Tyson, Woods and the Enduring Power of Awesomeness

You might remember this: Nobody wanted to let go of Mike Tyson’s career. I have made the argument — to much disgust and “what you know about boxing couldn’t fill a business card” dismissiveness — that Tyson was an overrated fighter. I still believe that. He came up at a time when there really wasn’t a good or great heavyweight in the world, and he was brought along very carefully and to maximum effect.

But that doesn’t change the basic facts. He got to 27-0 by knocking out mediocrities with jaw-dropping Looney Tunes punches. Then he elbowed Trevor Berbick silly, destroyed an over-the-hill Larry Holmes and annihilated a blown up light-heavyweight Michael Spinks, who did not look like he wanted to be there. Tyson had tremendous punching power, and he had an aura of menace that made the toughest men around shiver. He began his career 37-0.

And in a larger sense, it wasn’t Tyson’s fault that there really wasn’t an Ali to his Frazier or an Ezzard Charles to his Marciano. He fought the fighters put in front of him, and clubbed them mercilessly, and it was one heck of a show. Who in boxing history captivated and bewitched and generally frightened America the way Mike Tyson did. George Foreman? Sonny Liston? Do you have to go back to Rocky Marciano?

Then, twenty-five years ago, a generally uninteresting fighter named Buster Douglas — who had lost to guys named David Bey, Mike White, Jesse Ferguson and Tony Tucker — went to Japan and bludgeoned Iron Mike Tyson. Like a lot of other people, I remember exactly where I was that night: in my apartment and wearing my jacket because I was going out to meet some friends as soon as the fight was over. I expected it to last roughly 43 seconds. Only I never did go out. Instead, I sunk into the chair and watched, jaw wide open, as Buster Douglas pummeled Tyson round after round after round. I know people call the Buster Douglas victory one of the greatest upsets in sports history and by definition that is right. Tyson was a 42-to-1 favorite. Nobody, and I mean nobody, expected the fight to last three rounds, much less for Douglas to win it. So, yeah, it’s an all-time upset.

But, in a different way, it wasn’t actually an upset at all because: Douglas was a better fighter than Tyson. This wasn’t a guy landing a lucky punch or a fighter getting a unfair decision. If you had aliens from the plant Zutron watch the fight, they would say: OEJDNEONVE, which means, “That Buster fellow is the superior fighter.”

And that’s different from a typical upset. Think of the great upsets (U.S. hockey team defeating the Soviets in 1980; Rulon Gardner over Alexandr Karelin; Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan at the U.S. Open; Robin Soderling over Rafa Nadal in Paris; No. 16 seed Harvard over Stanford in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and a hundred others). They are notable because you know that if the competitors faced off 10 times, the favorite would probably win nine.

This wasn’t the case with Douglas and Tyson. If they fought 10 times, exactly as they were that night, Tyson might have won some by catching Douglas with a big shot and knocking him out. Tyson almost did it that night. But Douglas, I feel sure, would have won more. He was the better man. It was as if the U.S. Olympic Hockey team didn’t just beat the Soviets, but crushed them 7-3.

Tyson came back from the Douglas fight by doing what he liked to do — knocking out mediocre fighters. He took out a weak-chinned cruiserweight named Henry Tillman in one round and England’s Alex Stewart, also in one round. He then fought two wars with a decidedly not mediocre fighter, Razor Ruddock — the first fight was close and seemed to be stopped too quickly and in the second Tyson broke Ruddock’s jaw. Then Tyson went to jail after being convicted of rape.

We are finally getting to the point here. When Mike Tyson came out of jail, many people wanted to believe he was still the fighter they remembered (it should be noted that many also believed he should not be allowed to fight). He had made boxing interesting, made every fight an event.

When he came out and destroyed a tomato can named Peter McNeeley, then beat the heck out of Buster Mathis, Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon (the last for a championship belt of some kind) the comeback seemed complete. Mike Tyson once again seemed to be the most dangerous man in the world. When he was set up to fight an aging and fading Evander Holyfield – who had lost to Michael Moorer, gotten knocked out by Riddick Bowe and had some sort of heart condition -- there were widespread concerns that Holyfield could get permanently and irreparably hurt. Tyson, it goes without saying, was the prohibitive favorite.

