Today, it has been nine years since Lennox Lewis humiliated and brutalized Mike Tyson. I remember it well. It was June 8, 2002. The fight took place in my hometown of Memphis, TN. The entire city was buzzing about this fight, and celebrities were crawling all over town. I was in the 11th grade, and had some friends over to watch the fight live. My parents and sister watched the fight as well. It was the first (and only) fight party I've thrown.
Everyone around me was betting on a Tyson win, and I was no different. Here was my reasoning.
1) Then, as now, I had my concerns about the chin of Lennox Lewis. In April of the previous year, a right hand from Hasim Rahman shattered Lennox Lewis and took his Undisputed Championship. Rahman is no Mike Tyson, but he knocked Lewis goofy. Lennox also suffered a one-punch knockout loss to Oliver McCall in 1994. McCall and Rahman are not knockout artists--they're generally held in light regard as fighters. Lewis avenged his losses to them, but the fact remained--Lewis could be knocked out at any given moment.
2) Though he wasn't the sensational beast that he had been in the 1980s, Mike Tyson was still dangerous. He still put the behinds in arena seats. He maintained his explosive power and speed, but was no longer throwing combinations or using his trademark defense. After prison, he had lost his punching accuracy. He now plodded forward, looking to end things with one big punch. And, it's been proven twice that one punch is all you need to beat Lennox Lewis.
3) I felt even better when Evander Holyfield predicted a Tyson win. He fought both guys, so his opinion was of great value to me. He explained that Tyson will leap off the mat just to land a punch. Evander also stated that Tyson's assault would be too much for Lewis.
As a boxing fanatic, I knew what each man needed to do to win. I'd studied their styles enough to know.
What Mike Tyson Must Do: Tyson would need to get inside of Lewis' long reach and pound away. Using his shorter arms, he'd have to get in close and blast away at the body and the head. Tyson is known for his ferocious uppercuts and hooks. Whether he hits you in the head or body, you're most likely going down. With Iron Mike, one punch can put you to sleep, but if he puts a string of punches together, forget about it. The 2002 version of Mike Tyson didn't throw combinations anymore, but as long as he kept throwing punches, he'd increase his chances of a knockout. He should bob and weave to slip Lewis' jab and counter viciously. Cutting the ring and cornering Lewis against the ropes would also work to Tyson's advantage.
What Lennox Lewis Must Do: Lennox Lewis refers to himself as a "Five Dimensional" fighter, classifying himself as a boxer-puncher-mover. He's telling the truth. The guy could box, punch hard, and move moderately well for a man his size. In facing Tyson, Lewis would be best off keeping Tyson at a distance with his long, telephone pole jab. Tyson is only dangerous when he gets inside. Using his jab and reach, Lewis could prevent Tyson from getting close and landing his bombs. Lewis is good enough of a fighter to slug it out toe-to-toe with Mike Tyson, but that puts him at a disadvantage because Tyson would be in range to do some serious damage. A 6'5 man trading with Mike Tyson on the inside is gonna find himself on the canvas sooner than later.
Getting the Popcorn and Sodas ready...
It was an electric night. I remember when Tyson came out to DMX's song, "What's my name!" I was completely hyped. Tyson looked more calm than usual, which was odd because he had been such an aggressive whirlwind earlier in the year to promote this fight. He talked of eating Lennox's kids, and, months earlier, even bit the man's leg at the wild press conference. So, to see a mellow Mike Tyson was a bit strange. At the time, I figured he was just focused. But looking back at the fight all these years later, you can see the insecurity all over his face as he approached the ring. His heart was not in this fight.
Moments later, Lennox Lewis came out looking completely stoic. His song of choice was the laid back "Crazy Baldheads" by the late Bob Marley. The song's reggae groove matched Lewis' relaxed demeanor. There was no emotion on his face--the Heavyweight Champion was focused and ready. He had his long dreads braided neatly into a bun. In addition, his beard and hairline had obviously been trimmed professionally. It looked as if Lewis had just been lined up by Steve Harvey's barber.
There was a team of security personnel in yellow shirts that divided the two heavyweights. Tyson and Lewis stared at each other from across the ring. Lewis showed no fear of Tyson. He looked relaxed, confident, and ready.
The heavyweight champion clearly had the support of the British fans in attendance, but it has to be noted that Tyson was the favorite of the crowd. Everybody came to see "The Baddest Man On The Planet" reclaim his throne.
