Where were you the first time you saw Mike Tyson? Are you of an age to be contemporary with the reign of terror that he exacted upon the Heavyweight division of the late 80’s? Well, just like people remember where they were when they found out that JFK had been assassinated, I remember the first time I saw Iron Mike Tyson in action.
It was a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon. In the UK at that time we had a Saturday afternoon sports show called World of Sport. I remember the presenter, the flamboyantly named Dickie Davies, introducing this new Heavyweight phenomenon who hailed from Catskill, New York. A protégé of the professorial Cus D’Amato, Tyson looked every inch the part. He was short and incredibly powerful looking. I’d never saw anything like him climb between the ropes.
He was facing off against the unfortunate William Hosea who laid down quite a hard-nosed approach against Iron Mike, standing his ground and looking to stamp his authority on the fight. As soon as the fight started, I shouted my Dad in from the kitchen, “Dad” I yelped at the top of my rather shaky teenage voice (I was about 14 at the time), “come and look at this fella!” We watched Tyson overwhelm Hosea with breathtaking ferocity.
For me it was simply the beginning of the Mike Tyson adventure ride, and what a ride it was.
Stick with the Fighting!
There are so many aspects to the Mike Tyson story. In fact, people are often more fascinated with what went on outside the ring than in it. I want to focus on the skills and attributes that made him the hugely influential and successful fighter that he was. If you are looking for psychoanalysis of Tyson, or if you are looking for a end-to-end biography, then you are in the wrong place.
I am not going to sit on the fence here. Mike Tyson, in my opinion, during a particular period of his career was as close to unbeatable as a fighter can get. I don’t believe that there is a Heavyweight in history who could have won a fight with Iron Mike Tyson during the World Champion years when Kevin Rooney and Co was running his gym sessions.
Some might believe that Ali in his prime would have reigned supreme against Tyson, using the approach that he employed with Sonny Liston. I don’t. Whilst Sonny possessed a similar level of punching power to Iron Mike there were plenty of other attributes that he simply didn’t bring to that Tyson had in spades. What if Ali used his rope-a-dope a la George Foreman? My own view is that rope-a-dope against a peak Mike Tyson is simply a short cut to a lengthy stay in Hospital.
This is not to say that I feel that Iron Mike was a better boxer than Muhammad Ali, I don’t. I think that Ali’s achievements are to this day unrivalled. His versatility, bravery and boxing acumen make me gasp in awe. My point is simply that from 1986 to 1988, Mike Tyson would have beaten any Heavyweight in history.
So, I am going to focus on one of Tyson’s fights during the brief but superbly impressive ‘golden period’ of his career and I’m going to draw out what I believe are the 6 key traits that made him such a terrifying adversary for the rest of the division.
When selecting the fight that I wanted to analyze, it pretty much came down to a choice of two. First was Tyson’s 4-round demolition of Larry Holmes, a man whose jab was as good in any in the history of the sport. The reason I didn’t choose this bout was that Larry hadn’t fought for a couple of years and had certainly lost the speed of hand that was key to his success.
The second bout was Mike’s previous outing against Tyrell Biggs, the Super Heavyweight Gold Medalist from the 1984 Olympic Games. It was Biggs’ 16th bout and was quite hotly anticipated at the time, albeit with a sense of certainty that Tyson would win. Question was what type of resistance would Biggs offer?
Here’s the video of the Mike Tyson vs Tyrell Biggs encounter, fought on 16th October 1987 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. On the line was Tyson’s Undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World. Below the video are my 6 things that made Iron Mike Tyson to complete fighting machine that he was.
1. Respect My Authority
Round 1 Tyson stamps his authority. He leaves no one, least of all the opponent, in any doubt as to who’s in charge. To be faced with such intensity at the opening bell is stressful for a fighter. Biggs moves well popping out a jab, Ali-style as Tyson puts on masses of pressure. But, it’s a smart pressure.
As Tyson advances, very rarely does he do so without a head movement and/or a feint and he never has his hands carried low. This is approach is effectively the much vaunted ‘Peek-a-boo’ style that Cus D’Amato instilled in his fighters, most notably Mike Tyson and before him Floyd Patterson.
Just to point out the basics of this peek-a-boo style, check out 4:25, it’s a simple slip outside then a slip inside the jab, all the time with the hands high. Mike Tyson exerted big pressure, but did so in a very controlled and ultimately sinister way. Tyson stalked his opponents but wanted to limit the damage he might receive.
At the same time as putting pressure on the opponent, both direct pressure in advancing and indirect pressure by feinting, Tyson makes himself very elusive and difficult to target. This elusiveness is vital to his style because put in very simple terms, the more Mike Tyson makes his opponents miss the more likely he is to land his own shots. You are never more vulnerable than when missing with a punch!
2. A Killer Jab
The jab was such an overlooked aspect of the arsenal of the peak Mike Tyson. We should remember that, as in this case against Tyrell Biggs, Tyson gave away massive height and reach to every opponent he met. Many would assume that this would make his jab fairly ineffectual. In fact, the opposite was true. Mike Tyson would regularly out jab his opponents.
In this fight, as in his other early contests, the Tyson jab is designed to hurt the opponent badly. It’s a crunching punch. The key to the success of the jab of Mike Tyson is his ability to combine skills, specifically slipping, rolling and ducking along with the move in and the jab. There are many examples of this throughout the fight, check 4:15 for a neat slip and jab.
At 8.14 Tyson lands a smashing jab on Biggs. This is a particularly interesting one as Tyson ducks on the way in, using his lack of height in comparison to Biggs in his favour. He effectively makes himself a smaller target and also increases the power of the jab by ‘rising’ from the duck at the moment the jab goes. This can be a very effective for the shorter opponent.
