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Anyone who enjoys boxing has to ask himself a number of questions.  One is whether or not it is really a sport.  Another is whether it should even be permitted.

But the most personal and pressing of all is this: why do I like it?  In my case there are three reasons.

Firstly, while boxing is a deeply dirty business, it possesses an unmatched and redemptive purity.  Thrown fights, bent promoters, destitute, brain-damaged fighters, absurd scorecards, performance-enhancing drugs, loaded gloves, and so on, and so on: all is forgiven and forgotten when boxing hits its frequent peaks.  Bringing acute danger, requiring perfect focus, for both participant and observer fighting at its best is transcendent in its intensity.

Secondly, I have always been fascinated by places where the normal rules of civilized society simply don’t apply.  The ropes of a boxing ring effectively demarcate another dimension, outside our reality: once they pass into it, two men quite legitimately attempt to incapacitate each other, and if one dies, as sometimes happens, the other is not culpable.  What could be more dramatic than that?

Finally, while I like boxing, I love reading.  It is widely accepted, quite correctly in my view, that the quality of writing about boxing far exceeds anything else available in the sports section.  Nothing beats a great fight story.

On all three counts, Joe Layden’s The Last Great Fight, telling the story of James “Buster” Douglas’s astonishing defeat of Mike Tyson, has a lot going for it.

Firstly, no fighter has ever embodied boxing’s purity and intensity better than the young Mike Tyson.  Self-conscious about his place in boxing’s history, which he had studied closely under mentor Cus D’Amato, he chose a deliberately timeless appearance – black trunks and boots, short back and sides, no gown, no tassels, not even a pair of socks.  Then he scared his opponents half out of their wits before the bell, and knocked them out of the remainder a few seconds later.

Further, it is hard to think of another public figure, even another fighter, who lived so far outside civilized society, and who belonged so obviously in that “other dimension”, as did Tyson.  Raised in a ghetto by an alcoholic single mother, he was fighting grown men for money at 11 years old.  A childhood consisting almost exclusively of crime took him into the penal system, where he and boxing discovered each other.  An early coach passed him onto D’Amato, who, seeing in Tyson the possibility of revenge over his many enemies, explicitly trained the boy to be an “antisocial champion”. D’Amato was the first, but not the last, to have an interest in making of Tyson a barely human fighting machine.  Along the way others tried to do the right thing, but they stood no chance against the reptiles of the boxing world.  Joan Morgan is surely right to say that Tyson’s life was filled with “nothing but opportunistic motherfuckers from D’Amato to [Don] King who claimed to love him yet allowed him to remain sick and uneducated for the sake of riding a $100million gravy train”.  And Tyson also repeatedly found new ways of putting himself yet further beyond the pale, from getting a facial tattoo, to converting (if less than convincingly) to Islam, to biting lumps out of Evander Holyfield’s ears, to (most notoriously) being convicted for the rape of Desiree Washington.

Finally, James Layden has taken on one of boxing’s great stories: namely, how a little-known, unfancied fighter outfought and finally knocked out the so-called “baddest man on the planet”.  The consequences of this momentous, astonishing outcome are still felt in boxing today.  As Tyson’s former trainer Kevin Rooney put it, “since Tyson lost to Douglas, nobody has cared about boxing, other than the hardcore boxing fan.  That was the beginning of the end.”

It certainly was for Tyson.  He won big fights after his loss to Douglas, but he was never the same, especially after his time in prison.  To an extent, of course, decline comes to all fighters: the interesting issue in this case is that hardly any boxer’s reputation has been as badly affected as Tyson’s by the defeats he suffered later in his career after his loss to Douglas.  Conversely, and ironically, the reputations of those who defeated the older, unrated Mike Tyson lean heavily on those very defeats.  Thus, in 1998 The Ring Magazine put Tyson at just 14th on the list of all-time great heavyweights, while Evander Holyfield (who first beat Tyson in 1996) made third place.  The elevated assessment enjoyed by Lennox Lewis, the last undisputed heavyweight champion, rests at least in part on his victory over an exhausted, ageing, dispirited, out of shape Tyson.  (Note that Lewis, the last Undisputed Heavyweight Champion, was the victim of two upsets, at the hands of Oliver McCall and the almost-unknown Hasim Rahman, but no one is writing books about those events twenty years later.)   Yet the downgrading of Tyson’s achievements continues today, with one of the biggest sports websites in the world calling him the most overrated fighter of all time.[1]

