The Mike Tyson who battled his way to the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world was a snarling, bare-knuckles-type boxer with jackhammer fists. His Doberman eyes were flecked with hate, and he fought not to defeat, but to destroy. Opponents were left bloodied and unconscious. Last Saturday night, against Alex Stewart at Atlantic City's Convention Center, that Tyson was back with a fury. Tyson floored Stewart three times before the bout was halted with 33 seconds remaining in the first round.
The changes in Tyson—from the time he unified the heavyweight title in August 1987 until he lost the crown last February in Tokyo to James (Buster) Douglas, a 49-1 underdog—were gradual, insidious. Over those 30 months and six bouts, Tyson remained a lion, but he became a gentler lion. By the time he arrived in Tokyo, his weight what it should be but his body soft, the flames that had propelled him to excellence were low and flickering. Without his driving ferocity, Tyson is little more than a good small heavyweight.
"I screwed up," Tyson said last week. "When I lost, people expected the wheels to come off. They haven't. I learned from my mistake, but I don't dwell on it. That fight opened my eyes. I never again will sloop on any opponent. The championship is only a state of mind. It's how you feel when you perform. The title belt is only a symbol. Now I just want to fight. I want to feel free again."
If last Saturday's performance is any indication, he's well on his way to freedom. With the savagery of a bayonet charge, Tyson sprang from his corner and hammered Stewart into submission to win his second fight since the Douglas defeat. Most boxing observers took Stewart far more seriously than they did Henry Tillman, who was dispatched by Tyson in less than a round last June. Three years before that bout, Tillman, the 1984 Olympic 201-pound gold-medal winner, had lost to Evander Holyfield in a junior heavyweight championship fight. After that, his career dwindled gradually into retirement. He returned to meet Tyson as a heavyweight and-has since all but disappeared. Against Tillman, Tyson proved he still had the power, but Tillman didn't remain upright long enough to provide the answers to any other questions.
By contrast, the London-born Stewart, who was ranked seventh by the WBC, fifth by the WBA and fourth by the IBF, had lost only once in 27 fights—to Holy-field in November 1989 on an eighth-round technical knockout. A puncher with a powerful right hand, Stewart had achieved all 26 of his victories with knockouts. And he had been off his feet only once, against Conroy Nelson in 1988. Nonetheless, Stewart was a 9-1 underdog going in against Tyson.
While people searched for a clue to Tyson's state of mind, Stewart supplied one to his own. While doing roadwork along the Atlantic City boardwalk one morning at 5 a.m., Stewart saw Tyson, flanked by members of his camp, running toward him. Stewart had some uneasy moments before Tyson passed without incident. "I was happy he didn't challenge me," said Stewart. "I was afraid there might be trouble, and I was alone."
If the positions had been reversed, the recharged Tyson would have plowed through a Stewart group. In any case, Stewart needn't have worried: Tyson would be making $2.5 million for the fight, and he wasn't about to risk that for a street brawl. For his role in Tyson's resurrection, Stewart would earn $535,000.
"People are looking upon this as a warmup for Tyson," said Stewart before the bout. "If I thought that, I wouldn't be fighting him. I am a spoiled brat when I lose. To lose would be to die. I think I'd rather die than lose."
Tyson trained at Trump Plaza. His workouts were closed, his meetings with the press infrequent. Groundless stories circulated that he was partying more than he was training. "No matter what I do, that is what people are going to write about me," said Tyson early last week. "One time I was training in Canada and some friends called and read me clippings from the papers. They had me out partying and galavanting in New York City. I said, 'Wow! Last night? I could have sworn I was in Canada.' I saw this movie about the life of Charlie Parker, the jazz musician. In it, Dizzy Gillespie told him, 'When you die, they are going to talk about you.' I thought, Holy Jesus, when I die, they are going to talk about me like I was a dog. That just rang true to me."
If Tyson partied his way into shape for Stewart, by now fighters everywhere would be setting up camps in saloons and discos. For Douglas, Tyson weighed 220½ pounds, but they were putty pounds. For Stewart, he came carved from granite at 217¾. "This guy wants to work hard," said trainer Richie Giachetti before the fight. "He's beautiful. He never gave me a minute's problem. But you better know what you are talking about. He's a student of boxing, and you can't——him."
Before losing the title, Tyson would balloon to 250 or 260 pounds after fights. Since the Tillman bout he has not exceeded 226. "I feel great," he said before the Stewart fight. "I'll never let myself get in that position again. I haven't had a drink in over a year. I do that to control myself. It's not that I have to quit, but because I know it is bad for me."
"Since I've been with him, the guy has been so straight it is unbelievable," said Giachetti, who joined Tyson after the Douglas loss. "I read all that stuff about him, and then I worked with him. It's like two different people. Hey, there isn't anything I wouldn't do for him."
