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Savant Sundays: Mike Tyson

Is Mike Tyson one of the great heavyweights ever or just one of the most fearsome?

Is Mike Tyson one of the great heavyweights ever or just one of the most fearsome?
Is Mike Tyson one of the great heavyweights ever or just one of the most fearsome?
Getty Images

Mike Tyson was an enigma that could snatch another man’s confidence through a television screen. “The Baddest Man on the Planet” was mean. When you saw “Iron Mike” in the ring, as the announcers introduced him, you knew he was a gladiator who was not headhunting, but hearthunting.

A product of famed trainer Cus D’Amato, Tyson was a Golden Gloves and two-time Junior Olympics champion that tore through the amateur circuit. Once he entered boxing as a professional, everything was quick, fast, and in a hurry; his punches, his lateral movement, and the time his opponents lasted against him.

His first 16 fights were won by way of knockout, all within four rounds or less. By 20 years of age, he was a world champion, donning the WBC crown. Tyson was on top of the world, and like Napoleon in war before him, went about conquering.

He made nine successful defenses of his WBC title, and along the way, secured major victories at the battle against James Smith, where he planted his flag with the WBA sanctioning body, and at the battle against Tony Tucker, claiming the IBF belt as his spoil of war and becoming undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Physically, Tyson was average height, with a stocky, buff build. He had a wide neck, slumped shoulders, a proud chest, and thighs that looked like they could crush a melon. His arms were prominent, and his core was toned.

Standing at 5’11”, Tyson had a reach around 71-72 inches, correlative to his height. He loved to fight with both of his gloves parallel, at his chin or at his temples, orthodox style. Like Floyd Patterson and Jack Dempsey before him, he was gracefully sharp with his lateral movement, being able to get from left to right in a flash.

Ducking on defense was second nature to him. His best defense was his offense, like George Foreman. He wasted little time establishing a jab, and had an answer for many punches his opponents threw at him.

Let’s examine some of Tyson’s greatest fights, and evaluate his biggest strengths and weaknesses.

Mike Tyson vs Trevor Berbick (1986)

AFP via Getty Images

Every fighter makes their bones in their first title fight. For Mike, he had racked up 27 victories with 25 KOs. Berbick first had shot at the world titles in 1981 against Larry Holmes and lost, but here was defending the WBC crown he claimed one fight prior against Pinklon Thomas.

Berbick’s countenance as the referee went over the rules told the viewing audience that he knew a loss was probably imminent. All props to him for his outstanding courage and heart of a champion, but this bout was target practice for Mike from the start.

First Tyson popped Berbick with a left to the chin. Then he snapped Berbick’s neck with a left hook. Then he unloaded a frightening right hand that landed right on the ear of Berbick. It was just blow after blow. There was an exchange for about 10 seconds where Berbick threw back, and landed to the body and upstairs. That was all he did for the fight.

At the latter portion of the second round, Berbick would tie up Mike and force him to fight toe-to-toe. Much to his chagrin, Mike unloaded with hooks that put his legs in sleep mode. It was another day at the office for Mike, and he was exalted as employee of the next three years.

Mike Tyson vs Larry Holmes (1988)

Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Legend has it that Muhammad Ali — who was mollywhopped by Holmes in 1980 (when he really should’ve stopped fighting to preserve his health after the Spinks avengement) — whispered into Tyson’s ear to “get him for me,” before the opening bell. You could see the exchange of words happen, and stone-faced Tyson simply nodded.

The first round was Mike being Mike, and Holmes — out of his prime but still capable — looking astonished at the combination of speed and power on display. In the second, a flurry came down on Holmes accompanied by a tempest of shots to the body and side of the head. ,

Larry was actually able to answer back in the third round, which I had him winning, by counter-punching well, utilizing his signature jab, and scoring in a multitude of ways.

In the fourth however, the “Easton Assassin” came out dancing like he did in his youth, throwing his jab, and very loose with his arms and feet. This aggravated Tyson, and he quickly put an end to the finesse by walloping Holmes with a jab leading into a straight right that twisted Holmes’ head before delivering heavy blows the next two times he got up, for the knockout.

Throughout the fight, Holmes was adroit in clinching Tyson to limit his range of motion and decrease his power, but that could only last so long. The most legendary fighter Tyson had fought up until that point was dealt with.

Mike Tyson vs Buster Douglas (1990)

Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

At the end of the fight, Larry Merchant said, “This makes ‘Cinderella’ look like a sad story.” Indeed it did. Buster Douglas surely did it for his late mother. The first three rounds were a clinic. He kept Mike at bay with his active jab, was precise with his combinations, and imposed his will on the champ.

In the middle rounds, Mike was a stationary target, contrary to the first three rounds where he was able to duck consecutive punches and move around. Who knows if he was gassed or bothered, but he wasn’t moving side-to-side like usual. Throughout the fights there were many clinches, because Tyson was still feared for his knockout capability.

Tyson didn’t win his first round until the sixth. He was not active with body shots, and his jab was otherwise nonexistent.

In round eight, Douglas had Mike shaky on the ropes, but a wild uppercut sent Douglas to the canvas to save Mike’s tail for a round he was losing. In the ninth, both fighters traded blows. Douglas hit Mike with a five-punch flurry that took out Mike’s legs. And in the final round of the bout, a vicious uppercut followed by a 1-2-3 did it.

If anyone who hasn’t seen the fight presupposes that Douglas got lucky, think again. He thoroughly out-boxed Tyson up and down the ring.

Mike Tyson vs Bruce Seldon (1996)

JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images

Mike made easy work of the WBA champion in short order. It was a typical day at the shop for “Iron Mike,: even though he was a few years removed from his peak.

In a one-round scrap, Seldon came out light on his feet, using a lot of ring space. But you can’t run or hide from a hungry pit bull. Mike unleashed angry crosses, two of which led to two successive knockdowns. Seldon got up from the second knockdown, before wobbling to signal his inability to continue. Mike put on display speed and power that three and a half years away from boxing didn’t diminish. He reclaimed the WBA championship in style.


On his podcast, “Hotboxin,” Mike went into how he loved Roberto Duran as a fighter more than any other, including Ali, for his mentality and hands of stone. The two share many similarities, in that both were knockout artists who brought the pain to you, but were subject to being exploited against certain matchups.

Most concerning is that Tyson rarely used his jab, and wasn’t much of a boxer in terms of scoring points. Everything was raw — shots to the body, lunging shots to the head, and more. In an interview alongside Kenny Norton, Muhammad Ali, and Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes once said he thought everyone in that room would beat a prime Tyson.

The thing is, against bigger fighters with a tough chin and impeccable jab, it is within the realm of reason to think that Tyson would struggle. Just look at what happened against Douglas, Evander Holyfield, and Lennox Lewis later in age. Like George Foreman before him, Mike had almost every punch in his bag save the jab. But he loved to lunge and that could’ve gotten him exploited against master counter punchers like Ali.

All in all, some die hard fans exalt Tyson as the best ever, others try to discredit him as a pugilist, but he etched himself in history and there’s not a single fighter that wouldn’t fear a knockout blow from him. He’d be the greatest threat at worst, and dare I say a favorite at best, against most of your favorite heavyweight boxers of all time.

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