Looking Back At The Rise Of The Baddest Man On The Planet

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“Iron” Mike Tyson had a Hall Of Fame, sometimes chaotic career inside the ring, and a well publicized tumultuous life outside of it.  This article will not cover the gamut nor will it delve into the inner demons that plagued this all-time great. It will simply be one writer’s fond look back at the rise of the baddest man on the planet. 

The year was 1986, “Kid Dynamite” screamed the cover of Sports Illustrated’s January 6th edition thirty years ago this week. I was in my senior year of high school and here was this man-child, my age, who SI was prophetically calling “the next great heavyweight”. I had followed the sweet science for about ten years but no other fighter had ever intrigued me like the kid who was knocking out grown ass men with bad intentions.

“Ready To Soar To The Very Top” was the title of the article and Tyson ensured there would be no SI jinx. 

After beginning his career in 1985 with an astonishing fifteen fights, all by stoppage, the Cus D’Amato protege from the Catskill Mountains by way of Brooklyn looked to cement his place in history by the end of the year.

In 1986 the internet was nonexistent. There was no Google, no Twitter, and no Facebook, which basically meant you had to rely on TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines, for all of your updates. Compared to today, it was extremely challenging to closely follow an up and coming phenom in real time.

Towards the end of January, I was able to obtain the results from Tyson’s two bouts in the month. It may have been through the results section in The Ring or KO Magazine but I found what I was looking for, Tyson TKO 1 over Dave Jaco and TKO 5 over Mark Jameson.

Beware The Gatekeepers

The next month it happened, I was finally able to actually watch this new terror in the heavyweight division. I believe it was on Wide World of Sports. I watched Tyson knuckleup with his most formidable opponent to date, Jesse “The Boogieman” Ferguson. I remember seeing his trademark peek-a-boo-style for the first time, his gloves held tightly against his lips. As for the fight, I recall Ferguson constantly holding which ultimately led to the stoppage of the fight but it was the textbook, later his signature move, hook to the body followed by the uppercut that floored Ferguson in the fifth that was cemented in my brain. Lethal. 

In March, Tyson destroyed Steve Zouski with a looping left hook setting up a May fight with James “Quick” Tillis.

Entering the ring with forty fights of experience, Tillis had the best resume of any Tyson opponent to date failing previously on three bids to capture a version of the heavyweight title with a unanimous decision loss to Mike Weaver, and TKO losses to Pinklon Thomas, and Tim Witherspoon.

For some reason, in 2016, I recall first the Tyson-Tillis exhibition over a year later in 87 then I do their actual fight in 86. Puzzling because in 86, the Tyson unanimous decision, his first fight that had gone the distance, had caused a bit of a controversy as some felt the scores should have been closer.

Tillis gave as good as he got and landed more significant punches on Tyson than any prior opponent. In the fourth, Tillis threw a left hook from the sky and his momentum carried him away from Tyson. As Tillis spun around, Tyson was in the process of countering with his own left hook and as Tillis reacted to move out of the way it grazed him and he went down. Up quickly and not hurt, it would be the difference on two of the three judges scorecards between a draw and a loss. A good test for the young lion coming up through the ranks against a gatekeeper of sorts.

One of my biggest takeaways from this fight was the skillset that Tyson displayed which was unlike most of the bigs in 86. At one point during the fight, Tyson exhibited a move that was more likely to be seen in the welterweight division let alone the heavies. As Tillis moved towards Tyson, Tyson crouched all the way down, knees bent, as he pivoted and dodged shots while recoiling up and throwing combinations.

Blood Is Green

Ah, Mitch “Blood” Green. Tyson held two victories over Green, one in the ring in May of 86 and one out of the ring in August of 88. In the 86 “official” matchup, Tyson would make his debut on HBO. Tyson pressured Green the entire fight causing Green to hold more and more as the fight wore on. This one stuck in the memory bank because I remember thinking Green’s mouthpiece came out after being blasted by Tyson only to find out it was part of his grill.

Green was several inches taller than Tyson which allowed him to tie up his shorter opponent. As the fight reached the later rounds, the crowd voiced their displeasure knowing this would be the second Tyson fight in a row that wouldn’t end in a knockout. Tyson won a wide unanimous decision. Don King was Green’s promoter and as the scores were announced, King was “conveniently” in Tyson’s corner.

Two fights in June produced two first round knockouts, the first over Reggie Gross, the second over William Hosea. In July’s first fight, a second round knockout over Lorenzo Boyd would set up a bout two weeks later against the son of a heavyweight legend.

An Ordinary Joe

On a warm summer afternoon day at the end of July, I remembered that Tyson was fighting on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I was at the mall at the time and after realizing the card was about to start,  I dashed through the building frantically trying to locate the nearest department store.  I headed to the television section just as Tyson landed a lethal right uppercut about twenty seconds into the fight causing Marvis Frazier to crumple to his knees in the corner, motionless as he was counted out. Brutal.

