By Cliff Rold
It was news which led to laughs, annoyance, and hang-ups; a conclusion so foregone, most didn’t bother to tune in to HBO on February 11, 1990. Frantic phone dials moments after Sugar Ray Leonard’s astonished, “I..it’s over” came through the television speakers elicited reactions like:
And, of course, “Did you tape it?”
Later this week, boxing marks the twentieth anniversary of what remains the greatest upset in the sports history and maybe in the history of sport period.
James “Buster” Douglas KO10 Mike Tyson.
Even watching it live, the shadow of “Iron” Mike loomed so large, the aura of invincibility emanated so strongly, it was hard to believe. Two decades later, in some ways, it still is. The carefully constructed heir to Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali never quite became what he was expected to be, but has enough time passed to give credit for what he was?
Just past the anniversary of this monumental upset, the question is asked: how good was Tyson, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What’s Left to Prove
It begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Hailed From: Brooklyn, New York
Turned Professional: March 6, 1985 (TKO1 Hector Mercedes)
Record: 50-6, 44 KO, 2 No Contests
Record in Title Fights: 12-4, 10 KO, 3 KOBY
Lineal World Titles: World Heavyweight (June 27, 1988-February 11, 1990, 2 Defenses)
Other Major Titles: WBC Heavyweight (1986-87, 1 Defense); WBC/WBA Heavyweight (1987, 2 Defenses); WBC/WBA/IBF Heavyweight (1987-90, 6 Defenses); WBC Heavyweight (1996); WBA Heavyweight (1996)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 3 (Alonzo Ratliff, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 3 (James Douglas, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 8 (Trevor Berbick, James Smith, Pinklon Thomas, Tony Tucker, Tony Tubbs, Frank Bruno, Bruce Seldon, Frans Botha)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Faced in No Contest: 1 (Orlin Norris)
Before he entered the paid ranks, Tyson had a short but accomplished tenure in the amateurs. The 1984 U.S. National Golden Gloves Heavyweight champion, Tyson narrowly missed a trip to the Los Angeles Olympics that year, losing a controversially scored decision at the Olympic Trials to eventual Gold Medalist Henry Tillman.
By March of the following year, Tyson had moved on. In just over one year, Tyson would win his first nineteen professional starts by knockout, twelve of those in the first round. Distance wins over James Tillis and Mitch Green in May 1986 were followed by seven more knockouts, the last of them a second round destruction of Trevor Berbick on November 22, 1986 for the WBC Heavyweight belt.
The Berbick win made Tyson, just shy of four months after his twentieth birthday, the youngest titlist in Heavyweight history. Following Leon Spinks’s upset of Muhammad Ali in 1978, the WBC and WBA Heavyweight titles were split. In December 1983, the most recognized Heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes, abandoned his WBC belt and accepted recognition from the fledgling IBF to add a third bauble to the mix. Holmes would lose to Michael Spinks in 1985. Their April 1986 rematch kicked off a tournament spearheaded largely by Don King and HBO to finally unify a division which had not seen a unification contest since the initial 1978 split.
Tyson-Berbick kicked the tournament to a new level of interest.
March 1987 would give Tyson another piece of the crown, then-WBA titlist “Bonecrusher” Smith clutching his way to a loss and pushing Tyson to the twelfth round for the first time. Two fights later, in August 1987, he added the IBF belt with a decision over Tony Tucker.
One piece of the puzzle remained.
While Tyson had all of the most recognized belts, Michael Spinks held recognition as the lineal champion due to his wins over Holmes. Spinks, under the guidance of Butch Lewis, had chosen to make a profitable fight with Gerry Cooney rather than make an IBF mandatory and was stripped of their belt. Following Tyson-Tucker, the build to Tyson-Spinks was on, culminating in a showdown in Atlantic City on June 27, 1988. 91 seconds after the opening bell, Mike Tyson had eliminated any remaining dispute about his status as the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the world.
Three days shy of his twenty-second birthday, Tyson was the second youngest lineal champion of all time, trailing fellow Cus D’Amato product Floyd Patterson by just a more than a month for the record. He would hold the title for two more fights before losing it to Douglas. Including the unification wins, he ultimately made nine total defenses of his initial share of the title.
There would be no Douglas rematch and an October 1991 rib injury scuttled a planned November showdown with Douglas’s conqueror, Evander Holyfield. Tyson’s arrest and later conviction for the rape of Desiree Washington would be the catalyst for a layoff from June 1991 to August 1995.
