World Heavyweight Champion: 1988-1990
The mid-1980s saw a concerted effort on the part of the various boxing authorities to unify the heavyweight title. Since Muhammad Ali’s undisputed supremacy back in 1978, the title had been fragmented to a level verging on the farcical. It obviously wasn’t in the sport’s interest to have a string of boxers all laying claim to be world champion. A series of eliminators was proposed, with the object of establishing an undisputed top dog by the end of 1987. All the individual title holders were involved, together with the other top contenders of the day. One of those was Michael Spinks, the unbeaten IBF champion who had been stripped of his title for choosing to face Gerry Cooney instead of Tony Tucker. Another was Mike Tyson.
Mike Tyson was the archetypal bad boy made good – almost. Cus D’Amato, the man who had guided Floyd Patterson to the top 30 years earlier, took the young Tyson under his wing and appeared to have saved him from himself. Tyson had drifted into petty crime and downright thuggery on the tough Brooklyn streets where he grew up. He was sent to reform school, and that could have set him on a path of repeated periods of incarceration in penal institutions, with every possibility of the felonies becoming increasingly serious as he moved into adulthood. D’Amato sought to rescue Tyson from all that. Not only did he set out to take Tyson to the top of the boxing world, but he became the troubled youngster’s mentor, confidant and friend. He took Tyson into his home, giving him family stability and imbuing him with the kind of values which were to have kept him on the straight and narrow. For a time it worked to perfection. With D’Amato as both boxing tutor and father figure Tyson flourished both in and out of the ring. After turning professional in 1985 he made sensational progress. Between March of that year and September 1986 Tyson had no less than 27 fights. He won them all, which is impressive enough in itself, despite the fact that his opponents included a fair few journeymen. What is more noteworthy is the fact that these fights lasted just 74 rounds in total, and 15 of his opponents were put away inside the first three minutes.
Tyson’s approach to boxing was simple and ruthlessly efficient. He flew at his opponents from the opening bell; not for him a tentative period of feeling out his man, assessing his strengths and weaknesses. He struck with scintillating speed and devastating power. He may have been just 5ft 11in, quite short in the modern era, yet the bull-necked 2201b Tyson was a fearsome fighting machine. His attacks were savage. If his man tried to protect his face,
Tyson sent piledrivers into the body. They couldn’t run, they couldn’t hide. They all went down sooner or later, and usually sooner.
November 1986 saw the start of a sensational 18-month period in which Tyson became the undisputed king of the ring. His first title was the WBC version, with Trevor Berbick the man on the receiving end of a two-round bludgeoning. Still only 20, Tyson had become the youngest man to hold a version of the heavyweight title. Unfortunately, Cus D’Amato didn’t live to see his protege and pupil make it to the top. That was sad on a personal level; it would also have dangerous repercussions. Tyson still had the demons of an angry young man within him, and without D’Amato’s guidance the potential for him to go off the rails was still there.
Four months later, Tyson added the WBA crown to his haul. His opponent was James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith, who had surprisingly wrested the WBA title from Tim Witherspoon three months earlier. The Tyson – Smith fight was poor fare, Smith concentrating on frustrating his opponent and surviving rather than winning the fight himself. He succeeded in that he took Tyson the distance, but the result was never in doubt.
Tyson wins IBF Crown
A comprehensive defence against Pinklon Thomas followed, Tyson finishing his man in the sixth with a devastating 18-punch salvo to which Thomas had no reply. He then took on Tony Tucker for the IBF title. The two met on 1 August 1987, in Las Vegas. The crowd expected Tucker to be the lamb, Tyson the man to slaughter him. They were disappointed. Tucker used his 10-inch reach advantage to land the odd blow, but for the most part they were innocuous cuffs and pats. Tyson kept coming forward and landing the heavier blows, though he couldn’t find the big one to put Tucker away. The points margin ranged from 4 to 8 in Tyson’s favour, reflecting his utter dominance of the fight.
