Boxing: Tyson times it right in the end

Boxing: Former world heavyweight champion recovers from sloppy start with a finish that brooks no argument
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The Independent Online
IF ONLY Francois Botha could survive the first five rounds, his camp had said repeatedly before the fight, he would have the beating of Mike Tyson. Unfortunately for Botha, his opponent seemed to have been reading the newspapers. At the MGM Grand Garden here on Saturday night, Botha was counted out with one second of the fifth round remaining, felled by a blow that Tyson said he didn't even realise he'd thrown.

"When I saw him go down," the victor said, "I thought he was playing." But that, too, turned out to have been part of a plan. Tommy Brooks, the former world champion's new trainer, had warned him against looking for the single knockout punch. "When you go looking for it," the trainer emphasised, "you don't find it. But when you concentrate on putting your combinations together, it comes."

For most of the bout, Tyson had confirmed the suspicions of many observers by completely ignoring his trainer's explicit instructions. At the start of rounds one, two and three he reacted to the sound of the bell by rushing out like a small fighting bull and, after nothing more than the most cursory of jabs, attempted to knock Botha's head into the next county with a series of wild left hooks and right crosses, all of which missed their large and not especially mobile target.

Tyson's timing was terrible, the inevitable penalty of 18 months away from the reality of a proper fight. "There was a tremendous amount of rust," he admitted. Brooks, in his corner, was going nuts. "It wasn't a tough fight," the trainer said. "But he made it tough, until he readjusted."

That may be unfair to Botha. Of all the opponents Tyson has faced since his release from prison in 1995, only Evander Holyfield has proved as brave, shrewd and tough. In truth, the only way the South African could have won this fight would have been with the help of a Tyson brainstorm - which almost happened at the end of the first round. But in the early exchanges Botha responded to his opponent's wild charges with a remarkable display of sang froid, either staying at a distance or tying Tyson up in clinches, and using verbal goads in an attempt to provoke an indiscretion.

"He was talking a lot of smack [trash] and stuff," Tyson said. "But it's cool. He's a good fighter." Asked what he had been saying, Botha replied: "I was trying to psych him out. I was telling him that everybody was watching and he'd better start fighting. We were both talking a lot. But I'm not going to tell you what we really said. You wouldn't want to hear it."

Both men appeared to be at fault in the contretemps that ended the first round, when a straightforward clinch developed into something messier as the bell sounded and the two men continued wrestling and slapping each other, lurching across the ring while the referee, Richard Steele, attempted to separate them. Within seconds the large contingent of Las Vegas policemen stationed close to the action were encircling the ring. Eventually Steele and others pulled the fighters apart and returned them to their corners, but it was an incident which could only reawaken the fear that Tyson's self-control remains a fragile instrument.

"Mike grabbed my arm and was trying to twist it," Botha claimed at the post-fight press conference. "I was telling the referee that he was trying to break it."

"He's correct," Tyson responded, not quite deadpan, a few minutes later. His explanation was simple: "He got rough with me, and I got rough with him."

The timing of the incident was a reminder of something Holyfield said after his first defeat of Tyson. "From studying his fights," he remarked, "I noticed that he always liked, at the bell, to get a couple of shots in." Holyfield's answer was to try and strike the last blow of the round himself, "to send him back to the corner with something to think about". Saturday night's incident was probably born of Tyson's frustration at failing to get his licks in, and at the beginning of the second round his capacity for rage seemed barely under control when Steele docked him a point for "unnecessary roughness". Later in the second he slipped while making one of his headlong charges, and got a tap on the nose.

When the end of the round was also disfigured by the two fighters continuing to brawl after the bell, it was probably due to a macho reluctance on either man's part to lose face by seeming over-anxious to observe the proper etiquette. There was the hint of a further flare-up at the end of the third, but that was the end of the matter. Steele seemed to have persuaded them to behave themselves.

By the end of the fourth round, Botha was ahead without having landed a significant blow and had begun to tease Tyson by dropping his gloves and showing his chin. "I guess he believes he's the white Muhammad Ali," Tyson observed afterwards with an air of mild amusement. The real Muhammad Ali, on the eve of his 57th birthday, had been sitting only 10 feet or so from the ring.

Tyson was also having regular attention during the intermissions for a cut over his right eye. "It was a punch," Botha offered when invited to define the cause, "although Mike will probably say it was a clash of heads." In fact Tyson had no doubts. "Head butt," he said, after returning from post-fight treatment to have the wound closed. "Don't worry, coach," Tyson told Brooks before the fifth round began. "I've got him in my sights." They were not quite adjusted, however, and when he found himself flailing at thin air with an attempted combination, Botha responded with the most obvious of his verbal taunts. For a few seconds they stood in the middle of the ring and traded punches, neither causing any real damage. And with 11 seconds of the round to go, Botha was tantalisingly close to reaching the half-way point of the fight and from there taking Tyson into territory that might have asked awkward questions of his stamina.

At that precise instant, without warning, Tyson struck. Momentarily, the left side of Botha's defence was open. Perfectly braced and balanced, Tyson launched a straight right hand that travelled no more than 18 inches before it connected with the side of Botha's nose, but carried enough power to permanently dismantle the resistance of its recipient. The South African, whose own forward momentum had increased the impact of the blow, crumpled straight to the canvas. He staggered to his feet with a couple of seconds to spare, but stumbled backwards into the ropes, where Tyson - with an uncharacteristic solicitude - attempted to support him before the South African slid back to the canvas.

It was a punch of such focused and conclusive violence that most of the 12,519 people in the arena were still gasping as the fourth and fifth replays came up on the giant screens hanging from the roof. But Botha claimed afterwards that it had been all his fault. "I got careless," he said, "and I walked on to the punch. I believed I was winning the fight easily and I let my guard down. It was the sort of punch you don't see, and that's the sort that hurts you."

He was clearly proud of his performance. "It was a great opportunity. I was doing what I know best. When you get close to him, he's not a very good `inside' fighter. I was making him miss, but I got cocky and paid the price."

Tyson seemed relieved but realistic. "It feels great to be back doing what I love, but I have a long way to go," he said. "I've got a new trainer, and we've worked out the repertoire in the gym. Now we've got to put it in the ring."

"That was a fight," referee Steele said. "That was a proper fight. That was two guys fighting." And whatever one's disapproval of some of Tyson's behaviour during the present decade, it was still something of a relief to see a man who was once such a distinguished champion avoid the humiliation of a third consecutive defeat and the oblivion that would surely have followed it. There was more than enough tension in the evening, however, to suggest that Tyson remains a combustible character and that any future opponent will probably spend as much time trying to devise ways of undermining his mental equilibrium as working out how to get a knockout punch through his guard. And so, as predicted, the saga continues.