JAMES “Bonecrusher” Smith hadn’t yet wiped the sweat off his face, hadn’t stopped breathing heavily, hadn’t even talked to the press about his stunning one-round win over Tim Witherspoon for the WBA title last December in Madison Square Garden when he was already asking: “Where’s Mike Tyson? Where’s Mike Tyson?
“We’re gonna put on a great fight, a bang-bang good one, and somebody gonna get licked – and it won’t be me. Now find me Mike Tyson.”
Three months later – March 7, 1987 – Smith found Tyson and also found that his bold predictions didn’t run true. Their unification pairing wasn’t anywhere near to being a great fight, certainly not a bang-bang good one, and somebody did get licked … he did.
Before a sell-out 14,600 crowd at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, unbeaten sensation Tyson, the gladiator they’d all come to see, sent them home satisfied by becoming our sole world heavyweight champion (the IBF berth being presently vacant) by adding the WBA version of the supreme title to his WBC crown.
He did it by widely outscoring the Bonecrusher over 12 rounds by 120-106, 119-107 and 119-107 again from respective judges Lou Tabat, JoJo Guerra and Dalby Shirley. But the big drawback for the crowd, especially those who had paid up to $600 for the luxury of a ringside view, was that the fight was a real letdown as a spectacle.
Instead of being a thriller as generally anticipated, it developed into a dull and monotonous maul, with clinching the name of the game.
Most had forecast an explosive one or two- round finish – the scheduled 12-round limit was thought to be merely academic – but to everyone’s surprise it went all the way (apart from one punter sitting behind me who’d bet on it going the distance and must have made a bundle). It never lived up to its ‘explosion in the desert’ or ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ tags.
Tyson, still only 20, came to make war but the 33-year-old Smith, after tasting a vicious right hook in the opening seconds, decided he didn’t relish anymore of those and from then on fought a negative survival campaign, realizing he had no chance if he stood and traded. He grabbed and held whenever Tyson got close and the bout soon developed a boring pattern of Tyson throwing a punch, Smith holding, Tyson throws another blow and Smith smothers again, and so on and so on.
Smith also never tried to work his way out of a clinch, simply clinging on and waiting for the referee, Mills Lane, to prise them apart.
I wondered whether Bonecrusher might be clinching so much initially because he simply wanted to see out the early dangerous rounds and the come on strongly later on. This, I thought, might have been a fair tactic against a man whose stamina has been questioned.
But Smith’s holding increased as the rounds went by and he was really stalling for time in the concluding rounds, pulling faces, walking and sometimes literally running away in his
successful attempt to see out the bout.
He fought a Mitch Green-type fight, which it seems is the only way to survive Tyson’s continual onslaughts, and probably didn’t throw much more than 30 shots in the whole fight.
Smith’s spoiling didn’t win him any friends in the crowd, with the boos getting louder to the point where there were even chants of ‘fight, fight’ towards the end. The crowd, who were standing up cheering in the fight before the main event when Tyrell Biggs had a war with David Bey before stopping him, sat down quietly through most of Tyson-Smith.
Yet Smith was faced with a hopeless situation: a college graduate, he’s an articulate, intelligent and proud man and he knew Tyson was just too powerful, fast, young and hungry for him.
Smith was quick to praise Iron Mike afterward, calling him a top fighter who was too quick and too good for him. “I did the best I could,” he said.
Tyson, as if still feeling the frustration of not being allowed to work, said Smith just grabbed throughout and that hurt boxing. “I’ve got to suffer with the critics because of Smith and he made no effort at all. He should be ashamed.
“I’m only a little kid, he should have come to get me,” he ended.
Tyson’s a throwback: he has the same menacing ring presence of a Jack Dempsey or a Joe Louis and with his black shorts and boots wouldn’t look out of place on one of those old fight film reels.
Smith, with his size, power, experience and current excellent form, was fancied by many to burst is bubble, but it never looked likely to be.
Somebody once called the legendary Roberto Duran half-man, half-animal, and that description could also fit Tyson. He’s a bull of a man, stomping and snorting as he charged into the attack and he has a mannerism of twitching that massive 20-inch neck like a bull flicking a fly.
Smith had hinted all week beforehand that a Witherspoon-like first-round blitz was on the cards but it never materialized – Tyson wouldn’t let it.
Though with just seconds to go in the last, Smith rushed off the ropes with a right and then a harder right which connected and forced Tyson to duck low. Tyson looked like he might be in trouble for a moment but immediately he snarled and punched back at Smith and laughed off the punches at the final bell.
A classic it certainly wasn’t, but with hindsight, a good learning bout for the champion against an experienced man who used his strength and awkwardness to fully to stave him off.
The win was Tyson’s 29th in a row, and only the third time he’d been forced to go the distance. Smith’s record now stands at 19 victories with six defeats.
Past world heavyweight champions have had some magic, fitting nicknames – there was The Manassa Mauler, The Brown Bomber, The Brockton Blockbuster and Smokin’ Joe – but now we have Iron Mike Tyson, and, as James Smith would surely testify, he’s a 220lbs wrecking ball.