The thinking of every boxer going into a rematch with someone he lost to is the same as that of lovers, stockbrokers and other scam artists: It's going to be different this time. In this case Mike Tyson will rediscover his pride and punch, will vaporize Evander Holyfield and will resume his march toward heavyweight title unification and the rest of the money in the world.
This logic only works if you think Tyson erred last November in taking Holyfield lightly. To be sure, Holyfield was a 25-to-1 underdog, deservedly so after a retirement and a few surprisingly weak performances, and Tyson was riding high after four straight victories, including two in title bouts, following his release from prison.
But not everybody believes Tyson underestimated Holyfield or that the result will be different this time. Holyfield's dominance leading up to his 11th-round knockout of Tyson was not the consequence of a lucky punch or a bad cut. As startling as it may have been, the outcome was apparent fairly early in the proceedings. "I'll never forget that scene," says trainer Emanuel Steward, "a man beating up a little boy."
It will take considerable powers of self-persuasion, or self-delusion, for Tyson to forget that scene. (The fact that he doesn't—or, at least, insists that he doesn't—remember anything past the third round should help in this process.) His career has been based principally on intimidation, and any memory of Holyfield blasting back at him is not going to be of much use in his prefight dreams.
Some insiders think that Tyson has been found out. His straight-ahead style—a short guy on rails, flummoxing opponents with his fast and powerful hands—may have run its course. Steward, for one, doesn't give fighters with that approach much longevity past age 27. They burn out, like Joe Frazier. Tyson is 30. A more classic boxer like Holyfield, who sets himself more evenly on his feet and can see punches coming, who doesn't bury his head amid his own weapons, can retain the ability to adapt, to counter, to frustrate even at age 34.
This is not to say that Tyson is without a chance. His body-punching has a devastating effect. Former welterweight champ Buddy McGirt, for one, thinks it would be easy for Tyson to wear Holyfield down with it: "God, with Tyson's power, do you know what eight rounds of punches to the shoulder would do to Holyfield?"
However, when Tyson's power was neutralized, or returned, he seemed suddenly clueless. He became ordinary, a guy without a backup plan. His corner was blamed for his failure to adapt, so he has rehired Richie Giachetti as a trainer. But Tyson is not a good listener anymore and, like most fighters of his age and experience, tends to fall back on whatever style got him there.
Tyson's increasing disregard for defense—no slipping or ducking anymore—was disastrous against a boxer like Holyfield. It's no longer enough for him to bore in and keep his opponent occupied. Holyfield, who weathered every blow, found his mark almost every time. If Tyson no longer has enough power to demand immediate surrender of his opponent or quick enough reflexes to prevent himself from getting hit, it will be another long night for him.
Tyson refuses to believe that he suffered an important defeat; he thinks he simply got surprised, almost unfairly. "I never dreamed he could fight that well," he said of Holyfield recently. "We're going to find out if he's really a big boy this time."
But it's Tyson who has everything to prove. He's coasted through a fair part of his career on sheer mythology, and now there are doubts that he's anything more than a well-positioned money machine, For Tyson another loss would reveal him as more of a marketing phenomenon than a boxing great.