Boxing: Fighting flame flickers then dies for one-time 'baddest man on planet'

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The Independent Online

It's over now, officially, irreparably and redeemed only to a small degree by the honesty of the epitaph Mike Tyson wrote for himself here in the small hours of yesterday morning.

It's over now, officially, irreparably and redeemed only to a small degree by the honesty of the epitaph Mike Tyson wrote for himself here in the small hours of yesterday morning.

"I don't have the guts to go on embarrassing this great sport any more," he declared after quitting on his stool at the end of the sixth round against Kevin McBride - an opponent he had a few days earlier placed among the lowest order of boxing life.

Tyson had said that McBride was no more than a "tomato can" and he made no attempt to withdraw the charge when he announced his retirement. "He fought well tonight," said Tyson, "but when you look at his credentials you see that if I can't beat him, I can't beat Junior Jones."

Junior Jones was a talented, but brittle and light-hitting featherweight who passed his prime many years ago and when Tyson mentioned his name he was baring to the world his bleak understanding that he too had passed into fight history.

For those who retained any degree of respect for what he once represented - a ferocity he brought as the youngest world heavyweight champion that was searing and arguably unprecedented - it could only be another sadness that he left the ring so ignobly.

At the end - a sixth round of despair and sheer world-weariness, it seemed - we had none of the best of Iron Mike Tyson. We had the worst, the savage cynicism that went into his biting of the ear of Evander Holyfield and an attempt to break the arm of Frans Botha, and none of it was roughly ennobled by even a hint of any classic desire to go down fighting.

When he was pushed down by the 6ft 6in, 19st 7lb Irishman he muttered an obscenity and suggested strongly that he wanted to stay on the canvas. He wanted to shut out a world that once again had become nightmarish.

Then he walked slowly to his corner, where within seconds his trainer and friend Jeff Fenech was telling the referee Joe Cortez that the fight should be stopped. Tyson had had enough of his desperate attempt to pay his bills - they still amount to the best part of $30m. He had had enough of the lie that he still had anything left but bluster and played-out aura when he stepped into a ring. When he said that no-one should cry for him, he added that his career had really been over since 1990.

Within an hour of his defeat Tyson was being portrayed on American television as a suddenly historic figure - the whole lurid lurching of his life was being replayed, but the reality was of course different. The Tyson seen declaring that he was the baddest man on the planet, the boy declaring that his attack was impeccable and his defence impenetrable, belonged in another lifetime.

History hadn't caught up with Tyson in the nearly full MCI Center in the hulking shape of McBride. It had worn him down over those years when his talent became a fossil.

What was left in the ring here just a few blocks from the White House was the sour residue of decline; bitter and largely self-induced decline. In that sixth round which will have to be his final statement as a fighter he was deducted two points for a head butt. He also attempted to break McBride's left arm, as he had that of Botha in another desperate moment. Tyson made no attempt to disguise his intent and later he admitted, "Hell, I was desperate to win." Then he added: "I have no interest in fighting now, I don't have the heart for it. I'm broke but I have wealthy kids. I don't care what happens to me - I don't want anyone's sympathy."

At the end of this month he will be 39, tradeless and rootless, and he now talks airily of missionary work in places like Bosnia or Rwanda but who, you had to wonder, will attempt to save his soul? Certainly he seemed like a man beyond salvation as the life drained out of him in what surely had to be his last fight.

Poignantly, Muhammad Ali was at ringside and at least one parallel between his and Tyson's last stand was inescapable as the latter's fury ebbed quite relentlessly under the often clinging grasp of McBride. Ali's last significant fight was against Larry Holmes, a great champion, in 1980, and then there surrounded him some of the fantasy that has accompanied Tyson's most recent visits to the ring.

There was a belief that Ali could conjure some of the best of his past, and it was encouraged by the fact that he looked so well. In fact he was, like Tyson this last weekend, a shell who had come into the ring slim, but shaped not by the work and the habits of a champion but a course of diuretics. Tyson's trainer swore that his man had worked to find condition, but of course it is impossible to put back certain qualities that have fled forever, and as early as the third round you could see that Tyson was running near to empty. You could see that if McBride did indeed belong to the lowest tier of fighters, he had enough courage, enough life, to prevent any extension of the Tyson myth.

Tyson landed spasmodically but not with the force to dislodge McBride from his belief that he could wear down the fighter he had idolised in his youth, and by the third round it was becoming clear that he had the means to become the third man to beat the former undisputed champion in four fights.

When Danny Williams did it in Louisville last summer - two years after Lennox Lewis had delivered what should have been a final beating in Memphis - the meaning of the result was obscured to some degree by an injury to Tyson's knee.

Here in Washington there was not a wisp of such a smokescreen. By the third round Tyson could not go through even the motions of putting together sustained combinations of punches. He was throwing single shots more in optimism that any firm belief and after a frantic flurry of aggression at the start of the fourth round, a terrible truth enveloped him. He was going down yet again.

It would not happen under a single blow from McBride, who later talked of becoming the first Irish-born world heavyweight champion, to join such legends of his blood as John L Sullivan, Gentlemen Jim Corbett and James J Braddock. It happened within Tyson. McBride had his brief moment of fame - as his fellow journeyman Williams did in Louisville before being utterly dismantled by the world champion Vitali Klitschko - but he had only to be there in the ring, to exploit his strength and his relative youth, and the weakness of the man growing old and feeble beneath his gaze.

When the end came for Tyson it was the same as with Ali. He stayed on his stool. He recognised the end.

In Las Vegas 25 years ago Ali's faithful trainer Angelo Dundee signalled that it was time to stop. Here Fenech, a warrior champion in his time, took the responsibility. Later Ali embraced McBride. The great man was cheered in and out of the arena. In all his unique career he had never had to apologise for anything he did. It was as though his presence was not to do with the latest success of his daughter Laila, who remained undefeated when she beat Erin Toughill, but to pass judgement on the man who had come after him with such roaring promise of extraordinary achievement.

As Ali shuffled away, Mike Tyson was left to consider all that he had lost. Boxing, the most brutal of sports, had surely never known such grim accountancy.