June 8, 2002: Lewis vs Tyson

Legitimate superfights tend not to just happen spontaneously, but instead build up over time. The first bout between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali was years in the making, as was even the first Ray Leonard vs Thomas Hearns fight, as young as they were back in 1981. Lennox Lewis vs Mike Tyson certainly does not belong in the same discussion as those two battles in terms of entertainment, or even as a high level match-up, but it too had history behind it. It’s just that Lewis vs Tyson came a bit too late in both men’s careers for it to be as meaningful as it was popular.

But despite pre-fight claims by some that the fight could and should have happened earlier, the fact is the timing was never quite right. Lewis and Tyson actually sparred in 1983, before Lewis’ first showing in the same Olympic Games that Tyson failed to qualify for. Finding quality sparring partners for “Iron Mike” was always difficult, so Lennox was brought to Cus D’Amato’s house to stay with Tyson for a spell and a heated sparring session ended with both fighters taking licks. Lewis would later tell USA Today, “At that time, Cus D’Amato actually said we would meet one day and it’s coming true. It’s unbelievable that he could have had that kind of foresight.”

1983: Lewis second from left; Cus D'Amato center; Tyson far right.
1983: Lewis second from left; Cus D’Amato center; Tyson far right.

Five years after they sparred, Lewis took home a gold medal from the 1988 Olympics, but by then Tyson had become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, knocking out former champions Trevor Berbick, Pinklon Thomas, Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks before Lewis had even stepped on the medal podium. And for years after, a Lewis vs Tyson match was unlikely, if not unfeasible.

By the time Lewis had worked his way through the ranks and become a serious contender in the pros, it was 1992, but even then, prior to his knockout of Razor Ruddock in October of that year, no one in their right mind would have dreamed of putting the untested Lennox into the ring with “Iron Mike.” But the fact was no one had to deal with this possibility because by that time Tyson was in prison on a rape conviction. When he returned to action in 1995, Lewis had lost his WBC title to Oliver McCall and had yet to re-establish his reputation. Tyson defeated a series of soft touches to regain the WBC and WBA belts, though in 1996, Mike actually paid Lewis a “step aside” fee in order to face Bruce Seldon. Then came Evander Holyfield.

Lewis vs Tyson
Tyson chows down on Holyfield’s ear in 1997.

After his second loss to Holyfield, in which he twice bit Evander’s ears and was disqualified, Tyson was “banned for life” by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, a term which actually amounted to about eighteen months. A series of bouts followed, many of them farcical, none of which helped Tyson retain or further develop his skills, but they made him a sight to behold, a wonderful wreck no one could turn away from. In the meantime, Lewis had emerged as the true champion after a pair of bouts with Holyfield.

And now, finally, a sense of inevitability, so crucial to a truly big fight, surrounded a possible Lewis vs Tyson match. Following a quick stoppage of Lou Savarese in June of 2000, Tyson pushed for it in his post-fight interview. During a now-infamous and somewhat religious tirade, Tyson answered Showtime interviewer Jim Gray’s question, “Was this your shortest fight ever?” with, “I don’t know, man. Yeah… Lennox Lewis, I’m coming for you.” He threw an “I want to eat his children” in there too, among other things, presumably directed toward Lewis, who at the time had no children.

From his training camp for Francois Botha Lewis replied, “I’d love Tyson to be my next fight. I’m definitely going to be the guy to put him to sleep, to put him out of the game. That’s very important to me. In one sense, I’ve been ordained to do that. In another sense, he’s going to put himself away.”

Lewis on the mat, courtesy of Hasim Rahman, in 2001.

But it was not to be. At least, not yet. Failure to apply his own logic to his ring career resulted in Lewis, after easily defeating Botha, and then out-boxing dangerous contender David Tua, getting ambushed by Hasim Rahman and flattened in five rounds. Much litigation and a successful reclaiming of the throne from Rahman had Lewis looking for one or two last big paydays. Again, a Tyson fight was the obvious one.

“Iron Mike” did himself no favors by feasting on the likes of Savarese, Julius Francis, Andrew Golota and Brian Nielsen prior to facing a rangy technician like Lewis. In five years, he had fought six times, going only nineteen rounds. A mere two weeks after Lewis obliterated Rahman, which itself came a month after Tyson vs Nielsen, the Las Vegas Hilton posted odds of just under 2-to-1 for Lewis. The champion’s prediction of Tyson’s self destruction, while not exactly going out on a limb, was nonetheless nearly realized at the January, 2002 press conference to announce the bout in New York. As the two men faced each other for the first time as professional adversaries, Tyson bum-rushed Lewis, resulting in a brawl that saw Tyson bite the champion’s thigh before hurling a string of obscenities at reporters.

