Adapted from the book: The Last Great Heavyweights-From Ali and Frazier to Lewis and Tyson
January 22, 2002. The Press Conference at the Manhattan Hudson Theatre
The lights dim on stage, and the black-clad, squat, powerful figure of Mike Tyson, saunters out and steps onto the left-hand podium.
Lewis emerges to the right of the stage. Elegant in a suit specially tailored for his six-foot, five-inch, 250-pound frame, he looks real big as he steps onto his podium. The knit cap covering his tied up dreadlocks looks somewhat at odds with his thousand-dollar suit, but no one was likely to question his sartorial choice.
Tyson spots Lewis, rips off his leather cap, flings it on the floor, and strides menacingly toward him, with a number of his entourage in tow. Both fighters had been briefed on what was expected of them, but maybe Tyson wanted to spice up proceedings with a bit of trash talking, or a head-to-head, nose-to-nose, face-down. Or he simply wanted to gain a vital psychological edge by intimidating the big Englishman.
As Tyson reaches Lewis’s podium, the champion’s bodyguard steps out with an arm outstretched. Tyson swings a left hook at the brave but foolish man. Lewis doesn’t wait for Tyson to attack him, and uncorks a glancing right hand off the top of Tyson’s skull.
Suddenly, there is a melee of bodies, as big men in expensive suits, push, punch and wrestle on the floor. Lost in the crush are Lewis and Tyson. “There was a free-for-all,” Lewis later told HBO. “Someone was biting my leg, I’m like pushing the head, and realizing that you know, Tyson was biting my leg…”
The scrap is mercifully brief, and one peace is restored, Lewis and his people exit the stage.
Scoop Malinowski, a boxing writer among the gathered press, ill-advisedly exclaims out loud from what he thought was the relative safety of the press row. “Put him in a straitjacket!”
That sets off an enraged Tyson again. Stepping forward and fixing a baleful gaze on the now quaking Malinowski, he lets rip. “Put your mother in a straitjacket you punk-ass white boy. Come here and tell me that.” Grabbing his crotch with one hand, and gesturing wildly at the target of his raving ire with the other, he lets rip a string of racial and sexual obscenities.
The television cameras bear witness to his eruption, and give the watching millions an uncomfortable view into the darkness plaguing the once youngest heavyweight champion of the world.
The fight was now in serious jeopardy. The alarmed Nevada State Athletic Commission, already troubled by his past misdemeanors, voted 4-1 against granting Tyson a boxing licence.
Other State Commissions followed suit, forcing the organizers into a desperate search for someone willing to host a highly lucrative, but now a pariah event.
June 8, 2002. The Pyramid by the Mississippi, Memphis, Tennessee.
And so it had finally come to this. A summit meeting at the boxing backwater of Tennessee, of the last two great heavyweights still standing since Ali and Frazier in 1971.
Both men were past their primes. Lewis was 36, and Tyson 10 months younger at 35. Ideally, they should have met years earlier, but fate, and different career paths of both men had decreed otherwise.
The pre-fight formalities completed, the echoes of bell-one fade away as Tyson, all coiled-up fury, rages after the much bigger Lewis, with thunder and bad intentions in his fists.
A frenzy of noise and expectation erupted in the Pyramid. This was what the audience had come to see. The return of the old Tyson, who had decimated a whole generation of heavyweights with an unparalleled blend of ferocity, blistering speed and chilling power.
Lewis scuttled backward before the onslaught. Eyes wide, shock and apprehension flickered across his face. He’d expected this, and indeed trained for it. But first-hand experience was an altogether different matter.
A piston-like Tyson jab hammered into Lewis’s face, and a winging right hand whistled past his chin. With Tyson momentarily off balance, Lewis unloaded an arcing right uppercut that glanced off the side of Tyson’s chin. Stunned, Tyson crouches and covers up. Lewis hovering over him like a giant manta-ray, unloaded three more big uppercuts before Tyson sought refuge in a clinch.
Tyson now knew Lewis could hurt him, but undeterred, he continued his assault. A left jab made Lewis stumble backward off balance, but a left hook to the jaw had no discernible effect. So much for Lewis’s oft-derided soft chin.
Tyson was a blur of action, and Lewis a tangle of overlong limbs as he struggled to contain Tyson’s fury, and find room for his own punches.
The pace became less frenetic as the rounds wore on. With Tyson’s initial fire doused, Lewis was now fighting a sedate and disciplined fight. Jabs speared into Tyson’s face, heavy right hands hammered into his skull, and whistling uppercuts ripped him whenever he tried to close the distance.
Referee Eddie Cotton had been unduly solicitous toward Tyson, and somewhat antagonistic toward Lewis all night, and surprisingly ruled no knockdown and deducted Lewis a point for pushing, when Tyson sprawled on the canvas, courtesy of yet another right hand, in the fourth.
Manny Steward tore into Lewis for his lack of urgency at the break. “This fight could be over with…you’ve got a dead man in front of you. Go to him and bang him…Let your shit go, left hand uppercut, right hand uppercut. Any longer the fight goes, the man is dangerous. You’d better get him outta there!”
Lewis was systematically and sadistically taking Tyson apart, a piece at a time. Regardless what Manny might yell at him, he was going to do this his way.
Tyson cut a sorry figure as he wearily trudged back to his corner at the end of the seventh. Corner man Stacy McKinley, chipped in with some home-boy encouragement. “You’ve taken his best shots, it’s time to get to work brother…” But all to no avail. Tyson, wincing and moaning in pain as the cut man worked on the two gashes over his eyes had nothing left to give.
Lewis delivered the coup-de-grace in the eighth. A right and left uppercut, right hand combo dipped Tyson’s knees, inducing Cotton to incorrectly call a knockdown and administer the mandatory eight-count.
Cynics perturbed at the partisanship of Cotton’s performance, might claim he was giving Tyson much needed rest, but he was merely prolonging Iron Mike’s agony.
Lewis recounted the finishing salvoes in his typically understated way. “I saw Tyson was having problems, so I threw the right hand.” Timing Tyson’s head movement perfectly, the punch crashed into Tyson’s jaw as his head dipped to his left. BOOM! Tyson’s head twisted grotesquely, blood, mucus and sweat spraying the air. A collective ooh erupted from the crowd. Tyson’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he hit the canvas hard.
Lewis turned away, strolled nonchalantly to a neutral corner, both arms raised in triumph. He knew Tyson wouldn’t be getting up.
Ollie Odebunmi became a boxing fan when he watched the Fight of the Century between Muhammad Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier back in 1971. He is the author of The Last Great Heavyweights-From Ali and Frazier to Lewis and Tyson, available from Amazon.