We’ve all seen it and we’ve all heard it. Calm waters and a sunlit beach; children squealing with delight; that fin sliding serenely through the surf; the ice-cream man selling strawberry crush. We can hear that music we know so well. You know the one? That shark music! Would you like extra strawberry on that ice cream? Hahaha! Looks like blood. Teenagers are playing ball and the sand is flying. Oh! What fun we are having at the beach. A shiver runs down the spine, maybe we’ve had too much ice-cream, and an impending feeling of menace is overcoming us. It’s here! Composer Williams and director Spielberg have much to answer for. You know where I’m going with this?
Eyes that are dead in the water and can bore holes right through your soul. He’s all threat and brooding menace; just don’t dip a toe in the water. It’s that damn shark again. Only it’s not. It’s the world heavyweight boxing champion and he’s cruising for a bruising. He wants a piece of you.
Pierce Egan was a British sportswriter when pugilism was the game and the Marquis of Queensbury was the name. It was all noble stuff. It was Egan who coined the boxing phrase “the sweet science of bruising”. Egan, in the 1800’s, may have thought that it was all about the “sweet science”. He never saw Mike Tyson and we know that “sugar and spice and all things nice” is not what it was all about. Tyson arrived on the heavyweight scene like a great white, lurking below a thundering, crashing surf. And those teeth! Straight out of Bobby Darin’s song Mack the Knife: “Oh the shark, babe, has such teeth…Ya know when that shark bites… scarlet billows start to spread.” The result was a dismembered body washed up on a sandy beach or in this case dumped on a canvas.
After the heady days in the 70’s when giants in the shape of Ali, Foreman, Frazier et al, walked amongst us; world heavyweight boxing was casting about and looking for a new beast. Larry Holmes and Ernie Shavers brightened the scene somewhat; however, something was missing. Many knowledgeable people within the sport offered the opinion that Holmes and Shavers were two of the men to carry the touch for the heavyweight division in the post Ali, Foreman and Frazier era.
To show how low the division had sunk during this period we can look at the fight between Greg Page, a man who died in 2009 of positional asphyxia and Tim Witherspoon for the vacant WBC crown. Holmes, at this point drifting into contented and deserved retirement, commented that he had seen more action watching old ladies play the slot machines in Las Vegas. A noted American sports columnist, Blackie Sherrod, made this assumption about a well know heavyweight contender, “he has everything a boxer needs except speed, stamina, a punch and the ability to take punishment. In other words, he owns a pair of shorts”. Whilst Sherrod was referencing a particular fighter during this period, the analogy could stretch to the division as a whole in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
As the heavyweight scene was wallowing in mediocrity, many fans cast their eyes to the lower weight divisions. And thankfully the sport was healthy in the lower regions; in fact it was more than healthy. It was downright glowing. Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, the so called “Four Kings”, staged a series of fights that thrilled boxing fans the world over. Who would not what ringside seats to those epics? The fights just highlighted and emphasized the situation in the heavier division. But it was all about to change. The fin was gliding through the water. That music was pounding in our ears. And the shark was just about to be washed up on our shores. Mike Tyson, the heavyweight ogre everyone had been missing, was about to throw his considerable shadow over the whole sorry heavyweight mess.
Mike Tyson was what the boxing world had been waiting for since the demise of that other shadow in the darkness, Sonny Liston, more than twenty years previously. Liston had left his imprint on the heavyweight scene, both in and out of the ring. Liston’s harsh upbringing and violent history are well documented. Liston was once arrested for assaulting a police officer breaking the officer’s knee and gashing his face. The account was further exacerbated in the boxing press by the fact that nightsticks were allegedly broken over Liston’s head. Sonny Liston died in mysterious circumstances in 1970. In 1973 the New York Times ventured the opinion that heavyweight boxing missed his “frightening sense of evil”. American sports writer Bud Collins, noted more for tennis than pugilism, wrote: “Sonny is an ogre I miss.” There is nothing we like better than booing and hissing when the villain steps onto a stage; however, we miss him when he’s gone.
Liston, “the ogre we all miss” was not everybody’s cup of tea; he was way too unsettling for boxing writers and fans in the late 50’s and early sixties. Everybody had fond memories of Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis, fighters who conducted themselves well and proved popular. These were men who had great family values, great personal and professional ethics. Whilst Tyson was “cut from the same cloth” as Liston and came from a similar background, the boxing fraternity could not get enough of the brooding, brash and powerful newcomer. Standing at 5ft 11in, he was certainly not the tallest heavyweight in history and weighing in at 220lb, not the heaviest; he did however, pack one of the most punishing punches in history; throw in fantastic hand speed and he had it all going for him.
Tyson started like a whirlwind and laid waste to all who had the temerity to challenge him, he fought 12 times in 1986 and that is virtually unheard these days. He fought such luminaries as Don Halpin, Donnie Long and Eddie Richardson- hardly names that lit up the scene. In Tyson’s fifth fight John Alderson went down and sat in the middle of the ring like supplicant puppy; Tyson, with a bemused look on his face, did not know whether to hit Alderson again or rub is belly. Mike Tyson would prowl the ring before a fight like that shark gliding serenely through the water; he’s just waiting for you. Tyson eventually terrorized enough people to gain a shot at Trever Berbick’s WBC title in Las Vegas. The fight was the start of a process to bring together all the world title belts under one champion. Berbick was a confident competent fighter who could mix it with the best; however, that was not saying much for the division at that time. Berbick said all the right things and made all the usual noises. “I’m going to take him to school. I’m very relaxed. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Tyson had made his way the excellent tutelage of Gus D’Amato, surely one of the greatest boxing trainers who ever stood ringside. He took Tyson under his wing and adopted him after Tyson’s mother died. D’Amato trained him over the next few years. Young boxers receiving praise from D’Amato and his prodigy Kevin Rooney was like traveling to Rome and receiving affirmation from his holiness. It was D’Amato who saw potential in the young tyro who was struggling in a reform school. It was D’Amato who Tyson admitted was a formative and positive influence in those early days.
