Boxing : Why Tyson dominates the decade

Ken Jones, our Chief Sports Writer, looks across the disciplines and nominates a troubled young man from a New York ghetto as the most significant sporting figure of the last 10 years
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The Independent Online
A little more than 10 years ago word came that a young New Yorker from the grim Brownsville ghetto was to be included in a series of eliminators for the undisputed heavyweight championship. "I think Mike Tyson will prove to be really something," Seth Abraham of the American cable television network, Home Box Office, said.

In an attempt to unify a title fragmented by self-serving rival boxing organisations, HBO had entered into an agreement with two promoters, the ubiquitous Don King and Butch Lewis who was in alliance with the International Boxing Federation champion, Michael Spinks.

Tyson was not included in the list of contenders first put out by HBO but his progress in the professional ranks became so startling that he was matched with Trevor Berbick for the World Boxing Council crown. The fight took place on 22 November 1986 in Las Vegas. Berbick lasted just five minutes and 37 seconds. At 20 years, 4 months and 22 days, Tyson was the youngest heavyweight in history to hold a version of the championship.

By the summer of 1988, holding all the titles, Tyson was considered to be one of the most dramatic figures ever to inhabit professional boxing. It was impossible to imagine that anyone could cope with what he brought to the ring: not only quickness and mobility remarkable in such a powerful man, his devastating hand speed, but the controlled ferocity that justified comparison with the most intimidating men who have fought in the division.

But even before Tyson demolished Michael Spinks in 91 seconds on 27 June 1988, the reassertion of criminal instincts suggested that he was as likely to end up in a penal establishment or on a mortuary slab as the Hall of Fame.

The association Tyson went on to form with King did not improve matters. Marriage to the actress Robin Givens ended in a rancorous divorce, scandal followed scandal, and after losing the undisputed championship sensationally to James "Buster" Douglas in April 1990 he was imprisoned for the rape of a beauty queen.

As the clamour that surrounded his release on parole proved, notoriety merely added to the public's fascination with Tyson. All seats were taken for his comeback against a pushover, Peter McNeeley and it guaranteed big viewing figures for Showtime, the cable television company with whom he signed a $30m, six fight contract. Again spreading terror throughout the heavyweight division, he has taken the WBC title from Frank Bruno, relinquishing it after knocking out Bruce Seldon in one round for the World Boxing Association championship.

Looking elsewhere, it is impossible to come up with a figure in sport who made anything like Tyson's impact.

The World Cup of 1986 belonged to Diego Maradona whose "Hand of God" goal against England in the quarter-finals tends to obscure the brilliant contribution he made to Argentina's success.

It proved to be the pinnacle of a career flawed by irresponsible behaviour. Maradona is established beyond all reasonable doubt as one of the greatest players football has ever seen but sadly we had seen the best of him. Surrounded by an indulgent entourage, caught up in drug scandals that led to an international suspension, he went into premature decline after inspiring Napoli to win the Italian Championship.

Maradona's cynical leadership of Argentina in 1990 symbolised the worst World Cup finals on record. It came as no great surprise when a drug offence caused him to be booted out of the finals in the United States four years later.

By then many headlines (not only on the sports pages) had been made by an immensely gifted but immature Englishman. Because of a self-inflicted injury when playing for Tottenham Hotspur against Nottingham Forest in the 1991 FA Cup Final we shall never know where Paul Gascoigne might have figured in football's pantheon.

If not blessed with Gascoigne's marvellous range of technique, Jurgen Klinsmann has a distinct edge in sophistication. However it was Klinsmann's enthusiasm that quickly endeared him to English audiences when he joined Tottenham after turning out for Germany in the 1994 World Cup finals.

On the world football stage there was Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Lothar Matthaus and Paulo Maldini. Here the changing face of football took shape around the renewed success of Manchester United under Alex Ferguson who not all that long ago was coming under heavy fire from the club's supporters.

Great Britain's domination of middle-distance running ended with Sebastian Coe's victory in the 1500m at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Attention turned to the sprinters and one in particular, the moody Linford Christie. It soon became clear that only the very best sprinters had a chance of defeating Christie over 100m, and he outpaced them all to become the 1992 gold medallist in Barcelona.

Who would have believed that Carl Lewis would win an Olympic gold 12 years after picking up four in Los Angeles? At the World Championships in Tokyo in 1991 I saw Lewis win the 100m in world record time and finish second to Mike Powell in the greatest long jump competition ever staged; one in which Powell shattered Bob Beamon's 23-year-old record. In Atlanta three months ago, impaired by a groin injury, Powell crashed face first into the sand in one last desperate attempt to overtake Lewis.

An unblemished final round in the Open at Muirfield in 1987 brought Nick Faldo his first Major golf championship. A little less than nine years later he brought the total to six by winning a third Masters title and is now considered to be one of the greatest golfers in history.

In women's tennis that status was gained exclusively by Steffi Graf who has gone on winning despite serious personal problems.

Brian Lara batted his way into the record books for West Indies and Shane Warne brought back the lost, lovely art of leg spin. Jonah Lomu arrived in rugby and ran all over England.

Curious isn't it that the name uppermost in my mind should be that of a convicted rapist.