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For some time it was reassuring To think of Mike Tyson as the careful curator of his own legend, somewhat unpredictable outside the ring, yes, but entirely dedicated to the service of history within. You could count on him for violent spectacle. He came to the workplace unnervingly conditioned, in a terry-cloth towel with a hole punched through for his head, the towel barely concealing his muscled menace. He was technically reliable, hewing to the rigid disciplines of the late Cus D'Amato, the trainer who transformed him from street thug into the youngest heavyweight champion in history. And he was so powerfully motivated to perform "bad intentions" upon his opponents that their fear became palpable—indeed, almost comical—as, one by one, they were scattered about the ring.
His fans enjoyed the notion of Tyson rummaging through those canisters of old fight films, finding his role models in the crackling celluloid. Dempsey. Louis. Marciano. That Tyson was a serious student of greatness was encouraging in a sport that so often honors mediocrity. It would not be possible to distract him from so high-minded a devotion.
Yet now there is increasing doubt that Tyson can sustain his reputation. There was his loss by a knockout in February 1990 to Buster Douglas, his unsatisfying win over Razor Ruddock last March, and evidence that his skills were declining even before those fights. Is Tyson, who will turn 25 two days after his June 28 rematch with Ruddock, already fading into history? Is he merely a passing phenomenon, undone by fame and comfort like so many others? Is he just something to remember the '80s by, a footnote to boxing history?
Tyson, who turned pro in 1985, has a record of 40-1, with 36 knockouts, and he did KO Ruddock, after all, so requiems for this heavyweight are obviously premature. He is still the most bankable fighter in the world, even as a challenger. Last week Dan Duva, the promoter of champion Evander Holyfield, offered a record $51.1 million for a Tyson-Holyfield fight in Las Vegas in October or November. But there is a feeling in the boxing community that Tyson has already crested, and that even if he remains above the rest of the division, he is nevertheless on his way down. "He was great for boxing," says Emanuel Steward, Tommy Hearns's manager and trainer for many years. "But it's a whole new ball game."
Tyson's critics say that he has been ruined by Don King, the promoter who wrested control of Tyson's career from Bill Cayton when co-manager Jimmy Jacobs died in March 1988. Later that year trainer Kevin Rooney, a D'Amato protégé, was fired, and a string of successors have failed to hone Tyson's skills or maintain the link to D'Amato. Sometimes they have had trouble even getting him away from the discos and into the gym. It is said that Tyson has been ruined by his own inescapable wealth and power, and that not even D'Amato or Rooney could have prevented that. He has been corrupted by comfort. Or he simply wasn't built for the long run. There's no agreement on the reasons, but nobody denies that Tyson has neglected the abilities that made him the most feared boxer of his time. Agreed: He has abandoned his potential.
He has no jab, he doesn't work the body, he throws few combinations, and clinches frequently. He shows less and less defense and only sporadically returns to D'Amato's trademark peekaboo style. He no longer intimidates. True, Henry Tillman and Alex Stewart, two stops on Tyson's way back from the Douglas fiasco, appeared to be terrified. But Ruddock stood in with Tyson and was not horribly damaged or even terribly impressed. Steve Lott, a member of the Tyson camp when Jacobs and Cayton held sway, is most struck by this growing composure among Tyson opponents. "You used to watch Mike, and you'd think, This guy doesn't get hit," Lott says. "These other guys are hitting air and he's coming back with bombs and the fight's over. Now the top guys are saying, Wait a minute. Ruddock stood toe to toe with Tyson, shot for shot, for seven rounds. This never happened before. It happened for 30 seconds, but seven rounds? Now, Ruddock may be a good fighter, but he's not Joe Louis."
The example of the journeyman Douglas, who fearlessly jabbed Tyson to defeat, has emboldened the young heavyweights. The Ruddock fight woke some people up too. But it's not a case of suddenly realizing the emperor has no jab. In the past Tyson did not usually try to intimidate his opponents in prefight press conferences. "What he did was," explains Lott, "he used to hit them pretty hard."
Now, though he still hits hard, Tyson does not hit often enough, or in the right places. Eddie Futch, the veteran trainer who has taken on 23-year-old Riddick Bowe for an assault on the title Tyson once consolidated, says, "He's stopped using his jab to work his way in. He comes straight in, head up, swinging his punches. He seems to be trying to bomb his way through. The intensity is there, but the direction is not. Apparently his shots are not hitting the vital spots as often."
At his best, Tyson had a viciously simple style: He would engage his opponent's attention with a punch and quickly follow up, and the opponent would soon be sliding down a ring rope from the damaging flurry. But there are no flurries anymore, just the single punch. "Tyson used to stun you with those quick deliveries, the quickest since Joe Louis," says Futch. "But the value of his punch was realized in combination. He'd finish you off after he stunned you. Now he's looking to hit home runs all the time."
Trainer and broadcaster Gil Clancy saw the same thing in the Ruddock fight. Those home run swings were easy to see coming, and the blasts were quickly knocked down for ground-rule doubles. "So instead of having to get out of the way, Ruddock could just brace himself," says Clancy.