There was a time when people who understood boxing talked about Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones as a real fight. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Triller)
In 1996, I had a long sitdown with Roy. Tyson had been released from prison a year earlier and had reclaimed the WBC and WBA titles by knocking out Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon. Jones was undefeated and gaining recognition as boxing's pound-for-pound king.
"Would you fight Mike Tyson?" I asked.
"If the money was right," Roy answered. "But you have to understand, if I did it, I’d go in there to win. I’m not the kind of guy who says, 'If they pay me enough, it’s all right if I lose.' When I fight, I fight to win."
My next question was, "What would you key on if a Jones-Tyson fight came about?"
"First, I’d key on his power," Roy said. "Because if Tyson catches me with a big punch, I’m losing out. I’d have to avoid his big punches and make sure I landed all my punches so he couldn’t counter. That wouldn’t be easy because Tyson bobs and weaves and he’s quick. One area where I’d have an advantage is, I’d work on his footwork, make him chase me, because his footwork is ordinary. If I get past three rounds, Tyson is in trouble. I doubt if I’d knock him out. But if it goes past three rounds, I’d win a decision."
On Saturday night (November 28), twenty-four years later, Mike Tyson and Roy Jones squared off in a boxing ring. The occasion was an exhibition marketed as a fight - a pop culture event that exemplified the valuation of fame, hype, and glitz over substance and reality.
In their prime, Tyson and Jones were awesomely-gifted fighters. Tyson at his best was a more subtle boxer than most people gave him credit for. Jones was more brutal than acknowledged. There was a time when Mike was considered the best fighter in the world. Then Roy earned that designation. They were historic talents.
But their greatness is in the past.
Tyson was a .500 fighter with five wins, five losses, and two no contests during the last nine years of his ring career. He hasn't fought a "real" fight in fifteen years and is no longer "the baddest man on the planet." Jones hasn't won a big fight since he decisioned Felix Trinidad in 2008. When they stepped into the ring together on Saturday night, Mike was 55 years old and Roy was 51.
The Tyson-Jones event was put together by a music/video-sharing platform called Triller. Event organizers floated the rumor that they would invest "north of fifty million dollars" in the venture. That seemed unlikely. But whatever the number, Triller hoped to turn a profit on pay-per-view buys and, more important, use the proceedings as an infomercial for Triller.
Initially, Tyson-Jones was slated to take place at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, on September 12. Then it was rescheduled for November 28 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Each fighter wore 12-ounce gloves, not the 10-ounces worn by heavyweights in standard competition. Originally, the exhibition was scheduled for eight three-minute rounds. But on October 14, the rounds were shortened to two minutes each.
Jones was guaranteed a one-million-dollar payday with an upside dependent upon the number of pay-per-view buys. Tyson's guarantee was a matter of conjecture. He told TMZ that he was “not getting anything” for the fight and added, “It's going to be for various charities. Nobody has to ever worry about me getting rich or getting jealous or saying I'm doing this for money. I'm not getting anything. I just feel good doing this because I can.”
That said; the assumption was that the lion's share of the purse money would go to Tyson or one or more entities controlled by him.
The question hovering over it all was whether Tyson-Jones would be an "exhibition" or a "fight."
Boxing has a long history of exhibitions by elite fighters dating back to the days of John L. Sullivan. Most often, they have been marketed as such whether the fighter exhibiting his skills was Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, or Muhammad Ali.
Either a fighter is trying to hurt his opponent or he isn't. If he's trying to hurt his opponent, it's a fight. If not, it's an exhibition. A boxing exhibition is essentially a sparring session.
Andy Foster (executive director of the California State Athletic Commission which had jurisdiction over the event) was adamant that Tyson-Jones would be an exhibition. He stated that again and again.
* " I understand the interest that people have in Tyson. I grew up being knocked out by Mike Tyson on Punch Out. But this isn’t a situation where they’re going out there to try to take each other’s heads off. They’re just going to be in there, moving around the ring and letting fans see these legends."
* "I don’t care if they spar. I don’t care if they work. They can move around and make some money. They can get into it a little bit, but I don’t want people to get hurt. They know the deal. It’s an exhibition. They can exhibit their boxing skills, but I don’t want them using their best efforts to hurt each other. They’re going to spar hard, but they shouldn’t be going for a knockout. This isn’t a record-book type of fight. People shouldn’t be getting knocked out."
* "Ray Corona will referee it. I’m sure there are going to be times where it heats up. Ray’s job is going to be to put the ice back on without having to kill the whole thing. He’s that kind of referee. I feel that he’s going to be good at that. He’s the right guy for this kind of a fight. Ray won’t let people get hurt. He understands what an exhibition is. It’s not a fight-fight."
