PUNCH AND DUTY

History is served as KO artists Mike Tyson and George Foreman connect
June 24, 1990

Mike Tyson, alone among fighters today, considers himself a servant of boxing history, as if it's his duty to single-handedly sustain a tradition of heavyweight excellence. The burden of being champion is more than you know-never mind the brutality of the work he must perform in the ring—for it requires that Tyson put his life on display: An unhappy celebrity marriage dissolves into a spectacularly public divorce; a car accident becomes an attempted suicide; a 23-year-old's night on the town is reported as a champion's inevitable dissolution. And a loss, a single defeat, is so catastrophic to his career that, in his comeback fight, he must share billing with a 41-year-old man whose idea of fighting trim is 263 pounds and who has, by most accounts, become far more popular than Tyson.

The loss of dignity is complete. The former champion sighs at his circumstances, but not with bitterness. "When I decided what to do with my life as a boy, I decided to give up all my happiness," Tyson explains. There was, he recognized at the very beginning, difficult work to be done.

Last Saturday at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, he did a little more of it, though it was far easier work than he had been accustomed to lately. In a fight of exceedingly flimsy promotional value—the best that could be said for Tyson's opponent, Henry Tillman, was that he had twice outpointed Tyson in the 1984 Olympic trials—Tyson laid waste to Tillman in less than a round. Tyson was in superb condition, and the overhand right that put Tillman beneath the ring ropes certainly recalled Tyson's past glory as the ultimate intimidator. But Tillman's recent credentials as a heavyweight did not persuade anyone that Tyson was fully tested in his first fight since losing the title in February, when he was knocked out by Buster Douglas in Tokyo.

So the Tillman match was ultimately inconclusive, except to prove that Tyson was still up to the task, any task. Since being upset four months ago, he had been a virtual recluse. News of his life—a sister dead, a son born—became sporadic. Even his preparation for the Tillman fight was conducted secretly. Interviews were few, and almost all of his workouts were closed. He was no longer a public figure, except as his stature in boxing demanded.

Possibly because of the long silence that accompanied his defeat, as well as the litigation that forestalls any rematch with Douglas for a long time, Tyson had disappeared into mere contention. There was interest in his comeback, to be sure, but there wasn't much anxiety over it, at least not as long as it was against Tillman. Rather, the Caesars crowd appeared far more intrigued by the work George Foreman performed—an hour before Tyson's bout—when, in the 22nd fight of his comeback, he leveled Adilson Rodrigues at 2:39 of the second round.

Foreman, the heavyweight champion in 1973 and '74, has been boxing's popular novelty act since he embarked on his new fight career three years ago, after 10 years of preaching and eating. He has become an ambassador for middle age and unrestrained appetite, if not for boxing. But with each fight, against better opponents and with increasingly concussive results, Foreman is emerging as a genuine contender. "Most of the tickets sold were because of George," said the twin bill's copromoter, Bob Arum. What's more, Foreman is emerging as a reasonable opponent for Tyson. Although neither match on the doubleheader put its head-liner at risk, Foreman's defeat of Rodrigues was his first over a ranked opponent since he began his comeback. Foreman at least gave the appearance of moving up in class. And the left hook that scattered Rodrigues to the ring apron gave Foreman a credibility that was hard to overlook. It may no longer be possible to avoid Tyson-Foreman. Any further twin billings—one planned for September appeared to be unraveling after last Saturday's fights-would make such a match far more inescapable, largely because of its considerable commercial appeal, than even a Tyson-Douglas rematch.

"Let's cut all this nonsense out," said Foreman after the fights. "I don't think there should be another doubleheader. Let's get George Foreman and Mike Tyson together, once and for all."

Whatever you think of Foreman's credentials, there is no disputing his charm. The strain of Tyson's trying to make history has become off-putting. Foreman, meanwhile, is merely trying to relive a little of his own. In his days as champion, of course, Foreman was just as fierce as Tyson, just as wary of the public. Then, Foreman was as enslaved by boxing as Tyson is now. "But now I'm doing what I want to do," Foreman said last week. "I volunteered for this. This time around, the world belongs to me. I can see it out of my eyes, and I like it." The relaxed demeanor of Foreman, a man at peace with himself, stands in sharp contrast to the tortured life of Tyson.

It is, in fact, almost comical to watch Foreman in the ring. First of all, there is his corner, with 76-year-old trainer Archie Moore and brother Robert Foreman wearing their knit caps, and Robert giving George's bald head a prefight massage. It is George's habit, between rounds, to stand reclining against the turnbuckle, as comfortable as a man in a Barcalounger. Even when he is in action, he seems to plod about the ring cheerfully. Saturday night, though, he appeared unhappy that Rodrigues made him plod more and faster than he wished to. Of course, that didn't last long.

Foreman is especially at ease outside the ring. Possibly because of his work as the pastor of a small church in Houston, Foreman has become a relaxed public speaker. He can be serious, as when he discusses the effect of defeat on a young fighter such as Tyson—or Foreman, for that matter. After he lost to Muhammad Ali in 1974, Foreman said the week before the Rodrigues fight, his overwhelming emotion was shame. "You don't want to see the skycaps at the airport, you don't want to see taxi drivers," he said. "And you have to build yourself up, so you start spending billions of dollars on cars, suits and anything you can do to make yourself look like the best in the world. But it doesn't happen until you get that title back. Mike Tyson will never sleep again until he redeems himself."

