Twenty-year-olds aren't supposed to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. They belong in reeking gyms and smoky backwater arenas, learning their craft while their seniors wage war for boxing's most prized possession. But Mike Tyson, who will be less than five months beyond his 20th birthday when he goes after Trevor Berbick's WBC title on Nov. 22 at the Las Vegas Hilton, isn't your basic apprentice fighter. Prodigy would be more like it. After all, at Tyson's tender age guys like Sonny Liston, Rocky Marciano and Larry Holmes were still hanging around waiting to make their professional debuts. And, at that same point in his life, Joe Louis had just won his second fight.
Last Saturday night at the Hilton, in his last scheduled 10-rounder, the undefeated Tyson stopped former WBC cruiserweight champion Alfonzo Ratliff in the second round. That was his 27th victory and 25th knockout. Not much later, Michael Spinks, the IBF heavyweight champion and an 8-to-1 favorite, knocked out an unrenowned Norwegian named Steffen Tangstad, who happens to be the European heavyweight champion. Tangstad fought badly but fell well, once in the third and twice in the fourth and last round. Spinks's age and his number of victories are now a matched set: 30.
If all goes well in the HBO-backed heavyweight tournament, Tyson and Spinks will meet sometime next year for the purpose of giving the world just one heavyweight titleholder. Until then, Spinks has a pass. Tyson, however, must first defeat Berbick (unless the unpredictable WBC champion bolts, as he has threatened, to fight Gerry Cooney) and become the youngest fighter ever to win a heavyweight championship. After that, Tyson would have to meet the winner of a WBA title fight between Tim Wither-spoon and Tony Tubbs, which will be held early this winter.
The question that arises is, Does Tyson belong in such company or has his managerial brain trust of Jimmy Jacobs and Bill Cayton moved the kid too quickly into the big time?
With his single-minded search-and-destroy assaults, Tyson has at least put some gloss on a woefully weak division and a generally faltering sport. He is the purest of fighters: He hits people and they fall down, and if he tenderly picks them up and dusts them off afterward, well, no gladiator is perfect. People are drawn to watch him battle as they were to watch Ted Williams slam home runs or Jimmy Brown smash over linebackers. Pure power is box office.
Witness: Before Tyson was added to the Spinks-Tangstad card, the live gate was hard-pressed to hit $217,000. But on the morning of the fight, John Giovenco, president of the Hilton Nevada Corp., said that with a normal walk-up crowd the night would be a $1.2 million sellout. That has turned out to be optimistic, but only by a fraction. The gate came to $1.1 million. Few of those fans came to see Spinks knock out what's his name.
But aside from flattening an array of tomato cans, what has Tyson really accomplished? Since turning pro 18 months ago, he has fought 27 times, a heroic pace to be sure. With a style that gives a glimpse of Marciano (the stocky body and the short punches), a shading of Floyd Patterson (the peekaboo defense) and a touch of Jack Dempsey (the nonstop bobbing and weaving), he follows only one path, sometimes awkwardly but always forward, jabbing when he remembers and always blasting. There is no missing it. From the moment Tyson enters the ring, glaring at his opponent with a malevolence that no one could mistake for acting, his desire to start hitting someone is palpable. He knows he is at home when his cheek is against a heaving chest and his fists are plowing through a rib cage. His physical abuses first kill the will, then cripple the senses.
Admittedly, Tyson is, for a heavyweight, short. He is listed as 5'11¾", but it is not certain that he was measured with his heels on the ground. Men 5'10" have no trouble looking him straight in the eye. He has the look of a massive middleweight. Fighting from his bob-and-weave crouch, Tyson has turned his size to advantage, as did Dempsey. His feet are quick, although not as quick as his hands, and they keep him tight to taller opponents, who have trouble punching downward at close quarters. It is much easier to punch up, the natural path of the hook and, by definition, of the uppercut, and a better route even for a right cross. Launched behind the drive provided by his powerful legs, Tyson's punches slash upward with devastating effect.
Tyson is a fighter in the classic sense: He is in the ring for just one reason—to destroy his opponent. He does not think about his style, he just does it naturally, and he can see that it works for him. Let others ponder kinetic energy. For Tyson it is enough to know that if he hits a man hard enough, the man will fall. That sturdy philosophy has brought him to the brink of a world title after just 75 rounds of professional boxing (actually, somewhat less if you consider the minutes unused by his knockout victims in their 25 final rounds).
Tyson's position, while enviable, must be scary, something like that of a miler nearing the four-minute mark for the first time. He admittedly experienced some trepidation when he went 10 rounds for the first time, against James Tillis in May. Until then, in 19 fights he had never ventured further into a fight than the sixth round—and that only once. Twelve of his fights had ended in less than three minutes. In the sixth round against Tillis, Tyson realized that the bout would not end in a knockout. He backed off, fearful of the unknown. At one point, he said later, he thought he would faint. But at the end he realized how much he still had left. He has gone 10 twice since—against survival-minded Mitch Green in May, when he won a decision, and then 1:37 minutes into the 10th round in August, when he knocked out 6'6" Josè Ribalta.
Still, stamina could be a problem. Tyson evidently does not have the superhuman endurance of Marciano, who could fight a furious three minutes every round and still be as strong in the 15th as he was in the first. But Tyson has proved to be a quick study, and he has learned how to pace himself. It has been said by some observers that when an opponent ties him in a clinch, Tyson doesn't know how to break free. Not so. He's just refilling his tank. ("Oh, good, I'll just take a little 15-second rest.") Then he comes back firing as vigorously as ever.
The grueling schedule of fighting every other week has been a twofold boon to the 221-pound youngster. "The best thing he has going for him is that his people have him fighting so frequently," says Archie Moore, the former light heavyweight champion who had 234 professional bouts. "That means he stays in fighting trim. A good racehorse gets maximum performance because it runs all the time. Boxers are similar, and fighting trim makes up for a lot of deficiencies when you are in trouble, particularly against a more experienced fighter."
The late Cus D'Amato, who had been Tyson's manager-trainer-mentor since the fighter was 13, laid out this schedule of twice-a-month bouts shortly after Tyson turned pro on March 6, 1985. "Cus predicted that Mike would fight for the title before the end of 1986," says Jacobs. "And he anticipated the problems. Our contracts with ABC and HBO called for Tyson to meet rated fighters after a specific time. He fought three and beat them, and that made him the Number One contender. He has no choice but to fight for the title now. Cus said the only way to prepare Mike for this was to give him a speed education by a multiple of four. So there has been no R and R for Mike. There couldn't be. And he has held up under it all beautifully."
If he continues to hold up, and there is no reason why he shouldn't, starting in November there should be very little R and R for the rest of the heavyweight division. It is kind of hard to justify rest and relaxation when you know that someday you have to face a pure fighter like Mike Tyson.
Ratliff tried to run, but Tyson headed him off and then belted him into the ropes.
KEN REGAN/CAMERA 5
Tyson's malevolence turned to benevolence after he stopped his towering foe.
[See caption above.]