Boxing: When twilight worlds collide

History favours Holyfield but Tyson's quest for a revered role may carry him through. By Harry Mullan
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The Independent Online
There are boxing obsessives who would happily swap their house or even their wife (but not their 1923 bound volume of Ring magazine) for the privileged press row seat I will occupy at Saturday's heavyweight title rematch in Las Vegas between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. I do not exaggerate, having spent last weekend at the 1997 induction to the International Boxing Hall Of Fame in Canastota, upstate New York, in the company of several thousand world-class anoraks who made my own lifelong immersion in the sport seem little more than a passing fancy. To them, and to the millions more around the world who will eagerly pay to watch on television, this promises to be one of boxing's defining moments - yet I can only view it as an historical irrelevance, a fight whose outcome will be determined by which of the participants has suffered the greater decline.

That, of course, is very much a minority view. Interest in the event is so consuming that Don King can afford to guarantee each man $30m (pounds 19m) and still be assured of a handsome profit. It has been the easiest sell of King's promotional career. All seats at the MGM Grand Garden Arena were sold within hours of the box-office opening for the first scheduled date in May (which was cancelled when Tyson was reportedly cut in training) and ticket returns have been rarer than royal flushes on the video poker machines which are built into every bar counter in town.

Vegas has hosted more than its share of boxing's great events in the past quarter-century, but this one is undeniably special. It could be the last stand of the game's bravest warrior, Holyfield; it could be the night when Tyson redeems his reputation and becomes, after Holyfield and Muhammad Ali, only the third man in history to win the title three times; or it could be a billion-dollar flop.

Boxing's very unpredictability is what gives it such appeal: has any sport known a more earth- shattering upset than when Holyfield, in defiance of all the available evidence, crushed Tyson last November? Yet whatever the result may be on Saturday, it will risk being devalued by what went before. If Tyson wins - and the bookies have him a 2-1 on favourite - it will not be because he was the better man, but because Holyfield did not have enough left in the tank to replicate that astonishing effort of seven months ago. If Holyfield wins, it will be because Tyson, his myth of invincibility shattered for ever, was even more a "shot fighter" than he appeared in their first meeting.

Historical precedent favours Holyfield. I cannot recall a single instance when a heavyweight who had been trounced as comprehensively in the first fight as Tyson came back to win the rematch. Certainly Joe Louis, in his pre-championship days, took a beating from Max Schmeling and then annihilated him when they met again for the title, but the Louis whom Schmeling defeated was a young, fresh fighter with the physical capacity to absorb the loss and learn from it. Louis was lucky to get the verdict over Jersey Joe Walcott in their first meeting yet knocked him out in a rematch, but both were old men in boxing terms by then.

Floyd Patterson was floored seven times in three rounds by Ingemar Johansson in 1959 but flattened the Swede a year later; yet even that loss does not stand close comparison with Tyson's defeat. Patterson was a notoriously vulnerable champion who was floored by a succession of mediocre challengers, while the Tyson whom Holyfield destroyed was a fearsome and intimidating opponent who, in his four comeback victories, was looking increasingly like the elemental force he had been in the years before Buster Douglas found his flaws in Tokyo in 1990.

Tyson's greatest asset was always the raw fear he managed to instil in the men who faced him across the ring. He exuded evil and menace, and even the strongest-minded must react to the certain prospect of immediate and extreme physical pain. Some, like Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon, were swamped by fear when they defended their titles against him. That is not said disparagingly of either man. All fighters feel fear, but the winners, as Tyson's guru, Cus D'Amato, repeatedly preached to him, are the ones who conquer it and turn it into a weapon.

Last weekend, on the way to Canastota, I pulled off the freeway for lunch in Catskill, the town where D'Amato first watched the 14-year-old Tyson and knew that he was looking at a heavyweight champion in the raw. I went searching for the gym above the police station in which D'Amato began to mould his prodigy and masterwork, but all that remains is a nameplate on the street level saying "Cus D'Amato Boxing Club". It was typical small- town America, familiar from a hundred Norman Rockwell covers on Saturday Evening Post, and in two hours I did not see a single black face. Great champions are supposed to claw their way out of ghettos, learning their trade in terrifying workplaces like Emanuel Steward's Kronk gym in Detroit, but this was rather like finding that Jack Dempsey had come from somewhere like Tunbridge Wells.

Maybe the rest of us were taken in by the myth of Big Bad Mike Tyson, propagated so skilfully by his first managers, Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, but Holyfield has never been under any such illusions. He knew Tyson from the early days, when the New York teenager with the lisp was a shy outsider on the fringes of the American Olympic squad of which Holyfield was a star member. He sparred with Tyson then, and had his measure, but more importantly he got to know him as a person, and was shrewd enough to see through the image which Tyson, even then, was trying to project. It is hard to be afraid of someone for whom you once had pity, which is why Holyfield - almost uniquely among Tyson's professional opponents - has never been even slightly intimidated by him.

He affords him proper professional respect, of course. Holyfield is supremely professional in every aspect of his preparation, and arrogance has no place in his make-up. He will have prepared with the same single-minded intensity, and the same cold certainty of victory, which carried him through last time, but Tyson's supporters - more numerous than a man beaten so badly is entitled to expect - point out that Holyfield has rarely put two great performances together back-to-back.

In the end, it may come down to boxing's most trusted litmus test: who wants victory more. Holyfield's place in the pantheon is safe, as the man who dominated and unified the cruiserweight division and then won the heavyweight title three times from Buster Douglas, Riddick Bowe and Tyson. But Tyson risks being remembered as the man who wasted the potential for greatness. For someone with his acute sense of his sport's history, and his longing for a revered role therein, that reflection might be enough to carry him through the bad times he will certainly encounter on Saturday.

But his ultimate tragedy - and I do not use that word lightly - may be that whatever heroics he accomplishes will still be too little and too late, and that the man who could have been up there with Ali, Louis and Dempsey will instead be remembered more for his two defeats than for any of his thrilling and spectacular successes. Even in victory, Tyson could be the loser.

Tyson v Holyfield: The rematch

Assets

Four-year age advantage (30 to 34); desire to redeem his reputation and secure his place in history. Despite what happened last time, he is the heavier one-punch hitter.

Flaws

Questionable dedication and temperament. Now a straight-line aggressor, with none of the subtle, rolling attacks which characterised his early title days.

Imponderables

Did his insistence on purse parity of $30m (pounds 19m) after earlier accepting a lower figure indicate a lack of self-confidence, a suspicion that this might be his last big payday? Is he the classic school bully, with a basic character flaw which causes him to falter when someone hits him back hard?

Assets

Prodigiously brave and refuses to be intimidated, backed by the knowledge that what he did once, he can do again. Utterly dedicated professional who is always in supreme condition.

Flaws

Inconsistency (rarely produces two consecutive great performances). Pre- Tyson, he had looked an old, finished fighter.

Imponderables

Even for $30m (pounds 19m), can he dredge up one last heroic effort, or will this be one hard fight too many, the night when his tank finally runs dry? Had Tyson, like the rest of us, under-estimated him badly last time, and did the result therefore flatter Holyfield?

Prediction: Tyson early or Holyfield late. There are doubts about Tyson's ability to go 12 rounds at full throttle, but Holyfield has proved himself again over the distance. Holyfield is the more complete all-round boxer, while Tyson is the heavier hitter. Tyson will gamble everything on a blitzkreig, and Holyfield will need all his resilience to survive the early rounds. This time I don't think he can. Tyson to win in seven.

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