Was it really thirty years ago – three full decades; a generation – when a peak Mike Tyson put all the heavyweight belts around his 34” waist? It was indeed, as hard as it may be to believe for fight fans who were mere teenagers at the time.
It was August 1st, 1987 when a 21 year old “Iron” Mike met 28 year old Tony “TNT” Tucker in Las Vegas. The fight between the two unbeaten heavyweights was dubbed “The Ultimate,” and with everything but the lineal heavyweight title on the line, such a tag-line was apt.
Tyson, sporting a 30-0(27) record, was the WBC and WBA title holder, Tucker, who was an even more impressive (on paper) 34-0(29), held the IBF crown. Michael Spinks – who was to have met Tucker, only to pull out and fight Gerry Cooney in a far more lucrative bout instead – might have been stripped of the belt he won by upsetting Larry Holmes two years earlier, but he was still the linear king. Tyson and Spinks would of course meet, finally, in 1988.
For now, Tyson, the undisputed star of boxing, set about unifying the alphabet belts. Tucker, who had beaten future Tyson conqueror James “Buster” Douglas to win the IBF strap, was tall, athletic and talented. Tyson, who had destroyed Trevor Berbick to claim the WBC belt, and who had then laboured against the clutching tactics of James “Bonecrusher” Smith to win the WBA portion, was a big favourite to dethrone Tucker.
The fight, far from a classic, wound up being an interesting encounter all the same. Tucker became one of the first men to visibly hit and stagger Tyson; his right uppercut to the jaw sending “Kid Dynamite” back a step or two in the early going. But, having broken his right hand with the effort, Tucker – with his impressive Jheri curl hairstyle a real advert for the affluent 1980s – failed to threaten any further.
Still, Tyson could not get rid of Tucker; the explosive KO many had expected, even hoped for, not materialising. Tyson was even frustrated at Tucker’s blend of movement, holding, and holding and hitting. Tucker went as far as to attempt a few “Ali Shuffles” in the later stages of the fight.
In the end there was only one winner, even if the score-cards, well, one of them anyway, had the fight reasonably close at the conclusion of the 12 rounds. Tyson won by big margins of 119-111 and 118-113 on two cards, yet prevailed by a somewhat closer tally of 117-112 on the third sheet.
Tyson appeared unhappy with his performance post-fight, stressing how negative Tucker has been. Tucker was even more dismayed, spiralling into a bout of depression soon after suffering the first loss of his pro career; falling foul of drugs. In reality, neither fighter had anything to be ashamed of. The fight of 30 years ago was fought at a high pace, it saw skills from both men and it entertained the large crowd throughout.
As far as his critics go, however, the Tucker fight “proved” that even a peak Tyson would never have beaten the great Muhammad Ali. If Tucker, a decent boxer, gave Tyson problems, then Ali, the blinding dancing master who hit as much as he moved, would have completely controlled Tyson; many of the experts rightfully explained.
Still, Tyson, at just 21 years, one month and a couple of days, had made his own history. And his very peak performance, against the unbeaten Spinks, still awaited him.