Thursday, June 27, 2013

It Was Over Before It Began

Whenever I think of the Mike Tyson–Michael Spinks fight that took place in Atlantic City, N.J., 25 years ago tonight, I always think of my friend Steve in Little Rock. Never fails.

Neither of us saw the Tyson–Spinks fight when it was happening, but, about a week after it was over, sometime around the Fourth of July, a cable channel (I think it was HBO) aired a delayed recording of the fight, which I recorded on videotape.

Steve and I watched that tape together in my living room. Several times. We had a lot of fun with it, too.

The fight was scheduled for 12 rounds, as I recall. But it didn't even last one.

In fact, it lasted about 90 seconds. Didn't take long to watch — or analyze.

Before the fight, Tyson had something of a reputation for finishing bouts quickly, frequently in the first round. But that reputation had been achieved largely against clearly inferior foes — which made it all the more puzzling when he continued to pad his record after winning the heavyweight title from Trevor Berbick in 1986.

In the next 19 months, Tyson defended his title half a dozen times. Most of them ended the same way. Tyson would hammer away at some poor slob for a round or two, then his opponent would be knocked out or declared the loser by TKO.

I worked on the sports desk at the Arkansas Gazette in those days, and I used to keep a cooler in my car to save money on soft drinks. Periodically during my shifts, I would go out to my car to retrieve a can of Coke or Dr Pepper or whatever had been on sale the last time I went to the grocery store.

I vividly recall one night when, on such an excursion to my car, I heard two men talking as they walked from a nearby theater where a Tyson fight had been featured on closed circuit. Tyson won that fight in the first or second round, and the men were complaining about how little action there had been. I remember being pleased by the news. It meant the wire accounts we would run in the next morning's paper would be ready far in advance of our deadline.

As far as I was concerned, that was the good thing (maybe the only good thing) about having Tyson as the heavyweight champ in those days. His fights usually didn't last too long, and those of us who were responsible for editing the wire copy and sizing the photographs and writing the headline for the next day's paper — all that stuff we used to do by hand but now is done on a computer screen — had the rare luxury of time to do it.

(Unless, of course, Tyson was fighting in Vegas. If he was, the fight probably wouldn't begin until around 9 or 10 Arkansas time. But the fight with Spinks was on the East Coast.)

For others, like Bernard Fernandez of The Sweet Science, thoughts of boxing events in those days are linked to bittersweet memories of a time and a place that are gone. Fernandez writes that the annual meeting of the Atlantic City All Stars Boxing Gala is "like a gathering of ... the Flat Earth Society."

And he is right. When one speaks of the Tyson era today, it has a tendency to sound like a discussion among members of a Good Old Days club about the Jurassic period — with Tyson being the T rex in the analogy.

Perhaps Tyson's most noteworthy foe since winning the title had been a past–his–prime Larry Holmes, who was lured out of a nearly two–year retirement by the promise of a multimillion–dollar payday.

Holmes hung around until the fourth round before Tyson finished him off. As pitiful as that may sound, though, it was true grit compared to the speed with which Michael Spinks went down 25 years ago tonight.

Now, lots of fighters went down in the first couple of rounds against Tyson, but those guys were tomato cans. People expected more from Michael Spinks. They probably didn't expect him to win — it was a given in those days that Tyson would win his fights — but I guess they expected him to last longer than Holmes did.

Spinks had been, at one time, the holder of a portion of the heavyweight crown, but he was stripped of it by the International Boxing Federation (IBF) in 1987 when he refused to fight the IBF's mandatory challenger. Spinks' bout with Tyson 25 years ago tonight was his opportunity to recapture the now–unified (under Tyson) heavyweight title.

I will always remember how Steve and I slowed down the playback of the tape, freezing it a few seconds before that first — and only — round began.

"He still has a chance," one of us would say. Then we would start the tape again and let it run a few seconds until the bell sounded to begin the fight.

As Spinks strode to the center of the ring, we would pause the tape again, and the other one would say, "It's over now" even though no blows had yet been exchanged, which sounds funny, but it really was over. Watch the video that is attached to this post, and you'll see what I mean. Spinks was toast when the round began.

Before you can string together three or four grammatically correct sentences — or blink a couple of times — Spinks will be on his back.

Every time we saw it happen, Steve and I simply dissolved into helpless giggles. Eventually, the laughter would die down, and then one of us would look at the other, and the laughter would begin all over again. Embarrassing, really. Two grown men laughing like children watching a road runner cartoon. It's probably a good thing none of our mutual friends ever watched that tape with us.

About a month after that Tyson–Spinks fight, I left Arkansas and moved to Texas where I began working toward my master's degree. I'm not sure if Steve and I ever watched that tape together again after I moved away. I came back to Little Rock for visits, but I don't remember bringing that tape with me.

Steve visited me in Texas a couple of times. We may have watched that tape on one of those occasions. I don't remember.

I wish I could watch a tape of that fight with Steve again. It wouldn't take long, and it would be so much fun to remember those times together.

I'll never be able to do that, though. Steve died in March.

I wish I could get Steve's perspective on boxing since that night. He was pretty knowledgeable about a number of topics, and we had some good conversations about boxing. Perhaps he would assess things differently.

In hindsight, I am inclined to think it represented the pinnacle for Tyson, who went on to lose his title to Buster Douglas less than two years later in what was viewed at the time as an astonishing upset.

For Spinks, it was his first professional defeat, but it was more than that. It was not just the end of his championship hopes. It was the end of his boxing career.

Perhaps that is a bit harsh. After all, I can't say that I actually know if that half–round knockout was the reason for it, but I can say this:

Whether it was a result of what happened 25 years ago tonight or not, the fact is that Michael Spinks never fought professionally again.

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