The young boxer under D’Amato was a quick learner. In the Berbick fight Tyson launched an attack that sent shivers down the spines of people in expensive suits and glittering dresses sitting ringside. He came at Berick with all guns blazing. Berbick at this point most have been rethinking his words “I’m very relaxed”. He didn’t look totally relaxed when Tyson’s thumping right hand sent him tottering, like a tower block being demolished, to the canvas. This was a school of hard knocks; very hard knocks. His other statement “this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me” certainly did not travel through his scrambled brain as he staggered to his feet then crashed into a startled group of photographers. He attempted to regain his feet before falling over and hitting the canvas once again. Maybe he saw the shark waiting and decided that it was not a good idea to mix it again.
Now the whole world knew it: Tyson was so mean, he could knock you down multiple times with one punch. Tyson was just twenty at this point, the youngest world heavyweight champion in history. In 1987, Tyson added the WBA and IBF titles after defeating James “bonecrusher” Smith who, coincidently, was the first heavy weight champion with a college degree, and Tony Tucker. This made Tyson the first heavyweight boxer to simultaneously hold the WBA, WBC, and IBF titles, and the only heavyweight to successively unify them. At last everybody could agree that the heavyweight division was healthy again.
Writers anointed him the rightful heir to Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Ali. Everybody agreed that Tyson fought and looked like a rightful heavyweight champion. The title looked like it belonged in the right hands, albeit powerful and pain inducing hands. Champion at 20 and there was no reason to believe that he could not continue into his mid-thirties.
But D’Amato’s lean, mean fighting machine was already malfunctioning and coming apart at the seams. Have you asked yourself why Tyson looked so mean and angry in the Berbick fight? Tyson entered the ring with a considerable dose of gonorrhoea to deal with and that stung far more than anything Berbick threw at him.
In 1988, he stopped a forty year old Larry Holmes in four rounds, before disposing of Michael Spinks, another former champion, in one. Britain’s popular champion Frank Bruno, followed in 1989, before it all came crashing, figuratively and metaphorically, down to the canvas. Tyson entered the ring in Tokyo in February 1990 against James ‘Buster’ Douglas carrying a great deal of personal baggage. He was undergoing a tremendous amount of turmoil, his coach and mentor, Gus D’Amato, had died in 1985 leaving him without any significant stabilizing influence, his marriage had burnt out spectacularly in public and Don King became his defacto “guardian”; a man who could hardly be described as a moral compass.
At the time Tyson was undefeated and considered to be the best boxer in the world; he was also one of the most feared heavyweight champions in history due to his domination of the division over the previous three years and he entered the fight with a 37-0 record. Douglas, who had trained hard, surprised the world by dominating the fight from the beginning, using his 12-inch reach advantage to perfection. He seemingly hit Tyson at will with jabs and right hands and danced out of range of Tyson’s own punches. During the fight Douglas threw almost 200 left jabs, followed by big booming right hooks that opened Tyson up. Douglas went down on the canvas at the end of round 9, he just made the count and the bell followed immediately that stopped the circling shark that was Tyson.
In the next round while setting Tyson up with his jab Douglas scored a huge uppercut that snapped Tyson’s head upward. He then followed with a rapid four-punch combination to the head, and knocked Tyson down for the first time in his career. Tyson struggled to his knees and picked up his mouthpiece lying on the canvas. However, this was not Russell Crowe and the Cinderella Man; there was to be no replacing the shield, having flashbacks to difficult times and going on to victory. Tyson awkwardly attempted to place the shield back into his mouth and that image of Tyson with the mouthpiece hanging crookedly from his lips would become an enduring image from the fight. The sight of Tyson, scrabbling for his gum shield on his hands and knees as the referee counts him out is as pathetic in the memory as it was shocking at the time.
Tyson continued to spiral downhill. There followed a prison sentence for rape, his disgraceful treatment of women, a come-back, the regaining of the world title, the night he lost it again, the night he bit off an ear-that shark will not go away, the loss of his fortune (likely to happen if you walk around with a Bengal tiger on a leash and other more human sharks circling) and more sad nights in the ring.
Mike Tyson was ranked by ESPN as the number one most outrageous character in sports history; he’s been the subject of much parody and satire. From a young age he faced many challenges; not all within the ropes. A harsh upbringing, the absence of any significant male role models in his early years (until D’Amato came along), and the death of his mother, when he was aged 16, all contributed to his story. Tyson is of course not unique in any of this. Many young men have come from similar backgrounds and have not resorted to anything like Tyson’s indiscretions. Many fighters in the hard world that is boxing ave conducted themselves decently and respectfully and it’s not within in the realms of this article to formulate an opinion of Tyson’s mental condition over the years; that’s already been well documented. His behavior, both in and out of the ring, in the latter part of his career was disgraceful. However, nothing can diminish the memories of those early years,before it all went wrong, when he proved what a great destroyer of boxing dreams he was; circling the ring, menacing, brooding, relentless, and coming at you like that great shark.