by Fox Doucette
Welcome to another edition of What If, where Harry Turtledove Meets Bert Sugar:
The New York Times, in its March 27, 1992 edition, said the following: “In a rape case that has attracted worldwide attention and prompted debate about sexual roles and racial attitudes in the criminal justice system, Mr. Tyson is likely to be freed in three years with time off for good behavior.” And so a “ten-year sentence” in a jail in Plainfield, Indiana began for a man who until two years prior when he ran into James “Buster” Douglas was considered the Baddest Man on the Planet, insisting all the while that he was innocent; Tyson won’t even flat-out talk about if he even so much as had sex with Desiree Washington at all, except when he said “For all the trouble I went through, I should’ve just raped the bitch.”
What if Iron Mike is telling the truth? With apologies to my female readers and no misogyny intended, what if Ms. Washington was simply making things up for attention, as Tyson has maintained? What if investigators in Indiana, finding insufficient hard evidence to convict Iron Mike, and bearing in mind that all that CSI stuff wasn’t around in 1992 to provide a definitive answer one way or the other, took the champ at his word and refused to initiate criminal charges, letting Mike Tyson walk before the story even became a story?
Let’s rewind the clock to June 28, 1991, and Mike Tyson’s victory over Donovan “Razor” Ruddock, which ran Tyson’s record to 4-0 since the Douglas fight and 41-1 with 36 KOs overall.
What people forget about the second Razor Ruddock fight is that Mike Tyson wasn’t anywhere near as sharp as the lopsided decision or even the two knockdowns inflicted on a man Tyson had knocked out in their previous encounter would have you believe. Tyson-Ruddock II was an ugly fight, with Iron Mike three times penalized and nearly disqualified for a litany of fouls; had, say, Vic Drakulich rather than the great Mills Lane been in charge of the action, it never would’ve made it past the eighth. Low blows, hitting after the bell…it was the kind of fight that both underscored just how much Tyson and Ruddock flat-out hated each other and also revealed something in Tyson’s character as a fighter that in the “real world” timeline would lead to Evander Holyfield finding solidarity with an Italian soccer player after Luis Suarez took a bite out of the latter at the 2014 FIFA World Cup (and oh yeah, also lead to Holyfield getting his ear Van Gogh’d by Iron Mike.)
No matter. We pick up our narrative with:
November 8, 1991: Evander Holyfield (27-0, 22 KOs) TKO11 Mike Tyson (41-2, 36 KOs)
The thing we always forget about Mike Tyson, because of how dominant he was early in his career, was just how beatable he was even on his best day if he was in against the wrong sort of opponent. Buster Douglas provided the world with a blueprint; survive, frustrate Iron Mike, and use his frustration against him. Even guys like Quick Tillis and Bonecrusher Smith were able to get the first part right. They just faltered on the second part, being unable to take the fight to the champion.
There’s a reason Evander Holyfield shows up on lists of all-time great heavyweights despite a title reign that encompassed one of the worst dark ages the sport’s ever seen at the top of the scale—imagine Wladimir Klitschko fighting 20 years ago and not a lot changes, right? That’s not even worth a column, so foregone is the conclusion. Specifically, it’s the same ring smarts and tactical brilliance that in the real-world timeline made Holyfield the winner in real-world timeline 1996.
With Tyson knocked out for the second time, the fate of the once-great champion was in much greater doubt, but luckily, Tyson himself had the advantage of getting to face that dreadful dark age of the division-level competition.
April 11, 1992: Mike Tyson KO2 George Foreman
Big George Foreman’s comeback had started as far back as 1987, and after the 42-year-old’s loss to Evander Holyfield in April of 1991, he’d fought Jimmy Ellis, though not the same Jimmy Ellis who’d fought guys like Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali back in the late Sixties and early Seventies. This Jimmy Ellis was a journeyman fighter who’d been an NFL linebacker with the Raiders for three games as a replacement player during the ’87 players’ strike. For Tyson’s people it was the perfect combination of a name opponent and no real threat to Iron Mike.
