The last time there was just one heavyweight champion of the world, before the alphabet cartels turned the division into a three-ring circus featuring fat men and clowns, a former Marine named Leon Spinks upset Muhammad Ali, and that was nearly 10 years ago. Then the title was hacksawed into three parts, and it stayed that way until Saturday, when Mike Tyson came down from New York's Catskill Mountains to end the WBC-WBA-IBF nonsense.
Tyson made the title whole again in Las Vegas as HBO's 16-month, $22 million heavyweight unification series came to a close. Already the champion of the WBC and the WBA—and, some say, of the VIP parking lot at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood—Tyson plucked the IBF's piece of the crown from Tony Tucker with a unanimous 12-round decision at the Hilton Hotel, which, ironically, was the site of Spinks's victory over Ali on Feb. 15, 1978.
It was a historic moment, and, of course, they had to mess it up. In a tasteless ceremony dubbed "the coronation" by promoter Don King, an embarrassed Tyson was wrapped in a chinchilla robe, courtesy of Lenobel Furriers of Las Vegas; handed a jeweled scepter from Felix the Jeweler, Las Vegas; and topped with a crown that King described as studded with "baubles, rubies and fabulous doodads." It looked as if it had been found in Emmett Kelly's trunk.
Still, the tacky ritual seemed a proper finale to the weeks leading up to the fight. Early in July, one count of assault with a deadly weapon—a professional fighter's fists—and one count of battery were filed against Tyson by the city attorney's office in Los Angeles. Tyson allegedly struck one Jonathan Casares, 20, on June 21 in the Greek Theatre's parking lot after a rap concert. Tyson has a court date on Aug. 26.
August 9, 1987
"We have been advised by our attorney in Los Angeles not to discuss it," said his comanager Jimmy Jacobs. "But I can assure you we'll be happy to hear the truth come out."
More pertinent to the subject at hand, though, is that two weeks before the fight Tyson left his Las Vegas training camp amid speculation that he was upset with his trainer, Kevin Rooney. Tyson turned up in Albany, N.Y., where he reportedly told friends at a nightclub—Tyson doesn't drink alcohol—that he was tired of fighting and had retired. Tyson is single, 21, a multimillionaire (he has earned more than $11 million in purses in the last 2½ years) and has been kept on a tight leash by comanagers Bill Cayton and Jacobs. He evidently felt he needed some space in which to breathe on his own and finally cut loose. He returned to Las Vegas four days later and said only, "It did me more good than harm."
While Tyson and Rooney maintained an appearance of cheerful togetherness in public—"They love each other," said Jacobs, who has denied rumors that Rooney is to be replaced—there was friction before the fight. Angry eruptions during workouts were not rare.
"His own boredom could be a problem," said Rooney, a 31-year-old former club fighter and protègè of Tyson's mentor, the late Cus D'Amato. "He could stay on top a long time—if that's what he wants. That's a big 'if.' That's up to him. He's under a lot of pressure, and the next few years will be a problem. He won't mature until he's 25."
"Before I do anything at all I always think about the consequences," Tyson said, indirectly referring to the alleged parking lot scuffle and his flight from camp. "And anything that will interfere with my career I will never do. Cus told me that everything happening now would happen to me. He told me if I let it get to me it would drive me crazy. Well, I won't let that happen."
For his part, Tucker has never had to contend with the burden of fame. A list of his opponents—names like Max Baer Smith and Memphis Al Jones—hardly leaves one dazzled. Even winning the IBF title with a TKO of James (Buster) Douglas did little to enhance his stature. Douglas was even with Tucker until the needle on his gas tank hit E; then the 6'5" Tucker, who had been very tentative up to that point, got busy and stopped Douglas in the 10th round.
Early in the first round against Tyson, Tucker was anything but tentative. As the much shorter Tyson charged in, he was lifted off his feet by a vicious left uppercut. Returning to earth, Tyson took five steps backward. For the rest of the round Tucker was content to bang right hands off Tyson's head.
"Then in the second round I hurt my right hand. I had already hurt it sparring a week earlier," Tucker said. "I was afraid if I used it, it would get broke. But I had to use it to keep Tyson off me."
Undaunted by Tucker's first-round flurry, Tyson, who earned $2.5 million for the bout (Tucker made $1.9 million), began moving in behind a hard jab. In the early rounds he hammered the body; then he moved up to the head. Rockets crashed against Tucker's head, some of which he ignored. Others he minimized with a disdainful shake of his head.
"Aw, he stopped fighting after the fifth round," said Tyson. "After that he was just in there to survive."
No matter. Neither man really hurt the other. There are those who were disappointed that the fight went the full distance. Still others thought Tucker, who lost for the first time in 36 fights, made the champ look bad, exposing his weaknesses in the same way Bone-crusher Smith and Pinklon Thomas had earlier. Smith, who went the distance in March, demonstrated that Tyson seemed unable to fight inside. Thomas, though knocked out in the sixth round in May, exposed Tyson's inability to jab effectively. Tucker allowed Tyson to flick his jab, then tied him up before Mike could put together a combination. Throughout the fight, Tyson threw hardly any effective combinations.
Now 31-0, Tyson is a ferocious competitor, a raw, thickly muscled brawler whose untarnished record and back-alley ring demeanor have brought great expectations. But just how good is he? And has he improved his ring skills under Rooney's tutelage?
Tyson still has a lot to learn, and there may be a professor of the sweet science out there who could teach him to be a better fighter. Yet no matter who yells advice from his corner, Tyson will never be a classy boxer; an opponent with good lateral movement and a crisp jab will give him fits. It is his power that makes all the difference. There is no one in the division who can match his punches—no one who can stand and fight with Iron Mike and not wind up on the canvas. Tucker went the distance by running and clinching, and you can't take the title that way. Tyson did what he had to do, and he won handily in the view of all three judges (Phil Newman, 119-111; Julio Roldan, 118-113; and Bill Graham, 116-112).
The Mike Tyson show reopens on Oct. 16, probably in Atlantic City, against Olympic gold medalist Tyrell Biggs, who will give Tyson even more trouble than Tucker. If he beats Biggs, looming in the distance—the fall of '88, most likely—is Michael Spinks, who calls himself the People's Champion. Spinks and his promoter, Butch Lewis, were in Las Vegas to drum up a Tyson match, and they watched the fight from the highest row of the $50 seats.
"But we are not here to negotiate the fight in the newspapers," said Lewis, who invited about 50 members of the press to his suite seven hours before the fight. Oh, O.K., Butch.
Then someone suggested to Spinks, "Hey, Michael, why don't you say to Tyson, 'Let's forget all this nonsense and just fight.' "
Spinks laughed. "I'm afraid the guy might haul off and hit me. He's not the guy you want to fight in the street. If I get him in the ring, that's different."
Be patient, Michael. You'll get your chance.
"He stopped fighting after the fifth round. After that he was just in there to survive."