Mostly, Foreman can be funny, as when he discusses his weight, his opponent or his age. In Las Vegas he happened onto a nice piece of business regarding casino buffets and pretty much stuck to it until fight time. And he repeated a joke about a seafood diet: "I see food, I eat it."

He has become the people's fighter. "Anytime somebody spends $400 to see me fight, I'll jump out of the ring and dance with them, if they like," he says. "Can you imagine $400? You can buy a lot of washing powder with that. When people start spending money like that, you owe them more than punch power."

Of course, it is punch power that they're really paying to see. Foreman is slow and ungainly, and you wonder what he would do if somebody danced away for 10 rounds the way Rodrigues did for one, frustrating Foreman. But so far Foreman has always caught his opponents—21 knockouts in the 22-fight comeback—before either his age or bulk could be exploited. And the impact of Foreman's knockouts seems almost theatrical, as if those 263 pounds really are useful. Rodrigues's trainer, Angelo Dundee, later said his fighter complained that Foreman's glancing blows were paralyzing his arms.

The beauty of the promotion—it certainly wasn't in the matchmaking—was that Tyson's knockout blow was right there for comparison with Foreman's. And Tyson's didn't suffer. Tyson, so streamlined for this fight that the press was aghast at his compact appearance during the one public workout the week before, charged Tillman at the opening bell, knocking the backpedaling 1984 Olympic gold medal winner into the ropes with his jab. Tillman, whose sensible idea it was to avoid Tyson's attack, then landed a terrific right hand on Tyson and was emboldened by its effect. "I thought I had something there," said Tillman, whose career has been in decline since Evander Holyfield whipped him for a junior heavyweight title three years ago. "I didn't."

Two minutes and seventeen seconds later, Tyson struck Tillman with a short right hand so devastating that even Tyson froze at the impact. Perhaps because he remembered the shame of Tokyo, where he was photographed on hands and knees, drunkenly searching for his mouthpiece, he was suddenly full of compassion for his fallen rival. After Tillman was counted out at 2:47, Tyson rushed from the neutral corner to Tillman, his gloved hands out, to lift him. Tyson later explained, almost sheepishly, "We're friends."

In the days leading up to the fights, it was assumed that Tyson and Foreman would follow this twin bill with another, thereby building the gate for their own inevitable match. Last week's copromotion by Don King and Arum had its own bizarre attraction—the two bitter enemies had been forced into a marriage of convenience that was interesting in its own right—but the odd alliance was coming asunder almost before Tillman had regained his senses. King, who promotes Tyson, had done his part for the second doubleheader by signing a fight with Alex Stewart, the WBA's No. 6-ranked heavyweight. But Arum, who promotes Foreman, was having trouble with his end. He had Francesco Damiano, the former European champ, signed, but there was some confusion over whether HBO, which contributed to the purses for the Las Vegas twin bill, would be interested in Damiano under the conditions Arum proposed.

Arum, it turned out, wanted Foreman to fight Damiano for his World Boxing Organization (WBO) title, a franchise that Arum ordinarily doesn't respect, except that the title could be worth money to Foreman in overseas markets. "With that title I can take George all over the world, fighting European champions for two, three million bucks," Arum says. "At least you can call it a championship fight."

But HBO will only accept Damiano in a 10-round, nontitle fight. "HBO spent $22 million to unify the title," says Seth Abraham, senior vice-president for sports at HBO, which backed the series that ultimately united the WBA, WBC and IBF titles under one heavyweight—Tyson. "We're not interested in muddling the picture with a fourth title."

And beyond that, there was King, who suddenly found objection to Damiano's ties to the WBO, which does business with South Africans. King decided he couldn't be part of such a promotion. Better to have a fighter like Michael Dokes, who has had a long-term arrangement with King, in for the payday than deal with a group that has the taint of apartheid. So Tyson and Foreman Doubleheader II began to come apart on Saturday night.

But as the promoters stayed behind in Las Vegas to hash out these matters, the fighters were dispersing for Father's Day appearances. Foreman, who has eight children—three of them named George, with a possible fourth George on the way ("I hope it's a girl, I'm tired of all these Georges," he said)—had a lot in store for him. But Tyson was also anticipating a celebration. At the prefight press conference, and again after the fight, he made repeated mention of his six-week-old son. "He's gorgeous," Tyson said. Tyson, who has no plans to many the child's mother, Natalie Fears, is obviously much taken by fatherhood and has bragged of his competence with diapers and formula.

Even in fatherhood, though, Tyson has continued to immerse himself in boxing history. The boy is named Damato Kilrain—Damato after Tyson's late mentor, Cus D'Amato, and Kilrain after Jake Kilrain, the man who fought John L. Sullivan in the last bare-knuckle heavyweight championship. Kilrain lost that fight, in 75 rounds. Perhaps Tyson means to say you don't need to win them all to ensure a lasting legacy.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOHis scowling self again, Tyson hooked to Tillman's body, then did him in with an overhand. PHOTOJOHN IACONOTillman, who beat Tyson twice in the '84 Olympic trials, fell after only 2:47 this time. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERRodrigues (right) was the first ranked fighter among Foreman's 22 comeback opponents. PHOTOJOHN IACONOA left hook dropped Rodrigues in Round 2 and sent Foreman back to the buffet table early.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)