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Mike Tyson and Roy Jones – Who was actually the greatest?

Mike Tyson
This is the closest you’ll get to a preview of Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jnr making exhibitions of themselves... Oliver Fennell examines their real boxing careers to reveal who was the greatest

TWO of the greatest boxers in history will fight on Saturday night, with at least a couple of enormous caveats. First, it’s an exhibition match – and an ill-defined one at that, with those forking out £19-95 to watch on BT Sports Box Office unsure as to what Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jnr will do – or be allowed to do – to each other. Second, no matter what happens in Los Angeles, it will happen at least a decade-and-a-half too late. This doesn’t matter to the target audience: Younger fans raised on YouTube highlights and who had not even been born when Tyson and Jones last won at world level; older fans craving a nostalgia hit and who don’t care that Tyson’s beard is even greyer than their own; and casual fans for whom celebrity is more valuable than quality. Traditionalists scoff, while apologists remind us it’s only an exhibition.

No legacies will be harmed in this production. But what of these legacies?

It is pointless to argue who may have won if Tyson and Jones had met in, say, 2003, and Saturday night’s circus won’t provide any clues. It is perhaps worthier to pitch the two men’s careers against each other than to fantasise about a fight that never happened – and, according to the record books, won’t officially have happened in LA.

Rather than wonder who will ‘win’ on Saturday, Boxing News prefers to judge these two legends on more important merits – what happened in their careers, and who left the greater legacy.

Mike Tyson

STRENGTHS

TYSON Even among heavyweights, few champions have exhibited such brute force as a prime Tyson. He stood at least a head shorter than most of his contemporaries, but his squat physique with thick legs and a shock-absorber neck made for the perfect blend of power and durability. In his early 20s, Tyson combined this with the explosiveness and fast-twitch fibres of youth to add blistering speed and reflexes. On top of this, he emitted an almost tangible sense of violence, creating an air of intimidation that often effectively settled matters before a punch was thrown.

JONES Facing Jones was perhaps not as foreboding, at least not before the fight began. If many of Tyson’s opponents felt all hope was lost once they came face to face with him, with Jones they gained this understanding after the first bell rang, once he started picking them off with spiteful strikes from absurd angles and presenting them with an unhittable target even when stood right in front of them.

EDGE In their pomp, both appeared unbeatable, for different reasons. Tyson ripped his prey apart; Jones played with it. Jones’ act was performed across a suite of weight divisions, but Tyson’s ability to impose himself, both physically and mentally, on grown men – big, proud, championship-grade grown men – was perhaps second to none.

WEAKNESSES

TYSON The epitome of an “on top” fighter, Tyson’s drawbacks were psychological rather than physical. He peaked early, but even as he aged he retained a sound chin, good fitness and fight-ending power. What he always struggled with was a confident and determined opponent. He never got off the floor to win, he never avenged a defeat and, with one exception (vs Frans Botha), he never overcame a points deficit. Even in victory, if he couldn’t win as quickly and easily as he’d hoped, he could become frustrated.

JONES Later in his career, once nature had robbed him of that crucial inch or second that had made him so infuriatingly elusive, we learned that Jones lacked the durability to withstand powerful blows. Whether he had harmed himself by dragging his body back to 175lb after his heavyweight zenith, or his dimming reflexes made viable a target that hitherto could not be touched, the brutal truth was Jones had a weak chin.

EDGE Victory against Tyson was hard-earned. Apart from his ear-biting episode against Evander Holyfield, he would take his lumps and keep trying. There was no chance of an opponent turning his lights out with a single shot or sudden burst – which happened to Jones five times.

AMATEURS

TYSON Many are surprised to learn Tyson lacked significant senior amateur accolades and was beaten at least six documented times, including to Henry Tillman in the 1984 Olympic trials. He did, however, take gold at the Junior Games in 1981 and 1982, as well as in the 1983 Golden Gloves. But his trainer and guardian Cus D’Amato had always groomed Tyson for the pros, and his young charge started punching for pay in March 1985, aged 18.

JONES In what is widely regarded as the worst amateur boxing decision of all time, Jones had to settle for silver at the 1988 Olympics. He was adjudged a split decision loser to Park Si-hun despite outlanding the local boxer almost three to one and forcing a count in round two. But “failure” in Seoul did not harm his reputation one bit. Jones had dazzled his way to the final, winning every round, and fans knew he left South Korea as champion in all but name. Even before the full Olympics he had won Junior gold in 1984 and the Golden Gloves in 1986 and ’87, and his documented amateur record is 121-13. He turned pro as a blue-chip prospect in 1989, aged 20.