Finally on the Tyson jab, he also enjoys doubling-up, using his sharp foot movements (which we’ll look at in a moment) to force the opponent back with the second jab. Look at 10.04 to see a clear example of this. When you hear a boxing commentator or trainer say that a boxer needs to ‘push the opponent back’, this is what they mean.
3. Speed Kills
The speed of Mike Tyson’s punches during this phase of his career was plain for all to see. He would whip in hooks at blindingly fast speeds, with no ‘drawback’. Check out the feinted jab with the threat of a hook at 12.22, swiftly followed at 12.26 ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ leading left hook. That kind of hand speed is massively impressive and makes Iron Mike so dangerous.
The double left hook at 14.35 also shows off Tyson’s hand speed. Let’s not forget though that Tyson also employed excellent footwork to get him into the positions to allow his hand speed to have it’s effect. Whilst throughout this bout (particularly from the 4th onwards when Biggs tires noticeably) Tyson often goes ‘square on’ by bringing the back foot forward (see the article on the Boxing Stance to get some information on this), this allows him to get ‘on top’ of the opponent whilst firing huge hooks. But, technically it’s a high risk move which is why it’s classed as a fault in the stance article. Tyson takes risks but does so at the right time and does so with a additional safety check of rolling on the way in.
The precision of the Mike Tyson punches is incredible. Some of his shots in this bout are a little wayward, but the vast majority of his punches find the target. Check out the left hook at 18.31, right on the point of Biggs’ chin. Tyrell deserves admiration in this bout, he has taken some absolute bombs and has stayed on his feet and looked to land his own punches. He’s a tough guy.
The same is true at 18.40 when Tyson brings a mid-range left hook off a jab swiftly followed by a mid range right hook. Both shots land right on target. Whilst possessing a killer punch is one thing, the ability to bring that kind of precision and accuracy to the ring pays for itself.
5. Switch of Attack
All top fighters ‘switch the attack’. This switch is in it’s most simple form the switch of attack from body to head and vice versa. Mike Tyson was a keen exponent of using angles and levels of attack to hammer home punches on the hapless opponents.
Watch at 20.18 when Tyson fires the long-range body punches (the one-two) followed by a left hook to the head. An even more brutally simple approach is demonstrated seconds later at 21.15 when Tyson fires the jab to the body followed by a long-range right hook to the head. Again the ‘rise’ off the duck for the first shot adds power to the second shot.
For a more common Tyson approach, he switches the attack from body to head and vice versa with most effect when using the hooks. Remember the combination that finished Trevor Berbick? Well we can find an example here at around 24.30 when Tyson hammers home a left hook to the head swiftly followed by a left hook to the body. The head punch creates the opening for the body shot and vice versa. Fool proof.
What better demonstration of the raw punching power of Mike Tyson than the finish. Ruthless and devastating. By the 7th round, Biggs had taken a fairly comprehensive hammering from the young man from Brownsville. The finishing salvo is a pure demonstration of the deadly punching power possessed by Tyson.
At 30.24 Mike Tyson brings a short left hook off a slip inside and it explodes onto the jaw of Tyrell Biggs. This is in effect the end of the fight. At the time I could see no reason whey the referee allowed it to continue and watching it back now I still fail to see any such reason. Tyrell Biggs, despite his undoubted bravery and sense of honour, was gone.
The final left hook at 30.48 simply added insult to injury, not to mention more potential injury. Interestingly the referee made a play of demonstrating that he had stopped the fight. I for one would have preferred to see the stoppage come 20 seconds sooner and do away with the histrionics, but that’s just me.
A Word on the Future
It might be a valid point to say that this fight was the pinnacle of Mike Tyson’s destructive reign, and that everything after this constituted a gradual degradation of his skills. Certainly his post fight interview was memorable because he couldn’t really hide the cold, cynical and cruel side of his nature. But look, he is a fighter and maybe it’s a little hypocritical to expect fighters to be nice guys, darlings of the press, whilst still exacting a horrific toll on their opponents.
Mike Tyson was possibly a little too spiteful in this fight as a result of his genuine distaste for Tyrell Biggs, doubtless a leftover from Tyson’s exclusion from the 1984 Olympic Team when Biggs won the hearts of a nation by capturing Gold. Maybe his spitefulness played a part the subsequent approach where he was much more likely to look to land single bombs rather than carefully crafted double and triple punch combinations.
For me it was slightly depressing to see the decline of his skills, and this decline tying in closely with the fragmenting of his training team. New trainers are all well and good but unfortunately I think that Mike Tyson needed to be trained in a very specific way. The procession of new trainers post-Rooney either wanted to stamp their style on Tyson or alternatively simply didn’t have the respect of Tyson.
These core deficiencies in Tyson’s training and fight preparations, certainly contributed to by the host of issues going on outside the ring, turned Mike into just another hard-hitting Heavyweight as opposed to an entity that brought together the 6 degrees of devastation to such awe-inspiring levels.
At the start of the article I stated that in my opinion Muhammad Ali could not have defeated Mike Tyson during the peak of Tyson’s powers. Whilst Sonny Liston and George Foreman both in my opinion hit as hard as Iron Mike, neither possessed the speed nor the precision that were the hallmarks of Tyson’s winning style. That is for me what dictates the outcome of a meeting between this Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali.
Anyone else I wonder? A certain Wladimir Klitschko maybe, or a Lennox Lewis? Maybe you think that Tyson simply got ‘found out’, first by Buster Douglas then by Evander Holyfield, and that his skills were not that great in the first place. I’ll leave that up to you, that’s what the comments section is for.