There are a number of reasons why his reputation has fallen so low.  Tyson having been rated so highly – he often appeared on “pound-for-pound” lists, a rarity for heavyweights – it is possible that opinion simply overshot in the other direction once the myth of his invincibility was exposed.  What’s more, besides losing high-profile fights that the younger Tyson would have won, he fought more and more dirtily, culminating in his disgraceful behaviour in the second fight against Holyfield.  His behaviour outside the ring was, if anything, worse: drinking and driving, fighting people in the street, and treating every woman he met as no more or less than a potential conquest (the fact that so many of these women concurred so enthusiastically is no defence).

All of this made him pretty hard to like (a sentiment with which today’s Tyson would agree), but should really have no bearing on his ranking as a fighter.  But there’s another issue.  Hardcore fans don’t like uneducated part-timers deciding who is good and who isn’t, so they sneer at popular fighters, particularly ones with a spectacularly violent, pleb-pleasing style.

But sometimes the public is right regardless of their technical expertise.  Mozart was wildly popular (although it wasn’t only the purported philistine Joseph II who complained of “too many notes”). Bobby Fischer[2] was treated like a rock star.  Tyson was no Bobby Fischer and certainly no Mozart, but all three had this in common (besides being child prodigies in one way or another): they were the real thing, and everyone could see it.  That’s what I call a musical genius: that’s what I call a Grandmaster: and that’s what I call the Heavyweight Champion of the World.  It was this, I suggest, that gave rise to the extraordinary public and media fascination with Tyson and his private life.  Among public figures generally, only Ali can really compete for global recognition (Tyson was mobbed in places as exotic as Chechnya just as he was in Japan or the UK), and Ali, unlike Tyson, had the advantages of looks, wit, charm and sheer showmanship as well as talent and charisma.  Tyson captured the public imagination in an entirely different way.

At any rate, this revisionism has given rise to a number of myths, which are worth examining.

MYTH #1: Tyson was a one-dimensional brawler, who couldn’t adapt his style

Tyson could certainly brawl when the occasion called for it, and he invariably started a fight with extreme aggression, clearly seeking, and often achieving, an immediate knockout.  But on the equally many occasions when this did not work he had many other strengths to call upon.  The young Tyson possessed a blend of speed, agility and balance that allowed him to deliver combinations of breath-taking power and effectiveness.  He also maintained an impeccable defence.  Everyone notes how Tyson held his hands in front of his face in D’Amato’s “peek-a-boo” style, but commentators rarely mention Tyson’s ability to slip a punch, perhaps because he could do it without disruption to his offensive rhythm: consider the way he knocks out Carl Williams, in a single instantaneous motion deftly avoiding a left, settling his weight, and launching a blow that lifted the unprotected Williams off his feet.  Observe also his extraordinary upper body movement against Trevor Berbick, who hardly lays a glove on Tyson, even while Tyson is hammering him at will.

(Tyson is not the only fighter whose all-round athleticism is underappreciated.  One reason for this is that, unlike basketball, track and field or soccer, boxing is not well suited to the use of slow-motion replays.  During a live round such replays are impossible, but even between rounds there is so much going on in the fighters’ corners, and so much potential for drama, that there is barely time to review more than a couple of seconds’ worth of action.)

Tyson was also a thinking fighter. Both Tyrell Biggs and Tony Tucker started strongly against Tyson, Biggs dodging, dancing and jabbing, Tucker brawling back and showing good movement, and both men tying Tyson up whenever he looked like getting inside.  But in the second round of both fights Tyson slowed the pace and focused on throwing jabs and body shots, always maintaining his forward motion, refusing to be frustrated, and ultimately wearing his opponents down to nothing.  Others including ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith & Mitch Green did a better job of tying Tyson up, ultimately going the distance, but Tyson again focused on maintaining his momentum & movement and using his superior technique and conditioning to outbox his opponent decisively.