Foreman weighed in at a take-his-grill-away 265 pounds, heaviest of his career, for the fight, while Tyson was a lean and frightening 217 and looked much as he had as a much younger man and weighed that same amount against Marvis Frazier in 1986. Whatever had gotten into Iron Mike—new trainer Emanuel Steward, finally getting out from under the promotional thumb of Don King and moving to Top Rank with a lawsuit looking like it would recover some of the $100 million he’d alleged King stole from him, or just plain embarrassment after the Holyfield fight—this was a squash match of the worst order. Colonel Bob Sheridan, calling the fight, insisted this version of Tyson was as focused as he’d been when Cus D’Amato was still alive.
June 19, 1992: Mike Tyson KO1 Riddick Bowe
August 22, 1992: Tyson KO2 Michael Dokes
November 28, 1992: Tyson KO2 Tony Tucker
Noteworthy in this particular montage because Tyson had fought Tucker way back in 1987 and Tucker had taken him the distance. Not this time. Iron Mike was on a mission. Which leads us to a brief sidebar worthy of mention here:
February 6, 1993: Lennox Lewis SD12 Evander Holyfield
When Tyson knocked out Riddick Bowe, it derailed Bowe’s effort to earn a shot at the champion, who’d otherwise been defending his title throughout the two years of his reign after he’d earned the belt from Buster Douglas in the first place, including that big win over Tyson. Bowe fell apart, losing to Lennox Lewis in a title eliminator, a fight Bowe otherwise had almost no interest in before Tyson forced his hand and took away his leverage.
When the time came for the British fighter to make his true debut on the world stage, Lewis seized the moment, but the fight itself was a strong candidate for Fight of the Year, full of back and forth action, neither man truly gaining the upper hand for more than a couple of rounds. Holyfield’s slick boxing evaded seemingly all efforts for Lewis to trap him, but the big Brit had a 30-pound weight advantage and used it when he was able to get into closer range, bullying Holyfield onto the ropes.
It was a split decision, no judge scoring it wider than 115-113; Lewis took the fight on two of the cards by that score. Keep your eye on this because it becomes relevant again real soon, as…
February 13, 1993: Mike Tyson KO3 James “Buster” Douglas
Tyson was waiting for his title shot and wanted to settle some unfinished business. Douglas never stood a chance, as Iron Mike may as well have had Mega Man’s arm cannon from the video games on that night. Douglas hadn’t fought in two and a half years since Holyfield got through with him, and it showed. He’d thankfully been saved from himself after nearly killing himself in 1991, but getting his ass handed to him by Tyson sent Douglas into a hell of a depressive relapse. Douglas would pass away from complications relating to diabetes on December 19, 1993. He was 33. But that’s just a sidebar to our story; let us pick up the action with a title fight the world had been waiting for as Iron Mike was back, but was he truly ready to once again be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world?
May 8, 1993: Mike Tyson KO7 Lennox Lewis
In four words: “You bet your ass.” Lewis and Tyson managed to, through their people, convince Evander Holyfield to wait until September for a superfight against the winner of this contest. The promise was that with the promotional power of a championship contest, the money would be even greater in the fall than it would be in the spring.
Whether or not that’s true, Tyson-Lewis was the Knockout of the Year. Coming in behind his jab and showing all the form that had propelled him to greatness in the first place, possibly even studying film of his own fights from 1986-87, Lewis was on the back foot from the opening bell. Tyson dropped him in the third round, again in the fifth, then landed the kind of left hook that lesser fighters land once in a lifetime but which Tyson had begun to land habitually. The photograph of Tyson’s fist crashing home right on the chin of the well-spoken Englishman on the receiving end became one of the most iconic photos of Tyson’s career. The New York Post, never ones to mince words, ran the photo with the caption “Punch-OUT! Tyson knocks Lewis out in heavyweight title fight.”