Foster was sincere in his desire to regulate Tyson-Jones as an exhibition and that this be made clear to prospective pay-per-view buyers. "We can’t mislead the public as to this is some kind of real fight," he said. Toward that end, he announced that the exhibition would not be scored by any judge representing the California State Athletic Commission and that no winner would be announced.
Even then, there were medical concerns. Jones sought to discount them, telling ESPN.com, " Wait a minute! You've boxed for how many, thirty-nine years? And now, you're all of a sudden worried about your health. Be for real. C'mon!"
But the brain is more susceptible to injury as it ages. Men in their fifties shouldn't be punching each other in the head. And as Jones's career wound down, he'd suffered severe concussive knockouts at the hands of Antonio Tarver, Glen Johnson, Danny Green, Denis Lebedev, and Enzo Macarinelli.
As Tyson-Jones drew near, Foster seemed to be between a rock and a hard place. Regardless of his dictates, the event was being marketed to the public with a wink that said, "We don't care what the rules are. This will be a fight."
There were casino betting lines on who would "win" (leaving open the question of how a winner would be determined). The World Boxing Council inserted itself into the proceedings, announcing that Tyson-Jones would be remotely scored by three former WBC champions (Christy Martin, Vinny Pazienza, and Chad Dawson) with the winner being awarded the WBC "frontline battle belt." An undercard comprised of commission-approved bouts reinforced the storyline that Tyson-Jones as the main event would also be a "fight." The Voluntary Anti-Doping Association was hired to test Tyson and Jones for PEDs (but not recreational drugs).
So yes; Foster had articulated the rules. But would they be enforced?
Three days before the event, Ryan Kavanaugh (the driving force behind Triller) issued a statement that read, "Know there have been some false rumors swirling, so to be crystal clear. The WBC is scoring the fight. There could be a knockout and there will be one winner. Anyone who says there is no judging or no winner either does not understand the rules or has their own agenda. Unquestionably, 100 percent. DraftKings is the betting partner and is taking bets on the fight in New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Illinois."
"It's being marketed to the public as a fight," a frustrated Andy Foster told BoxingScene. "It's not supposed to be a fight. And I'm doing what I can to see that the public is not misled. This is not being presented to the public the way it was presented to me. They talk to me one way, and then they have an interview and say something else. I've reminded both fighters that, in California if you get disqualified, you don't get paid. And we will disqualify someone if it's appropriate to do so."
And what was the expressed intent (genuine or otherwise) of the two fighters?
* Tyson: “I’m looking to be one hundred percent of Mike Tyson in the ring. I’m a neophyte in taking it easy. I don’t know how to do it that way. I am one speed, forward. Roy is just going to have to deal with that.”
* Jones: "Who goes in the ring with the great legendary Mike Tyson and thinks this is an exhibition? Twelve-ounce gloves, no headgear. Really, this is an exhibition? Come on.”
* Tyson: "We're throwing punches at each other. This is going to be my definition of fun. Broken eye sockets, broken jaw, broken rib. That's fun to me."
* Jones: "When it comes time to fight, we're going to fight. If it comes down to bite, we're going to bite. Whatever has to happen, is going to happen. That's just what it is."
* Tyson: “I’m coming to fight and I hope he’s coming to fight and that’s all you need to know.”
* Jones: "Mike comes to that ring and Mike’s coming to kill. When I go in there, I’m going in there to kill or die. So you know how it’s gonna go. People are gonna get what they paid for, trust me.”
More than a century ago, outlaw fights were contested on barges and in remote locations to circumvent legal proscriptions against prizefighting. The marketing of Tyson-Jones was based on fans believing that an outlaw fight would take place right in front of the eyes of the law.
Tyson was the draw. Tyson-Jones was largely about Mike. From a marketing point of view, the promotion could have substituted Shannon Briggs for Roy and not missed a beat. Evander Holyfield would have been an exponentially more marketable opponent.
Once upon a time, the entire world stopped to watch when Mike Tyson fought. Even today, there are people who will buy into anything Tyson. Mike Tyson on Broadway, Mike Tyson versus a shark. Triller wasn't selling boxing. It was selling Tyson.
Computers and cameras are facile tools. The much-circulated short video clip of Tyson vigorously hitting workout pads didn't prove anything from a competitive point of view. But news outlets that rarely cover boxing fixated on it and devoted time and space to Tyson-Jones. There was extensive coverage of the event in the general sports media and on boxing websites.
"It’s almost like a reality show," Tyson told Joe Santoliquito of The Ring. "All of these cameras and these strange motherf--kers descending upon me. It's crazy that people think that this is that important."
Fourteen years ago, Tyson fought a pay-per-view exhibition against Corey Sanders (the club fighter from Maryland, not the Corrie Sanders from South Africa). It was an artistic and financial disaster. People who bought the pay-per-view felt cheated when it was over.