EDGE Tyson was already regarded as an aggressive, exciting talent even before he turned pro, but Jones was the more decorated in the unpaid code.

Roy Jones vs Mike Tyson
Getty Images for HBO

PROSPECTS

TYSON In one of the most meteoric rises seen in the sport, Tyson streaked to 18 wins in his first 12 months as a pro. The approach was not the measured one usually taken by high-profile prospects, with full training camps and deliberate exposure to different styles, it was one of fighting as often as possible, against whoever was brave enough. A further nine wins preceded a November 1986 WBC title challenge, just 20 months after turning over. Along the way, victims included Jesse Ferguson, James Tillis, Mitch Green, Marvis Frazier and Jose Ribalta.

JONES It took Jones a little longer to get to his first belt – just shy of three years. He had the more typical build-up, fighting every four to eight weeks against seasoned but limited or faded opposition designed to teach him but not beat him. He entered the world rankings with a first-round knockout of former WBC champion Jorge Vaca in January 1992 and then furthered his claim to a May ’93 title shot with wins over Jorge Castro, Glenn Thomas and Glenn Wolfe.

EDGE Tyson’s sprint to the top captivated fans everywhere.

BELTS AND BEST WINS

TYSON The WBC coronation of 20-year-old Tyson was so spectacular, it remains on highlight compilations to this day. One left hook sent defending champion Trevor Berbick spiralling to the canvas three times, setting the stage for one of the most exciting heavyweight reigns. Tyson unified the three major belts of the time, beating Bonecrusher Smith (WBA) and Tony Tucker (IBF), saw off the old guard with a crushing knockout of Larry Holmes, annihilated leading rivals Michael Spinks (the Ring Magazine champion) and Tyrell Biggs, and outclassed the rest in a 39-month, 10-fight reign which crackled with intensity. Tyson verged on regaining his cloak of invincibility six years later when savagely regaining titles against Frank Bruno (WBC) and Bruce Seldon (WBA), and in between reigns he earned two wins over Razor Ruddock. He went 12-4 in world title fights, and remains the youngest boxer to win a major heavyweight belt.

JONES Winning the IBF middleweight title against Bernard Hopkins in 1993 and the same strap at 168lb against James Toney 18 months later leaps out from Jones’ record. These two results placed him at or near the top of the pound-for-pound rankings, consolidated by wins over Sugarboy Malinga, Thomas Tate, Vinny Pazienza and Tony Thornton. But his signature reign was at light-heavyweight, where he dominated over a six-year, 13-fight run interrupted only by a disqualification loss to Montell Griffin (immediately and emphatically avenged). He unified the big three belts, beating Griffin (WBC), Lou Del Valle (WBA) and Reggie Johnson (IBF) and comfortably saw off Mike McCallum, Virgil Hill, Julio Cesar Gonzalez and Clinton Woods. Jones then beat John Ruiz in 2003 to add the WBA heavyweight crown while weighing just 193lbs. He joined Bob Fitzsimmons, who came from a different era altogether, as the only former middleweight titlist to win a major heavyweight championship. All told, he was 23-4 in title fights.

EDGE Tyson’s peak was spectacular, and he gets credit for regaining major belts, but his reigns did not quite boast the latter’s longevity, versatility and pound-for-pound credentials. After beating Ruiz, there was talk of Jones being the greatest boxer of all time – and it didn’t sound overblown.

MISSING FROM THE CV

TYSON The stars never quite aligned for Tyson to meet George Foreman, Riddick Bowe or Buster Douglas in a rematch, but otherwise he fought everyone he was supposed to – although not always at the right time. He took on all logical contenders during his first reign, but legal troubles curtailed his first attempt at a showdown with Holyfield, in 1991. He would fight – and lose to – Holyfield years later, and likewise Lennox Lewis. By the time Tyson fought Lewis in 2002, he was past his best, but had twice forfeited earlier chances against the Brit. First, having regained the WBC title in 1996, Tyson paid mandatory contender Lewis $4m to not fight him, and then later outright surrendered the belt so he could take on the fragile WBA titlist Seldon instead.

JONES The light-heavyweight division lacked depth during Jones’s signature reign. His main rival was long-serving WBO counterpart Dariusz Michalczewski, though calls for a unification were more for the sake of completion than competition, such was Jones’s dominance. The only significant unanswered question over his career is how he would have fared against bigger and/or better heavyweights than Ruiz, but given how audacious an experiment it was in itself, it’s not really something that can be held against him.

