It was, even by boxing's standards, a cynical promotion, appealing to our worst instincts, the ones that cause us to rubberneck at a highway wreck, to gawk at a burning building, to linger at a crime scene. In this case it was the opportunity to watch two fragile personalities, placed in circumstances that have often resulted in self-combustion, and enjoy their psychological pratfall.
You take Mike Tyson, who disintegrated memorably during a fight against Evander Holyfield three years ago (and less memorably in less memorable bouts since), and match him with 6'4", 240-pound Andrew Golota, a magnificent physical specimen who goes to great lengths to arrange his own failure, and you can pretty much guarantee catastrophe. Would Tyson go for the ears again if his bully-boy tactics failed and he became frustrated? Or would Golota, who had more or less quit three times while leading in important fights, beat him to the punch with his own style of disqualification?
When the premise of a fight is to provoke humiliation, it's hard to feel robbed when something mortifying happens. The sight of Golota, who refused to come out for the third round against Tyson last Friday night at The Palace in Auburn Hills, being hustled out of the ring surrounded by security, getting showered by drinks on his way to the dressing room, stoically shouldering a shame that would stay with him forever—well, payday!
Amazingly, this was perhaps the most anticipated heavyweight fight of the year, a pay-per-view show that will probably do better than David Tua's grab for Lennox Lewis's WBC and IBF titles on Nov. 11. High-minded fans might have pretended this fight was about redemption—Tyson's chance to get back in the title picture with a clean victory, Golota's to prove he could perform without having a nervous breakdown—but the reality was that they were hired to court disaster on our behalf. In the past Tyson has had to carry that burden by himself. In this match he had a coconspirator.
Tyson, who had mixed results in his last two fights (he knocked out Julius Francis in the second round and impressively flattened Lou Savarese at 38 seconds of the first, a bout in which he slugged the ref), was on his best behavior on Friday night. Although his prefight ramblings were alarming, to say the least—when asked how long the bout would take, Tyson said, "However long it takes to kill somebody"—he was composed and determined as he swarmed Golota in the opening seconds. It was possible, especially when he decked Golota with an overhand right near the end of the first round, to remember that he was one of the most intimidating boxers ever.
Perhaps the sight—and feel—of Tyson jogged Golota's memory. After that knockdown, Golota returned to his corner and told his manager, 72-year-old Al Certo, he wanted to quit. "I told him he could win," says Certo, "and I think I had him believing me." So Golota returned for Round 2 and, after Tyson delivered another stinging right, appeared to settle down, to get off a few slapping jabs and reestablish some needed distance between himself and the 5'11" Tyson. But the 32-year-old Golota is not a fighter anybody, certainly not Certo, can understand. Four years ago, when he was a promising heavyweight with an amusing Polish accent, Golota pushed former champ Riddick Bowe to the threshold of defeat in two fights, but in each one he sabotaged himself with low blows and was disqualified. Last November, Golota was leading Michael Grant by a huge margin when Grant knocked him down in the 10th round. Asked by the ref if he wanted to continue (and, with only two-plus rounds left, he wouldn't have had to continue all that much longer), Golota emphatically said, "No." One more victory averted.
The Tyson bout, however, was Golota's masterpiece—even if there eventually proved to be a more concrete explanation for his behavior. Immediately after the fight Golota said, "First of all, it wasn't my day." Then he cited Tyson's head butts. (He had a gash beside his left eye from an accidental butt; Tyson attempted a purposeful butt in the second round but could not reach Golota's brow.) Then he apologized. "Listen, boxing is a difficult sport," Golota said. "I'm sorry to all my fans who counted on me."
Surely Golota was hurt by that knockdown punch (he was hospitalized on Saturday with a concussion, a fractured cheekbone and a herniated disk in his neck), and the cuts couldn't have cheered him. Still, the sight of Certo chasing him with the mouthpiece after Golota had refused to continue ("What are you doing?" Certo kept imploring his fighter) will remain one of boxing's most bizarre and heartbreaking scenes.
Tyson, who may have unnerved Golota with his prefight blather, was initially outraged, as opposed to sympathetic, and seemed ready to storm Golota's corner. Eventually Tyson left the ring under his own heavy guard, offering even less comment than Golota. Iron Mike's adviser Shelly Finkel said, "He was a bit distraught. He wanted the knockout and he felt another round would do it. Evidently Golota felt the same."
Golota is in that same purgatory where Tyson had such a long-term lease. It's best not to think he acted in cowardice, but instead to consider that he was truly hurt and, as Tyson's trainer Tommy Brooks speculated, had "an anxiety attack." He will be available for employment the next time the human condition is too full of itself and needs a corrective dose of disgrace.