As predicted, Tyson steamrolled Lewis at the opening bell. He came in low, bobbing and weaving, looking to get inside and counter Lewis with his trademark hooks and uppercuts. He looked similar to the ferocious Mike Tyson of the 1980s; even exchanging jabs with the much taller Lewis. Shortly into the round, Tyson attempted to rush Lewis with a short right hand, but the champion countered with a thunderous uppercut and dazed him. Tyson staggered into the ropes where Lewis pounded on him until they clinched and separated. (pictured above) Tyson was hurt. Despite this, the challenger continued to press Lewis for the remainder of the round, even landing two minor left hooks--one of which staggered Lewis.
Things looked dangerous for the champion because he was brawling with Mike, but he fought back effectively. Lewis' strategy was apparently to uppercut Tyson whenever he got inside, or clinch and lean on him, smothering his punching space. (Referee Eddie Cotton later penalized him for holding.) Tyson won the round, no doubt because he forced the action.
During the break, Lewis' trainer, Emmanuel Steward, told the champion to settle down and not fight Tyson's fight. Great advice. Meanwhile, in Tyson's corner, the contender said to his trainer, "Ronnie, I'm hurt." It was the beginning of the end.
Round two began and Lewis adopted a new strategy--he hid behind his long jab and kept Tyson at a distance. After getting struck with another hard uppercut, Tyson relinquished his aggressive assault. From this point on, Lewis had his way. On the few occasions when Tyson got inside, he got smashed with uppercuts. A younger Tyson would have kept pressing Lewis, but the Mike Tyson of 2002 was content taking punishment for 8 rounds. The former champion even told his trainer, Ronnie Shields, that he wanted to quit after the 7th round, but Shields forced him back into the ring for round 8. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Steward was cursing Lewis out in his corner, begging the champion to put Tyson away. (Lewis explained years later that he hurt his right hand, which is why he didn't throw it much in the later rounds).
In the 8th round, Lewis dropped Tyson to a knee with a left uppercut. Shortly after the standing 8 count, Lewis threw his right hand, and Tyson was out. The fallen contender could have gotten up, but you could see in his eyes that he wanted no more. Those who didn't like Tyson thoroughly enjoyed this moment. Mike Tyson took a beating for seven rounds of this fight, and most fans agree that Lewis punished Tyson worse than Evander Holyfield and Buster Douglas did.
This was a fight that Tyson could have won, even at this point in his career. He just submitted to Lewis after taking an uppercut in the first round. Iron Mike was still a fast and explosive puncher, but his heart just wasn't in the sport anymore. In fact, I believe that Tyson could have beaten Evander Holyfield in 1996-97. But, Holyfield had a strategy, and Mike didn't. It's as simple as that. Holyfield countered Mike's looping punches and walked him backward. Tyson, on the other hand, was relying on landing one monster punch. Lewis and Holyfield both caught a fading Mike Tyson who became discouraged and vulnerable if he didn't knock you out early.
This was the fight that Tyson needed to win. If he knocked out Lewis, all of his previous losses would have meant zilch. People would say that Iron Mike is the greatest heavyweight of all time when he keeps his head on straight. Not only would Mike have beaten the best heavyweight on the scene, but he would have become a three-time Heavyweight Champion in the process.
As for Lennox Lewis, he too, needed to win this fight for his legacy. He cleaned out the heavyweight division during the 1990s and early 2000s, even unifying the heavyweight championships. But if Tyson had beaten him, he'd never be viewed as an all time great. Lewis was certainly the best of his era, but the fact that he beat washed up versions of Holyfield and Tyson hurts his standing a little. To this day, a lot of American fans don't give Lewis his credit, despite his accomplishments and huge wins over talented competition.
People still debate on who would win between a prime Lewis and a prime Mike Tyson. Lennox Lewis had previously defeated other fighters with Tyson's style. (David Tua, Ray Mercer, Lionel Butler, Tommy Morrison, etc) But to be blunt about it, Tyson is better than each of them. When it comes to countering, defense, aggression, and speed, Tyson was way ahead of the curve. Lennox wouldn't know what hit him, and would find himself asleep for a count of 20.
I still go back and watch this fight from time to time. The first round is the most exciting. If Tyson had fought at this fast pace for the entire fight, I have no doubt that he would have landed the magic punch he needed to deck Lewis.