The whole sorry facade had been supported by nothing more than
promotional psychodrama, fascinating for a while but ultimately
flimsy and unstable. The buildup was just an act, a front.
Behind all of Mike Tyson's famous fury there was...nothing. Not
even--and here was a surprise--more fury. It was almost sad to
realize that. But there it was, undeniable. The onetime baddest
man on the planet was now on his back, and overhead cameras
caught the physical humiliation: Blood coursing from both brows
and his nose, eyes closed, a red glove resting on his forehead.
It had finally come tumbling down, that facade, and for good.
Of course, given how shattered Tyson now was, it was possible to
ask: What were we thinking, anyway? For all his heavyweight
dominance in the 1980s, Tyson hadn't delivered a decent show
since knocking out Razor Ruddock in 1991, substituting bizarre
behavior for athletic performance. His mystique remained
powerful, despite his public meltdowns, or maybe because of
them. But at 35, and far removed from his brief but electrifying
prime, Tyson was good for nothing more than wishful thinking,
the old idea of thug force, which somehow was attractive from
the suitable distance of cable TV in our otherwise refined
lives. The ranting and raving were all the underpinnings for the
residual Tyson-mania, and were all that could justify his
In the face of a true heavyweight champion, ranting and raving
were insufficient. The Rumble on the River became the Mismatch
by the Mississippi last Saturday night when Lennox Lewis pocked
that facade with jab after jab, finally knocking the whole thing
down with a long-overdue right hand in the eighth round (he
could have done it much sooner). The bout, held in a hopeful
Memphis (and boy, does Memphis dress up for a party; good for
them) because most every other city in the world found religion
when it came to ranting and raving, was so completely one-sided
that just as you were forced to acknowledge Lewis's now
irrefutable talents, you had to admire Tyson's surprising
stoicism in the ring. And just as you began to appreciate the
honor of Lewis's accomplishment, you had to feel a pang of
horror for Tyson, who no longer can afford the refuge of his
so-called rage and now must reckon with what's left of his
desperate destiny. As he told a TV reporter in his dressing room
afterward, "I have nowhere to go."
Gone by then was the money-making menace, the persona who had
built this fight into a $100 million extravaganza. Was it ever
real, that scary anger? Some of it must have been; surely he
wouldn't have done as much jail time as he has just to keep his
little urban reputation going. But to see him, come the bell,
respect the sport he used to say he loved so much, to see him so
humble in defeat, you had to wonder. Although he was thoroughly
outclassed, he fought hard and nonstop, accepting more
punishment than he probably had to. Then, his destruction
finalized, he offered Lewis the humility any good loser must. He
hugged Lewis, kissed the champion's mother and for the TV
audience announced the obvious: "He was splendid, a masterful
boxer, and I take my hat off to him."
June 16, 2002
For Lewis, 36, the knockout was the cherry on his sundae, the
performance that "cements my legacy." He has never been much
beloved, partly because he got clipped on the button every time
his career gained momentum, but mostly because he avoided taking
the path of perverse flamboyance that Tyson chose. A man of
Lewis's size (6'5", 249 pounds) and power might have done more
with his tools. However, his dominance over Tyson demands
After a shaky first round in which a bobbing and charging Tyson
appeared to offer him difficulty, Lewis recovered with a left
jab that seemed to stop Tyson in his tracks. Bing, bing, bing.
Lewis couldn't miss. By the third round Tyson's right eye was
bleeding. Shortly after that, his left. Then his nose. The jab,
a kind of stutter punch that had Tyson ducking a blow that
wasn't there, or wasn't there at first, completely immobilized
him. He was ripe for the taking.
Emanuel Steward, Lewis's trainer, could be seen pleading with
his fighter after the fourth round to do more taking. "What
Manny didn't realize," Lewis said after the bout, "was I hurt my
right hand and had to rest it for a couple of rounds."
Only until the eighth. Following round after round of one-sided
punishment, Lewis caught Tyson with a left uppercut, causing him
to sag halfway to the canvas. Then, a minute later, he whistled
a right to Tyson's jaw, and the fight was over.
"What more," Lewis asked afterward, "can you ask me to do?"
Well, not much. Lewis, who's been the prototypical heavyweight
for this generation, might have been immortal by now if he
hadn't gotten careless and lost to Oliver McCall and, much more
recently, Hasim Rahman. He avenged those defeats, his attention
restored, and now with this fight he must be recognized as a
pretty powerful performer. If Lewis retired right now--and
that's possible, as he seems at long last to have cleaned out
the division--he need not apologize for his departure.
What Lewis might have to apologize for is his comparative lack
of flair, his nonchalance when it comes to developing a story
line for the fight public. He has just been professional, that's
all, whereas Tyson was always more obliging, offering his anger
for sale and bending himself to promotional use. Though Lewis
was the reigning champion, this fight had really been about
Tyson and his potential for self-immolation.
The sense of jeopardy was heightened as promoters went to
elaborate and comical measures to ensure the fighters' safety.
Or was it to satisfy the promoters' insurers? Of course, given
that Tyson had bitten Lewis's leg in January, well, it never
hurts to be prepared when there's $100 million at stake. Who
knows what he might bite next. And who knows what it will cost.
But it was one thing to have separate press conferences
(separated by one day and one casino in nearby Tunica, Miss.)
and separate weigh-ins, and quite another to have separate ring
announcers (alternating introductions) and quite another to have
separate ringsides. What was the public supposed to think on
Saturday when a fleet of 12 security men formed a diagonal
across the ring to prevent contact between the fighters during
those always volatile introductions? Presumably, onlookers were
supposed to think they were getting their money's worth.
