It’s Mike Tyson fight week—words I never thought I’d lead a column with, having never covered a Tyson fight in a decade-plus as a boxing reporter. In the 15 years Iron Mike has been retired, I never expected the battered and broken man Danny Williams and Kevin McBride lay waste to in his last two fights to ever come back. Yet here we are, a 54-year old Tyson a day away from squaring off against a 51-year old Roy Jones in a fight no one is quite sure what to make of.
On Saturday, Tyson and Jones will meet in an empty Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles in an eight-round exhibition fans can watch on pay-per-view. The event is funded by Triller, a short form video app known for cutting partnership deals with social media influencers and harboring QAnon conspiracists (last month Triller finally banned QAnon content from the site). Triller reportedly paid $50 million for the right to stream the fight. Tyson is guaranteed $10 million; Jones says his guarantee is $1 million.
There are other expenses, of course. Jake Paul, a YouTube star who has dabbled in boxing, will face Nate Robinson, an 11-year NBA veteran and former Slam Dunk champ. Badou Jack, an ex-light heavyweight titleholder, will lend some (current) boxing credibility to the show when he faces the untested Blake McKernan, as will Hasim Rahman Jr., a heavyweight prospect. Michael Buffer will handle the introductions, Sugar Ray Leonard, Al Bernstein and Jim Gray will work the telecast and a collection of hip hop stars will perform.
The question is: Will anyone watch?
A couple of decades earlier, Tyson-Jones would have been a mega event. In 2003, Jones, the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world, jumped up from light heavyweight to beat John Ruiz, claiming a piece of the heavyweight title. Tyson, a year removed from being knocked out by Lennox Lewis, had dusted himself off with a first round knockout of Clifford Etienne a month prior.
“It would have been right up there with Tyson-Holyfeld,” says veteran promoter Lou DiBella, a former HBO executive. “A million-plus buys, a $20 million site fee, all that.”
There will be no site fee, of course, not with COVID-19 raging across the U.S., keeping any fans who might have forked over a few hundred dollars to watch this spectacle away. And the PPV buys won’t sniff the kind of numbers Tyson raked in during his prime. Several industry insiders predict the final number to be in the range of 350,000, though even that may be optimistic and, said one network executive, carries “a substantial risk of refund demands [from unsatisfied customers] afterwards.”
Tyson and Jones are doing this for the money, even if neither will say it. Tyson isn’t in the kind of dire financial straits he was in back in 2005 when, he admits, “I was fighting for financial purposes.” He founded Tyson Ranch, a licensing and branding company. He has a successful podcast. He’s financially solvent enough that he claims the money he makes to fight Jones will be donated to charity. Still, $10 million is a lot of cash.
“I was happy to leave the ring [in 2005],” Tyson said. “I dreaded being in the ring at that time. I was on drugs back then. I was a whole different person back then. I have a desire to do this now. A will to do this now. That guy [against McBride] was just a ghost of me. I’m ready to do this. I want the world to see how great I look.”
Memories of Jones are fresher, thanks to Jones plodding along with his professional career long past its expiration date. The fighter who once declared his intention to get out of boxing in his early 30s soldiered on into his late 40s. YouTube videos of highlight reel knockouts of Montell Griffin and Vinny Pazienza now include depressing clips of Jones getting starched by Denis Lebedev and Enzo Maccarinelli. Once, Jones regularly sold out arenas in Las Vegas and New York. His career formally ended, in 2018, at the Civic Center in Pensacola, Fla.
“When you get a call from Mike Tyson’s team saying Mike wants to fight you—that’s bucket list material,” Jones said. “Everywhere I go in life, the first thing a young kid would ask me is, ‘Hey, have you ever fought Mike Tyson?’ I don’t know why, but they always ask me that. Now I don’t have to say no [any]more. I’m so glad to get this opportunity because now I can say, ‘Yes, I did.’”
Indeed, Tyson and Jones will fight … we think. Tyson and Jones have talked tough in recent weeks. “Watch me beat Roy Jones’s ass,” Tyson said in a promotional video. Said Jones, “12 ounce gloves, no headgear, you think this is an exhibition? Come on, be for real.” Videos of Tyson training have gone viral, with a svelte Tyson savagely attacking mitts and heavy bags in short bursts. “You have Mike Tyson and Roy Jones,” Tyson said. “I’m coming to fight. I hope he’s coming to fight. That’s all you need to know.”
Still, Andy Foster, the executive director of the California State Athletic Commission, has made it clear this will not be a traditional fight. There will be eight rounds, but they will run just two minutes apiece. Scoring will be done by the WBC, because California wants no part of it. Any cuts, the fight gets stopped. If either fighter starts swinging away, the fight will get stopped. The referee, Ray Corona, has specific instructions not to let this turn into a brawl, which Foster has emphasized to both camps.
Should you buy it? Depends on what you want to see. If you’re looking for vintage Tyson, pass. Tyson did this once in 2006, when he stepped in with ex-sparring partner Corey Sanders in what was to be the first of several exhibitions. That farce ended with Tyson literally holding Sanders up while chants of “bullsh—” rang through the crowd. Tyson’s “World Tour” ended there, in Youngstown, Ohio.
If you just want a look at two legends, go for it. Tyson-Jones is supposedly the debut of Tyson’s Legends Only League—yes, the acronym is LOL—which will purportedly feature more events like this. But Tyson and Jones’s best days exist only on the internet, and the most any viewer can hope for is for one wild Tyson hook to put Jones on the deck.
And, hey—maybe that’s worth the $50 they are asking for.