Mike Tyson was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on June 21, 2011. First-ballot, no doubt, no questions asked. I think that’s fair.
However, as a member of the last golden age of the heavyweights, it’s worth considering, when compared to Holyfield, Lewis, and even Bowe, just how great was Mike Tyson?
I think it’s a fair question to ask. There’s a fair bit of myth around Tyson, as he walked into the heavyweight division at the tender age of 18 in 1985. He quickly swarmed over a division that had been weakened and watered down since the last golden age of Ali, Foreman, and Frazier. Larry Holmes had held court for some time. Seldom finding a fighter of his merit to square off with. But Holmes had grown old, and eventually tasted defeat to the great light heavyweight, Michael Spinks, who had moved up and picked his time just right to take on the aging Holmes, scoring two controversial decision victories over the previously undefeated champion by May of 1986.
In that time, Mike Tyson had compiled a 19-0 record with all those bouts ending before the final round. Most of those scraps were against tin cans, but Tyson did step up and score a unanimous decision over James “Quick” Tillis. Tyson would mow through 14 more opponents before getting his shot at Spinks. There were some names in there (Trevor Berbick – from whom he took the WBC title, Pinklon Thomas, Tony Tucker, Tony Tubbs, and a by then, a fully calcified Larry Holmes), but no one – other than Holmes – within sniffing distance of greatness.
Spinks had scored two more victories as a heavyweight, in very carefully curated match ups against Steffen Tangstad and Gerry Cooney. He could no longer avoid Tyson though. So, in June of 1988, Tyson and Spinks met in Atlantic City, and 91 seconds later, Spinks was sprawled on the ropes and Tyson was the unified heavyweight champion of the world.
Tyson was the new king of he world with a sterling record of 35-0 with 31 knockouts. The baddest man on the planet. But not for long. After dispatching with Frank Bruno and Carl Williams, the supposedly invincible Tyson entered the ring against the modestly regarded James “Buster” Douglas in February of 1990 in Japan. Douglas had been a talented underachiever before that. Tall and long, with power and boxing skills. For that one night, he put it all together and in what many considered the upset of the century, downed Mike Tyson in the 10th round.
Dispatched by a journeyman, things got continually darker for Tyson. Underwhelming non-title bout victories over Henry Tillman, Alex Stewart, and Razor Ruddock(X2) followed before a rape conviction kept Iron Mike out of the ring for for four years. Tyson cleared Peter McNeeley and Buster Mathis Jr. before taking back the WBC belt over Frank Bruno with a TKO victory in March of 1996. A TKO over Bruce Seldon followed before a fateful bout against Evander Holyfield. Tyson was roundly favored to dispatch the former cruiserweight.
I still remember Sylvester Stallone pontificating on the fight during a guest appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show. Sly said Holyfield was “made for Tyson”. He did not mean it in a good way.
What people missed is that unlike most of Tyson’s previous conquests, Holyfield had a chin and a heart. He would not be bullied. Instead, Holyfield dominated Tyson and put him down for good in the 11th round.
The wheels fully came off for Tyson afterwards. His rematch against Holyfield 7 months later was a fiasco. Resulting in a disqualification of Tyson after biting off a portion of Holyfield’s ear.
Over his next 6 fights, Tyson won four less than inspiring matches along with two no contests against Orlin Norris and Andrew Golota. Somehow, this light work resulted in a title shot against Lennox Lewis in June of 2002. Tyson had no business in the ring with Lewis, and was dispatched by Lewis in the 8th round of what was a dominating performance for the Brit.
Tyson fought just three more times after that. Knocking out Clifford Etienne before suffering two humiliating losses to Danny Williams and Kevin McBride. Two fighters that no one would otherwise remember.
And that was it for Mike Tyson. Which leaves us with the question, what did Mike Tyson really do in his career? It’s certainly fair to say that he walked into a terrible weak division and cleaned that house proper. But who did Mike Tyson ever beat? Of his victories, there are two hall of fame fighters on his ledger. Spinks and Holmes. Let’s face it though, Spinks was a puffed-up light heavyweight taking advantage of a fading Holmes and a weak division. As well, by the time Tyson got to Holmes, he was a shadow of his former self.
The truth of the matter is, Tyson never beat a great heavyweight in their prime. He had three shots. Twice against Holyfield and once versus Lewis. In all three bouts, he wasn’t just beaten, he was handled. Tyson never got a shot at Bowe. Largely due to his four years of incarceration and Bowe’s sudden meltdown outside of the ring. Still, it’s fair to say that every time Tyson took on a man unafraid of him, not only did he lose, he often got pounded. No matter how hard you squint at his resume, Tyson never once beat a truly great fighter.
Tyson deserves credit for the sensation he became. The heavyweight division was moribund before his entrance. He won titles and his bouts were clear your calendar experiences. But how great was he really? Of the peers of his era, it’s hard to put him ahead of Lewis (who beat him and Holyfield), Holyfield (who beat Tyson twice and Bowe once), and even Bowe himself who took down Holyfield twice.
There is no victory on Tyson’s record which matches any of those on the ledgers of Lewis, Holyfield, and Bowe. The general public, and even some boxing die-hards look on Tyson as the preeminent heavyweight of his time. He was not. He was not second either. Or even third. He was the fourth musketeer. He may be the name you remember most, but he should not be the fighter remembered best.
That’s not to say that Tyson had no greatness. It’s just that it was only exhibited against those not on his level. He was not the greatest of his time. In fact, he was not even all that close.
To believe anything else is simply indulging in mythology.