Mike Tyson is only a year or so younger than me. When I was coming up as a sports journalist he was coming up as a boxer. We met a couple of times and to this day I’ve never been in the company of anyone who exuded quite so much menace as he did. It was almost tangible. He really was like a crazed pit bull terrier straining at the leash. A distinctly unsettling personality. And yet there was a lot more to him than his physical presence.
Mike Tyson was a multi faceted character: first there was his appearance – handsome, instantly iconic and yet somehow belonging to another era, another epoch, another period of human development. There was the babyish lisp that seemed to endow him with girlish vulnerability and made you somehow feel a little bit sorry for him. There was that neck: brutish, bullish, its muscularity somehow making him different than everybody else who plied their trade in his sport. A giant shock absorber of a neck. There was the physique: smaller in stature than most heavyweight boxers, the same height as myself in fact but with a torso that once again seemed to come from another place. Finally there was the power: the awesome, consciousness sapping punch that was terrible to watch but made him the most exciting fighter of his or probably any other generation.
No boxer in the modern era resembled Mike Tyson. He was a curious hybrid. Although if a genetic engineer had set out to create the perfect boxer it is most likely that Tyson would have been thrown on to the scrap heap. Modern heavyweight boxers are supposed to be towering, on a different scale to most men. But Tyson was merely average, perhaps smaller than most ordinary men. And yet somehow everything worked.
Tyson was special. He was different. As fight trainer Gil Clancy once remarked: Tyson’s punches ‘even sounded different’ to most other fighters. He was different but he was the same. For Tyson was not immune to the numerous and inevitable attractions and distractions that came his way outside the ring. His quick-fire marriage and divorce from TV starlet Robin Givens, allegations of drink and drugs, late night skirmishes in the street, ostentatious displays of wealth (did he really have a tiger?). And finally, dreadfully, the three year cessation of his career due to a rape conviction.
Tyson was a shooting star. His peak came undoubtedly in the 1989 91-second annihilation of previously undefeated ‘linear’ heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. Before that fight Tyson’s rage was palpable and it was almost as if he concentrated the frustrations of a life that he simply had no control over into that deadly and devastating minute and a half.
Whatever the case Tyson was never quite the same afterwards. He was never as good as he was in that the fight. There might have been the occasional flashes of brilliance but they were few and far between. And in the end Tyson did exactly the same as the majority of his peers: he wasted his talents. He stopped doing the things that had turned him into a world beater and finished up face down on the canvas. It’s a familiar story.
What he leaves us, however, are the memories: A collection of fights that span the years 1986-1989 in which it is possible that he may have been able to defeat any heavyweight fighter in history. And in these wondrous days of instant information all are available on YouTube.
I spent this morning watching Tyson dismantle the likes of Spinks, Larry Holmes, Frank Bruno, Tyrell Biggs and Pinklon Thomas in truly thrilling fashion.
And if you’re a fan of what has been ludicrously called the Sweet Science I’d heartily recommend that you do the same.