Photo: GETTY IMAGES
ATLANTIC CITY – January 22, 1988
HARRY MULLAN ringside
Old men can remember their youth and be content: old fighters remember theirs, and get restless.
The more needy, egotistical or ill-advised can even delude themselves that they still possess it, until they are forced to accept the evidence of their own athletic decay.
Such evidence can rarely have been presented so compellingly as it was by heavyweight champion Mike Tyson to the 38-year-old Larry Holmes at the Convention Centre. Holmes, bidding to regain the title he had graced for seven years and 20 defences, was annihilated in less than four rounds and took the worst beating of his long career.
(It was, Dr Ferdie Pacheco remarked alarmingly, “the worst kind of beating that makes guys walk funny when they’re 50.”)
Referee Joe Cortez spared the old champion the final indignity of the countout when he signaled the end as Holmes crashed for the third time in the round, after two minutes 55 seconds.
The veteran fell so heavily that for a few anxious minutes we feared for his well-being.
But the damage, mercifully, is only to his ego: he recovered quickly, and his post-fight comments were coherent and gracious. “I wanted to go out their and tie him up and make him miss, he said.
“But what I did wrong was wait for the fifth round. He usually tires around the fifth, and I was waiting for that instead of going out and boxing.
“I fought Tyson because I knew I beat Michael Spinks and I was trying to get back something they took away from me. But I found out that Mike Tyson is better than I thought. There is no question he’s the champion”.
The near 100-year history of the heavyweight championship (in its modern form) is full of similarly rueful statements from ex-champs who had to learn the hard way that you cannot chase a young man’s dram on middle-aged legs. Only a very few have managed it – and, watching the ruined Muhammad Ali shuffling to his ringside seat, I wondered in the victory is worth the price.
The warmth of the welcome he received from the 17,000 crowd, as the once-familiar chant of “Ali, Ali” welled around the massive arena, was moving. But his devastated health should have served as a warning to his corner conqueror, Holmes that 38-year-old body is not conditioned to withstand the kind of punishment that a ferocious 21-year-old like Tyson can administer.
Holmes, like Ali, was driven back into the ring by the demands of his ego rather than his bank balance. “I’m not doing this for the money ($3.1m)”, he stressed. “Everybody knows I’m rich.”
For a fighter, more than any other athlete, pride is a good servant but and master. Pride, and heart, can carry him through a crisis and on to victory, but let it over-ride logic and common sense and the consequences are invariably disastrous.
There was not any way in the world that Holmes could have beaten Tyson. Everyone connected with the affair knew that, as did anyone with the slightest knowledge or understanding of boxing.
We campaigned against the match, and pleased wit the WNC delegates before their London Convention to refuse to sanction it, and thus allow one of their finest standard-bearers to retain his dignity and his reputation.
But in this business – and let’s not pretend that it is a sport – money speaks louder than sentiment or compassion. The affair was duly rubber-stamped, and the multi-million dollar mismatch went ahead.
Now, of course, we are contemplating another: Tyson’s No.1 contender in both WBC and WBA lists is our own Frank Bruno, and Bruno’s promoters Mickey Duff and Jarvis Astaire were hard at work throughout the weekend in Atlantic City.
There are complications. HBO, who are financing Tyson’s reign with a huge $27m package, are insisting that Bruno beat a recognizable opponent before they will accept him as an opponent. “The last tie America saw Frank was when he was knocked out by Witherspoon”, Astaire explained.
“It’s all very well for the WBC and the WBA to make him their No.1, but that doesn’t necessarily impress the people who are paying for the show.”
The useful Cuban Jose Ribalta, who went into the 10th round with Tyson, is being mooted for a March 8 date at Wembley, and his credentials should be sufficient to satisfy the cable TV giant’s requirements.
Tyson against anybody – with the obvious exception of Mike Spinks – looks a mismatch, but the ponderous and vulnerable Bruno could have been assembled by computer as Tyson’s ideal opponent. The flashing, powerful rights which destroyed Larry Holmes would not take long to shatter Bruno’s retentions to the title.
But the whole affair would be enormously profitable, and if its relevance to sport in any form is purely peripheral, who cares? Never mind the risks – count the takings.
Big-time boxing, under the malign influence of Don King, has long since forfeited any claim to be a sport. Tex Rickard, who promoted Jack Dempsey, and Mike Jacobs, who guided Joe Louis, may not have been models of probity but at least they were men with imagination and flair, and in their own way they probably cared about the game.
Their modern-day successors, though, are packagers rather than promoters, and they have allowed control of the game to pass into the hand of American TV executives. (As a cynical aside, is it coincidence that the 12-rounds title limit falls neatly into a 60-minute TV slot, allowing time for introduction and post-fight interviews?)