Tyson, Lewis and company scuffle at the press conference.
Tyson, Lewis and company scuffle at the press conference.

From that point forward, the match remained in jeopardy at every turn. Tyson was denied a license to fight in Nevada amid reports he might be charged with sexual assault following an incident with a Las Vegas dancer. Last minute wrangling between Showtime and HBO, who handled Tyson and Lewis respectively, threatened to cancel the bout as well. But of course the match was just too lucrative to let slide by, and so it was Tennessee of all places, no doubt enticed by the money and attention the spectacle would bring, which licensed Mike and made Lewis vs Tyson possible.

Reportedly, Tyson was an emotional wreck in the weeks leading up to the big event and taking some manner of medication to keep him from permanently sabotaging the biggest fight in boxing. From his training camp in Hawaii, he told reporters, “You guys have written so much bad stuff about me, I can’t remember the last time I fucked a decent woman. I have to go with the strippers and hoes and bitches because you put that image on me.” He then repeated that he wanted to kill Lewis.

For his part, Lewis promised to punish the former champion, telling David Remnick of The New Yorker, “Boxing’s got a bad name and [Tyson] is the reason. When I was coming up and trying to get sponsorship, they said no, back off, boxers rape people. This is what he created. I’m the knight in shining armor. And you know what else? I’m the hyena killer, the lion on my perch, watching those hyenas bothering my flock. When I’m good and ready, I swoop down and I snap their necks. Then I go back up on my perch and chill.”

Before the bell.
Before the bell.

When it was finally time for the fight to happen, a weird scene unfolded at The Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee as a long chain of security guards cut the ring in two to prevent any pre-fight shenanigans. A tense atmosphere pervaded as the strange mix of HBO and Showtime broadcast teams sailed through an undercard that even featured a then-unknown Manny Pacquiao. One of the compromises between the rival networks meant Jimmy Lennon Jr. and Michael Buffer shared announcing duties, and making a weird situation weirder, the stare down and handshake rituals were dispensed with entirely.

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It didn’t take long for the fight to unfold the only way it could: Tyson rushing forward with power shots, Lewis clinching and getting distance, then working the jab. In round one a right uppercut appeared to rock Tyson, who nonetheless drew forth squeals of delight from the crowd with every threatening movement. Always deceptively adept at jabbing with taller opponents, Tyson landed a handful on the taller Lewis, but it wasn’t until round three that he finally broke through with a left hook that landed flush. Lewis responded with slicing jabs that produced a cut over Tyson’s right eye.

Lewis vs Tyson

Reduced to following the champion around in the fourth, Tyson absorbed a right hand that rattled him before getting partially shoved down near the bell. Referee Eddie Cotton waved off the potential knockdown and instead deducted a point from Lewis for pushing. Despite Lewis’ dominant round, his guard was dropping, prompting his trainer, late legend Emanuel Steward, to memorably scream at him between rounds, “Get this motherfucker out of here, man! You’re gonna fuck around and get caught with some crazy shit!”

Stern warnings for holding didn’t deter Lewis from cutting Tyson over the left eye with a combination in the fifth. In the sixth Tyson took about a dozen thunderous right hands before landing one of his own that brought a slight swelling to Lewis’ left eye. But a constant stream of jabs made Lennox almost unreachable and Tyson could only muster single punches here and there. In round seven the fight had become one-sided, the punishment being dished out by Lewis now ugly and Tyson demonstrated real bravery and toughness in coming out for an eighth round that was wholly unnecessary.

A feeble last stand from Tyson quickly turned into another half-round of the challenger being battered about the ring before two huge uppercuts dipped Tyson’s knees low enough that the referee called a knockdown. Then, just inside the final minute, a booming right hand put Mike flat out.

The post-fight interview featured a relieved and almost arrogant Lewis, who was thirty million richer for his effort. But as usual, Tyson stole the show when, after begging for a rematch and misusing a few words, he tenderly wiped something off the champion’s face. A separate interview later featured Tyson famously saying he would “fade into Bolivian,” an utterance which simply reinforced how bizarre the whole event had become.

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Ironically, Lewis would retire before Tyson, and by then the Age of Klitschko was well underway. But Lewis vs Tyson proved memorable, even on a dusty, warped stage in an unlikely setting, and even with a mix of horror, weirdness, fascination and nostalgia approaching toxic levels. It all took place just a few years too late.       — Patrick Connor  

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