Mike Tyson’s knockout loss to Lennox Lewis 20 years ago marked the end of his time as an elite-level heavyweight, but the start of his unlikely renaissance with the sporting public.
Everything aligned in June 2002 to create a personal and professional background for Tyson. Struggling with booze, drugs, debt, lawsuits, depression and rage, the 35-year-old has seen the last vestiges of his reputation as ‘the baddest man on the planet’ crushed by Lewis as the highly anticipated showdown ended in a one-sided beating. .
But Tyson’s courage in the ring and his graceful demeanor afterwards were the first steps in his public recovery. A path that led from a hangover to “The Hangover”; and from being an outcast to one of the most popular sports exes on the planet at 55 – an age many thought Tyson would never reach. Even less himself, 20 years earlier.
The bad blood before the Lewis-Tyson fight had been intense. “I want your heart, I want to eat his kids,” Tyson scolded of a then-childless Lennox after his first-round knockout of Lou Savarese in Glasgow. When the pair later came face to face to promote their contest, Tyson ran across the stage to attack Lewis.
“Put him in a straitjacket!” shouted a member of the media, prompting an expletive-filled “Iron Mike” rant — a rant you probably wouldn’t want your own mother to hear, let alone a global TV audience. Tyson’s actions were so outrageous that even Las Vegas — “Sin City” itself — voted against staging a fight that would be the biggest PPV hit of its era, selling 1.95 million buys nothing. than in the United States.
Instead, Tyson’s challenge for Lewis’ world titles took place in Memphis, Tennessee. Except it wasn’t really a challenge. After a spirited first round, Tyson – who had peaked at a much younger age than his opponent – came to a halt under a constant barrage of jabs and uppercuts from Lewis. In the eighth round, with Tyson bleeding from both eyes and nose, Lewis finally knocked him out with a booming right hand.
Tyson, the vulgar street thug, had been defeated in his last fight for the heavyweight title. However, in the process, public opinion was already turning its way. As Lewis and Tyson respected each other in the ring, ‘Iron Mike’ admitted his pre-fight slurs were just part of the hype, pausing to gently wipe the blood from Lewis’ face at the middle of the interview. The man who had wanted to eat Lewis’ children was now telling him how much he loved the Briton and his mother.
“The little gesture of me wiping the blood off Lennox’s cheek was grabbed by all the boxing writers,” Tyson said later. “They thought I was heroic in defeat. And for the first time, many of them began to see the human side behind my facade.
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In his locker room after the fight, Tyson was interviewed again, this time cradling his young baby Miguel in his arms. “Dad had a bad day at the office,” Tyson replied when playfully asked what Miguel thought of the fight.
Responding to a question about where Tyson went next provided a more ominous response. “I could just go ‘Bolivian’,” said Tyson, famous for mutilating ‘Oblivion’. “I have nowhere to go or nothing to do. I’m just gonna fly my pigeons on the roof of New York, you know.
The counterpoint to Tyson’s arrogance and insults was always that he kept his harshest critics to himself. He was brutally honest about his own failures. And, almost always, had a refreshing lack of excuses in defeat.
He had taken similar blows from Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield in their first fight, but they were such monumental shocks that the upset inevitably became the whole story.
The Lewis fight, in which Tyson was an underdog before the fight, was different. The world could now focus on Tyson’s courage in his fight against punishment. If some thought his biting ear at Holyfield in their rematch was Tyson “looking for a way out,” there was no giving up in him at Memphis. Tyson ate 193 punches from famed puncher Lewis — including 15 power punches in the final round of the fight — showing his heart and chin.
His bravery during the fight and his humility after softening opinions on Tyson. But they did nothing to calm his demons. Tyson’s private life continued to slip and in 2003 he filed for bankruptcy despite having earned over $300 million in his career. But opinion was changing. Instead of condemning the spendthrift fighter, many were asking who had cheated him all this time.
Tyson had spells in rehab, but the next turning point in his public profile was his appearance in the 2009 mega-hit “The Hangover.” The comedy did wonders for Las Vegas’ public relations — ironically, the city banned Tyson before Lewis’ fight — and for the former undisputed champion’s public profile. An older crowd longed to see the heavyweight phenom of their youth channeling his wild charisma on screen; a new generation was introduced to Tyson and sent down YouTube rabbit holes from his sensational knockouts.
Soon, Tyson the Demon Barber was threatening to cut the Jonas Brothers’ hair during a live skit at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards, then appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show to talk about his life in graphic detail. Cameos on “Entourage” followed and in 2014, Tyson voiced himself in a Scooby Doo-style cartoon series “Mike Tyson Mysteries.” That of a man formerly imprisoned for rape, shunned, a fighter who seemed the public enemy n°1 in his own country.
Sympathy towards Tyson and the life of hand inflicted on him, from his troubled upbringing in the Brooklyn ghettos to the exploitation he was subjected to at the height of his fighting powers, played a part. But there was also Tyson’s acceptance of his many flaws, his heartbreaking honesty, qualities on display after being punched by Lewis’s fists.
In 2022, Tyson — with a popular podcast, a successful media career, a happy marriage — cuts a different figure than the menacing fighter of 20 years ago. Even if, judging by the 1.6 million U.S. buys, his 2020 fight with Roy Jones Jr did, it might actually be the biggest draw in heavyweight boxing.
This remarkable comeback began in the ring 20 years ago. Tyson lost that night on June 8 but, off the ropes, he fought so many times that he won admiration.
After all the opponents he knocked down and knocked out, it seems like Mike Tyson continually getting back up was the defining achievement of his life.
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