GO BACK 25 years and imagine a question: Which will survive deep into the new millennium, the sport of boxing as a mainstream commercial and spectator enterprise, or Mike Tyson, whose five-year reign of dominance had just come to a stunning end with a knockout loss to Buster Douglas? The most logical answer then: neither.
In 1990, Tyson's defeat left the sport without a transcendent superstar. There was a time when it didn't need one. A generation earlier boxing stood alongside baseball, college football and horse racing as the most popular sports in the United States. But with the rise of the NFL, the Magic/Bird/Jordan NBA and the TV-driven splintering of fans' interest that has turned nearly every sport into a niche one, boxing was swimming desperately upstream. Ali and Frazier were gone. Sugar Ray Leonard was all but finished. The rise of Lennox Lewis and Roy Jones Jr. would come later, but neither was up to the task of keeping boxing relevant beyond its narrowing fan base.
From 1985 to '88, Tyson had pumped adrenaline into the sport. He was at first a teenaged punching machine dropping tomato cans every few weeks and then, at 20, the youngest heavyweight champion in history, a cartoon destroyer in black shorts and black shoes who tapped into a public bloodlust that peaked in his 35th consecutive victory, a 91-second knockout of Michael Spinks on June 27, 1988. But by then Tyson had already begun to fade. His mentor, trainer Cus D'Amato, died in '85; his most trusted adviser, Jim Jacobs, passed away in the spring of '88. Sharks circled; Tyson trusted no one.
Thirty-nine days before the Spinks fight, when I was the Tyson beat writer for the Albany Times Union, Tyson told me, "Everything in my life was too good to be true, wasn't it? Now my life is so screwed up." Over the ensuing decade Tyson would get beaten up by Douglas, descend into drug and alcohol abuse, serve three years in an Indiana prison on a rape conviction and bite off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear. Now Tyson understands that his downfall was inevitable in 1988, even before he bludgeoned Spinks. "I didn't care anymore," Tyson told me in February, our first conversation in 27 years. "The flesh-eaters had already grabbed me and taken advantage of me, and they were already cutting me into pieces for their own self-aggrandizement. At that point I had already taken the poison and I was just waiting to die."
And he probably should have, along with his sport. Yet here we are, and both are stubbornly alive.
Tyson, 48, lives in Las Vegas with his third wife, Kiki, and their two children. Tyson says he is sober and that by the end of the year he will have paid off his IRS bill, once $23 million. "It's my Siberia, because of the life I've lived," he says. "But I wouldn't give this up for anything." Tyson coproduced and appears in director Bert Marcus's documentary, Champs, a study of boxing's role as a source of hope for young men that opens on March 13. Tyson's animated series on Adult Swim, Mike Tyson Mysteries, has been renewed for a second season, and he even had a successful one-man Broadway show. He has been reborn as a significant figure in popular culture.
Boxing, meanwhile, is clawing back from its own exile. On Feb. 20, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao agreed at long last to step into a ring together, on May 2 in Las Vegas. The fight comes five years later than once hoped and will match two men whose combined age is 74, but that will do little to dull enthusiasm for what is expected to be the highest-grossing boxing match in history. It is arguably the biggest fight in the U.S. since Lewis pummeled a badly faded Tyson in 2002. Meanwhile, NBC (with NBC Sports Network) has committed to televising 20 shows of live boxing matches in 2015, beginning last Saturday night. The shows will give boxing a potentially wider audience from which to succeed or fail than it has had in three decades.
All of this makes for a renaissance just as unexpected as Tyson's. And flips the answer posed earlier from neither to both.
Winning By Losing
Faces in the Crowd
The Case for
To read more from Tim Layden about his experience covering a young Mike Tyson, go to SI.com/longform
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