DURING a year in which the collective aim has been to protect the elderly and those with underlying health issues, trust boxing, sport’s most irresponsible care home, to wheel out two of its at-risk and beloved patients into a playground of children with no regard for safety and call it not senseless but an ‘exhibition’. This shameless flouting of the rules occurred in Los Angeles (Staples Center) on Saturday (November 28) and the patients in question were former world champions Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jnr, two men in their 50s, who were promised safety and told to get out there and fight.
It was, in many ways, the perfect fight for the COVID-19 era – perfect in that it was fuelled by boredom, bulls**t and a need for attention, and perfect, too, in the sense that it came at a time when a product’s quality and appeal is judged only in terms of likes, retweets and followers. Frankly, what better way to remind ourselves of how things used to be than to be shown, in quite sobering fashion, how much time has passed? Tyson vs. Jones was, alas, both an exhibition and an exercise in self-harm.
As for the fight itself, there’s not much to say other than that both men, in light of the circumstances, produced an admirable effort throughout the eight two-minute rounds they shared and offered enough entertainment, if you’re into that sort of thing, to have the exhibition seem only half as tragic as it seemed when announced. A draw verdict, which both men welcomed, captured not just the balance of the action but the entire point of the exercise: there were no winners.
For sixteen minutes Jones slipped into the mode he typically adopted towards the end of his career, that of gored matador, while Tyson, knowing only one way, indicated early on that the word ‘exhibition’ was not a word he had ever been taught or indeed ever needed to know. It was a more serious bout than some expected and there was more quality on show than there had to be. In fact, it is a mark of just how exceptional both boxers were in their respective primes that even now, in their 50s, Tyson and Jones were able to deliver flashes of action fighters half their age have been incapable of delivering this year. It was certainly not the worst fight of this pandemic boxing period, neither in terms of competitiveness nor skill, and nicer things will be and have been said about shoddier events.
To say anything more about the fight, however, or go into greater detail, would be like reducing The Irishman to that one awful scene in which a 77-year-old Robert DeNiro pretends to be a man in his 30s kicking another man with the help of CGI. It would be to waste a lot on a little and would do a disservice to the 131 combined professional fights Tyson and Jones have to their name and the numerous world titles they have won.
In The Irishman, what was supposed to look like a violent man kicking a grounded man resembled, in the end, something closer to a pensioner wiping their boot on someone else’s body and, sadly, there were similarities between that and Tyson vs. Jones, a fight tantalising when mooted in 2003, but, at best, awkward 17 years later.
Even with CGI, the motion of DeNiro’s shoeing was not right, the intent was lacking, and his body’s mechanics prevented him acting like a man half his age. And the same can be said for Tyson, 54, and Jones, 51. They are both still recognisable, facially, as the men they once were, and were in fine shape given their ages and inactivity, but, no matter the oiling, the mechanics don’t work the way they once did. Not only that, these men, unlike actors, are always in danger of a mechanical fault leading to a fate far worse than the mere indignation of a hammy scene in an otherwise excellent film.
Unfortunately, it requires more than Snoop Dogg, on hand to provide commentary for Triller, to distract from the inherent risk involved when two fifty-somethings, both exhausted after two minutes, let their hands go in punching range. Check instead the looks of concern on both of their faces at the start of the fight and in between rounds. Some will call it focus, just to play along, but more likely what we saw on the faces of Tyson and Jones in Los Angeles was trepidation and fear of the unknown, two emotions they both hoped were behind them. Jones, for his part, did not know how it would feel to be hit by Tyson and is forever haunted by the many post-prime knockout defeats he suffered, while Tyson, inactive for 15 years, could not be sure if his body would hold up or if he would even make it to his stool at the end of round one.
Rest assured, this was not some celebration or testimonial in which two former champions were enjoying themselves and happy to be there. Though an exhibition in name, all that was really exhibited was the reality that boxers, the majority of them, can converse in and understand only one language and that often, more often than we would like, they are asked to demonstrate their mastering of this language beyond the point they have anything left to say.
This reality becomes clearer when you consider the countless Diego Maradona videos the world revisited following his death, at 60, earlier in the week. In each of those, even the ones recorded towards the end, Maradona was, for all his problems, a picture of happiness and contentment, a footballer elevated and liberated by his sport, not damaged, stunted and held captive by it. He was free to be his own man and to make his own choices. When playing football in retirement he did so with a beaming smile on his face and a spring in his step, the enduring image one of him doing flick-ups or sharing a private joke with a teammate.