MYTH #2: Tyson had trouble with taller fighters.

Tyson, while certainly a natural heavyweight, was only 5’10” or so (though his given height was always 5’11½”), and therefore always fighting taller fighters.  For a short man, always at a reach disadvantage, he had an extremely effective jab, which he used as a weapon in its own right, in combination with hooks, and – of course – as a tool to back fighters up and get inside, where he could do such damage with his uppercut.  He also developed the counterintuitive strategy of ducking out of reach of taller fighters, making himself even smaller, before coiling and then launching himself, his smooth glistening form relentlessly diving and surfacing as well as weaving from side to side.  The left hand that knocks down Alfonso Ratliff, for example, seems to come from floor level.  Partly for this reason, he in fact performed well against taller fighters, notably Biggs (then-undefeated Olympic superheavyweight gold medallist), Tucker and Larry Holmes.

MYTH #3: The young Tyson always fought bums: whenever he fought anyone any good, they “gave him trouble”

Like every prospect, at the start of his career Tyson fought lesser names.  Less common was the ease and relish with which he dispatched them (in his first 16 fights he fought just 23 rounds, and only 8 of them complete, for a total of just 41 minutes and 21 seconds).  When he started meeting a better class of competition, it sometimes – though only sometimes – took longer.  In fact, the heavyweight division contained some solid competition back then.  Biggs, Tucker, Tubbs, Thomas, Berbick, Spinks, Smith, Bruno and Williams may not bear comparison with Ali, Frazier and Foreman but most of them would have been competitive against any other generation of heavyweights[3], and certainly compare favourably with today’s (and, for what it is worth, they had plenty of titles and Olympic medals between them).  It seems to me that, much as the reputations of Lewis and Holyfield in particular have been enhanced by beating the later Tyson, the reputations of many of these fighters have been diminished by the way the younger Tyson crushed them.  At any rate, taken together they presented a range of different challenges: Tyson rose to all of them.

All this material on Tyson is, or should be, familiar to any fight enthusiast: Layden does a good job of setting it all out, albeit without really adding anything to our understanding of Tyson the fighter, the man, or the hypercelebrity.  His sections on the less well-known Douglas, however, are equally good, and therefore unsurprisingly more informative and more enjoyable.

The young Buster was a gifted athlete with an ambivalent attitude to boxing – he appears to have effectively given up, or lost interest, in at least two of his early fights.  His career proceeded in fits and starts, a couple of wins, sometimes good ones, being followed by a disappointing defeat.  The explanation for this pattern of great promise followed by frustrating capitulation appears to lie in the conflict within Douglas’s support team, comprised initially of his father, redoubtable middleweight Bill “Dynamite” Douglas, his mother’s brother J.D. McCauley and manager John Johnson.  These three appear to have spent more time arguing with each other than training their fighter.

One hot streak led to his first title shot against Tony Tucker.  In camp, Bill and J.D. set about each other with golf clubs, and in the fight Buster again appeared to give up after being ahead.  After this debacle, Douglas finally sacked his father, won another string of fights, this time beating some genuinely highly-rated opponents (including Oliver McCall and Trevor Berbick), and finally set up his fateful meeting with Tyson.

