I put the period at the end of the title on purpose. With feeling. Because the statement is true. So, since its his birthday, and the topic has been on my mind of late, I thought I would jot down a few words in defense of Mike Tyson's body of work and overall legacy as a Heavyweight Champion. I guess you can call it my small way of bringing peace and harmony to the BLH community and the world at large.
Now, I'm not one of those who think Tyson is the best ever, or even top 5 necessarily. His career went off the rails before fulfilling his potential, and I'll be the first to admit that Tyson would have had trouble with any of several great and even not so great Heavyweights of the past and present. However, there is not one, not a fighter in history, who I think he would categorically lose to. Tyson is, at the very least, a highly competitive underdog against anyone. Ever. Its a very short list of boxers about whom, a reasonable person could say the same. Prime vs. prime, Tyson gives hell to any heavyweight who ever lived.
This includes Ali, whom I consider the best ever. In fact, Ali is one of the greats that Tyson would match up very well against. In his all too brief prime, Tyson was similar to a larger, faster, harder punching, and more durable Joe Frazier. And everyone knows the life and death struggles Ali had with Frazier. Tyson's durability would have given him an edge against Joe Louis, who was put on the deck over a dozen times in his career, mostly against middling "bum of the month club" opponents. Marciano, though underrated on many modern ATG lists, would have been simply overmatched against the larger and faster Tyson. Same with the aforementioned Joe Frazier. If you can imagine a round robin tournament involving any ten heavyweights in history and a fit Mike Tyson at the height of his powers, I don't think there is a possible lineup that Tyson wouldn't at least have an even record against.
Only the most obdurate Tyson hater could deny that Iron Mike had a talent for boxing. This talent was recognized, cultivated, and honed to a murderously effective edge by one of the very few truly genius trainers in boxing history. At his best, he was 218 solid pounds of quick twitch muscle fiber and killer instinct. He used astonishing speed and athleticism to compensate for lack of height and reach to close distance and unload fight stopping power with either hand. He threw fluid, efficient combinations that very few heavyweights in history could equal. He could go downstairs then uppercut to the head with the same hand like no other heavyweight. He could hook off the jab like no other heavyweight. His power was delivered with short, compact punches that were very difficult to defend. He was elusive despite his high risk/high reward style, but when he did get hit, he took punches very well. Of all his attributes, actually, his durability and heart stand out above even his punching power. Its fair to remember that Tyson absorbed prodigious amounts of punishment before being stopped by Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield.
Contrary to common perception, he did NOT intimidate all his early opponents into submission. Several very capable and dangerous fighters stood up to him and fought very gamely against him. James Tillis, Mitch Green, Jose Ribalta, and Tony Tucker stand out as fighters who tested Tyson's resolve with determined, skilled resistance, and Mike passed these tests with flying colors. The notion that Tyson was a weak willed bully who crumbled in the face of adversity is simply erroneous. Its unfortunate that it has been repeated often enough to become a part of the "received and accepted" Tyson mythology. Watch the Douglas fight and you'll see a woefully unprepared and ineptly cornered Tyson get his ass thoroughly kicked, but you'll also see him fighting his guts out right up to the bitter end.
Prior to the infamous Buster Douglass debacle, Mike Tyson won 10 consecutive championship fights. More than Dempsey. More than Marciano. More than Sonny Liston. More than Jack Johnson. More than Lennox Lewis won in a row and the same number as Frazier before George Foreman annihilated him. Every man Tyson fought as champion was either a major belt holder himself or a qualified contender with an established track record of wins over other contenders. This was glaringly not the case with other long reigning heavyweight champions. Mike Tyson never defended against a Dave Zyglywitz (Frazier), Tony Musto (Joe Louis), Scott Frank ( Holmes) or Brian London (Ali) grade of mediocrity.
Larry Holmes was a consensus top 5 ATG, faded by the time Tyson got him, but by no means shot. Mike Spinks was an ATG light heavyweight who had beaten Holmes twice and had been campaigning as a heavyweight for 3 years at the time he challenged Tyson. Tyrell Biggs was a very large, athletic Olympic gold medalist with a handful of respectable scalps under his belt. Tony Tucker, who probably gave Tyson his toughest fight during this streak, was 6'5", very talented, and also a decorated international amateur. As a group, compared to those of other great heavyweights, Tyson's opponents during his first reign were pretty damned good. Only two managed to go the distance while the others were demolished with shocking violence. Maybe a thrilling life and death trilogy vs. Tony Tubbs would have improved Mike Tyson's legacy. The formula seems to have worked for Ali with Ken Norton. In the event of course, Tubbs was annihilated inside of 2 rounds.
At the age of 21, Mike Tyson was the undisputed heavyweight Champion of the world and on a trajectory to become the best one ever. His career came off the rails before he could secure that level of acclaim, but he still put together a body of work that makes him one of the 10 best Heavyweight Champions in history.