Following his release from prison, Tyson was immediately rated as a top Heavyweight challenger by the WBC and WBA. In the years he’d been incarcerated, the division’s belts had again been split and Tyson was positioned to repeat his previous unification run by promoter Don King. As had been the case with Spinks, the lineal championship had drifted away from the sanctioning bodies with George Foreman stripped first by the WBA (for failing to face Bruce Seldon) and then the IBF (for refusing a rematch with Axel Schultz).
Tyson would not regain that crown.
Three fights into his comeback faced former knockout victim Frank Bruno for the WBC honors. Bettering his first victory by two rounds, Tyson stopped Bruno in the third in March 1996. A proposed unification match with WBA titlist Bruce Seldon was postponed by injury and Tyson was forced to give up his WBC title for failing to make a mandatory against Lennox Lewis. That left just Seldon’s belt on the line in September 1996 and Tyson took the WBA belt in less than two minutes.
It would be the last title fight Tyson would ever win. Two months later he would be upset by Holyfield. The infamous Holyfield rematch led to a lengthy suspension for Tyson and he would fight only nine more times, losing his lone other title opportunity to Lennox Lewis in June 2002; Lewis held only the WBC and IBF belts at the time but had won the lineal title from Shannon Briggs in 1998 and unified all the belts by the end of 1999.
Among outside the ring honors, Tyson was named in, or as, the:
• Ring Magazine Prospect of the Year; 1985;
• BWAA and Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year: 1986 and 1988;
• Ring Magazine Round of the Year: 1988;
• Ring Magazine Fight of the Year: 1996;
• Ring Magazine Upset of the Year: 1990 and 1996;
• Ring Magazine Event of the Year: 1995, 1997, 1998, 2002;
• #4 All-Time Heavyweight by Boxing Illustrated/Boxing Digest, 1997;
• #19 of the Top 50 of the Last 50 Years by Ring Magazine in 1996;
• #14 of the Top 20 Heavyweights All-Time by Ring Magazine in 1998;
• #72 of the 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years by Ring Magazine in 2002;
• #16 of the 100 Greatest Punchers of All-Time by Ring Magazine, 2003; and
• #14 of the Top 20 Heavyweights All-Time by the International Boxing Research Organization, 2009.
In terms of competition, Tyson’s career unfolded in two parts, not separated so much by the Douglas loss as by his prison term. In the first part, his quality of competition was as good as it could have been. While there were plenty of well picked victims in Tyson’s early run, fighters like Tillis, Green, and Jose Ribalta were good tests for a fighter still in his first two years as a pro. Ratliff, while a smaller man, was only one fight removed from losing the Cruiserweight championship on points.
Of the fifteen fighters who held some recognized share of the Heavyweight crown following the alphabet body fracturing following Leon Spinks-Ali I, Tyson faced seven of the thirteen who were still active during his 1980s rise and reign. He stopped five. Of those five, he was only the second to stop Berbick, the first to stop Pinklon Thomas and Tony Tubbs, and the first and only fighter ever to stop Hall of Famers Holmes and Spinks.
Among his challengers for the title, Tyrell Biggs was a legitimately rated contender and former Olympic Gold Medalist; Tyson was the first to defeat or stop him. As a group, there aren’t any prime all-time greats, but there’s plenty of good fighters there and the style with which Tyson handled the bulk of them counts for something.
The mythology of the Douglas loss obscures that he was not a bad fighter. In the run to the Tyson fight, Douglas had won six fights in a row with decisions over Berbick and future titlist Oliver McCall immediately before his title shot.
Following Douglas, Tyson took revenge against Tillman in a tune-up and followed with Alex Stewart. Stewart gave rough nights to Holyfield before, and Michael Moorer and George Foreman after, a first round destruction at Tyson’s hands. Donovan “Razor” Ruddock was a huge puncher and serious contender before and after suffering losses (by controversial stoppage and decision) in Tyson’s last two fights before prison.
In the second part of his career, Tyson’s competition was spotty and calculated. Wins over fringe contender Buster Mathis Jr. and reigning titlists Bruno and Seldon weren’t bad places to start a comeback. Holyfield was wrongly thought to be shot and ended up being a much tougher fight than anyone was expecting in 1996 but, to Mike’s credit, he went right back at him in a rematch (the credit ends there given the result).
Even after Holyfield, he had a few notable opponents. Botha was still nipping at the edges of contention, as were Orlin Norris and Andrew Golota. Lewis was the king of the division when Tyson faced him in 2002; it doesn’t get better or tougher than that.
Competition Not Faced
As regularly relayed in these “Measured Against All-Time” selections, this section is not concerned with why fights did not happen but simply that they did not.
