Going Toe-To-Toe With Tyson: Five Heavyweights Recall The Day They Faced “Iron” Mike

Mike TysonBy James Slater: As fight fans know, “Iron” Mike Tyson, the youngest ever claimant of a world heavyweight title, gets enshrined in The Hall of Fame in Canastota this week. Fully deserving of his place in history, Tyson lit up the sport like precious few fighters, either before or since.

Back in the 1980s, before he became an out of control, walking car crash of a public figure, Tyson was seen as an invincible wrecking machine. Serious, experienced writers were debating just how great Tyson actually was; with publications such as Boxing Illustrated and others putting out a number of articles that imagined “Tyson Vs. The All Time Greats.” Some seasoned followers of the sport even suggested Tyson was the finest heavyweight fighter in history next to the peak Muhammad Ali.

Today, fans the world over agree Tyson was both special and ultra-exciting. But what was it like to actually lock horns with the man and fight him in the ring?

In this article, by way of a piece to coincide with Tyson’s enshrinement in The Hall of Fame, five men who faced Tyson at varying stages of his amateur and pro career recall their experiences for Eastside Boxing.

Let’s start with “Son of a Legend,” Marvis Frazier, who met Tyson in July of 1986 - being stopped in a blistering 30-seconds!

“The fans remember me most for my fight with Mike Tyson,” Frazier told this writer over the phone.

“People said at the time that my dad had moved me too fast, putting me in with Tyson and Larry Holmes. But I had a torn retina back then, which nobody but my dad knew about. He knew it was not going to get any better, and that I had to make my move. Tyson was so fast. Most of my fights, I would hear the crowd going “whooo, yeaahhh, oooohh,” but with Tyson it went dead-silent really quickly (laughs). I never had a chance to get into the fight. But I have no regrets about my pro career at all.”

Tall Cuban Jose Ribalta met Tyson next; in August of ‘86 - finally being TKO’d in the 10th of a memorable tussle.

“I thought my punches would get to Tyson late in in the fight,” Ribalta told me earlier this year.

“I knew I was behind [on points] but what happened was, my manager at that time, Luis De Cubas, he wanted to pull me out beforehand as I had a virus. I weighed just 211-pounds for the Tyson fight, and in my next fight, a month later, I was 221. I was sick and too weak against Tyson, so I wasn’t at full power. I was disappointed when a (much-talked of) return never took place, I felt I would do much better at my full strength, and I had also figured out his style from the first fight.”

“I have to say, though, that Bonecrusher Smith hit me the hardest, not Tyson. His [Bonecrusher’s] right hand was really hard; the hardest I’ve ever been hit with.”

This brings us neatly to James “Bonecrusher” Smith. The then WBA ruler met Tyson in a unification battle in March of 1987 - Smith lasted the full 12-rounds.

“Tyson was very quick,” Smith told me from his home.

“He was very difficult for me to fight. He was short and small, ducking down under my punches. I couldn‘t get off like I needed to, punching down. Looking back, I could’ve beaten Tyson; I was bigger and stronger and just as fast as he was. But I was kind of mentally out-psyched in that fight. There were a lot of things going on at that time.”

James Tillis met Tyson in May of 1986 and like Smith he took him the distance. “The Fighting Cowboy” even feels to this day that he beat “Kid Dynamite.”

“I won that fight with Tyson,” Tillis told me over the phone from his home in late spring.

“That sissy wasn’t nothin’ anyway! The thing with me was, I was getting tired in fights and I never knew why. Thank the Lord I went to see this woman doctor friend of mine. She cleared that mystery right up. I was allergic to milk and wheat and orange juice and stuff. That stuff was clogging my system up real bad and my wind was messed up because of it. Against Tyson, I never once got tired. The boy was in trouble and he knew it. He won two rounds; I won the other eight. No doubt about it. Watch the tape and see for yourself.”

“I did everything I could to get a rematch, but Tyson wanted nothing further to do with me. I did get to box him in an exhibition (in 1987), but that wasn’t the same. I always was a better fighter than him. They robbed me of my win in’86.”

Henry Tillman has the distinction of having fought Tyson three times: twice in the amateurs and once in the pro ranks. What’s more, Tillman actually won two of his three encounters. Tillman first met Tyson in the 1984 Olympic trials.

“Oh, Tyson was knocking everyone out back then!,” Tillman told me from his gym recently.

“He was a super-heavy and he came down to my weight class. He figured I wouldn’t have the experience, but I surprised him. I boxed him, I stayed moving. The first fight, I was a little sore - a lot sore actually (laughs); because I’d just fought James Pritchard and he hit me with a body shot that hurt my ribs. So I was still sore for the first Tyson fight.”

Tillman wasn’t as fortunate when he crossed paths with a pro Mike Tyson in June of 1990 - being taken out inside a round.

“Tyson caught me with a great shot to the temple in the 1st-round, and that was it,” he said.

“I should’ve moved more, and jabbed more, but I caught him with a couple of shots - a right hand to the chin - and I thought then that maybe I could knock him out. I guess I got a little excited. Instead, I should’ve taken some steam out of him before I sat down on my shots. But Tyson was a pure puncher, he really was.”

Article posted on 11.06.2011

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