Layden’s treatment of the fight itself is detailed, but is lacking in two important respects.  Firstly, it tiptoes too cautiously around the dirty side of the fight, and Douglas’s persistent fouling in particular.  Layden fails to question John Russell, who was originally brought in as cut man for the Tyson fight though it appears he took on a much bigger role as trainer, when he makes the absurd statement that Tyson “hit James in the second round, with an elbow or something dirty, and Buster gave it right back to him, and [Tyson] never did it again in the fight.  That, to me, was the turning point.”  On the contrary: as the fight went on, Tyson continued to do “something dirty” at every opportunity, repeatedly banging Douglas with his elbows, his forearms and particularly his head[4].  It is absolute nonsense to suggest Mike Tyson would be put off fighting dirty just because someone did it back to him.  In reality, Tyson was always a dirty fighter, and referees – perhaps because he was such a star – let him get away with it as a matter of course.  Douglas was smart enough to realize this, and to turn the tables on Tyson, throwing his left elbow and punching on the break as early as the first round.  After all, if referees were not going to stop Tyson fighting dirty, they could hardly do the same to his opponents (Evander Holyfield would later draw the same conclusion, using repeated head-butts to drive Tyson literally crazy).

Secondly, Layden never really answers the most important question of all: just how did Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson?  The book sets out the usual list of purported reasons for Tyson’s defeat, again without really adding to our knowledge or understanding.  So, Tyson had lost two father figures in D’Amato and his manager Jim Jacobs, and had parted with his long-term trainer Kevin Rooney.  His marriage to Robin Givens had ended in a traumatic divorce.  His corner displayed comical ineptitude during the fight, and had failed to persuade Tyson to do much by way of training beforehand (unless you count shagging Japanese cleaning ladies).

But Layden, like so many other commentators, fails to point out that some or all of these factors applied before many of Tyson’s other fights.  Tyson may not have done much training for the Douglas fight but he certainly looked pretty good – I wish I could get that “out of shape” – and while he did tire as the fight went on he was still fighting in the tenth round, and managed a tremendous knockdown at the end of the eighth.   Tyson’s marriage was falling apart throughout 1988, but that didn’t stop him brutalizing Larry Holmes (in four rounds), Tony Tubbs (in two), Michael Spinks (in one), Frank Bruno (in five) or Carl Williams (one again).   Similarly, Tyson was so disillusioned in the period leading up to the Tony Tucker fight that he abandoned training and announced his retirement before having the financial consequences explained to him.  During an interview with Jerry Izenberg before the Spinks fight (which lasted 91 seconds) Tyson burst into tears while discussing D’Amato.   And while his corner was worse than useless in the Douglas fight, the same personnel were there when he battered Bruno and Williams.

What is more, while surveying this array of dubiously explanatory “reasons” for Tyson’s loss, it is hard not to be struck by the way that the same commentators who blame Tyson’s loss on his personal problems cite Douglas’s very similar problems as reasons for his win.  While Tyson had lost D’Amato and Jacobs, Douglas’s mother famously died while he was training for the fight. At the same time the mother of his son was very seriously ill.  Like Tyson, Douglas had recently separated from his partner.  And while Tyson may or may not have been out of shape, on the day of their fight Douglas was certainly suffering from a heavy cold.

These issues exemplify a recurring flaw in this otherwise excellent book.  Layden’s approach is generally journalistic, usually attempting no more than to set out the facts for (presumably) the reader to make up his own mind.  But in the face of such a huge upset, just “setting out the facts” seems inadequate.  Beating Tyson was boxing’s equivalent of running the four minute mile.  Focusing on the personal issues of the two fighters – and what boxer’s life is not in perpetual chaos? – means Layden, like so many others, simply understates Douglas’s achievement.

So how did he do it?  In fact, Layden does mention both key factors.  In the first place, Douglas had developed the right strategy.  He didn’t run, like Biggs and Tucker did.  Nor did he make Berbick’s fatal error of attempting to stand toe to toe with Tyson.  He jabbed, with tremendous power and accuracy.  He followed up with accurate, powerful combinations (on the TV broadcast Jim Lampley refers repeatedly to Douglas’s “right hand leads”, but many of these look to me more like the second half of the old one-two, following a firm left).  He evaded punches with sideways movement, turning Tyson around and preventing him from getting planted enough to throw his most powerful shots.   And then – again and again – he stepped back in for more.    In other words, he put on an exhibition of high-class boxing.

