Fifteen years after he last fought, and upwards of thirty years after he was last considered the best heavyweight in the world, Mike Tyson still has some people convinced that he can come back and beat up the current crop of heavyweight contenders.
Some combination of Tyson being in visually good shape again, quarantine boredom and a lack of other topics for sports media to cover has created a storm of speculation about a comeback for Kid Dynamite in the year 2020. The COVID-19 era has brought about plenty of “mythical matchup” type debates in the sports sphere, but this one has gone beyond that. Not only do people think he will come back, but they think he has a legitimate shot at winning fights as well.
Online sportsbook sportsbetting.ag has whether a Mike Tyson boxing match will take place in 2020 or not set at even money. A proposed third bout against Evander Holyfield is set at even money as well, and Tyson is actually favored to win a rumored bare-knuckle bout against Shannon Briggs.
To be fair, there is a meaningful difference between a charity exhibition bout like the one proposed against Holyfield and an actual bare fisted fight against Briggs, or worse, an actual boxing match against other more active boxers. Should any of these happen? It’s up to reputable doctors to decide whether the 53-year old can safely get in there and spar a few rounds, but it’s not out of the question. Former heavyweight contender turned radio host Gerry Cooney, who is ten years older than Tyson, still spars to this day and looks and (I assume) feels great. One can comfortably assume however, that most doctors would not advise Tyson to take part in actual competition.
But that’s what plenty of people are dreaming of for Tyson after seeing a pair of recent videos of him hitting the pads with trainer Rafael Cordeiro. The videos, by all appearances, were paid advertisements for the Bad Boys For Life DVD release and Smart Cups respectively. The posts certainly got the traction the companies were looking for, but instead of talking about the products, the discussion turned to a Tyson comeback.
“Mike Tyson is coming back, he looks f--king sensational. He looks f--king incredible, terrifying. That’s so terrifying,” said Joe Rogan on a recent episode of his podcast.
"Did you see those punches? That man can still hurt you, even with headgear," said FOX Sports host Shannon Sharpe on May 5th.
Cordeiro, the man holding the mitts in the videos, added fuel to the fire himself. “I saw a guy with the same speed, same power as guys 21, 22 years old," he told Ariel Helwani.
What the reaction to these videos and the rumored comeback has illuminated is the incredible duration of the mythology of Mike Tyson. Even after he has become a podcasting mellowed out weed-smoking farmer, he remains in the eyes of many the Baddest Man On The Planet. In his prime, Tyson was lauded for his psychological grip on his opponents, winning fights before they even started by striking fear in his opponents’ hearts. As time has revealed, that fear has remained in the hearts of fans long after potential opponents stopped fearing him.
“Our generation left Tyson back on the canvas. When he got his ass kicked by Lennox Lewis, and then Danny Williams and Kevin McBride, we just left him there for 15 years. So there's a lot of us in our generation who look at this and think this is stupid. But there's the generation that only knows him from clips from the 80s and The Hangover, they see him throwing punches at a guy holding the mitts, and they're like yeah, he can come back,” said Louis Moore, associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University, and the author of I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915.
For the latter generation Moore describes, Tyson was more than an athlete, he was a superhuman character, immortalized in a video game, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, in which he was literally a larger than life, virtually unbeatable final boss. As retro video games have enjoyed a renaissance, as has Tyson as a cultural fixture as a podcast host, the mystical aura around him has continued to grow. It isn’t the losses to Williams and McBride that everyone replays, it’s the video games and the knockout compilation tapes.
"Mike was a highlight reel for 80s youth. The stuff of comics," said historian and author Bijan C. Bayne. "He and Jordan were the ultimate 80s athletes, human video games for a generation raised playing them. One could apparently fly, the other possessed a superhuman punch. For a stretch, both were invincible, because Tyson had knockout power, and because he has a comic book personality to many, his fans put nothing past him. Boxers lose a step. Sluggers and supermen soldier on. Ask George Foreman."
It's hard to think of an athlete who has been so far divorced from their prime whom a section of the public still believed could compete at the highest level. Even in the case of Foreman, when he actually did come back, a big part of the narrative, often pushed by Foreman himself, was about how he was now a cuddly old man, not the frightening slugger of yesteryear (as it turned out he could still crack, and might have taken a better punch than he did when he was younger). Outside of boxing, even the biggest Michael Jordan stan wouldn’t suggest that MJ could step out on the floor today and drop 40 points. But when it comes to Tyson, seemingly anything is possible.
“If Roy Jones decides to get back in the ring, everybody would be like, this dude has no chance,” said Moore. “If we went to play sports at the age 40, our bodies are going to say no. If Carl Lewis said he's coming back for the Olympic Trials, there's no chance. If Michael Jordan thought he could come back, not a chance. There's something about boxing--a lot of people don't know you can't just be any geek of the street and get in that ring because it's not an old man's game. It's probably fair to say that any Top 100 heavyweight out there would hurt him.”
Tyson himself probably knows that. But why would he say it? Superheroes don’t reveal their true identity voluntarily. Businessmen don’t pass up a money-making opportunity. And until the day he dies, a big part of Tyson’s ability to make money will be maintaining the sliver of hope in people’s minds that one day he could just turn it on again, slip into the short black trunks and knock someone’s head off.
One thing we know for sure is that whether he chooses to just light one up and talk about it or actually gets in there and tries to do it, people will never stop watching.