Thing is, Evander Holyfield was a different class of fighter from the guys Mike Tyson had beat up his entire career. Holyfield was an all-heart warrior with skill, and he completely outclassed Tyson. There were a couple of accidental head butts that marred the fight, but all in all Holyfield was faster, stronger and, shocking to many, the harder puncher. The fight was stopped in the 11th round. Tyson had been knocked all over the ring. Like in the Douglas fight, there was no question who had been the better fighter.

When Tyson fought Holyfield again seven months later, Iron Mike was again favored to win by most people. Why? We had just seen Holyfield make hamburger of Tyson. But this was Tyson’s gift and curse; people just kept waiting for him to unleash the irrepressible force that had marked his early career. Instead, of course, Tyson was unhinged. In the third round, he bit Holyfield’s ear, was somehow not disqualified, so he bit off a piece of Holyfield’s other ear. He had gone mental. Nobody could watch that display and believe Mike Tyson had anything left as a boxer.

But people did believe. People just kept on believing. Tyson splattered a few more Lou Savareses and Brian Nielsens and actually got himself another championship fight, this time with Lennox Lewis. “I want to eat your children,” Tyson had said to Lewis in one of those prefight things, and I can actually remember there were STILL people who thought Tyson would unleash the lion. There was no lion. Lewis toyed with Tyson and then, when the time felt right, eliminated him in the eighth round with one of the more savage knockouts of 2002.

And STILL Mike Tyson fought, and STILL some people thought he might put a boxing career back together. He did not. He ended it all getting knocked out by men named Danny Williams (who would get knocked out TWELVE TIMES in subsequent fights) and Kevin McBride (who would lose six of his next eight fights). Tyson actually quit in the McBride fight. Tyson then went on with the rest of his life, the crimes and misdemeanors and face tattoos and Broadway shows …

People kept believing in Mike Tyson long after there was any reason to believe. Why? There’s a comedian out there (wish I could remember who to give credit) who does a joke about people who think Elvis is still alive. “Yeah,” the joke goes, “because it’s hard to believe that someone who took such good care of himself would just die like that.” I think it has something to do with what happens to our minds when we see something that is literally awesome – something that sparks feelings of awe and wonder and even fear. You can’t get that image out of your head. You can’t believe it will end, no matter how hard reality smacks you in the face.

That’s what I think is happening with Tiger Woods now. Yes, that’s the point of all this. Woods has not won a major championship since 2008 but people keep expecting him to win the next one. The guy has changed his swing repeatedly for years but people keep expecting him to suddenly find the one that makes him young. The guy has had injury after injury but people keep expecting the body to be lithe and flexible all over again. Again and again people talk about how Woods -- if only he can get his pitching touch back, find a swing that allows him to drive the balls straight, stay healthy and clear the mental cobwebs that have gathered the last few years – can be great again.

It makes no sense. Tiger Woods is 39. Most of the great golfers were not only done by 39, they were LONG done by 39 – Palmer, Watson, Ballesteros, Nelson, Sarazen, Jones and dozens of others. And it’s not like you can say Tiger Woods is a young 39. He’s been swinging golf clubs since he was three. He has been in the public eye since he was a teenager. He has been through one of the nastiest public scandals in recent memory. He has been one of the world’s most famous people for a long time.

His last two tournaments were agonizing to watch – there were the pitching yips in Arizona and the back-bracing drives a week later. He scored his highest score ever on the PGA Tour and he walked off the course in the middle of a round and talked about how his glutes did not activate. And people still talk about him winning the Masters, you know, if he shows up.

Call it Tysonography, our refusal to believe that even the most extraordinary talents fade quicker than we expect. There are a lot of “What’s wrong with Tiger Woods” stories out there right now, and some of them are interesting, but I still suspect they miss the point. Nothing’s wrong with Tiger Woods except that he’s human and he’s fading and it’s the most obvious thing in the world but, like with Mike Tyson, we willfully refuse to accept it.