Returning to the first part of his career, there were six active former titlists Tyson did not face: John Tate, Mike Weaver, Michael Dokes, Tim Witherspoon, Gerrie Coetzee, and Greg Page. Of those fighters, Tate and Coetzee can’t be considered misses based on where they were in their careers; Dokes was laid off from 1985 until late in 1987 and was stopped by Holyfield in 1989 before he could truly emerge as a contender again.
Prior to and immediately after prison, George Foreman stands out as a quality missed opponent while a showdown with Holyfield in 1990 or 1991 will always stand out as one of boxing’s great missed opportunities.
The fighters Tyson missed are most significant in the second part of his career because, while he was away, the division got better. While he did face Holyfield, and eventually Lewis, Tyson just missed the waning years of Riddick Bowe and Tommy Morrison. Ray Mercer was discussed as an opponent in the late 1990s but did not happen. Michael Moorer was still a contender when Mike returned as well. Rising forces in the late-1990s like David Tua, Chris Byrd, Ike Ibeabuchi, and the Klitschko brothers also merit mention because they shared time in the top ten while Tyson was active.
Reaction to Adversity
This is typically an area where Tyson is open to great criticism but again necessitates analyzing Tyson’s career in two parts. In the first part, Tyson did not show quit under fire.
While Tillis, Smith, and Tucker made Tyson look ordinary in spots after taking early heat, they didn’t make him look bad. It is unreasonable to expect any fighter to look great every time out and Tyson handled all of those fighters professionally.
Smith came only to survive, until the closing moments of the twelfth round when he hurt Tyson with a counter, but Tyson didn’t get frustrated; instead he made sure he was winning the rounds while looking for holes to score the stop. Tucker rocked Tyson in the first round and was outboxing him through the first five rounds. A hand injury hampered Tucker from there but so too did a Tyson who settled into working the body, comfortable boxing his way to a points win. Tyson was stunned in the first Bruno fight and both fights with Ruddock but endured and ultimately dominated.
Even in the Douglas loss, a fight where Tyson was, according to most accounts, less prepared than normal, he kept pressing and was winging prayer shots late into the fight. He even managed a knockdown in round eight. The shots that stopped him were legitimate knockout blows after a steady beating.
Part two of his career was different. The first Holyfield fight was competitive only until the sixth round, when Mike was dropped, and then Mike seemed to accept that a beating was coming and waited for the inevitable end. In the second fight, frustration was certainly evident. Hurt in the first and shaken by a cut suffered from headbutts in round two, Tyson landed some of the best shots he had to offer in round three. When Holyfield shook them off, Tyson ordered lunch, biting Holyfield on both ears and drawing a disqualification.
The devolution into an all-out freak show was on from there. He seemed to be, and later admitted to, trying to break Frans Botha’s arm in a clinch early in a fight where he was being soundly outboxed before a lethal right hand saved the night. The Lou Savarese fight featured an attempt to keep hitting his opponent even as the referee stood between them trying to wave it off. He fell apart after the first round of the Lewis fight and went down without being hit even before he quit in his final fight against Kevin McBride.
Significantly, Tyson never avenged a professional defeat.
What’s Left to Prove
For Tyson, it is presumed he is permanently retired and thus there is nothing left to prove in the ring. Tyson has so far shown that fears of an early exit from this life may have been exaggerated. He has experienced a small renaissance in public life recently with film appearances, Oprah appearances, and a likely election later this year to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Measured Against History
Weighing the two parts of Tyson’s career, even with the second having a stronger cast of characters, it’s hard for the scale not to tip in his favor of him in terms of competition faced. Most of the non-Holmes beltholder were interchangeable. The only really notable miss was Witherspoon, a fighter who could be of special quality on good nights. It is a forgiven miss because it would have happened had Witherspoon not had one of his not so special nights against “Bonecrusher” Smith with a Tyson fight in the offing.
What he missed in the second part is hard to weight because Tyson was simply not as good a fighter after prison as he was before.
He wasn’t given a chance to be.
The matchmaking of Tyson after prison was so safe that it didn’t allow him to settle into being a fighter again and, when faced with a real fighter, the game was up.
It is highly possible Holyfield beats any version of Tyson and, given the results of their contests, Holyfield deserves the benefit of the doubt. Without legal troubles though, perhaps Tyson regains the title and goes on to defend against Bowe and the younger Lewis. It’s a thought provoking what if but can have no bearing on analyzing what actually happened in the ring. Certainly there was never any version of Tyson after the Holyfield fights which could be considered more than an average guy with quick hands and a big punch.
That still leaves the dramatic early years.
