26.10.05 – By Kevin Kincade: When Mike Tyson knocked out Berbick to win the WBC Belt, the division was in a mess, much as it is today. Tim Witherspoon was the owner of the WBA Title, and Michael Spinks, the IBF title holder, was widely regarded as the real champ, based on his defeat of Larry Holmes. Not long after Tyson vanquished Trevor, “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon found himself on the canvas three times in the opening round at the unlikely hands of “Bonecrusher” Smith and Spinks found himself strapless as well, due to his refusal to face the IBF’s #1 contender, Tony “TNT” Tucker. So, Tyson, wanting to unify the title, signed to fight Smith in what many believed was going to be Foreman-Lyle all over again; but Mike Tyson has a strange effect on many of his opponents whether he knocks them out or not. For 12 of the dullest rounds anybody has ever witnessed, Tyson performed an interesting magic trick turning the Bonecrusher into the Bonehugger before our very eyes. Two down, one to go…..or was it two?
Shortly after the IBF stripped Spinks of his belt, Tucker signed to fight the #2, a fellow by the name of James “Buster” Douglas, for the right to be called “champion”, according to the International Boxing Federation.
The result of the pairing was Douglas dominating 8 ½ rounds before running out of gas and quitting after a Tucker barrage in the 10th. The main event the night Tucker won his paper belt was Mike Tyson making the second defense of his belts against the once defeated former WBC Titlist and one-time future of the division, Pinklon “Pinky” Thomas. Thomas was a good boxer with a stiff jab, who had an impressive resume, highlighted by a decision over Witherspoon for the title and a knock out of former WBA King, Mike Weaver, before losing over 12 to Berbick.
Tyson wouldn’t need half that time to do away with Pinky. Tyson started off fast, winning the first two rounds easily before Thomas got his jab going and began to put some distance between himself and “Kid Dynamite”. However, all of the boxing was for naught when round 6 rolled around and Mike put Thomas on the seat of his pants for the first time in his career; he didn’t get up.
Next was Tony Tucker, the new IBF belt-holder. Tony’s biggest wins besides the Douglas stoppage were a 12 Rd decision over James Broad and a 10 Rd decision over an ancient Jimmy Young. Tucker stunned Mike and the crowd in the early seconds of round 1 with a perfectly timed uppercut and proceeded to give Mike fits for the first half of the fight. Then, Tyson’s trainer, Kevin Rooney, calmed his man down into “boxing mode” and Mike easily dominated the rest of the fight on way to a unanimous 12 round decision and the first “unified” heavyweight championship since Leon Spinks upset Muhammad Ali in February of 1978……well, nearly.
Ironically, another Spinks, Michael, still had a legitimate claim to the throne. No fighter had ever taken his “belt” in the ring and many believed that was reason enough for him to be the sole heir to John L. Sullivan. Tyson-Spinks had to happen just as Ali-Frazier had to happen nearly 17 years before. However, Butch Lewis and Spinks would not enter the ring with this young phenom without proper financial compensation, so the games began. In the meantime, young Mike was hungry for fights and had some more “cleaning out” to do.
First on the list was 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist, Tyrell Biggs. Biggs, at 6’ 5”, with a record of 15-0 had beaten Quick Tillis, Renaldo Snipes, and David Bey and reminded some of a young Ali with his dancing feet and snappy jab. Biggs took the first round; but Tyson took his heart over the next 6 stanzas, finishing Biggs off in Round 7.
Now, Mike was ready for the official “torch passing” ceremony as 38 year old Larry Holmes came out of retirement to challenge Mike for the belt he once held, just as Muhammad Ali had come out of retirement to challenge Larry for his gold 8 years before. Larry had lost his last two to Michael Spinks, the last one under a cloud of controversy. Did he have enough left to unseat this young upstart? The jury was only out for 3 ½ rounds before the verdict came in…..NO. In round 4, Mike Tyson would drop the legendary former champ 3 times and give “The Easton Assassin” the ONLY knock-out defeat of his long career.
Next in line was former WBA Titlist, the once defeated Tony Tubbs. Tubbs’s biggest opponent since losing his “title” to Witherspoon a little over two years prior was Jerry “Wimpy” Halstead, a journeyman’s journeyman…that’s a compliment, by the way. Tony was a slick boxer, one of those fighters you don’t put your guy in with unless you have to. Even years after the Tyson fight, Tubbs proved to be a dangerous foe, upsetting young contenders Bruce Seldon and Alexander Zolkin and some would say he also beat a rising Riddick Bowe as well; but the judges didn’t see it that way.
In March of ’88, the setting was Tokyo, Japan, a city which would play a fateful role two years later for the “Iron One.” Tubbs looked good in the first round, slipping and sliding, juking and jabbing the young champion; but one round later, that was all forgotten. Two thirds of the way through the second round, Tyson landed his “right to the body, right uppercut to the head” combo which stunned Tubbs. Smelling blood, Mike went in for the kill and finished things seconds later with a solitary left hook which drove Tony into and down the ropes. His corner jumped in to spare him further punishment….as if he could have beaten the count any way.
After defeating six men who either held or had held the distinction of being “world titlists” and one Olympic Gold medalist, only one man remained: Michael Spinks. Before we examine the fight that would be Mike’s high-water mark, let’s look at our other two other contestants during the early days of their title reigns and see how they measure up.
At the time Holy took the reigns as Undisputed Heavyweight Champion with his 3rd round stoppage of James “Busty” Douglas, a former King of the Ring was beating the publicity drums for a shot at the title he had lost to a legend nearly 17 years before. It’s a given that a young champion has the option of taking an “easy” fight for his first defense; and you can’t get a much easier opponent than a 40 something former champion who had been out of the ring for 10 years and had fought a bunch of no names, never-weres and one has-been in his comeback, right? Uh, yeah. Holyfield’s 12-round decision over George Foreman was anything but easy as the old man had come to fight. Ultimately, Evander’s speed proved to be too much for Big George; but it was far from an impressive victory for a man many saw to be the world’s most finely tuned athlete. At least he got a good pay day out of the ordeal.