Viewing ratings, not boxing ratings, are what counts, and the one can often be arranged to accommodate the other.
The tabloid drum-beating for Bruno v Tyson is already underway, and no doubt the same elements who flocked to watch Bruno v Bugner will queue up once more. They will, no doubt, be convinced that Frank is a deserving No.1: he may well have as much claim to a title fight as anyone else, but it is noteworthy that out of the 29 others in the WBC’s latest Top 30, Bruno had beaten just two … Anders Eklund , nearly three years ago, and No.30 ranked James Tillis last march.
Tyson, by contrast, has disposed of four of the top10. The squat New Yorker does not merely dominate his division: He has decimated it.
The breezy optimism of the message on Holmes’ gown – “this Is It”, and its echoing “Shock The World” on his seconds’ jackets, had no basis in reality. The old champ made a grand entrance, while Tyson ran up the ring steps less than minute later with the air of a man who is late for work.
He arrived in the ring unannounced and almost unnoticed, and most of the crowd did not even know he was there until he shrugged his way through the cluster of people in the centre of the ring sand started prowling around its perimeter, like an animal staking out a territorial claim.
Tyson at such times, seems oblivious to anything going on around him. His concentration on the hob in hand was so absolute that he did not even cursorily acknowledge the introduction, while Holmes looked edgy and was sweating heavily.
Tyson tore into the attack from the first bell, driving Holmes to the ropes with a right to the body and a left to the head and forcing him to clinch. It was the first of many clinches – each time Tyson got within range, Holmes would tie him up.
His tactics recalled Bonecrusher Smith’s 12 rounds survival exercise against Tyson, and a touch of irritation showed a Tyson made as if to punch after the bell and then pulled it back.
There was still no sign of the once-elegant Holmes jab in the second. He was pawing with the left, using it to fend Tyson off rather than punch cleanly, and it was not succeeding. Tyson bulled his way inside, clubbing rights to the ex-champion’s body and making Holmes look old and flat-footed.
Referee Cortez cautioned Holmes for holding late in the round.
Tyson actually ran across the ring at the start of the third, and Holmes met him with a couple of solid rights to the head. It was Holmes’ first real success, and it inspired him to produce his best work of the fight.
He got through with a series of right uppercuts, and effectively smothered Tyson’s counter attacks. It was beginning to look as if we might really have a contest to report – but then just as the bell sounded Tyson smashed in a crunching overhand right to the chin.
Holmes was clearly shaken, although he had done enough earlier in the round to win it on my card, and on those of two of the three judges.
The crowd responded instantly at the start of the fourth as Holmes came out dancing, hands dangling and popping out jabs. Briefly, it was like the old hays … but then Tyson rocked him with a big left hook and, as Holmes tried to grab him, a stunning right slammed the veteran to the floor.
It was not a knockdown in the usual sense – the impact was so tremendous that Holmes seemed to have been hurled onto the floor, rather than punched. Incredibly, he got up at four, shaking his head to clear it.
Referee Cortez gave him the rest of the mandatory eight count, then waved Tyson back in. Holmes tried to retreat across the ring, but the stocky Tyson charged after him and a flurry of blows, including right to the body and final right which grazed the top of Holmes’ head, dropped the dazed challenger again.
Once more, he was up at four, and indicated that he was all right. But he clearly was not, and this would have been the right time for the referee to rescue him.
Holmes’ legs were out of control, and he reeled back as Tyson poured in more stunning hooks to head and body. There was not a hint of the compassion which Holmes had shown Muhammad Ali in similar circumstances eight years ago: the heavyweight division has not seen a more merciless finisher than Tyson.
Just when it looked as if Holmes would survive the round, he was pinned in a neutral corner. He tried to punch his way out of it, nut his right hand had become entangled in the ropes and he was swung around, off balance and square on to Tyson, to take final full-blast right to the head.
He fell straight backwards, unconscious even before he hit the floor, and there was real anxiety around the arena until, after a couple of minutes, he had recovered enough to go back to his corner.
It was as comprehensive a defeat as we have seen in a title fight, but at least it was defeat with honour. Holmes fought to the end, and his last conscious action was that rope-thwarted right.
In the old cliché, he was carried out on his shield, and this proud man would not have settled for less.
“I made it clear to Larry Holmes that his career is unquestionably over”, Tyson said afterwards. “Larry was a great champion in his time, but his isn’t his time anymore.”
Richie Giachetti, Holmes’ long-time trainer, summed it up best. “Larry went out with style, none of this tie-the-guy-up-the-whole-time stuff”, he said.
“He was moving real nice there in the fourth round and he stopped. He stopped. You can’t do that against Tyson. He’ll murder you”.
He almost did.