Tyson-Jones was better organized than that earlier venture and promised to be a more entertaining promotion. The event also got a commercial lift when Donald Trump Jr (who has 6.4 million Twitter followers) sent out five tweets during fight week (including two on fight day) accompanied by links to promotional videos and pay-per-view ordering information. It would be interesting to know how much, if anything, Trump was paid for the tweets.
Meanwhile, people who bought the pay-per-view were hoping for a fight. In that regard, Tyson's mental state was an unknown and potentially explosive variable. Some thought that this was the wrong psychological environment for Mike; that he might snap and go in any one of a multitude of wrong directions.
"You never know with Tyson," Teddy Atlas (who assisted Cus D'Amato in training the young Mike Tyson) told Boxing Scene. "I think he'll try to establish some kind of dominance at the start. If he gets it, he'll make it whatever he wants - a fight, an exhibition. And if he gets resistance, either he'll treat it as an exhibition or give in."
That led to another intriguing question: If it was a fight, who would win?
According to DraftKings, Tyson was a 2-to-1 betting favorite. A more credible betting line circulated by Jimmy Shapiro acknowledged, "The fight will have no winner, but a KO can take place and, if either boxer suffers a bad cut, the exhibition is over." Within that framework, the odds were roughly 3-to-1 that the fight would go the distance.
One day before the event, Tyson weighed in at 220 pounds (his lightest for a ring appearance in 23 years). Jones (who at 5'11" stands an inch taller than Tyson) weighed in at 210 pounds; six more than for any of his previous fights and seventeen more than the 193 pounds he weighed when he defeated John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight title in 2003.
If it turned into a fight, Jones would try to make Tyson look silly. Mike would try to knock Roy out. Jones has two bad knees which would make it difficult for him to move out of the line of fire. In recent years, he has also seemed to have balance problems. And there was the matter of Roy's chin.
On the other hand; Jones has more of an ego than Tyson. And Roy has some mean in him, perhaps more mean than there now is in Mike.
As the voice of boxing for HBO Sports, Jim Lampley helped shape the historical record for Tyson and Jones when they were great fighters and sat behind a microphone with Roy for years. How did he feel about the event?
"It appears to me to be a frivolous sideshow," Lampley told this writer. "I hope that, when it's over, people look back on it with the understanding that, whatever the outcome, it does nothing to alter either man's legacy as a fighter."
Staples Center was closed to the public on fight night because of coronavirus protocols. The financial success of the venture was almost completely dependent on pay-per-view buys.
It's relatively easy to stream an event. YouTube is proof of that. But it's complicated to stream an event on a transactional basis. The Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson streaming fiasco on Thanksgiving weekend 2019 speaks to that. The online pay-per-view ordering system for Woods-Mickelson crashed under the weight of last-minute orders, after which the promotion opened up a free internet stream and cable companies were pressured into refunding the cable purchase price to buyers who had paid for the promotion.
Tyson-Jones was streamed live on TysonOnTriller.com at a cost of $49.99. In addition, Triller turned to FITE to help distribute the stream on various FITE platforms in the United States and Canada. FITE (which has 2.6 million registered users and has streamed more than 3,500 events during the past five years) also distributed the event digitally in 36 other territories ranging from Germany and the Netherlands to Bangladesh and the Faroe Islands. BT Sport Box Office distributed the pay-per-view in the United Kingdom.
The fight-night video stream was built around familiar on-camera faces. The commentating team consisted of Mauro Ranallo, Ray Leonard, and UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. Mario Lopez was the event host. Jim Gray conducted fighter interviews. Michael Buffer was the ring announcer for the main event.
Lopez characterized Tyson-Jones as a real competition, calling it "this epic fight." Ranallo brought his usual over-the-top style to the telecast. The pre-packaged videos were heavily skewed toward the idea that this was Mike Tyson in a real fight. Once the undercard bouts began, there was artificial "crowd noise" every time a punch landed (or a big one missed). Perhaps this was what led Mauro to tell viewers that there was "an amazing atmosphere" in the arena.
DraftKings and Weedmaps (a company involved with the legal use of cannabis) were event sponsors. Much of the streaming package was aimed at an urban audience. This was particularly true of the music, which included profanity-laced performances by artists like Wiz Khalifa, French Montana, YG, and Snoop Dog. Ne-Yo performed the National Anthem.
The first bout of the evening matched Jermaine Ortiz (13-0, 7 KOs) against Sulaiman Segawa (13-2-1, 4 KOs) in a lightweight bout. Each man fought aggressively and neither was particularly adept at defense which made for a spirited action fight. Ortiz won on a seventh-round stoppage.
Then things turned ugly. Badou Jack (22-3-3, 13 KOs) faced off against Blake McKernan (13-0, 6 KOs). Jack is a former WBC 168-pound and WBA 175-pound beltholder who had won only one of five fights during the preceding 55 months. But he was a 15-to-1 betting favorite over McKernan, who had never fought a world class opponent and is notably lacking in power.