Next up for Commander Vander was the fight that was to legitimize his title: a showdown with…..“Smokin’” Bert Cooper? Bert Cooper?! In all fairness to Evander, he had signed to fight Tyson until Mike ran into a little trouble in Indiana. Then he was supposed to fight Francesco Damiani, the once-defeated former and inaugural WBO Champion; but he injured himself a week before the fight. Enter Bert Cooper. Cooper was as good a last minute replacement as you could find in those days, depending upon which Bert Cooper showed up, that is. In his biggest fights, Bert had quit after 2 rounds of steady pounding by George Foreman, given Ray Mercer hell while losing over 12, and been blitzed by Riddick Bowe in 2. In November of 1991 Bert was on a rare 4-fight winning streak, highlighted with victories over Loren Ross and Joe Hipp and he gladly signed to fight for the biggest prize in sports on a week’s notice.
After being knocked down in round one, Coop came back well in round 2 and dropped Holyfield for the first time in his career in round 3. This is a Journeyman?! Angered by the embarrassment in front of his hometown crowd, Evander tuned on the jets in round 4 and began finding a regular home for the uppercut. By round 7, the referee had seen enough and rescued Cooper from further punishment; but the damage had already been done to Holyfield’s reputation.
The time had come for a real threatening defense that would garner respect from the boxing public and show Holyfield in his best light. So, he signed to fight the winner of the Ray Mercer-Larry Holmes showdown. Who knew? Larry completely embarrassed the technically underdeveloped Mercer, winning a 12 round decision and four years after his four-round destruction by Tyson, the now 42 year old Holmes was going to the big dance again. Needless to say, Evander didn’t exactly improve his credentials going 12 rounds to win a decision over a man Tyson had easily done away with in 1/3 that time when “The Easton Assassin” was just 3 years removed from his title reign.
So far, through three defenses of his title, “The Real Deal” had beaten two old men and one journeyman, setting the stage for the first defining moment of his heavyweight championship career: undefeated “future of the division” Riddick Bowe. At the time of the clash between these two former Olympians, Bowe was as promising a prospect as the division had seen since Tyson, having stopped a shopworn Pinklon Thomas in 9, crushed Bert Cooper in 2, struggled with Tyrell Biggs before putting him away in 8, won a decision over former paper titlist Tony Tubbs (many had Tubbs winning this one), stopped fellow prospect Bruce Seldon in 1 and, more recently, contender Pierre Coetzer in 7. Going into the title fight, Bowe was 6’5” at 235 Lbs while Holyfield was 6’2 ½” and 205. Even though he clearly lost the decision, the heart and determination Evander showed in the effort won over the respect of his detractors, especially during the epic 10th round. Evander Holyfield’s first title reign ended with the first legitimate opponent he faced.
Now, for Britain’s first heavyweight titlist in 100 years. Lennox Lewis, after shocking the world with his two-round destruction of the dangerous “Razor” Rudduck, faced off against former paper titlist, Tony Tucker for his first defense. Since losing to Tyson six years before, Tucker took some time off before initiating his comeback. Once he began fighting regularly again in 1990, his biggest wins were two split-decision victories over perennial contenders Orlin Norris and Oliver McCall. Lewis, who had looked so promising in his win over Ruddock, once again raised questions with a lack-luster decision victory over a faded Tucker.
Lewis’ next defense was Frank Bruno’s third shot at a belt. Bruno, who had lost in title bids to Tim Witherspoon in 11 rounds in 1986 and to Tyson in 5, four years prior to the all-British showdown, had recently put together a string of victories; most notably over fringe contender Pierre Coetzer and former contender Carl Williams. For 6 ½ rounds it was anybody’s bout, with Bruno seemingly in control of things, occasionally hurting Lewis in front of the Welsh crowd. Then, in round 7, just as it seemed Bruno had stunned Lewis, Lennox lashed out with a show-stopping left hook that immediately put Bruno on Queer Street. Refusing to go down, Frank slumped into the ropes and Lewis unleashed his finishing salvo as the referee jumped in to protect the defenseless Bruno.
Next up for Lewis was the 30-1 Phil Jackson and his padded record. Jackson had beaten no one of note and it showed in this fight. Still, he lasted 8 rounds against the cautious Lewis. That’s the most I can say about this defense.
After beating two tough old salty dogs and one man who would have to aspire to be a journeyman, Lewis squared off against a true journeyman, Oliver “The Atomic Bull” McCall. Ollie had “earned” his shot at the WBC belt by defeating Francesco Damiani by an 8th round TKO….and possibly with his recent split decision loss to Tony Tucker. At the time, McCall was 24-5 with four of those five losses coming to respectable fighters such as Mike “The Bounty” Hunter, James “Buster” Douglas, Orlin “Night Train” Norris, and the aforementioned Tony “TNT” Tucker; but Lewis would not add his name to that list…..at least not on September 24th, 1994. It was all over before round 2 was a minute old and Oliver McCall was the new WBC Heavyweight Champion, thanks to a crushing right and an overachieving referee.
Comparatively speaking, so far, Mike is blowing both Holyfield and Lewis out of the water; but we’re not done yet. Stay tuned for part 3 as we get down to the nitty-gritty of Lewis and Holyfield’s reigns, the end of Mike’s; and how all three measure up against each other in the historical sense.
PART I: Iron – Clad: Mike Tyson’s Place In History