Michael Spinks aside, and maybe Alex Stewart, Mike Tyson never instilled fear into another man’s heart deeper than he did both before and during his two-belt unification showdown with James Smith – better, more colourfully known of course as “Bonecrusher.” But while Spinks and Stewart both suffered the kind of paralysing fear that saw to it that they could barely function against Tyson, let alone move or adopt any kind of game plan, with the capable pair (more than capable in the case of 175 pound great Spinks) instead made to look like the human equivalent of a deer caught in the headlights, Smith did stick to a game plan. For a 12 full rounds.
Smith, who had shocked the heavyweight landscape by blasting out Tim Witherspoon to snatch the WBA heavyweight belt in December of 1986 (Bonecrusher knocking one of Witherspoon’s teeth clean out, root and all, in the process of his less than three-minutes of work in New York) immediately called for Tyson. The fight was set anyway, as part of the ongoing unification series everyone fully expected Tyson to win.
Tyson, still barely out of his teens, had of course sent Trevor Berbick spinning in dramatic, some found it funny fashion, this in November of ’86 – with “Kid Dynamite” ripping the WBC belt from the man who had, once upon a time, beaten his idol (as an unknown street kid, Tyson had vowed to one day smash Berbick for what he had done to Muhammad Ali).
Now it was Tyson Vs. Smith, with the winner to go on to fight to fight for the IBF belt (and the lineal title that Spinks had won by upsetting the great Larry Holmes in 1985). All of that was some way away on the night of March 7, 1987. Fans filed into Las Vegas in anticipation of a short and dramatic fight. Sure, almost everyone felt Tyson – the most exciting young heavyweight since the days of Ali and George Foreman – would be the fighter scoring the highlight reel KO, but it was also thought Bonecrusher would fire his share of bullets before being taken out.
Smith himself had promised fireworks, stating how “someone is going to go to sleep” in a battle of punchers. Instead, alarmingly so for a big man who had experience, power, immense physical strength and a chance to make $millions, Bonecrusher left his desire at home. After tasting some of Tyson’s power in the early going, 33 year old Smith decided his best bet was to hang on for dear life, to clutch and hug Tyson – to run and make faces in a later effort at allowing the clock to run down. Smith knew what he was doing, and as far as him seeing the final bell, it worked. But the entire boxing world turned on Smith and never forgave him. “He should be ashamed,” a victorious yet clearly frustrated Tyson said afterwards, pretty much speaking for everyone.
It was monstrously wide on the cards, as anyone who still cared found out after those excruciating 36 minutes: 120-106, 119-107, 119-107, obviously all for Tyson.
Tyson hadn’t had his best night, far from it in fact. Unable to do anything about it when Bonecrusher hugged him, Tyson basically won the fight with his intimidation skills. There had not been a more frightening, intimidating heavyweight since the days of Foreman; before that Sonny Liston. But would either of those two greats have allowed Bonecrusher to stick around for the entire night if he ‘fought’ them the way he had Tyson?
That’s a question for another article. For now, 35 years ago, Mike Tyson was well on his way to being the undisputed heavyweight king. But would his future opponents actually show up to give him a fight?