Mike Tyson has held the fascination of sports fans since he first began annihilating opponents in the spring of 1985 when all saw he was a compelling tour-de-force, that rare athlete who could redefine the brutal sport of prizefighting. But in the years to come, his unique blend of savage athleticism and tabloid celebrity earned him a tumultuous reputation, bringing with it roller coaster waves of acclaim and condemnation. Through it all – the car accidents, the video game, the iconic knockouts, the messy divorce, the jail terms, the conversion to Islam, the facial tattoo, not to mention that incident with Holyfield’s ears – Tyson emerged a cultural icon.
After twenty years in the ring, the fighting career of Mike Tyson reached its end on this day back in 2005, his final fight in Washington DC, where he faced one Kevin McBride, a fringe contender described by The Washington Post as simply “an unknown Irishman.” Tyson, who had not fought for eleven months, told McBride he would “gut him like a fish,” and most believed him. One sportswriter prophesied that if McBride won, “look for frogs to fall from the sky at random intervals.” But once the actual fight began, a very different, and far less Biblical, story unfolded.
McBride, who had represented Ireland in the Olympics some thirteen years earlier, entered wearing a shamrock on his robe and with two Irish bagpipers in the ring, airing their ill-fated melodies before an impatient and already-booing crowd. Mike Tyson’s ringwalks had once been the intimidating stuff of legends, but on this night he strode in casually and without flourish, looking unpretentious, even diffident, in a baggy black t-shirt. His relatively new facial tattoo thrilled the audience, as the mere fact of his presence brought everyone to their feet, the crowd energized by the spectacle, be it real or imagined.
Tyson’s stocky, muscular physique, even at age 38, still looked imposing. And while McBride stood seven inches taller and weighed some forty pounds heavier, the pale skin of his midsection sagged like an unbaked shepherd’s pie. Still, “The Clones Colossus” loomed over the shorter man as referee Joe Cortez gave his final instructions.
At the bell, both rushed to the center of the ring, McBride pushing a pair of left jabs as Tyson attempted some defensive head movement, though little of Mike’s famous ‘peek-a-boo’ remained; it appeared that years of flat-footed belligerence had dulled his skills, and the first two rounds were plodding affairs. McBride’s long jab kept Tyson at a distance, and when Mike did manage to get inside, he was easily disarmed in the clinch by the larger man.
But in round three a frustrated Tyson regained some of his aggression – a left hook here, a right hook there – solitary punches mostly, but violent enough to elicit cheers from the desultory crowd. However, these meager reproductions of his former greatness, like an art student’s study of a Rembrandt – all the right shapes but none of the soul – were not enough to bring McBride down. Still, the momentum carried Tyson into the fourth where it grew to a crescendo of left uppercuts and deep shots to McBride’s midsection. Breathing heavy but still on his feet, the Irishman survived and was able to rebound in the fifth to hold Tyson against the ropes and land some uppercuts of his own. If the match lacked technique or artistry, at least fans were getting a spirited back-and-forth battle.
Visions of scoring a knockout must have flashed before the eyes of both fighters prior to round six, as at the outset they went for broke in the center of the ring, left hooks and rights from Tyson answered by stiff jabs from McBride. But neither had the lungs for an extended volley, and the all-too-brief slugfest shifted back to mauling and wrestling before Tyson, smothered in the clinch, abruptly reverted to the dirty tactics that had both tarnished and buoyed his career in its later years.
Squeezing his right forearm around the upper portion of McBride’s left arm, Mike torqued his powerful frame in an attempt to snap McBride’s elbow, the same move he had attempted against Francis Botha back in 1999. Admonished by the referee, Tyson responded with a flagrant headbutt, opening a cut above McBride’s left eye. With blood streaming from cheek to chest, the action was stopped and the “fair-but-firm” Cortez deducted two points from Tyson for the intentional foul.
With more than two minutes left in the round, the heavyweights squared off again and formidable hooks from Tyson seemed to rock “The Clones Colossus” as blood poured from that ugly cut. But near the end of the round, McBride again rebounded, delivering proverbial “punches in bunches” to a clearly exhausted “Iron Mike.”
And then, abruptly, it was as if Mike Tyson’s fighting spirit simply left his body, evaporating into the ether like an early morning fog. McBride forced him to retreat, landed a sharp left hand, and then leaned forward, putting his weight upon the legendary former champion. Tyson toppled with the easy grace of a collapsing building after the charges have gone off to find himself sitting on the canvas, his back supported by the bottom rope, his legs cartoonishly splayed out in front of him. The bell rang as Cortez ruled the fall a slip, but the crestfallen Tyson could barely bring himself to climb to his feet and retreat to his corner.
Between rounds, an expressionless Tyson sat surrounded by his cornermen and when the bell rang for round seven he did not move. The former “Kid Dynamite” quit on his stool, looking on impassively as the referee raised McBride’s hand, stunning all present. Leaving the ring for the final time, he apologized. “My heart is not into this anymore,” he said. “I’m sorry for the fans who paid for this. I wish I could have done better.” McBride, for his part, would go on to lose six of his next eight fights before retiring in 2011.
Those in attendance could never have known they would be present for the end of a storied career. Over the course of twenty years, Tyson had reinvented himself multiple times: from “Kid Dynamite” to “Iron Mike,” from undisputed champion to “The Baddest Man on the Planet.” The public had been witness to these transformations, aided in no small part by a sensationalist media that chronicled his rise and reveled in his fall. Prior to his loss to James “Buster” Douglas in 1990, Tyson was viewed as a fighter who could do no wrong in the ring, but once that aura of invincibility was counted out, it seemed, at least for some, that Tyson could do no right.
But by that time, the symbol had already outpaced the man. Inattention to training had shorn away the technical prowess of the former pupil of Cus D’Amato, and we were left with merely the disposition of the gladiator, not the discipline. This symbolic Mike Tyson was our very baddest man, our pugilistic scapegoat, forced periodically into the Las Vegas desert to relieve us of our sins. But by 2005, Tyson could no longer be our redemptive gladiator; it was obvious he was a deeply wounded man. And his toughest fights were to be not inside the charged void of the ring, but within his own psyche.
Tyson vs McBride may have been a rather dull bit of punctuation to conclude the career of a fighter who often spoke in terms of epic poetry. But seated on that stool, Mike Tyson appeared to embrace the end. True to form, in the years since, he has reinvented himself in the public imagination: as a cartoon character, a one-man Broadway show, and most recently as proprietor of a cannabis dispensary. Perhaps this is the brutal, lasting lesson of Mike Tyson’s final boxing match. Change is often a violent, messy affair, but for a fighter ready for a different kind of fight, sometimes dissolution can lead to deliverance. — Andrew Rihn