EDGE Tyson’s blatant avoidance of Lewis counts against him, giving Jones the advantage.

POST-PRIME

TYSON Once stripped of his ‘0’ in his legendary 1990 upset loss to Douglas, much of Tyson’s mystique disappeared along with it. Even so, he still had enough left to regain a couple of titles after his 1992-1995 stint in prison for a rape conviction, and wins over Botha, Andrew Golota (later ruled a no-contest when Tyson tested positive for marijuana) and Lou Savarese kept him well inside the top 10 for most of the rest of his career – even if the end, when it finally came in 2005, was as embarrassing as it gets for a great of the sport.

JONES At least Tyson bowed out once even he could no longer be packaged as a world-beater. Jones hung around until he was 49 – seven years after his last meaningful bout (a 2011 loss to Dennis Lebedev), and 10 years removed from his final title fight. Like Tyson, Jones was stripped of his aura after his first legitimate defeat, a shocking two-round knockout to Antonio Tarver in 2004, and he would never win another major championship – though he did take the decent, if faded, scalps of Felix Trinidad, Omar Sheika and Jeff Lacy.

EDGE Jones fought on, and on… and on. His agonisingly protracted final chapter made Tyson’s exit, at 39, look positively felicitous.

WORST DEFEATS

TYSON The only truly explicable defeat on Tyson’s record is the one to Lewis. Douglas was famously a 42-1 underdog. With hindsight, the odds of 25-1 against Holyfield in the first Tyson fight look absurd, but it shows how shopworn he was thought to be at the time. The rematch resulted in the sport’s most infamous DQ. Tyson closed his career with excruciating defeats, again to enormous underdogs in Danny Williams and Kevin McBride. The latter was not even remotely world-level, yet Tyson quit against him.

JONES The sight of Jones being rendered insensible or unconscious was depressingly familiar through the overlong twilight of his career. Some of his losses were spectacular, others harrowing, though these all came when he was past his peak. Still, crashing and crumbling against the likes of Glen Johnson, Danny Green and Enzo Maccarinelli offers an uncomfortable visual counter to the majesty of Jones’s prime.

EDGE It should be pointed out that Jones only ever lost to defending or former world champions, and he was only stopped after hitting his mid-30s. All of Tyson’s defeats came inside schedule, he was soundly beaten in his athletic peak, and he was on the wrong end of some of the biggest upsets in boxing history.

Evander Holyfield vs Mike Tyson

CONTROVERSIES

TYSON Where to begin? Most infamously, he was responsible for the most outrageous foul in boxing history, when he bit off a chunk of Holyfield’s ear. That was just the most extreme example of Tyson’s liberal approach to the rulebook. He’s also twisted arms, struck with elbows, hit after the bell and ignored referees. He was jailed for rape between 1992 and 1995, and for another nine months in 1999 for punching two civilians, and was arrested dozens of times as a juvenile. Verbally, he’s been profane, misogynistic, homophobic, threatening and racist to opponents, promoters and journalists alike, and in retirement has been an unabashed user of recreational drugs and an admitted “vicious alcoholic”.

JONES While he couldn’t possibly “compete” with Tyson in the controversy stakes, Jones does have one huge black mark against him – a failed steroids test from a 2000 fight with Richard Hall. Fortunately for Jones, Hall also failed a PED test for the very same contest, so the powers that be simply decided they’d cancelled each other out. The result (Jones w rsf 11) stood and no punishment was administered. Jones also has that DQ loss to Griffin.

EDGE Undeniably, Tyson’s wild side was a big part of his box office and pop culture appeal, but it does count against him in any sober analysis of his accomplishments. Jones’ PED use is a massive blot on his record but even then, he is by far the less tarnished figure.

Mike Tyson

WHO WAS THE GREATEST?

While very different stylistically, and operating way outside of each other’s weight ranges for almost the entirety of their careers, there are notable similarities between Tyson and Jones. They both had a period of dominance so complete that it was at times impossible to imagine them losing. They both suffered precipitous declines once that spell was broken. Both transcended the sport, though Tyson more so. The buzz around this exhibition match is all about him, no matter how excellent Jones once was. That sums it up perfectly: Jones achieved more, but Tyson had the bigger impact.

EDGE Jones 5-4.

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