For a Brief Moment, “Iron” Mike Tyson Was the Greatest Heavyweight Fighter of Them All
If Muhammad Ali did not defeat George Foreman in The Rumble in the Jungle, you would not be reading this. There would be no point.
Foreman, great as he was, is rarely in the conversation of top heavyweights ever. He was a prime player in one of boxing’s great eras, the 1970s, and became the oldest world’s heavyweight champ ever in the midst of a remarkable comeback in 1994, but rarely is he considered one of the best of all-time.
That’s because Ali picked him apart, and knocked him out.
Mike Tyson was never a George Foreman. Nor was he an Ernest Shavers, along with 70’s Foreman considered the strongest puncher in the game.
Tyson had it all, which broke him from the pack: the blazing hand and foot speed of a middleweight such as Sugar Ray Leonard — someone several weight classes below him — power at least the equivalent of Foreman’s, and a center of gravity that gave larger opponents fits.
And he was more intimidating than Sonny Liston.
My opinion and I’m sticking to it.
In 1988, Mike Tyson fought former International Boxing Federation (IBF) champ Michael Spinks. Spinks did not lose the title; it was stripped from him the prior year for not fighting mandatory contender Tony Tucker.
Spinks, a gold medalist in the 1976 Summer Olympics, won the IBF title by defeating former champ Larry Holmes in a contested match. Their rematch, again won by Spinks, was equally controversial. When Spinks entered the ring with Tyson his unblemished record was 31–0, with 21 knockouts.
Tyson, fresh off winning the HBO reunification tournament that would once again see the World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC), and International Boxing Federation titles on one champion, took on former IBF champ Spinks with an undefeated record of his own: 34–0, with 30 knockouts.
The fight lasted 91 seconds. Tyson overwhelmed an intimidated Spinks from the opening bell.
We all know how Tyson’s career progressed: From KO artist/prodigy under Cus D’Amato, to his reunification of the titles, manipulation by Don King, his shocking KO loss to Buster Douglas, a rape conviction and prison time, a return to the scene and two wild fights with Evander Holyfield … followed by a suspension and subsequent loss of passion, which saw Tyson lose his last several fights against inferior opponents.
But the primary difference between fighters like Foreman and Shavers, and a Mike Tyson in his prime, is the latter was a powerhouse of unbridled, savage fury. Tyson embraced being raised on the streets; early on he was taught to channel his fears, rage and frustration in the ring.
“The worst thing that happened to you, that can happen to any fighter: you got civilized.” — Mickey Goldmill to Rocky Balboa, in “Rocky III”
Foreman and Shavers may have been surly fighters, but they never fought based on pure id. Tyson learned the fundamentals and his explosiveness was based on releasing his inner animal. Until then, he was patient, precise, figuring his opponent and waiting for his moment.
In his 20th fight, Tyson fought James “Quick” Tillis, who became the first fighter to go the distance with Iron Mike. Tyson resumed his knockout string until he fought Spinks — by then all but four of his fights ended in a KO —proving himself a prodigy fleet of fist and foot.
Muhammad Ali is largely considered the greatest heavyweight of all time. He is certainly one of my very favorite fighters, but prime Tyson would have destroyed him. Why? If anything, Tyson matched Ali in speed (I believe Tyson was actually quicker), and he was certainly more powerful.
And, again, he was a patient fighter in the beginning. He would have waited for Ali to drop his guard for a split-second while Muhammad was dancing and trying to confuse Tyson with angles. Mike would have held to his usual peekaboo stance until the moment arrived.
To me, the Spinks fight was the end of Mike Tyson’s prime. Sure he had several sterling knockouts since, but as time went on his performances began to lack the passion he once exhibited in excelsis. He became inconsistent in the ring, and ongoing drama with his wife Robin Givens, and Don King, only added to his inability to focus.
But, during one fleeting period in history, my conclusion is those of us who were fortunate to witness these fights live were witnessing the greatest heavyweight boxer who ever professionally plied his trade.
Feel free to send me your thoughts.
Thank you for reading.
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