The whole sorry facade had been supported by nothing more than promotional psychodrama, fascinating for a while but ultimately flimsy and unstable. The buildup was just an act, a front. Behind all of Mike Tyson's famous fury there was...nothing. Not even—and here was a surprise—more fury. It was almost sad to realize that. But there it was, undeniable. The onetime baddest man on the planet was now on his back, and overhead cameras caught the physical humiliation: Blood coursing from both brows and his nose, eyes closed, a red glove resting on his forehead. It had finally come tumbling down, that facade, and for good.
Of course, given how shattered Tyson now was, it was possible to ask: What were we thinking, anyway? For all his heavyweight dominance in the 1980s, Tyson hadn't delivered a decent show since knocking out Razor Ruddock in 1991, substituting bizarre behavior for athletic performance. His mystique remained powerful, despite his public meltdowns, or maybe because of them. But at 35, and far removed from his brief but electrifying prime, Tyson was good for nothing more than wishful thinking, the old idea of thug force, which somehow was attractive from the suitable distance of cable TV in our otherwise refined lives. The ranting and raving were all the underpinnings for the residual Tyson-mania, and were all that could justify his persistent appeal.
In the face of a true heavyweight champion, ranting and raving were insufficient. The Rumble on the River became the Mismatch by the Mississippi last Saturday night when Lennox Lewis pocked that facade with jab after jab, finally knocking the whole thing down with a long-overdue right hand in the eighth round (he could have done it much sooner). The bout, held in a hopeful Memphis (and boy, does Memphis dress up for a party; good for them) because most every other city in the world found religion when it came to ranting and raving, was so completely one-sided that just as you were forced to acknowledge Lewis's now irrefutable talents, you had to admire Tyson's surprising stoicism in the ring. And just as you began to appreciate the honor of Lewis's accomplishment, you had to feel a pang of horror for Tyson, who no longer can afford the refuge of his so-called rage and now must reckon with what's left of his desperate destiny. As he told a TV reporter in his dressing room afterward, "I have nowhere to go."
Gone by then was the money-making menace, the persona who had built this fight into a $100 million extravaganza. Was it ever real, that scary anger? Some of it must have been; surely he wouldn't have done as much jail time as he has just to keep his little urban reputation going. But to see him, come the bell, respect the sport he used to say he loved so much, to see him so humble in defeat, you had to wonder. Although he was thoroughly outclassed, he fought hard and nonstop, accepting more punishment than he probably had to. Then, his destruction finalized, he offered Lewis the humility any good loser must. He hugged Lewis, kissed the champion's mother and for the TV audience announced the obvious: "He was splendid, a masterful boxer, and I take my hat off to him."
For Lewis, 36, the knockout was the cherry on his sundae, the performance that "cements my legacy." He has never been much beloved, partly because he got clipped on the button every time his career gained momentum, but mostly because he avoided taking the path of perverse flamboyance that Tyson chose. A man of Lewis's size (6'5", 249 pounds) and power might have done more with his tools. However, his dominance over Tyson demands reconsideration.
After a shaky first round in which a bobbing and charging Tyson appeared to offer him difficulty, Lewis recovered with a left jab that seemed to stop Tyson in his tracks. Bing, bing, bing. Lewis couldn't miss. By the third round Tyson's right eye was bleeding. Shortly after that, his left. Then his nose. The jab, a kind of stutter punch that had Tyson ducking a blow that wasn't there, or wasn't there at first, completely immobilized him. He was ripe for the taking.
Emanuel Steward, Lewis's trainer, could be seen pleading with his fighter after the fourth round to do more taking. "What Manny didn't realize," Lewis said after the bout, "was I hurt my right hand and had to rest it for a couple of rounds."
Only until the eighth. Following round after round of one-sided punishment, Lewis caught Tyson with a left uppercut, causing him to sag halfway to the canvas. Then, a minute later, he whistled a right to Tyson's jaw, and the fight was over.
"What more," Lewis asked afterward, "can you ask me to do?" Well, not much. Lewis, who's been the prototypical heavyweight for this generation, might have been immortal by now if he hadn't gotten careless and lost to Oliver McCall and, much more recently, Hasim Rahman. He avenged those defeats, his attention restored, and now with this fight he must be recognized as a pretty powerful performer. If Lewis retired right now—and that's possible, as he seems at long last to have cleaned out the division—he need not apologize for his departure.
What Lewis might have to apologize for is his comparative lack of flair, his nonchalance when it comes to developing a story line for the fight public. He has just been professional, that's all, whereas Tyson was always more obliging, offering his anger for sale and bending himself to promotional use. Though Lewis was the reigning champion, this fight had really been about Tyson and his potential for self-immolation.