Thursday, February 11, 2010

The End of a Very Brief Era

In American sports, the late 1980s were the Age of Tyson.

Tiger Woods did not emerge until the late 1990s. Michael Jordan was starting to make a name for himself, but he didn't win his first NBA title until 1991.

Sure, there were other people doing things in sports in the late 1980s, but Mike Tyson cast a muscular shadow over the landscape. He became heavyweight champion in 1986, when he was barely 20 years old, and the expectation was that he could be heavyweight champion for 15–20 years.

He made quick work of many of his opponents, routinely knocking them out in the first couple of rounds.

A lot of sports fans didn't care for Tyson. He was a thug, boorish, abusive to his wife, not a pleasant person. But what could be done? It looked like we were stuck with him for at least a decade, maybe longer.

Until Feb. 11, 1990.

Buster Douglas was supposed to be a tomato can. But I guess nobody told him that. On Feb. 11, 1990, he hung in there with Tyson. He even survived being knocked down by Tyson. And he pulled off one of the most astonishing upsets in sports history.

I remember that Saturday night. I was working on a newspaper sports desk that evening and the news of Tyson's defeat came in from Japan over the newswire shortly before our deadline. We didn't have a lot of space, but we got the story in. We knew our readers had other options for news, even in those pre–internet days, but we felt obliged to get the news in. Some of our readers might not have heard that the world had changed while they slept.

Just like that, it was over. The Age of Tyson was done. It didn't last 15 or 20 years. It was over in little more than three years.

Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Well, there was kind of a bang, I guess. Less than a week after the fight, the replay was shown on HBO. A watering hole in the town where I was working advertised that people could see the tape of the fight on its big screen so a buddy of mine from work and I went over there to watch it. The place was packed, and the way the people in the bar cheered whenever Tyson got knocked down, you would have thought it was happening live.

A couple of years later, Tyson was convicted of sexual assault and wound up doing time in prison, then he tried to come back in boxing after his release, but he could never pull it off. Ring Magazine ranks Tyson as the 16th greatest puncher of all time, but his window of opportunity slammed shut 20 years ago, and he was never able to pry it open again.

I can't honestly say that there was a moment when I knew Tyson would never be heavyweight champion again. It just slowly dawned on me that, as fearsome as Tyson was in his prime, his time was over.

Twenty years ago, it seemed that hardly a week went by when Tyson didn't say or do something outrageous. But he became just another fighter on this night in 1990 before a stunned and, apparently, disappointed audience in Tokyo that seems to have paid for tickets expecting to see one of Tyson's one– or two–round knockouts.

The fact that they saw perhaps the most amazing upset in boxing history doesn't appear to have dawned on them — at least at that time. Maybe some of those who saw it came to appreciate the magnitude of what they had seen.

In this hemisphere, though, most sports fans understood the significance of what had happened, and most welcomed the end of the Age of Tyson.

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