McKernan fought courageously. He kept throwing punches and did what he was capable of doing, but it wasn't nearly enough. Jack landed brutal body blows and a constant stream of punches to the head for the entire scheduled eight rounds. The fight could have been stopped after the second stanza. It should have been stopped after three. By round five (when Jack outlanded McKernan 23-to-1), Blake was taking inappropriate punishment. Someone - his corner, referee Raul Caiz, the ring doctor - should have stepped in to save him from his own bravery. He didn't win ten seconds of any round.
Next came a celebrity toughman-style confrontation - Jake Paul (1-0, 1 KO) vs. Nate Robinson (making his ring debut).
Paul, the brother of loud-mouthed "YouTube sensation" Logan Paul, is a less wellknown version of his brother. Jake knocked out Ali Eson Gib (a third loud-mouthed YouTube sensation) in a trash-sport fight on DAZN on January 30 of this year. Robinson (formerly a 5-foot-9-inch point guard) logged eleven years with eight different teams in the National Basketball Association, was a three-time NBA Slam Dunk Champion, and is now 36 years old. The fight was scheduled for six rounds in the cruiserweight division.
Robinson was once an elite athlete. That was his biggest edge. But his fight plan was limited to throwing an inartful jab followed by a clumsy right hand and holding when the fighters got close.
Meanwhile, Paul can whack a bit. He dropped Robinson - and hurt him - with a right hand behind the ear in round one. He decked him again with a right hand that landed high on the forehead early in the second stanza. At that point, incomprehensibly, referee Thomas Taylor let the fight continue, whereupon Paul knocked Robinson face first to the canvas, out cold, with another right.
Then it was time for Tyson-Jones.
After all the talk, it wasn't a fight but a hard sparring session. Tyson was the aggressor. He looked like the main man, while Jones looked like a hired sparring partner. Roy had nothing to challenge Mike with. He tried to stay out of range. But Mike has always been good at cutting off the ring, particularly when he isn't getting hit. He was dominant in every round, although he never dug his shots to Jones's body as hard as he could have.
Both men were breathing heavily after two rounds. Snoop Dogg (who by this time had joined the commentating team) described the scene as looking “like two of my uncles fighting at a barbecue.”
For older generations, the event brought back memories of the 1969 sparring sessions between Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano that served as the basis for a closed-circuit TV "Fight of the Century" film venture.
As earlier noted, the WBC had designated three unofficial scorers for the contest. Possibly by prearrangement, they ruled it a draw: Christy Martin 79-73 for Tyson, Vinny Pazienza 80-76 for Jones, and Chad Dawson 76-76 even.
The fact that there was no outrage over the WBC "decision" showed clearly that neither the commentating team nor Tyson took the event seriously as an actual fight.
Overall, the promotion was a success. Advance sales were strong. Remarkably, the event might break 1,000,000 pay-per-view buys. It's conceivable that someone will bring a class action claiming that viewers bought the exhibition because they were defrauded into thinking that it would be a fight. But in the end, most PPV-buyers got what they wanted. Tyson-Jones was a reasonable representation of a fight.
There will be more Mike Tyson events in the future as Triller seeks to build its "Legends Only" franchise. Tyson has floated the idea of fighting exhibitions against Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua "to raise money for charity." One can imagine a scenario in which Mike says that he's ready for a "real" fight and enters the ring against a no-hope opponent with the promise that, in later bouts, he'll seek to avenge one or more of his professional losses.
And boxing's old-timer events won't be limited to Tyson. Julio Cesar Chavez and Jorge Arce have already met in the ring in an exhibition. A similar venture featuring Marco Antonio Barerra and Erik Morales is planned for early 2021.
Forty-seven-year-old Oscar De La Hoya told ESPN in August that he too will return to the ring but that it will be a "real fight," not an exhibition, and that it will be against a "top guy." Three days before Tyson-Jones, De La Hoya told BoxingScene that he's considering a fight against Gennady Golovkin.
“You know how easy GGG would be for me?," Oscar said. "I always took a good shot and I always took apart fighters like him."
Of course, last year, Oscar was talking about running for president of the United States.
These fights involving aging former boxers are unfortunate in terms of the health risks that they pose to the participants. They also say something about the overall health of boxing.
It speaks to the sad state of the sport that the biggest headlines that boxing generates in the mainstream media today are about Mike Tyson. It's sad that an exhibition between two long-past-their-prime boxers will be the sport's biggest pay-per-view event in 2020.
Boxing has failed its fans. It has consistently fallen short by not giving the public fights that the public wants to see. It offers unsatisfying match-ups, so viewers turn instead to paying $49.99 for the equivalent of a one-on-one basketball game between David Robinson vs. Hakeem Olajuwan.
Thomas Hauser's email address is email@example.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In December 2019, he was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.