Equally importantly, he was perfectly focused and confident.  Douglas himself says “it wasn’t like I thought, Oh good, [Tyson]’s not ready; maybe I’ll  have a chance.  I was just ready.[5]”  This isn’t just bravado, or post-fight rationalization.  The main evidence for its truth is, of course, Douglas’s win, since no one could have beaten Tyson without complete self-belief.  But Douglas’s “readiness” is also totally obvious in his pre-fight body language.  Most of Tyson’s opponents before Douglas look terrified – some terrified-but-determined, but others just scared witless.  Spinks and Berbick in particular were clearly beaten before they even entered the ring.  Douglas, by contrast, bounces on the balls of his feet and rolls his neck and shoulders: nervous, perhaps, but he’s there to fight.

It also cannot be denied that Tyson was not his usual self.  Perhaps he was distracted by his personal problems, though again, it is hard to think of a reason why that might be truer here than in other fights.  Perhaps he was thinking ahead to the already-mooted fight with Evander Holyfield, which promised to be a huge payday.   Certainly, before the fight, he doesn’t look as if he particularly wanted to be there.  Quite the irony, again: Buster Douglas, renowned quitter, raring to go; and Mike Tyson, the human fighting machine, not really feeling like it.  From the opening seconds to the moment in the tenth when a crushing uppercut and rhythymic volley of vicious hooks leave Tyson on his knees, scrabbling pathetically for his mouthguard, Douglas is so far on top that a viewer who didn’t know who was who (and who turned the TV commentary off) would never guess who was the champion and who was the challenger.  The fact that one judge had the fight even at 86-86, and one had Tyson ahead 87-86, only confirms what we already knew about the preposterous way boxing is scored.

Layden’s account of Douglas’s life after the fight is as fascinating as any car crash.  Tyson later reported that whenever he watched footage of the fight, as Douglas repeatedly battered him with heavy, accurate punches, he shouted at the screen “Duck, dummy!”.  Throughout this latter part of the book, one wants to scream something similar at Douglas.  Layden describes, in painful detail, Douglas’s utter misery during his time as champion: suffering chronic homesickness while being taken on money-spinning tours of the nation by his party-loving manager; spending less time training than in negotiating terms with the odious Don King; losing his title in one more pathetic capitulation, this time to Evander Holyfield; ballooning to almost 400 pounds and the edge of diabetic coma, before making a typically half-hearted comeback and then slipping out of the limelight, winding up back in his hometown – cheeringly, and unusually, still in possession of his good humour, his marbles and at least some of his money.

However, this part of the book suffers from a different version of the same flaw discussed above.  It is obvious that Layden spent a lot of time with Douglas and Russell: it is equally obvious from his overindulgence of Douglas’s great and many weakness during this last period that he has great affection for the man.  Just as Layden’s non-judgmental, fact-stating style diminishes Douglas’s achievement in the fight, it masks his failings thereafter.  In this regard, it may be worth noting that Layden specializes in ghost-writing celebrity memoirs: much of this part of the book has the feel of a “Life-Of, As-Told-To . . .”.  If nothing else, however, Layden makes one thing abundantly clear: Buster Douglas was up to beating Mike Tyson, but he wasn’t up to being the Man Who Beat Mike Tyson, nor to being Heavyweight Champion of the World.

[2] The parallels between Fischer and Tyson are intriguing.  Both were from Brooklyn; there are questions about the paternity of both (and neither bears the name of his real father); both were brought up by a distant mother (Tyson’s due to alcoholism, Fischer’s due to an obsession with medical education); both became very fussy about their appearance after being mocked as children; and so on.  Fischer even once threatened, Ali-style, to beat an opponent in 24 moves (he in fact took 25).  Tyson once said “I just want to conquer people and their souls”: Fischer’s most famous line is “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego”.

[3] Another way of making the same point is this: Joe Louis is routinely described as the greatest heavyweight of all time.  How many of the fighters he beat can you name?

[4] Like many other commentators, Layden remarks on the way Tyson’s cornerman, Aaron Snowell, repeatedly whispers in his fighter’s ear between rounds, but does not consider the obvious possibility that he was transmitting “advice” that he’d rather not share with the TV microphones (or the judges).

[5] P.90