Dark legend of unlimited violence and diabolic force finally fades

Mike Tyson's fall from the menace of his 1980s prime to a wretched retirement is complete
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The Independent Online

In the late eighties there seemed to be no limit to Mike Tyson's potential for destruction. He was a nihilist in boxing shorts, even then, but as long as he was contained by the lingering influence of his mentor Cus D'Amato - and the control of his first manager, Jimmy Jacobs - he was a human scythe slashing through the heavyweight division.

In the late eighties there seemed to be no limit to Mike Tyson's potential for destruction. He was a nihilist in boxing shorts, even then, but as long as he was contained by the lingering influence of his mentor Cus D'Amato - and the control of his first manager, Jimmy Jacobs - he was a human scythe slashing through the heavyweight division.

That impact was so strong, so terrorising, that it has taken more than 15 years to fully dissipate. Now that it has done so utterly, now that every young heavyweight in the world, however guileless, mourns the fact that it was Kevin McBride who had the good fortune to be in the ring with Tyson here this weekend, we can only ask why it was that it took so long?

It was because of the sheer force of that first, mesmerising rush from the terrible streets of his neighbourhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn - a place so bleak in the breakdown of its values that a policewoman once broke down in tears when she was asked to describe the conditions which shaped the boyhood and early youth of Tyson.

The young Tyson carried a thinly suppressed anger that was at times diabolic in its force.

When he came into the ring, already pared down for the most basic of action in his black shorts and black, sockless boots, he created an apprehension that spread far beyond the ring and the palpable fear of so many of his opponents.

He offered the possibilities of unlimited violence, to the extent that when he felled the former great heavyweight champion Larry Holmes in Atlantic City in 1988, an observer as experienced as British fight man Micky Duff thought for a moment or two that a fatal blow had been delivered. Later that year Michael Spinks, a fine fighter and former champion and a product of the tough East St Louis ghetto, dissolved before our eyes. He rushed to his point of fear and was consumed by Tyson in much less than a round.

That was the high point of Tyson's menace ... 17 years ago. The rest is about exploitation and decay, his own manipulation of the meaning of those early years and also, principally, that of Don King, who recently was required to hand back $14m, a fraction of what he was alleged to have spirited away from the dark legend he skilfully perpetuated for so long.

In the debris of Tyson's career - and maybe, it was hard not to fear, his life - there was an astonishing set of statistics to underpin the reality of what he had once meant to the public. He was involved in the top four pay-per-view television profits of all time. Most significantly, one of them was for the grotesque mis-match King arranged on Tyson's release from prison after serving three years for rape. His wage, for attending the surrender of a club fighter from Boston named Pete McNeely, was $30m.

Such fraudulence was the motif of almost everything Tyson did after surrendering his title to James 'Buster' Douglas in Tokyo in 1990, when he launched himself into a pre-fight ritual of dissipation which, it was said, would have drained the fighting instincts of a small army.

It was a time of personal collapse. His manager Jacobs died. His marriage to the actress Robin Givens was a humiliating disaster. He drove his Rolls Royce into a tree, then tried to give it to a police officer. There was talk of suicide, of the slippage of his mind to an extremely dark place. He told a reporter, who was questoning him about the value of psychology, "If you can't fight, you're fucked". It was a prophecy no less acute because it took him so long to reach the breaking point of a $55m bankruptcy.

In 1996 he fought Evander Holyfield on the faulty premise of his advisers that the man from Georgia was broken and washed up - a theory provoked by Holyfield's listless performance against a puffed up light-heavyweight named Bobby Czyz. Holyfield slaughtered Tyson once and then in the re-match had his ears bitten by a man desperate to deflect from the fact that he could no longer summon his old powers.

When Tyson was pulverised in Memphis three years ago by Lennox Lewis, with whom he had sparred ferociously in the gym above the fire station in Catskill, New York, when they were teenagers, it was plain that he had reached the bottom of the well. But there was still money to be earned, there was still an aura from the past to titillate a public more aware of what he was than what he had become.

When you lay out the facts you see that Tyson's longevity was as extraordinary as it was shallow. Here in Washington for a week he played the old game of victim and urban guerilla hero. He visited war veterans terribly maimed in Iraq, and embraced their suffering. He went to the leading black university, Howard, where he did his training, and was lauded as a hero of black America, a man to be placed alongside Martin Luther King and a graduate of the college who had become a Supreme Court justice. He was asked why white America hated him so much.

The old act worked as well as ever - right up to the point where he returned to the ring and found himself incapable of surviving against big, artless Kevin McBride, for whom he had promised the fate of a gutted fish.

Then once again, as he had been in Louisville last year against another journeyman, Britain's Danny Williams, Tyson was exposed as the seller of bogus goods. Once it was a sensational line, a product hugely heightened by the health warning it carried. Now it brought no more danger than an old, long discredited threat. At last, there was no argument that it had to be discontinued.

Where does Tyson rate? James Lawton picks his top 10 greatest heavyweights


His victory over George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 confirmed his ranking. It was a combination of nerve and tactical brilliance that invaded the imagination of the world. He was as courageous as he was sublimely gifted and inventive. He carried boxing on his shoulders.

2 GEORGE FOREMAN He bowed only to Ali. He broke apart one of the best, Smokin' Joe Frazier.

3 SONNY LISTON Like Foreman, he seemed unbeatable until the advent of Ali.

4 LENNOX LEWIS His true worth will never be known because boxing politics denied him really defining fights. But his skill, his size and his willingness to fight anyone made him the most dominant heavyweight of his time. Also, he avenged his only two losses as a professional. Would he have beaten Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson at the height of their powers? Unquestionably, he had the equipment.

5 LARRY HOLMES Was one of the least recognised of heavyweight talents. He was a superb - and vicious - technician.

6 JOE FRAZIER For his fights with Ali, his place in boxing history is gloriously secure, but he was a small man who was destroyed by Foreman and would have had difficulty against someone of Lewis's dimensions - and talent.

7 EVANDER HOLYFIELD He fought everybody he could - and still would - but, like Frazier, he was small and thus, ultimately, limited.

8 MIKE TYSON Despite his dramatic impact as the youngest champion in history, he simply could not maintain his place in the hierarchy of heavyweights of the second half of the 20th century. When the body of his best work, marked by eviscerating hand speed and a competitive will, congealed at the end of the 1980s, his promised place in history inevitably dwindled.

9 RIDDICK BOWE He beat Holyfield in one of the great heavyweight fights, but shamefully ducked Lewis - a scar he could never cover.

10 KEN NORTON He was awkward and flawed, but he operated at a time of great heavyweights, and some will always swear that he was denied a legitimate victory over Ali. He also broke Ali's jaw - a ranking achievement in itself.