Tyson’s star was still rising, though some thought elevating him to the status of boxing legend was somewhat premature. Even so, the media now widely acclaimed Tyson as the undisputed champion, overlooking the fact that Michael Spinks had had his title taken off him out of the ring, not in it. There were three more fights before that clash, however. Tyrell Biggs was powerful and game but ran out of luck in the seventh, when Tyson hammered him into submission. In January 1988, Larry Holmes became the latest ex-champion to think he could roll back the years and regain his crown. The 38-year-old grandfather quickly discovered that although he could probably still mix it with a lot of heavyweights, Tyson was a different prospect altogether. The demolition job was reminiscent of Holmes’s own comprehensive victory over an ageing Muhammad Ali eight years earlier. For the first three rounds Holmes used all his experience to keep out of trouble, and even connected with some decent shots of his own. Two of the three judges actually gave him round three. But Tyson shrugged that off, and in round four came forward like a battering ram to finish the job in brutal style. When Holmes hit the canvas, the referee wasn’t about to allow him to make a fool of himself – or worse. ‘It’s over, Larry,’ he said. ‘We don’t want no tragedies, do we?’ ‘I’m the best in the world’
Michael Spinks was now touted as the only serious threat to Tyson. The champion was as dismissive of Spinks’s chances as he had been of all the others. ‘I’m the best fighter in the world right now. I’ll take on all-comers.’ Perhaps more pertinent was the comment of Larry Holmes after his comprehensive defeat. ‘Tyson is better than I thought. A lot better. People can talk about Spinks all they want; Tyson is the true champion.’
Tyson versus Spinks was set for Atlantic City, 27 June, 1988. Tyson warmed up for the fight with a second-round knockout of Tony Tubbs in March. 30-year-old Tubbs was a former WBA champion and was chosen for his durability. He lasted just 5 minutes 54 seconds, when he ran into a savage left hook. It was victim No. 34 for Tyson. He had accounted for all of them in just 118 rounds.
First round victory over Spinks
Tyson lowered his rounds-per-fight average even further when he met Spinks. In just 91 seconds he removed every last shred of doubt that remained over his right to wear the crown. In his time as a pro Spinks had never been floored, let alone beaten, but the so-called ‘People’s Champion’ had no answer to the Tyson onslaught. He entered the record books in a way he would have preferred not to: as the man on the receiving end of the fourth fastest knockout in the history of the heavyweight championship.
Ringside that night were Frank Bruno and his manager Terry Lawless. Bruno had the dubious honour of being the next mandatory challenger for the world title. Interestingly, he had met Tyson years earlier, while training in the Catskills in America. Tyson was just a tough, starry-eyed kid at the time, but he told Frank that maybe the two of them would fight for the title one day. Those prophetic words were realised in Las Vegas, on 25 February, 1989.
Bruno came close to denting Tyson’s aura of invincibility that night. One of the hallmarks of the champion was his explosiveness out of the blocks, but at the end of the first round it was he who was scrambling for survival. In the end, though, Bruno had to settle for glorious failure. Tyson recovered from that early setback and finished the contest with a ferocious barrage in the fifth.
Tyson’s private turmoil
Tyson fought just once more that year, against Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams. Instead of learning from those who had given Tyson a degree of trouble, Williams simply walked into a Tyson haymaker and went down in one. This fight merely reconfirmed Tyson’s frightening reputation in the ring. His reputation out of it was also growing, but not for the right reasons. His private life was in turmoil. He mistrusted those who hung on to the shirt-tails of his success. It rankled that everyone wanted to know him now, while no one had given him the time of day before boxing brought him fame and fortune. Cus D’Amato was an exception, of course, but he was no longer around to exert a moderating, paternal influence. There were car crashes, brawls and a brief, stormy marriage to actress Robin Givens. It seemed that Tyson was spiralling out of control. The only area of stability and predictability was his performance in the ring, although even here the cracks were beginning to show. He seemed to have abandoned all the boxing skills he had learned from the master in favour of whirlwind assaults and attempting to finish his opponents off as quickly as possible. It was hardly classical or stylish, but it was uncompromisingly effective. Nobody, least of all the bookmakers, had any reason to think that James ‘Buster’ Douglas would do anything other than become Iron Mike’s 38th victim.
Michael Gerard Tyson
Born: Brooklyn, New York, USA. June 30 1966
Height: 5» iii/2»
Record: Won 49 (43 Kos)
Lost 4 Drawn 0