That was the entire premise of the promotion, though: that just
about anything could happen. Seeing as how almost anything
already had happened in a Tyson fight (he's bitten others
besides Lewis, as we hate to remind you, and done plenty else in
the ring), it wasn't an implausible premise. Steward, Lewis's
trainer, was with the program when he said, "With these two guys
in the ring it's like dynamite is all over the place. I'm
nervous that somebody might throw a match in there. It's going
to be explosive."
Out the window was the idea that two men in their mid-30s, each
with championship tenure, might behave professionally on the
most important night of their careers. Sadly that's not where
the money is. Nobody was paying $2,400 ringside, or even $55
couchside, to see anything so routine as a prizefight. To
justify the commerce this event was expected to generate, there
had to be the possibility of catastrophe, or the illusion of
that possibility. For this kind of money--we're talking at least
$17.5 million apiece for fighters who, by any boxing logic,
should have met five years ago, and no later--there had to be
the probability of disaster. Really, this was a calamity, staged
for your convenience. The charge would simply appear on your
Tyson was easily adapted to these promotional uses. Though he
seemed to have a professional respect for Lewis, whom he sparred
with as a youngster, he was coaxed into his usual inflammatory
rhetoric. Having already said he would "smear [Lewis's] pompous
brains across the canvas," Tyson was now insisting, "I'm just
ready to get it on and crush this guy's skull."
Tyson was apparently so unhinged in the days leading up to the
fight that he couldn't be trusted to speak at his own (separate)
press conference. His flunky assistants, trainer Ronnie Shields
and assistant trainer Stacey McKinley, instead delivered
diatribes on his behalf. As usual it was possible to wonder if
Tyson was his own worst enemy or if his dodoes were the problem.
Already overburdened with idiotic aides-de-camp (the banished
trainer Panama Lewis, the professional hollerer Steve Fitch),
Tyson now had the even more idiotic McKinley calling Lewis a
coward in as profane a rant as has been heard this side of HBO.
Come to think of it, Tyson distinguished himself by his absence.
Tyson conducted a "secret" press conference the following day
(where no actual press was allowed), meeting with schoolchildren
after his Wednesday workout. For that he seemed real and,
contrary to promotional purposes, oddly human. He told the kids,
"I've never been in the South before, but I went into downtown
Memphis last Friday and everyone looked like me. Everyone had
gold teeth in their mouth."
And why, the children asked, didn't he have more endorsements,
or rather any at all? He laughed. "You think I wouldn't like to
be on a Wheaties box? But it's just not in me to say, 'Yes,
sir,' and 'No, sir.' It's just not in me." Finally one child had
the temerity that most of his elders lacked. He asked why Tyson
had bitten Evander Holyfield's ear in his disastrous and
career-defining fight in 1997. His handlers frantically waved
the question aside, and you could imagine the child being
removed and destroyed in a back room, but Tyson laughed again.
"I don't know why I bit that man's ear," he said. "I was upset.
If he had just said that in the first place, he might have
avoided a lot of sanctions, a lot of reprobation, a lot of his
crushing debt. But preferring his tortured and complicated life,
he veered instead into needless melodrama, where every act and
rant was subjected to inspection to determine his psychological
Danger was his business! Lawyers had to insert a clause in the
contracts stipulating that an "onerous foul" disqualification
would cost a fighter--meaning Tyson--$3 million. For that
matter, what city would have him? As Las Vegas washed its hands
of him, and other cities did too, only Memphis stepped forward
to host the fight. Tyson was simply too unstable to trust with a
municipal reputation. He could bring a whole metropolis down.
Thus, the steep deterrent.
As problematic as Tyson's instability would seem to a promotion,
it was also catalytic. The specter of Tyson unhinged was without
question the driving force in the live gate and in the
pay-per-view. As Jay Larkin, Showtime's boxing chief said, "With
Mike, love him or hate him, you know he's there. Mike is what's
good for business."
Lewis, presumably, is not. Even though he was the champion
coming in, fighting in his 13th consecutive title fight, Lewis
is considered something of a box office dud. "There's no
charisma," complained Larkin. "If Lennox went away, nobody would
miss him." His calm confidence, which is frustrating when he
cautiously toys with opponents in the ring, never inspires much
frantic buildup. At his own press conference three days before
the bout, Lewis invited an elementary school chess team to the
dais, where he, indulging in one of his favorite pastimes,
played one of the prodigies for several moves. Thus the only
known press conference with the following narration: "Mr. Lewis
has played knight to f6."
In the fight game, when the stakes are so high, nothing can ever
be packaged as just a boxing match. It has to be a morality play
as well, the better to draw the casual fan, the reality-show
viewer, into that pay-per-view web. And the fighters fit the
bill perfectly: Tyson was the unrepentant madman, with all the
persuasive bluster, and Lewis was the calculating gentleman,
whose only show of emotion was to acknowledge his always-present
Of course, by fight time, when the hot lights boil off these
trappings, it really is nothing more than a boxing match. And in
this case, as Steward observed afterward, "it was man against
boy." Tyson seemed to recognize as much, and when he spoke to
Lewis of a rematch immediately after the bout, he framed it in
terms of a "payday."
Tyson will surely fight again, as he will always bring money to
the table with his strange celebrity, and he will always need
money, given his debt to Showtime and his need for a large
lifestyle. But immediately afterward he seemed to address
reality when, in an odd state of calm, he said he just might
fade into oblivion, go feed his pigeons. It was as if he
recognized, almost at the same time we did, the awful truth:
Finally, this whole impossibly tortured effort, it's over.
To justify the commerce this event was expected to generate,
there had to be the possibility of catastrophe.
Gone was the money-making menace, the persona who had built this
fight into a $100 million extravaganza.
The knockout was the cherry on Lewis's sundae, the performance
that "cements my legacy."