At 5:15 p.m. on Saturday, Giachetti was sitting down to a dinner of steak au poivre and baked potato when his beeper sounded. Tyson, who would be stepping into the ring in less than six hours, was calling with a request for Billie Holiday tapes. Giachetti rushed to the Oceans One shopping mall on the boardwalk, where he purchased six Holiday tapes for $49.68. Returning to a meal grown cold, Giachetti grinned and said, "I told you I'd do anything for him. I bought enough tapes so I could get him one for a discount price of four bucks."
Wrapped in a black robe with yellow piping, Stewart entered the ring accompanied by the Bob Marley song, Get Up, Stand Up. His choice of entrance music was unfortunate. Eight seconds after the fight started, he was sitting down.
Coming out of his corner with an odd flick of his right leg, Tyson charged. Stewart expected a furious assault, but not right away. Tyson's fourth punch, a looping right, crashed against Stewart's left temple, dropping him for a count of five. No sooner was Stewart on his feet again than Tyson resumed his frenzied attack. During one volley, as Stewart tried to fend him off with a jab, Tyson missed with a wild right hand, and the force behind the punch carried him to the floor. Referee Frank Cappuccino ruled it a slip.
Another Tyson right hand just after the one minute mark caught Stewart near the top of the head. Stewart went down again. This time he found his feet at the count of nine. Another barrage of red leather sent Stewart crashing against the ropes, and then to the canvas, with 45 seconds left in the round. Under New Jersey's three-knockdown rule, the bout should have been stopped at that point. But, with Stewart on the seat of his pants, his right arm stretched along a rope, his left hand on the floor, Cappuccino counted to eight before stopping the fight. The official time was 2:27.
"I could have got up," said Stewart, who hadn't appeared to be trying, "but he said stay there, and I did. What can I say? I just got caught. It happens."
Over the past three years Tyson has turned the Convention Center into a graveyard for opponents. He has fought there five times. He stopped Tyrell Biggs in seven rounds and Larry Holmes in four; then he knocked out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds and Carl (the Truth) Williams in 93. "We're back!" shouted Tyson's promoter, Don King, storming up the steps into the ring after the victory. "We're back!"
Tyson was less effusive. "I knew he was tough," he said, "but I knew he wasn't going to keep getting up. I was too anxious. I wanted to explode on him. I rushed a little too much, but I was O.K. After the first knockdown, I hit him with a right hook to the body, and right then I knew it wouldn't go long. I punch harder to the body than I do to the head. But sometimes I'm reluctant to punch to the body. Sometimes I just want to rush in and punch, punch, punch."
"I like Alex Stewart personally," he added pleasantly. "He's a nice guy." For now, Tyson said, his only plan was a brief vacation. There is little he can do in his effort to regain the championship until Holyfield, who took the title from Douglas in October, defends the crown against George Foreman on April 19 in the same Atlantic City arena. Tyson's last hope, the WBC's threat to strip Holyfield for not defending first against Tyson, has gone to arbitration, though there's little chance that the court will rule in Tyson's favor.
If the WBC does get to strip Holyfield of the title, Tyson will fight Razor Ruddock for the vacated championship. Even Tyson's not counting on that. "I have to wait [for a title fight]," said Tyson after the bout. "I'm resigned to that now."
"And what if Foreman beats Holy-field?" says Ruddock, introducing a new can of worms. "Do you think Foreman is going to abide by any ruling? If he wins, that will be the last we'll see of him. He'll take off for Europe and fight those people over there. And don't think Foreman can't win. He'll smother Holyfield as Holyfield tries to get inside to hit him, making him expend his energy. And he'll club him, taking away his skinny legs. Then he'll knock him out, and it will be goodbye, George, off to Europe."
Ruddock, now 25-1-1 with 19 knockouts, was the No. 2 contender behind Holyfield until Tyson lost to Douglas. After falling to Douglas, Tyson became No. 2, with Ruddock dropping to No. 3. Both moved up after Holyfield won the title.
"My only chance for a title fight before the end of 1992 is if the WBC still strips Holyfield," says Ruddock, who knocked out Mike Rouse at 2:37 of the first round of a bout on the Tyson-Stewart undercard. "If Tyson gets screwed, I get screwed, only worse. I have to wait for everybody. Foreman was sitting around in church while I was fighting. Then he comes in from the blue and gets a title, fight. What's fair about that?"
Not much, but the only rule in the fight game is to make as much money as you can. King charges Holyfield's all-white management team with racism for ducking Tyson and accepting a bout with Foreman instead, which is ridiculous. Holyfield will meet Foreman to make $15 million, and then he will fight Tyson for $30 million—if he wins. Before Tokyo, King had the same scenario in mind, only his starred Tyson. There is only one color in professional boxing: green.
Except, perhaps, for Tyson. He isn't ignoring the money, but what he wants most is the championship. His gunslinger mentality restored, he wants to show the world who is best. "I never lost my confidence, even after Tokyo," said Tyson. "A lot of people would love to see that happen—to see this cocky, arrogant, successful black kid who's always talking about how he can kill anybody, beat anybody, all of a sudden say, yeah, well, I lost to a better man. Bull! I'm the best."