers wearing 12-ounce gloves, was as real as real could be, and was going to be worth every penny being asked of potential viewers.
But still, the short, direct answer was telling.
The fight he was referencing took place way back in 1989, the year after Tyson’s first-round knockout of Michael Spinks to unify the heavyweight championship, the peak moment of his career, and one year before he was beaten by Buster Douglas in Tokyo, the first of its many near-nadirs.
Bruno, an Englishman — not to mention a lovely guy and a magnificent physical specimen — famously performed the sign of the cross multiple times just before the opening bell, despite the fact that he wasn’t a Catholic. Just covering all the bases before facing a fighter who in those days had most of his opponents beaten through intimidation before they even stepped through the ropes.
Bruno fought bravely, but Tyson won by knockout in the sixth round.
Consider how much came after that: Douglas in Tokyo; the two epic brawls against Razor Ruddock; Tyson’s rape trial and conviction and three years in prison; the post-jail comeback, first against Peter McNeeley; regaining one version of his title from Bruce Seldon on the night Tupac Shakur was murdered around the corner a few hours after the fight; the knockout loss to Evander Holyfield and the rematch in which Tyson, while clearly losing again, was disqualified for biting off a piece of Holyfield’s ear; the continuing decline, punctuated by a brutal knockout loss to Lennox Lewis in Memphis followed by a succession of sad codas during which Tyson’s lack of desire to be in the ring was all too obvious.
Somehow, after all of that, Tyson re-emerged not as a broken-down, convicted-rapist pariah, but as a genial, weed-smoking, face-tattooed cartoon, his image rehabilitated through a sympathetic documentary, a one-man stage show and The Hangover. The bad memories and bad behaviour, the losses, the threats to eat people’s children, Desiree Washington, it has all been washed away, to be replaced by a benign, nostalgic character from a 1980s video game – which, of course, he was – who seems to be in on the joke.
Second acts, American lives … but this one takes the cake.
Tyson’s latest incarnation is far more of a cliché – the old fighter back in the ring for one more payday. But it’s not really even that. The opportunity sprung from a video that went viral last spring, in which Tyson looked in great shape, and fired combinations with precision and speed into punching mitts held by a trainer.
Notably, the mitts weren’t punching back. But from those few seconds of footage arose the notion that at age 54, Tyson could still be a reasonable facsimile of what he once was, an especially powerful lure for those who aren’t old enough to have seen him the first time around. And in the car wreck that is 2020, why not?
A rag-tag promotion was assembled co-featuring a bout between an “internet personality” and a retired NBA player — the less said about which, the better.
Several names were floated as Tyson’s potential opponent, including Holyfield’s, before Roy Jones Jr. drew the lucky card.
Once universally regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, he started at junior middleweight and won world titles in four weight divisions, including heavyweight, where he beat John Ruiz for one version of the world title. That was in March 2003.
Jones always made a point of saying that he wouldn’t be one of those guys who hung around too long — a guy who lost all of his money and was forced to remain in the ring simply for a payday. His close friend, Gerald McClellan, had suffered terrible brain damage during a fight, and Jones always saw that as a cautionary tale, as a reminder of the true stakes every time he stepped between the ropes.
Late in 2003, Jones recorded the last significant win of his career, over Antonio Tarver. He lost two rematches to Tarver, but continued on, the magnificent reflexes that had been the core of his great talent noticeably diminished. Many of the opponents were obscure, the locations far from glamorous. He lost a bunch of times. But presumably he needed the dough.
Jones last fought almost three years ago. He is the kid in this match-up – just 51 years old.
So yes, this is carny stuff, but if you go back over the long history of boxing, there has always been plenty of that. Caveat emptor, for sure, but chances are no one will get hurt, and in those tingly moments when everyone else but the referee clears the ring, and the fighters stand, stripped to the waist awaiting the bell, you’ll feel a little bit of what it was like to watch both Tyson and Jones in their primes.
Just don’t look too closely. Maybe squint a little bit. And don’t expect too much.