September 17, 1993: Mike Tyson UD12 Evander Holyfield
Early in Tyson’s career, guys like Bonecrusher Smith and Tony Tucker went the distance with the young champion not by putting up a great fight but by their instinct not to get killed in there overriding their ability to move their hands. Tyson-Holyfield II was the antithesis of a Fight of the Year. Unlike the two men’s first fight, which had been the greatest sports entertainment of 1991 that didn’t involve “a spectacularmove by Michael Jordan!” as called by Marv Albert in that year’s NBA Finals, and by far the greatest spectacle in boxing, Holyfield was flat-out intimidated by the charge and the technical soundness of Iron Mike. Tyson was a completely different man in there; his personal life finally settled down, his trainer Emanuel Steward was after his best interests, and promoter Bob Arum seized the opportunity to take Don King down a notch; King, as we reach this point in the story, is cooling his heels in a federal prison after revelations during the Tyson lawsuit prompted a federal investigation that finally led to King facing racketeering and federal grand larceny charges; King would never again be a force in boxing after the life sentence came down. Only in America, indeed.
The fight wasn’t close. Holyfield was down in the third round and was penalized for excessive holding by referee Mills Lane twice, once each in the seventh and tenth round. On all three judges’ scorecards, the score was a “you couldn’t see this any other way unless you were blackout drunk” 120-105.
With his greatest foes vanquished, Iron Mike had the pick of the litter in the heavyweight division, which made his next fight a curious choice:
May 6, 1994: Mike Tyson TKO2 Michael Moorer
Mike Tyson never quite made his peace with Teddy Atlas, it seems. At a time when apathy was the only real threat to the champion’s continued title reign, and when indeed there were some shades of Rocky III in Tyson’s spending the winter of 1993-94 seemingly more interested in finally embracing his celebrity and softening his image, Atlas, in an interview on ESPN with SportsCenter host Charley Steiner, called out Tyson, saying “I think he’s beatable. And I think my guy could beat Tyson easy.”
We all know Teddy Atlas. No small few of us love the man’s integrity. But there’s an old saying: “Shooting a grizzly bear with a .22 will only piss it off.” The fight was over before it started, but after a first round in which Moorer was in constant retreat and a second round in which Tyson knocked the challenger down twice, Teddy Atlas tried to pull his “You want me to fight? You want me to trade places with you?” act…and Moorer quit on the stool, saying “Yeah. You [expletive] do that. You go fight that guy because you think he’s so goddamn beatable.” Moorer refused to answer the bell for round 3, and the fight was over.
With that done, and with his personal financial future secured, Mike Tyson married his girlfriend, 1991 Miss Black America (and competitor of Tyson’s accuser) Sharmell Sullivan, on June 25, 1994. Shortly thereafter, and with his financial future secure after winning his lawsuit against Don King and with the help of his legal team having negotiated fair terms on his title run from Top Rank, Mike Tyson retired from boxing, still only 28 years old, with a final record of 49-2, 43 of his wins by way of knockout, leaving boxing historians to spend the next several decades wondering what might have been had Tyson fought into his thirties.
In the grand scheme, it didn’t really matter to Iron Mike. The peace that had eluded him since childhood, the peace that looked like it might be permanently closed off to him after the first Holyfield fight, came as part of perhaps the most ironic happy ending a man can enjoy considering what utter violence had to be done in order to bring that peace about.
As time went on, even Teddy Atlas would finally make his peace with Tyson; ten years later, in setting up an upcoming title fight between Lennox Lewis, who had emerged from the post-Tyson chaos to claim the lineal title in 1997, and Ukrainian challenger Vitali Klitschko, Teddy cited the lessons we all learned from watching Emanuel Steward bring out the very best in Iron Mike: Discipline, talent, and a good jab on your way inside can be everything for a fighter.
And hey. This may be a little too Disney ending for some of you. But c’mon. Your columnist was ten years old when he saw Tyson fight for the first time, and it’s why he’s writing about boxing 27 years later. Cut me a break here.
Next week: What if Salvador Sanchez had lived? Stay tuned as we venture below the heavyweight division for the first time and shake up the 1980s.
Fox Doucette writes What If for The Boxing Tribune, appearing every Tuesday. He often teases these columns in advance on his Facebook page and is always open to discussion about scenarios both close-to-the-vest and wildly implausible. Come join the fun, won’t you, at facebook.com/MysteryShipRadio.