Puncher’s Chance
by

When he was the youngest heavyweight champion in history, Mike Tyson’s fights used to end early with numbing regularity. Most of his opponents came into the ring beaten in their minds and looking for a place to sit down. In time, some varied the formula by affecting confidence, even defiance, upon entering the ring. Then the bell would sound, Tyson would hit them, and Americans across the country would start calculating how much the pay-per-view telecast had cost them per second.

After a long hiatus, this tradition was revived Saturday night with the assistance of Clifford Etienne. Watching him hit the deck after absorbing a picture-perfect right hand from Tyson, you could almost think you were back in the 1980s. Tyson’s 49-second blitz of the glass-jawed “Black Rhino” brought back memories of the days when Iron Mike was marked for greatness. That Etienne seemed lucid long before the referee had finished tolling the count should not detract from Tyson’s punching power. Heavy punchers get their man in a variety of ways. One way is to knock you out cold. Another is to make you quit, which is assuredly what Etienne did. He took out his mouthpiece almost immediately upon hitting the canvas in order to make his nap more comfortable, a pugilistic version of “Hell no, we won’t go!” Let’s hope Etienne enjoyed his fifteen seconds of fame.

Tyson has been famous for much longer, though he fights now in the diminished evening of a mostly unfulfilled career. Obscured by the long-running drama of his disastrous personal life and bizarre public behavior is the monumental waste of his boxing talents. We’ll never know how good he might have been.

According to one school of thought, he was not very good at all. The best fighter he beat was a blown-up light heavyweight, Michael Spinks, a valiant fighter who nevertheless came into the ring with that familiar look of doom etched on his face. Spinks lasted 91 seconds. Not long afterwards Tyson, only 23 years old, was beaten nearly senseless by a journeyman heavyweight, James “Buster” Douglas, and lost his heavyweight title. In 1996, after a prison term for rape, he fought the most accomplished heavyweight of the era, Evander Holyfield, and was beaten soundly, out on his feet when the referee intervened. And last June, against Holyfield’s successor Lennox Lewis, he received an even more emphatic whipping and was counted out in the eighth round. So what was all the fuss about Tyson?

The fuss was that Tyson owned punching power equaled by only a very few heavyweight champions. The fuss was that he burst upon the boxing scene like a young Jack Dempsey, dispatching fighters in the first round, wearing nothing but a ripped towel for a robe, shaving the sides of his head to emulate Dempsey’s “hobo haircut.” He was an acolyte of the boxing old school, just what the sport needed in its long post-Muhammad Ali hangover. The fuss was that, before he fired his trainers, signed on with Don King, and proceeded down the long road of self-destruction, he was an excellent defensive fighter. He was artful at bobbing his head under and aside his opponent’s punches. The fuss was that he had very fast hands, certainly the fastest hands of a knockout puncher in heavyweight history. Since a good deal of boxing comes down to physics and geometry, one could make the argument that Tyson’s hand speed, combined with his power, would have carried him to victory over most of the pantheon of heavyweight champions.

What he lacked was the ability to withstand a test in the ring, to adapt and to persevere. And he had no one in his corner to help him do so, once he had cut loose his original trainers. When faced with his first career crisis against Douglas, Tyson had no one to turn to. In subsequent defeats, the situation has been the same. He has not been seriously trained in a dozen years or more, opting for nonentities and yes-men in place of Kevin Rooney, the trainer that guided him to the top. Lack of guidance and his consuming personal demons have destroyed his career.

YET THAT CAREER CONTINUES, with talk of a rematch between Tyson and Lewis. Does Tyson have any chance? Underneath the freak show that is his public persona, there is still a fighter in there somewhere. Certainly, there is still a puncher. And the thought that occurs is this: Lennox Lewis is a fine, stand-up boxer, a huge man with a devastating jab who was able to dominate the smaller Tyson in their first fight. Chances are that will happen again in their rematch, if it comes off. But Lewis has one terrible weakness: he can be knocked out, and has been, by inferior punchers. That is why people gave Tyson the old-fashioned “puncher’s chance” against Lewis last year, and that is why they will tune in again. Tyson’s punching power cannot be discounted.

On the slim chance that he decides to get himself a real trainer and follow a coherent fight plan against Lewis, Tyson could make things interesting the second time around. To have a chance, he would have to return to the style of his youth, where he threw combinations instead of loading up with one punch, and fought out of a modified crouch instead of standing straight up. He would need to return to the brilliant head movement that made him such a difficult target. And he would have to fight on the inside, which he hasn’t really done in many years. In the first fight with Lewis, Tyson showed no inclination to fight this way, and if his approach is the same in the rematch the results will be, too.

Given Lewis’s destruction of Tyson last June, most sportswriters view a rematch with contempt, a cynical effort to wring more money out of the Tyson circus. They are moralizing about it already, as they like to do. Wallace Matthews, always an energetic preacher, has described Lewis-Tyson as a “lie.”

But boxing of all sports does not lend itself to such certitude. The fighter with a punch is never completely out of it, and fans seem to understand this better than sportswriters. The fans will fork over the pay-per-view money, the sportswriters will pen the self-righteous columns bathed in the glow of hindsight. The writers will brand the fans hapless suckers. Then the big punch will descend as if from the heavens, and the writers will scramble to explain it, either insisting they saw it coming or deriding the losing fighter as a bum. It’s an old story, as they all are in boxing.

But the oldest boxing story is about the man with the punch.

“Mike does hit hard,” Evander Holyfield said simply after one of their fights. That’s what the game is about, after all; and that’s why Tyson is still in the game.

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