The image that remains, that will become one of those SportsCenter staples, is Mike Tyson's crackling right hand out of nowhere and Francois Botha's drunken reel around the ring. Highlight footage doesn't get much better than that. The punch couldn't have traveled more than six inches, whereas poor Botha covered quite a bit more territory, tipping, toppling and wobbling before finally sliding down the ropes in a horrible heap.
It amounted to a splendid visual, offering the shock of violence, the wonder of so much force materializing out of thin air and the delicious destruction of another human being. Poor Botha. It was as if he'd been rigged to go, and all Tyson had to do was press a button. In fact, the detonation was so sudden and spontaneous that Tyson was not even aware he'd thrown a switch—"I didn't know what had happened," he would say later. The next thing you saw was Botha commencing a protracted and exaggerated collapse, resembling one of those building demolitions, coming down by sections until, at last, he was no more than a pile of debris.
In its several seconds of duration, Botha's collapse incorporated all the important themes of the Tyson Mystique, the ability to generate so much danger on demand being the principal one. That's what made Tyson, Kid Dynamite of long ago, such a dramatic sports figure, a "blood man" for the 20th century. There was even, in this footage, the image of Tyson rushing to cradle Botha as he sank upon himself. Monstrous, but human, too. It was all there.
The fifth-round knockout, enacted at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas last Saturday, will do much, perhaps everything, to restore Tyson's place in boxing. The awesome display of power is exactly the tonic the sport requires, a reminder that dominance is again available.
However, the complete replay may not support so much enthusiasm. Whether Tyson, 32 and in his second comeback, can fight at an elite level is an unanswered question. Coming off a 19-month layoff, brought about after he was disqualified and lost his license for biting both of Evander Holyfield's ears in June '97, he was fairly one-dimensional against Botha, struggling to the point that he had not won a single round.
Also, just as Tyson retains his capacity for the puncher's instant corrective, he is just as capable of creating chaos. Even though the fight ended with everybody sharing hugs, the events of the first round had caused many observers to wonder if Tyson's exile—during which he had undergone psychiatric treatment, including anger control counseling—had lasted long enough. Toward the end of the round he enveloped Botha in a clinch and clamped hard on the South African's left arm; Botha could be seen reacting in pain. "He was trying to break my arm," Botha said after the fight. Was that true, Mike? "That is correct," he replied.
The two continued to tussle after the bell sounded to end the round, and it was nearly a minute before they could be separated, enough time for some of the 500-man security force at the MGM to mount the ring. But the ugliness didn't escalate as it did in the Holyfield bout, and it didn't infect the crowd and spread into the adjoining casino later in the evening as it had a year and a half earlier, closing down the gaming area for several hours.
"It was him getting rough and me getting rough back," said Tyson, who tried the same arm-bending tactic the next round and was penalized a point. That penalty was small potatoes, of course, compared with his $3 million fine for biting Holyfield in the same ring.
It would be hard to blame Tyson entirely. Botha, a sturdy but relatively punchless fighter who in 1995 held the IBF portion of the heavyweight title for all of a month before being stripped of it after testing positive for steroids, had mounted a strategy aimed primarily at unhinging Tyson. "I was talking to him," Botha admitted later, "but I can't say what it was I was saying." He laughed. "I might have said, 'When are you going to start fighting, because you're losing?' " He laughed again. "You know, I never did see that punch."
Tyson didn't either. It was not the result of some exchange but simply a straight shot at an unprotected chin. It happened so quickly that Tyson was surprised to see Botha go down. "I thought he must have quit," Tyson said. "I didn't even know I'd thrown it."