Mike Tyson: From baddest to saddest

Posted: Monday, June 10, 2002

In the span of just half an hour, Mike Tyson went from being the baddest man on the planet to one of the saddest.

Doubt it?

Try and remember the last time you saw a man beaten so badly for only $54.95.

Without Don King nearby.

This one was worse than that.

It wasn't just the physical beating Lennox Lewis gave Tyson -- thorough as that was. Or even the methodical way he administered it -- closing one of Tyson's eyes and then the other; then battering Tyson's nose and mouth so the smaller man had to taste his own blood.

That was bad enough.

What made this beating worse was the sheer hopelessness about it from Tyson's end. He never had a chance. The judges gave him the first round, but only as a parting gift. By early in the second, Lewis looked so clearly superior that Tyson must have felt like he wasn't facing another boxer as much as the devil had come to collect his due.

The only question that lingered after that was how long the debt repayment schedule drags on. All that time Tyson claims he spent studying the great books and religions of the world will not be in vain. He's about to learn a lot about pain and humility.

Lewis ended Saturday night's fight, mercifully, at 2:25 of the eighth round. By then, he'd thrown a third more punches than Tyson -- 328 to 211 -- and landed four times as many -- 193 to 49. The final one, a short right hand, clanged off Iron Mike's head and dropped him. It was one of many punches that Lewis would say afterward he could feel reverberating through his hands and all the way up to his shoulders.

Which is why Lewis also said afterward: ''He took it like a man.''

The sad truth is that Mike had no choice. He needs the money, which invariably means he's going to have to take worse. Do the math: His guarantee Saturday night was $17.5 million. He owes at least $13 million and there's a very expensive divorce proceeding hanging over his head. Because of a clause in the fight contract, fouling Lewis to get out of a beating -- Tyson bit Evander Holyfield in a similar situation -- would have cost Tyson a cool $3 million.

And so he took his beating, as Lewis said in his delightful English lilt, ''like a man.''

Now Tyson better get used to it.

At the end, he lay flat on the blue canvas, his face a swollen tableau of purple welts and splattered blood. He lifted his head briefly, took in the scene, and then lowered it back to the canvass. Lewis had already turned his back and was walking away with his arms raised above his head. He knew Tyson was not getting up. And the old Tyson -- the one that lived inside the ropes, anyway -- never will.

The menace is gone, although anybody who knows fighting knows that was true for the last half-dozen years and maybe more. The only resemblance between the Tyson who became the youngest, hungriest heavyweight champion ever and the lunatic who pinballed from fight to jail to fight to courtroom over the last decade was that both packed a fearsome punch. Against Lewis, it didn't matter.

At 5-foot-11, Tyson had to climb onto his toes just to take a shot at the 6-5 Lewis. And he landed so infrequently that it's impossible to say whether the string of palookas he pulverized on either side of two losses to Holyfield went down because of fright of Tyson more than actual might. Either way, fewer and fewer will be going down anymore.

To be sure, there will be flashes of the old Tyson on the outside. The outsized personality, outrageous acts, outlandish threats and boasts won't disappear. They're Iron Mike's shtick, his stock-in-trade. He can't back them up in a ring against a half-decent heavyweight anymore, but he's been selling the freak show, not the sport, for a while. He can't afford to stop now.

In his late teens, after Cus D'Amato plucked Tyson out of a Brooklyn ghetto and set him down in a Catskills gym to learn the racket, Tyson would sit in the dark by himself and watch black-and-white films of all the heavyweight champions. He loved the lore and the way they lived -- large. He needed the respect they commanded. He especially loved dark stories like Sonny Liston's; to him they were life-affirming in a twisted, tortured kind of way.

As reel after reel of grainy film played out in the background, Tyson would try to imagine the day not only when he would join their ranks, but ascend to the head of the class. He's about to find out. It just won't be like anything he imagined.

Among the great heavyweights, only Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali understood as well as Tyson how the public needs circus and spectacle, a diversion both noble and terrifying at the same moments. The problem is that sports like boxing and bullfighting need an endless supply of brave opponents, victims who will take it ''like a man.''

Tyson has gone from being a matador to just another one of the bulls. He's about to find out what it's like for all those women, old people, parking lot attendants, reporters and even opponents he terrorized for years. The work may be steady, but there's a terrible price to pay.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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