Losing Your Youth on the Stool of a Bar

12.06.05 - By Chris Ireland: I had never seen the end of a great heavyweight's career before Saturday night. I had watched Evander Holyfield lose to Larry Donald and Riddick Bowe slip past Billy Zumbrun, but I knew, as unfortunate as it was, that Holyfield and Bowe would fight on. And certainly I didn't expect to get my first taste of an icon's swan song when I'd watch Mike Tyson take on Kevin McBride. McBride, after all, wasn't the kind to end careers or even make an impressive mark on a record. He was to be opponent "X", KO number 45, victim number 51.

Out of town and unwilling to pay the $49.95 pay-per-view price, I decided I'd head to local West Virginia sports bars to catch the fight. All around town I looked, not a soul willing to take the plunge to watch Tyson KO another tomato can. Go figure. Finally I found a charming little place on the side of the road, with a sign that read, "See Tyson fight tonight at 9:00!" Up above the sign was the name of the restaurant, "Hooters."

You haven't lived life the way it is meant to be until you visit a West Virginia "Hooters" late at night. Now I was truly a hardcore boxing fan.

Knowing that I had forever ruined any chances of dropping the "Boxing Nerd" nickname which I had earned, I strolled into the packed restaurant, determined to find a seat next to the big screen so I could catch a classic Tyson KO. I found a seat at the bar, surprisingly at ease with my surroundings. Everybody seemed to be focused on the television, eagerly anticipating "Iron" Mike's entrance. The sport of boxing never felt so alive.

After a few rounds of cheese sticks and chicken wings, the time of the fight had arrived. Some of us were nervous, some were excited. I was the former. Tyson had been my favorite fighter for the better part of a decade. Despite all of his flaws outside of the ring, he brought an electricity and excitement in it that very few have ever brought before.

McBride was the first to enter. The tense feeling in the room was soon drowned out with the sound of laughter when McBride completed his ringwalk to the sound of bagpipes. Jokes spread through the room that the song played on the pipes was some sort of funeral tune.

McBride entered, wearing his pajama-like plaid robe, then Tyson followed. Cheers erupted in the bar, and chants of "Mike! Mike! Mike!" grew loud. It wasn't exactly "Ali Bumbaye!", but we were lifting our man nonetheless. As the fighters listened to instructions in the center of the ring, laughter at the expense of McBride again was heard, this time at his generous belly. He looked like he had spent a night or two at "Hooters" too.

Once the opening bell rang, all jokes stopped, and all chants faded. Everybody in the room was intensely focused on the executioner and his victim.

Or so we thought.

The first round was, for most of us, a disappointment. Nearly everybody in the room picked Tyson by KO in one round, and were shocked at the sight of the former champion spending more time dodging shots, boxing, and going to the body. "The Clones Colossus" on the other hand had a strategy that was clear to all: hold on for dear life, and wear Tyson down with his size. Mike looked slow and not particularly sharp, but certainly with enough on the ball to beat McBride.

As rounds two and three came and went, most in the room thought Tyson was taking his time, working hard to the body, and testing his boxing skill on the bigger man. The strategy, from what we could see, was to outlast the giant. After all, Tyson had yet to come out with his trademark barrage of power shots, or even land a menacing shot to the head for that matter. He had to be holding back. I had Tyson up, 2 rounds to 1.

Clearly without the speed and aggressiveness most had hoped to see, Tyson opened up more in the forth, landing his best shots of the night. Many in the bar moaned, saying "That's enough Kevin, you're done!" But the Irishman stood firm, survived the storm, and held on for dear life. As I watched Tyson wail away to the body as McBride smothered the attack with clinches, the fear that Mike had spent all he had left arose.

In the closing seconds of the fifth, Tyson appeared to be spent, as McBride, once the joke of the bar, had turned into a very serious threat. Tyson stood on the ropes, getting popped by a fighter slower than erosion, waiting desperately for the bell to ring. The few in the bar who were McBride faithful stood and roared. The outcome was now becoming clear.

In the sixth, Tyson came out slugging, re energizing the Tysonites who had lost faith just moments ago. But McBride was once again able to stand his ground and survive, clinching and smothering. Tyson became desperate. Those close to the television caught Tyson's dirty tactics. "He's trying to break his arm like he did to Botha!" one guy yelled. Indeed, McBride's winces were unmistakable. Everybody feared Tyson had gone off the edge again. A head butt initiated by Tyson opened up a cut on McBride's eye, and two points were deducted. We were watching an icon fall apart.

In the closing seconds of the round, Tyson fell to the canvas from a push from McBride. I stared at the screen as Tyson sat up against the ropes, not unlike he did against Danny Williams, exhausted, desperate, and finished. The former champ looked for referee Joe Cortez to help him up. It was clear that Tyson was not officially knocked down, but it was also clear that he did not want to get up. Finally he did, and as the bell rang to end the round, Tyson went to his corner for the final time. The camera cut to McBride, being hugged by his trainer, signifying Tyson's surrender.

Just moments ago, the sport had never felt more alive, yet now a big part of it was dead. There I was, staring at the screen in amazement, with those around me trying to wake up from a dream.

The room was silent.

Finally one man spoke up in the corner of the bar, saying, "I hate to say it, but I'm gonna miss that guy," he said. Everybody knew we had witnessed the end of Mike Tyson's career.

A wise announcer once said, "I remember watching Muhammad Ali lose to Larry Holmes in 1980, and believing it was the end of my youth."

As I walked out of my unlikely setting, head hanging, I felt that I had left my youth behind, too.

Article posted on 12.06.2005

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