His rise through the ranks was as meteoric as any fighter since Joe Louis, his style as captivating as any since Dempsey. Like Louis, he faced a field of mostly pretenders to the throne and wiped them out on his way to cleaning out the field.
The biggest scalp on Tyson’s wall was Holmes. Holmes was a great Champion in his day and no one’s pretender. While he was 38 and entering off a lengthy layoff, he continued on for many years afterwards with a win over an undefeated Mercer and competitive losses to Holyfield and, at age 45, to a then-WBC titlist in McCall. Tyson’s fourth round knockout was impressive and remains underrated.
It was indicative of another trait he shared with Louis in his rise. The young Tyson was good at seizing key moments. A much touted showdown with Marvis “Son of Joe” Frazier on national television was over in thirty seconds. His first title shot, the Holmes fight, and the Spinks win all were places where pressure could have gotten to so young a man but did not.
The young Tyson was a gamer.
Unlike Louis, Tyson couldn’t keep the field cleared once he hit the peak. The Tyson of 1986-88 is often referred to as “prime” Tyson but it should be asked if perhaps there never was a prime for “Iron” Mike. The 1988 run of knockouts which featured Holmes, Tubbs, and Spinks displayed a fighter hitting his stride. Against Tubbs, he showed how he’d learned lessons from the holding tactics employed by fighters like Smith, stepping out and ripping Tubbs’s body in combination. Against Spinks, he simply refused to be held.
1988 is also when most of his out of ring personal and management turmoil became public.
By the Frank Bruno fight in 1989, he was showing less head movement and less combination punching. He obviously wasn’t physically done; he was only 22 years old and hadn’t taken tremendous punishment. Too many have attempted armchair psychology and sociology when it comes to Tyson and the effort is avoided here. It is worth asking though if, just as he was perfecting his skills, Tyson let go just enough to let a real prime slip away.
That leaves, in a career spanning twenty years, a period from Berbick to Spinks of only nineteen months to weigh against the best Heavyweights who ever did it.
Those nineteen months were so often awesome that Tyson remains with a mystique few fighters ever attain. The fear in some opponent’s eyes was matched only by the lustful stare of crowds who wanted to see that fear punished with unconsciousness. His speed, power, and charisma were of a rare sort. He looked like he had to the potential to become one of the best, maybe the best, that ever did it.
Tyson was not a bad Heavyweight champion. He made more successful title defenses than Rocky Marciano or Jack Dempsey. His opposition was arguably superior to the latter as a champion though Dempsey’s overall career competition would give him an edge in a full body of work comparison.
Where Tyson lacks in comparison to other greats is in terms of longevity and accompanying consistency. Greatness is as much about staying on top as getting there. Because he made less of a public impression, the quick fall of Tyson contemporary Donald Curry at Welterweight is a no brainer in leaving Curry out of all-time discussions at 147 lbs.
Sure, maybe Curry could have competed with the best on his best night, but there aren’t enough of those best nights against special competition, or longevity to compensate for that lacking, to merit mention with the true greats. Lots of fighters could have been hell for the world on their best nights.
Heavyweight is a more shallow pool than Welterweight historically and in most eras. It is also a division where greatness is defined a little differently because, unlike smaller fighters, there’s no next division to conquer to further illustrate greatness. Smaller fighters can become great sticking to one class, particularly if they dominate for years, but the chance to move up the scale enhances the ability to stack a resume.
In terms of great Heavyweights, Tyson can reasonably take a spot amongst the top twenty big men of all time even with a short body of work. Between 215 and 220 lbs. at his best, Tyson’s combination of bulk, skill and God-given thunder would have been more than a handful for a lot of Heavyweight champions. There are multiple eras where, with opportunity, he could have been champion and no era where he is not a top ten contender. He was good enough in his window of time for anyone to recognize that.
His shortcomings were enough to recognize that he doesn’t quite belong with the next tier no matter how one thinks the Tyson of the mind’s fond eye would have done in a given mythical match. Wishing Tyson into the top ten Heavyweights would be no different than wishes some have for him to have become what they thought he would. Tyson did not fulfill what the world determined to be his potential. He didn’t really even come close. He still accomplished more than most who lace them up could ever dream and left an indelible mark on the sport.
Verdict on Mike Tyson: Easy Hall of Famer but Just Shy of the All-Time Heavyweight Pantheon
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Joe Calzaghe – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=16920
Oscar De La Hoya – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17277
James Toney – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17450
Evander Holyfield – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17642
Shane Mosley – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=18011
Dariusz Michalczewski: https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=20296
Vernon Forrest: https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=21278
Roy Jones Jr.: https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=21561
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org