The image that remains, that will become one of those SportsCenter
staples, is Mike Tyson's crackling right hand out of nowhere and
Francois Botha's drunken reel around the ring. Highlight footage
doesn't get much better than that. The punch couldn't have
traveled more than six inches, whereas poor Botha covered quite a
bit more territory, tipping, toppling and wobbling before finally
sliding down the ropes in a horrible heap.
It amounted to a splendid visual, offering the shock of violence,
the wonder of so much force materializing out of thin air and the
delicious destruction of another human being. Poor Botha. It was
as if he'd been rigged to go, and all Tyson had to do was press a
button. In fact, the detonation was so sudden and spontaneous
that Tyson was not even aware he'd thrown a switch--"I didn't know
what had happened," he would say later. The next thing you saw
was Botha commencing a protracted and exaggerated collapse,
resembling one of those building demolitions, coming down by
sections until, at last, he was no more than a pile of debris.
In its several seconds of duration, Botha's collapse incorporated
all the important themes of the Tyson Mystique, the ability to
generate so much danger on demand being the principal one. That's
what made Tyson, Kid Dynamite of long ago, such a dramatic sports
figure, a "blood man" for the 20th century. There was even, in
this footage, the image of Tyson rushing to cradle Botha as he
sank upon himself. Monstrous, but human, too. It was all there.
The fifth-round knockout, enacted at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas
last Saturday, will do much, perhaps everything, to restore
Tyson's place in boxing. The awesome display of power is exactly
the tonic the sport requires, a reminder that dominance is again
However, the complete replay may not support so much enthusiasm.
Whether Tyson, 32 and in his second comeback, can fight at an
elite level is an unanswered question. Coming off a 19-month
layoff, brought about after he was disqualified and lost his
license for biting both of Evander Holyfield's ears in June '97,
he was fairly one-dimensional against Botha, struggling to the
point that he had not won a single round.
Also, just as Tyson retains his capacity for the puncher's
instant corrective, he is just as capable of creating chaos. Even
though the fight ended with everybody sharing hugs, the events of
the first round had caused many observers to wonder if Tyson's
exile--during which he had undergone psychiatric treatment,
including anger control counseling--had lasted long enough. Toward
the end of the round he enveloped Botha in a clinch and clamped
hard on the South African's left arm; Botha could be seen
reacting in pain. "He was trying to break my arm," Botha said
after the fight. Was that true, Mike? "That is correct," he
The two continued to tussle after the bell sounded to end the
round, and it was nearly a minute before they could be separated,
enough time for some of the 500-man security force at the MGM to
mount the ring. But the ugliness didn't escalate as it did in the
Holyfield bout, and it didn't infect the crowd and spread into
the adjoining casino later in the evening as it had a year and a
half earlier, closing down the gaming area for several hours.
"It was him getting rough and me getting rough back," said Tyson,
who tried the same arm-bending tactic the next round and was
penalized a point. That penalty was small potatoes, of course,
compared with his $3 million fine for biting Holyfield in the
It would be hard to blame Tyson entirely. Botha, a sturdy but
relatively punchless fighter who in 1995 held the IBF portion of
the heavyweight title for all of a month before being stripped of
it after testing positive for steroids, had mounted a strategy
aimed primarily at unhinging Tyson. "I was talking to him," Botha
admitted later, "but I can't say what it was I was saying." He
laughed. "I might have said, 'When are you going to start
fighting, because you're losing?'" He laughed again. "You know, I
never did see that punch."
Tyson didn't either. It was not the result of some exchange but
simply a straight shot at an unprotected chin. It happened so
quickly that Tyson was surprised to see Botha go down. "I thought
he must have quit," Tyson said. "I didn't even know I'd thrown
That power is what sustains his mystique, insofar as no fighter
can inoculate himself against it. It just turns up, nobody knows
when, and certainly no one knows how to defend against it. But
what is not so encouraging is that just as Botha had predicted,
Tyson was losing. Tyson hadn't put two punches together, didn't
jab effectively at first and was susceptible to Botha's
smothering tactics. The fight, before that stunning visual, was
sloppy, at best.
It will take several more fights, with similar visuals, before
Tyson can entirely reconsolidate that mystique and satisfy his
doubters. The even more stunning image, after all, is his
shameful breakdown after Holyfield called the bully out and
whipped him for the second time. Other visuals complicate his
marketability. Appearances at Nevada State Athletic Commission
hearings, where he was forced to plead sanity to get his license
back, and blowups here and there have not been reassuring.
Hearing him curse out a TV reporter, as he did the week before
the fight, or even lapse into that old riff about "character
assassination," as he did in the ring immediately after the bout,
does not satisfy everybody that he is completely safe and sane.
What's more, there are doubts about his drawing power, even
though he may have made as much as $30 million for the fight ($13
million of which will go to pay off IRS liens). This was not a
great time to hold a megafight in Las Vegas, as it came between
the town's two biggest dates--New Year's Eve and Super Bowl
Sunday. But, for all the money being paid Tyson, the near total
lack of buzz was disquieting. It seemed that the world stopped
for his first postprison fight here four years ago. This time, in
his seventh bout as a paroled felon, tickets were offered at
tremendous discount to hotel workers.
Tyson, under new management (his former promoter, Don King, and
ex-managers John Horne and Rory Holloway are being sued by the
fighter), does not seem much steadier for the change. He seems no
more built for the long run than ever. But as Tyson said after
last Saturday's fight, he's not in this for the long run. Three
more fights in 1999--the next, April 24, back in Vegas--and he's
done with boxing.
For the moment, though, as we savor the footage, boxing is
definitely not done with Tyson. The sport, and many of its fans,
will accommodate any number of comebacks, any amount of failure,
just for the sake of excitement. Tyson has probably long ago
forfeited his chance to attain lasting greatness in the ring, and
he could still degenerate into a novelty act. But he can drop a
guy with a straight right hand, and he can do it in an instant.
For better or for worse, that counts for a lot.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY NEIL LEIFER [Mike Tyson landing right hand on face of Francois Botha]