Tyson still commands heavyweight attention

Tyson was 'baddest man on the planet.'
Tyson was 'baddest man on the planet.' (Associated Press)
Posted: June 08, 2011

I WAS WRONG.

Very, very wrong.

Following Mike Tyson's fourth-round knockout loss to Danny Williams on July 30, 2004, in Louisville's Freedom Hall, I wrote, "At 11:32 p.m., Mike Tyson ceased to matter in a heavyweight division that only 20 minutes earlier, he seemed poised to ascend again."

Those words should have carried the finality of a truth that lays bare the shortcomings of any fighter who dares to continue too far past his obvious expiration date. But they didn't. Nor did Tyson, the snarling Iron Mike of the late 1980s and early '90s completely rusted through, cease to matter after his sole post-Williams ring appearance, on July 11, 2005, in which the exhausted, unmotivated former "baddest man on the planet" quit on his stool after 6 rounds against Irish journeyman Kevin McBride.

"I don't have the stomach for this. I don't have that ferocity. I'm not an animal anymore," Tyson said after he was humiliated by McBride, who wouldn't have lasted a full round against him when he was the most compelling, must-see heavyweight since Muhammad Ali, and the most intimidating since Sonny Liston.

Tyson probably still mattered when he made his final, futile bid to recapture at least a bit of what had made him great. Bankrupt and desperate, he was enticed by a longtime confidant, Sterling McPherson, into signing on for a series of exhibition bouts to pick up some quick cash. But he showed up fat and disinterested for an Oct. 20, 2006, scuffle with former sparring partner Corey "T-Rex" Sanders and the rest of the tour was mercifully canceled.

But even 8-plus years after his final victory, and nearly 15 years since he last held a world title, Tyson, who turns 45 on June 30, still matters . . . maybe more now than he did when Williams and McBride fired those career-killing torpedoes into the listing battleship of a legend who had long since lost his thirst for combat. Brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko might be highly competent heavyweight champions, and boffo in Europe, but they do not bring the global electricity that Tyson so casually generated, and as a result boxing as a whole has suffered.

Put it this way: Fight fans - current, former and those who have yet to be won over by a sport whose popularity largely rises and falls on the allure of its reigning heavyweight champion - haven't been the same since Tyson retired and his ear-chomped nemesis, Evander Holyfield, 48 and still active, ebbed into a shadow of his former glory.

It is in appreciation of what Tyson was that at least a portion of a possible record crowd will show up this weekend in the picturesque central New York village of Canastota for the 22nd annual International Boxing Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, in which two other huge draws, three-division former champion Julio Cesar Chavez and Rocky Balboa himself, Sylvester Stallone, also will be enshrined. Other living inductees in the Class of 2011 include former junior welterweight champ Kostya Tszyu, trainer Ignacio "Nacho" Beristain and referee Joe Cortez.

But - and let's be honest - some of those who maintain an interest in Tyson will be in attendance to see if there is still some lava swirling around inside his famously volcanic personality, which hasn't had a public eruption in several years. Still, it is that penchant for blowing his stack that has so intrigued the masses, maybe even as much as that which the onetime street tough from the gritty Brownsville section of Brooklyn was able to achieve inside the ropes.

It is Tyson's volatility, forever bubbling just beneath the surface, that contributes to people's continuing fascination with him, much in the manner that the late Michael Jackson is as famous for his eccentricities as for his incredible abilities as a recording artist and performer. Even when Tyson's untidy personal life turned into an ongoing train wreck, a lot of you couldn't look away.

In a 2003 interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, Tyson, who served 3 years on a 1992 rape conviction, referred to the victim, Desiree Washington, as a "slimy bitch" and a "lying, reptilian, monstrous young lady."

"She put me in that state where . . . I really wish I did [rape her] now," continued Tyson, who has maintained his innocence. "I really do want to rape her and her bleeping mama."

Van Susteren, a veteran interviewer and legal analyst, appeared unnerved by that particular wish, and by the extent of Tyson's anger.

But it is that anger that fueled Tyson's rise to the top of the boxing world, that made more than a few opponents cower in fear even before the opening bell. Tamp down the anger and Tyson's aura of invincibility wasn't the same. It couldn't be.

"I have rage, and I can't control it," Tyson confided to former light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres, another alumnus of Tyson's late trainer, Cus D'Amato. That admission took place a week before Tyson and Lennox Lewis scuffled on the stage in New York in 2002, a brouhaha that briefly threatened to cancel one of the most anticipated heavyweight bouts of all time.

The fight went on as scheduled, Lewis retained his WBC and IBF titles on a savage, eighth-round knockout, and the beast that Tyson had been unraveled to a point where he couldn't even handle the relatively unimposing likes of Williams and McBride.

And now?

Well, Tyson is still high-visibility - he got the Hollywood treatment in director James Toback's 2009 documentary, "Tyson," as well as roles in the blockbuster comedies "The Hangover" and "The Hangover 2" - and the Animal Planet channel made his love of pigeon-racing into a reality series, "Taking on Tyson."

But the wild man claims to have been tamed by the devotion of his third wife, Kiki, and remorse over the death of his 4-year-old daughter, Exodus, tragically strangled by an unsecured cord in a treadmill accident in 2009 at the Phoenix home of her mother, Sol Xochitl.

Tyson has taken off most of the weight he put on when he ballooned to over 300 pounds, and insists he has curbed his destructive appetites for sex, drugs and violence that made him a prime candidate for more incarceration or an early grave.

To hear him tell it, he and Kiki are stay-at-home parents (they have two children together; Tyson has eight kids in all) with no desire to steer back into the fast lane.

"I'm a nice man, but back then I wasn't. I'm not proud of it," Tyson told Sports Illustrated's Pablo S. Torre last year.

Of Kiki, he said, "She never gave up on me; I gave up on me."

So is the Tyson you see now the one who's ready to live out the remainder of his life in relative peace and harmony? Has the man who once said he "slept with the devil" forever crossed over to the side of the angels?

"I mix lies with truth," Tyson once said of the vitriol he used to ladle out as if it were an especially spicy soup. So maybe his more recent claim of having undergone a reformation is a similar blend of contradictions.

Only one thing is for certain. On Sunday afternoon, when he steps to the podium, a lot of people will want to listen to what he says because, like it or not, Mike Tyson still matters.

Send email to fernanb@phillynews.com

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