Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Dawn of the Iron (Mike) Age

My overwhelming memory of Mike Tyson's reign as heavyweight champion is that he was reckless in the ring.

But the problem is that reckless doesn't really seem to be the right word for "Iron Mike" in his heyday.

See, reckless — for me — conjures up the image of the Tasmanian devil from the old cartoons spinning his way through whatever happened to be in his path — trees, houses, mountains, whatever.

Tyson — for those of you who are too young to remember or may not have been born yet — was a powerful man, all right. When you watched him in the ring, even if he was simply standing in his corner of it, you saw muscles rippling all over his body — in his arms and legs and his torso.

Boxing's aficionados have mentioned Tyson with history's greatest punchers — comparable to Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, Rocky Marciano, George Foreman. He was entirely capable of ripping into anyone and anything that got in his way.

To be sure, he looked reckless at times. But he was no Tasmanian devil. That was just his way.

I never really got the impression that Tyson was much of a thinker or strategist in the ring. To me, he seemed somewhat disdainful of pursuits of style points.

Style points were for fighters who didn't expect to knock the other guy out, who expected both fighters to still be standing at the end of the final scheduled round.

And Tyson always gave the distinct impression that he expected to knock the other guy out. I don't think he ever believed that an opponent was capable of going the distance with him.

He acted more on instinct, like a wounded bear defending his turf. His objective was never to outwit a foe. His objective was to hurt his foe and finish the fight as quickly as possible.

He never seemed to care if his opponent knew what he was going to do. He did it, anyway.

And most of the time, Tyson did finish off his opponent in a round or two.

That's what happened 25 years ago tonight. Tyson was in his prime and as disciplined as he was ever going to be during his boxing career, finishing off Trevor Berbick quickly to become the youngest man to win the WBC, WBA and IBF world heavyweight titles.

It was a "watershed moment," writes Tim Smith in the New York Daily News.

"Not since Tyson," Smith writes, "has any heavyweight champion captured the attention of the sporting public with a unique brand of ring menace and concussive force."

Tyson was barely 20 when he defeated Berbick by a second–round technical knockout. When I watch the film of the fight, I can see the intense focus in Tyson's eyes. Maybe it was really naivete — maybe he was just too young to comprehend that he was trying to do something no one his age had ever done before.

And I can sense growing trepidation in Berbick's eyes.

When Tyson lost the title forever in a stunning upset at the hands of Buster Douglas in 1990, it was in large part due to the fact that Douglas used his own version of Muhammad Ali's famous rope–a–dope strategy that forced a fighter who was accustomed to getting the job done in a round or two to wear himself out. Douglas wore Tyson down, then put him away in the 10th round.

It was reminiscent of the night in 1974 when Ali took the heavyweight title from another two– or three–round specialist by the name of George Foreman.

By the time Douglas beat Tyson, many things had changed in Tyson's world. His mentor, Cus D'Amato, died about a year before Tyson claimed the title in his fight with Berbick, but Tyson was still fighting under D'Amato's influence with his protege, Kevin Rooney, stepping into the void after D'Amato's death.

Tyson and Rooney came to a parting of the ways in 1988, and Tyson's career, and life in general, started spinning out of control.

But, on this night in 1986, it was vintage Tyson. Bleacher Report calls it one of the 10 strangest knockouts in boxing history, but I never saw it that way.

Granted, it wasn't pretty. In fact, it was often primitive. But it got the job done. Tyson was disciplined enough to do that much.

And when one watches the footage of the Berbick fight, one can only wonder what Tyson might have been if he had continued to be as disciplined long after D'Amato was gone.

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