Mike Tyson, alone among fighters today, considers himself a servant of boxing history, as if it's his duty to single-handedly sustain a tradition of heavyweight excellence. The burden of being champion is more than you know-never mind the brutality of the work he must perform in the ring—for it requires that Tyson put his life on display: An unhappy celebrity marriage dissolves into a spectacularly public divorce; a car accident becomes an attempted suicide; a 23-year-old's night on the town is reported as a champion's inevitable dissolution. And a loss, a single defeat, is so catastrophic to his career that, in his comeback fight, he must share billing with a 41-year-old man whose idea of fighting trim is 263 pounds and who has, by most accounts, become far more popular than Tyson.
The loss of dignity is complete. The former champion sighs at his circumstances, but not with bitterness. "When I decided what to do with my life as a boy, I decided to give up all my happiness," Tyson explains. There was, he recognized at the very beginning, difficult work to be done.
Last Saturday at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, he did a little more of it, though it was far easier work than he had been accustomed to lately. In a fight of exceedingly flimsy promotional value—the best that could be said for Tyson's opponent, Henry Tillman, was that he had twice outpointed Tyson in the 1984 Olympic trials—Tyson laid waste to Tillman in less than a round. Tyson was in superb condition, and the overhand right that put Tillman beneath the ring ropes certainly recalled Tyson's past glory as the ultimate intimidator. But Tillman's recent credentials as a heavyweight did not persuade anyone that Tyson was fully tested in his first fight since losing the title in February, when he was knocked out by Buster Douglas in Tokyo.
So the Tillman match was ultimately inconclusive, except to prove that Tyson was still up to the task, any task. Since being upset four months ago, he had been a virtual recluse. News of his life—a sister dead, a son born—became sporadic. Even his preparation for the Tillman fight was conducted secretly. Interviews were few, and almost all of his workouts were closed. He was no longer a public figure, except as his stature in boxing demanded.
Possibly because of the long silence that accompanied his defeat, as well as the litigation that forestalls any rematch with Douglas for a long time, Tyson had disappeared into mere contention. There was interest in his comeback, to be sure, but there wasn't much anxiety over it, at least not as long as it was against Tillman. Rather, the Caesars crowd appeared far more intrigued by the work George Foreman performed—an hour before Tyson's bout—when, in the 22nd fight of his comeback, he leveled Adilson Rodrigues at 2:39 of the second round.
Foreman, the heavyweight champion in 1973 and '74, has been boxing's popular novelty act since he embarked on his new fight career three years ago, after 10 years of preaching and eating. He has become an ambassador for middle age and unrestrained appetite, if not for boxing. But with each fight, against better opponents and with increasingly concussive results, Foreman is emerging as a genuine contender. "Most of the tickets sold were because of George," said the twin bill's copromoter, Bob Arum. What's more, Foreman is emerging as a reasonable opponent for Tyson. Although neither match on the doubleheader put its head-liner at risk, Foreman's defeat of Rodrigues was his first over a ranked opponent since he began his comeback. Foreman at least gave the appearance of moving up in class. And the left hook that scattered Rodrigues to the ring apron gave Foreman a credibility that was hard to overlook. It may no longer be possible to avoid Tyson-Foreman. Any further twin billings—one planned for September appeared to be unraveling after last Saturday's fights-would make such a match far more inescapable, largely because of its considerable commercial appeal, than even a Tyson-Douglas rematch.
"Let's cut all this nonsense out," said Foreman after the fights. "I don't think there should be another doubleheader. Let's get George Foreman and Mike Tyson together, once and for all."
Whatever you think of Foreman's credentials, there is no disputing his charm. The strain of Tyson's trying to make history has become off-putting. Foreman, meanwhile, is merely trying to relive a little of his own. In his days as champion, of course, Foreman was just as fierce as Tyson, just as wary of the public. Then, Foreman was as enslaved by boxing as Tyson is now. "But now I'm doing what I want to do," Foreman said last week. "I volunteered for this. This time around, the world belongs to me. I can see it out of my eyes, and I like it." The relaxed demeanor of Foreman, a man at peace with himself, stands in sharp contrast to the tortured life of Tyson.
It is, in fact, almost comical to watch Foreman in the ring. First of all, there is his corner, with 76-year-old trainer Archie Moore and brother Robert Foreman wearing their knit caps, and Robert giving George's bald head a prefight massage. It is George's habit, between rounds, to stand reclining against the turnbuckle, as comfortable as a man in a Barcalounger. Even when he is in action, he seems to plod about the ring cheerfully. Saturday night, though, he appeared unhappy that Rodrigues made him plod more and faster than he wished to. Of course, that didn't last long.
Foreman is especially at ease outside the ring. Possibly because of his work as the pastor of a small church in Houston, Foreman has become a relaxed public speaker. He can be serious, as when he discusses the effect of defeat on a young fighter such as Tyson—or Foreman, for that matter. After he lost to Muhammad Ali in 1974, Foreman said the week before the Rodrigues fight, his overwhelming emotion was shame. "You don't want to see the skycaps at the airport, you don't want to see taxi drivers," he said. "And you have to build yourself up, so you start spending billions of dollars on cars, suits and anything you can do to make yourself look like the best in the world. But it doesn't happen until you get that title back. Mike Tyson will never sleep again until he redeems himself."