In truth, Maradona’s retirement was a luxury. His sport guaranteed it. He could play football for fun and could play into his 50s without fear of it doing him any harm. Tyson and Jones, on the other hand, were never so fortunate, having found success in the wrong business; a business in which their prop is not a ball but their brain. Now the thing that defines Mike Tyson and Roy Jones is the very same thing that can destroy them. If in doubt, look again at their faces. Before the fight they were downbeat, both, and after the fight, with the ordeal over, their smiles were indicative more of relief than joy.
In one revealing incident, Tyson hit Jones with a punch slightly after the bell to end round two and immediately went to hug his opponent to apologise and make amends. It was a telling moment in a fight of few. The commentators called it progress, implying Tyson has matured with age, but it was just as likely pity, the hug no different than one a person might offer a friend for dragging them to a party they knew they wouldn’t enjoy.
Still, everybody else had a good time and that’s the main thing. The ones making money in corners and television studios had a good time, the ones making money on the undercard had a good time, and the gushing mixed martial arts aficionados and locked-down tweeters had a good time. Even Mauricio Sulaiman, in the ring to supply a belt of some description, could be seen grinning behind a mask, happy for one night to suspend both disbelief and his responsibility as president of one of boxing’s foremost sanctioning bodies.
If it makes financial sense to do it again, he will be back, no doubt, as will the rest of the rubberneckers and voice-for-hires every bit as eager to make money and feel relevant in the presence of injured pit bulls. It’s not their fault. Nor their place to say no. Regrettably, such is boxing’s nature, only they, the fighters, the dogs, the ones taught to never quit, can stop it.
Of the two it was Jones who, post-fight, seemed the more reluctant to box again. He mentioned needing to discuss the matter with his family and mentioned as well how painful some of Tyson’s punches had been and how sore he expected to be in the morning. Yet it was just as telling to see how it didn’t take much coaxing from Tyson, standing beside him during their interviews, to have Roy receptive to another helping if granted his family’s blessing.
That was perhaps the only thing sadder than the fight. The dead eyes. The uncertainty. The emptiness. Rather than wise, satisfied elder statesmen, both Tyson, 50-6 (44), and Jones, 66-9 (47), appeared at the end as though they had regressed to childhood and were now, as opposed to masters of their own destinies, in need of permission from those with greater sense and, hopefully, their best interests at heart. They are no longer able to a blaze a trail, create their own style, win titles or break records. They have instead become former fighters we watch not to see them win but to ensure they survive. Poignantly, Tyson, having been away 15 years, even said he was “starting again”.
Jones, meanwhile, is someone who was raised around cockfighting and then mimicked the moves of the cocks he saw fight before eventually fighting for so long he allowed himself to be treated like one. He doesn’t move the way he used to move, or punch the way he used to punch, and the only value in him now is in his name and what it once meant. Deflated more than just physically, he looked, at the bout’s end, like a man not so much desperate to box again as simply feel someone’s hand on his shoulder and be told, “It’s okay, champ, you can stop now.” Yet, of course, the people likely to do or say that are invariably the people no longer around, replaced by new faces and new voices, people who witnessed none of the damage and now see only the name. Their head moves one way: up and down. The loudest voice still belongs to Roy.
Oddly, when experts say the last thing a boxer loses is their power, we accept it’s true because it sounds right. But it’s a fallacy. It’s a fallacy told to make the expert feel astute and the boxer feel better. It is a fallacy told to keep them punching and keep them in the game and a fallacy told to give hope to the hopeless.
The truth is, after speed, timing, people who care and power, the very last thing a fighter loses is their ego, their one remaining ally. It tells them what they want to hear, it has a tendency to stick around long after all else has faded, and it will, if indulged, do far more damage than any punch the fighter ever threw.
How was Nate Robinson licensed to fight professionally?
AS well as Tyson vs. Jones, there were other fights nobody wanted or needed to see on the Staples Center undercard. Badou Jack, 23-3-3 (13), a former world super-middleweight champion, dominated Blake McKernan, 13-1 (6), a novice, over eight rounds in a cruiserweight fight as low-key and unrewarding as it sounds. Meanwhile, in a fight given more attention than it deserved, YouTube star Jake Paul, 2-0 (2), a nonentity to all but his 20 million YouTube subscribers, scored a one-punch, second-round knockout of former NBA point guard Nate Robinson, 0-1 (0). Here, the only thing scarier than the final punch was the fact Robinson was licensed to fight professionally. Also on the card of eight-rounders, Jamaine Ortiz, 14-0 (8), stopped Sulaiman Segawa, 13-3-1 (4), in seven at lightweight, Edward Vazquez, 9-0 (1), beat Irvin Gonzalez, 14-3 (11), via split-decision at featherweight, and Joe Cusumano, 19-3 (13), halted Gregory Corbin, 15-4 (9), inside six at heavyweight.