Does Tyson Deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?
The fundamental problem with boxing is the game just does not respect itself. All that rich history, all those fascinating stories, and all those young men (and women) putting their lives on the line for the thrill of competition – all of it degraded by the sport’s inability to do right by itself. Take, for example, the Hall of Fame. Oh, I know, it’s great that we at least have one, since despite the annual list of inductees it was a tiny exhibit in the offices of Ring magazine until 1989. But as much as boxing deserves a shrine no less than any other sport, the simple fact is Canastota just ain’t Cooperstown. The recent induction of Mike Tyson there highlights the lack of standards the sport sets for itself.
It’s not, strictly speaking, whether Tyson is worthy in terms of his ring accomplishments. He remains the youngest heavyweight champion of all time, and he dominated the division, albeit a very weak one, from 1985 to 1989. But it must be noted, here is a man who did tremendous damage to the sport, who took far more from boxing than he gave. When Tyson came on the scene in the mid-80s, boxing was huge. Championship matches were regular fare on free television and the stars of the sport — Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Larry Holmes, Ray Leonard – were genuine, cross-over attractions. When Tyson ended his career, the sport had officially devolved into a fringe attraction. How can anyone say there exists no connection between the public’s disenchantment with boxing and the fact that its top attraction was, for the better part of a decade, a self-confessed thug and convicted rapist?
Since the 1950s, when television emerged to wreak its violence on boxing’s lifeblood — the gyms and halls in every major city featuring regular live fight cards — boxing has only ever thrived when it boasted true stars, fighters with mass appeal and charisma. Think Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, or Oscar De La Hoya. In the beginning Tyson had that same kind of appeal, largely because he was kept in check by the team of managers Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs and trainer Kevin Rooney. Once Don King seduced Tyson away from the people who had steered him clear of his crime-ridden past and into lucrative endorsement deals with Nintendo and Pepsi, there was no longer anyone around to appeal to Tyson’s better nature. Instead the leeches and low-lifes took over, and while Tyson continued to command massive purses for his fights, his public image, not to mention his ring skills, immediately declined. His once peerless boxing technique faded as he relied more and more on his ability to intimidate his opponents. Perhaps as a result, he gave up all pretence of being a normal, civilized person, mouthing the most offensive sentiments possible, as if he actually desired to be the object of disgust and pity. Needless to say, he never again attracted a major sponsorship deal. In short, he took a golden future and flushed it down the toilet.
In boxing terms, it’s clear Tyson’s peak was his four round demolition of an over-the-hill Larry Holmes in 1988 when Kid Dynamite was just 21-years-old. His 91 second blowout over a terrified Michael Spinks soon followed, and then, just when the world was Tyson’s for the asking, the downward slide began. Co-manager Jim Jacobs died of leukemia and Tyson cut ties with Bill Cayton and Kevin Rooney. Soon he was smashing up cars, roughing up women in nightclubs, and brawling in the streets with parking attendants and Mitch “Blood” Green. A year later, Buster Douglas exposed him as the limited fighter he had become, officially ending his development as a boxer. Gone forever were his impressive defensive skills and ability to connect with devastating pin-point combinations. While flashes of his former brilliance would briefly surface on rare occasion in future fights, the truth is we never saw another excellent performance of boxing skill from Kid Dynamite. But we did see plenty of cheap fouls and ridiculous melees at weigh-ins or after fights, or heard outlandish pronouncements about his desire to make women bleed and stomp on children’s testicles. In 1991 he raped a 19-year-old beauty contestant and spent three years in prison.
If boxing had any self-respect, a debate would have taken place about whether a man convicted of rape and continually in trouble with the law deserves to go into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. There would have been some discussion about the fact that Tyson never came from behind to win, never scored anything resembling an upset victory, and never defeated a top-shelf champion who wasn’t several years removed from his prime. And someone would have raised the question of whether it makes sense to reward one of the dirtiest boxers of the last fifty years with overwhelming first ballot support. Hitting after the bell, low blows, biting, attempting to break an opponent’s arm in a clinch, forearms to the throat – Tyson fouled openly in most of the fights after his comeback from prison and such infractions in fact determined the outcome of his bout with Orlin Norris and, most famously, his rematch with Evander Holyfield. Add to the list Tyson’s fight with Andrew Golota being declared a “no contest” after he tested positive for drug use, his throwing the referee to the canvas in his fight with Lou Savarese, his attacking Lennox Lewis at a pre-fight press conference and biting his leg, and his quitting against Kevin McBride in his final pathetic fight and one can legitimately ask: is this the record of a Hall of Famer? Are there to be no consequences for a long list of offenses both in and out of the ring? Can we set the bar no higher? Can we not at least have a debate about the reality of Mike Tyson, as opposed to the sugar-coated version which absolves him of almost all responsibility for his actions?
“No respect,” Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “I get no respect.” Boxing doesn’t get much either these days, but maybe the simple fact is it doesn’t deserve any. The boxers themselves do, of course, but the sport? It continues to be governed by greed and short-sightedness and little else. Granting its highest possible award, with no qualms whatsoever, to a man as troubled and troubling as Mike Tyson only confirms this truth.
– Michael Carbert