The Journey Continues

Up next was Jose Ribalta on HBO in August. There is was again, in the second round, the hook to the body followed by the uppercut. A thing of beauty. Ribalta to his credit took it well and fought gallantly to the bell. In the eighth, after doing tremendous damage for most of the round, Tyson landed a looping left hook with about thirty seconds left that sent Ribalta reeling backwards with only the ropes saving him from going down. After a standing eight count, Ribalta is able to stay away just enough to make it out of the round. About halfway through the tenth, Tyson lands a monstrous counter left hook that drops Ribalta again. When the fight continues, it’s vintage Tyson attacking with bad intentions. Right hook to the head, left hook to the head, right hook, left hook, game, set, uh…TKO. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the heavies who closes the show even remotely close.

Tyson’s next fight in September against Alfonzo Ratliff was part of HBO’s heavyweight tournament, on the undercard of a Michael Spinks’ IBF World heavyweight title defense, and surprisingly Tyson’s first fight in Las Vegas as a pro.

A Tyson win assured that his next bout would be against Trevor Berbick, holder of the WBC strap. Sensing that his title shot was within his grasp, Tyson was like a shark in water with Ratliff his bleeding prey. Ratliff cautious of what he was about to receive, eluded a stalking Tyson in the first but only delayed his fate. In the second, Tyson dropped Ratliff with a short left hook/uppercut. Once Ratliff reached his feet, Tyson swarmed him landing multiple punches then ending things with a left hook to the body followed by a left hook to the head. D’Amato’s prediction that Tyson would fight for the title before the end of 86 had now come to fruition.

Judgement Day

Eighteen months and twenty-seven fights into his career, the time had come to fight for the heavyweight title and if successful, a chance to make history as the youngest pugilist to ever do so.

The fight against Berbick was billed as “Judgement Day” and took place on November 22, 1986 in Las Vegas.

Berbick entered the bout on the strength of nine straight victories which included a decision win over Pinklon Thomas in his previous bout where he captured the WBC World heavyweight title.

I felt the excitement in the air as my friends packed into my apartment, standing room only as my “Tyson Fight Parties” usually were. Tyson emerged from the tunnel, a gladiator walking to the ring with his entourage, a white cropped towel worn like a shirt, black shorts and shoes, no socks.

Tale Of The Tape
                                                    Berbick                            Tyson
                                                                                         
                                                        32             Age              20
                                                        6’2 ½       Height           5’11 1/2
                                                        218 ½      Weight         221 ¼
                                                        78”           Reach          71”

Mills Lane with the final instructions..”Any questions from the challanger or chief seconds? Any questions from the champion or chief seconds? Let’s get it on, come on!!!!!

A hug from Trainer Kevin Rooney and Tyson awaits the start in his corner, glaring at Berbick as he stays loose by moving his arms slightly and rocking on his feet. In these moments, Tyson is no doubt recalling D’Amato’s wise guidance. The education on the psychology and spiritual aspects of the game and more importantly for a youngster, how to channel the aggression and control the fear. The bell rings and the moment his mentor prepared him for has begun.

Tyson moves towards Berbick with his peek-a boo stance and lands a lead right hand followed moments later by a left hook. Berbick knows he is in deep but is game and lands a right hook to Tyson’s jaw, a clubbing blow to the back of his head, a body shot and another right to the head.

Tyson stays focused and starts to land big right hands, jabbing his way in and landing sharp quick combinations. Tyson rocks Berbick was a series of left and right hooks that has the champion reeling.  Berbick is able to hold and absorbs more damage as the bell rings. As he heads to his corner, Berbick gestures towards Tyson, his mouth open as he appears to smirk at the challenger. A ploy of an unwise man who has just thrown gasoline on the fire.

As the bell rings to start round two, Tyson moves towards Berbick and lands a looping right hand that wobbles Berbick. Tyson swarms Berbick and lands two more rights dropping Berbick who gets up quickly and takes a standing eight count.

As the fight ensues, not a lot happens over the next minute or so until Tyson lands a huge left hook on Berbick’s temple dropping him for a second time.

What happens next, I can still recall vividly to this day, thirty years later. Berbick tries to get up, has no balance and due to the temple shot affecting his equilibrium, he falls back into the ropes. Berbick gets up again and falls face down into the canvas. A champions heart, he again tries to get to his feet only to fall into the arms of Lane who waves off the fight.

Beauty in his savagery.

Michael Gerard Tyson, the kid from from the streets of Brooklyn…..world champion. The noise level in my apartment is deafening, my voice gone.

The year was 1986, Sports Illustrated’s December 1 issue screams DYNAMITE! Mike Tyson: The KO Kid Is A Champ At 20.

Yes he was, it was a wild ride, thank you Champ.

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I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord. And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, Oh Lord. Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord – Collins

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