ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Beneath his wool ski cap, Mike Tyson was sweating. The camera lights were hot. A hundred people were crammed in front of his table. Everyone was screaming.
“DID HE EVER HURT YOU?”
“WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU HAD HIM?”
“WHO’S NEXT? WHO’S NEXT?”
Minutes earlier, inside the Convention Center boxing ring, Tyson had sent Larry Holmes crashing to the canvas three times within two minutes of the fourth round. Right hand. Right hand. Right hand. The last was so brutal, TV sets across America seemed to shake with the impact. Bye-bye, Larry. Three rights, you’re out. Tyson was in his corner toweling off before Holmes, the aging ex-champion, finally staggered to his feet.
“HOW DO YOU FEEL, MIKE?”
“WAS HE A WORTHY OPPONENT?”
“WHO’S NEXT? WHO’S NEXT?”
Tyson, the 21-year-old heavyweight champ, was having a hard time hearing. At times he just stared into the mob, his jaw set, his eyes, as usual, as unblinking as a shark’s. Suddenly, from the back of the room, a small group began to push its way forward. Tyson’s co-manager, Jim Jacobs, sat up and took notice. The group wore tuxedos. Three, four, maybe five. Closer they came. The crowd allowed a thin opening, letting them through, closer and closer.
“HEY, WHEN YOU GONNA GIVE SPINKS A CHANCE?” someone yelled.
“Bring him on,” said Tyson.
“WE’RE RIGHT HERE,” yelled Spinks’ manager, Butch Lewis, pushing forward.
“Look! They’re right there!”
“Fight ’em, Mike!”
“SAY YOU’LL FIGHT ‘IM!”
“DO IT, MIKE! DO IT!”
Forget the Tyson-Holmes bout. It was a fiasco — just a couple of sleaze promoters milking the udder of name recognition. Holmes, 38 and inactive for nearly two years, belonged in the ring against Tyson as much as a miniature schnauzer would. Three million dollars? They really gave Holmes three million for that? What did he do? Hold out his right hand for three rounds, then use it to try to break his fall? Three million?
Only one fight left now. Only one worth watching, one worth writing about. Spinks-Tyson. In truth, it has been the only one all along. Spinks, who took the crown from Holmes in 1985, is the only heavyweight who even seems body-hard enough to challenge. Tyrell Biggs? Tony Tucker? Alfonso Ratliff? Jose Ribalta? These guys even sound fat. Yet that’s who Tyson has been fighting.
And here, across the floor, was Spinks in the flesh. He looked straight at the thick-necked champion. In a movie, Tyson would have stood and said,
“You got it, Spinks. Next month. Twelve rounds. I’m gonna kill you.”
But this is not a movie.
Instead, Tyson tried to ignore the confrontation. He answered a few more questions, his voice surprisingly thin and nasal. “All those guys out there that say I’m not a great champion? Well, let ’em keep coming to my fights and they can take lessons.”
“WHAT ABOUT SPINKS?”
“I don’t mind people being critical. That’s the way it is. If one person has five dollars and the other has four, the guy with four will be mad. He’ll be jealous. But I believe I’m the best fighter in the world. I refuse to lose. I refuse to let any man bring me down.”
“WHAT ABOUT SPINKS?”
Tyson stopped. He stared straight ahead. Spinks did the same. Tyson’s manager finally came to the microphone. He mumbled something about promotion problems, they needed to be worked out, and meanwhile Tyson can make $50 million this year without ever bothering with Spinks — so Iron Mike is going to Tokyo this summer to fight Tubbs.
“TONY (FAT) TUBBS, YOU MEAN!” someone screamed.
The champion and his entourage left the stage.
In the back rooms of boxing, it’s impossible to tell who wears the white hats and who wears the black. Michael Spinks was the one who pulled out of the HBO tournament that would have pitted him against Tyson had they both continued to win. At the time, Spinks was criticized for ducking. He fought Gerry Cooney instead, a fight as shameless as the Holmes affair Friday.
But time has shifted the sentiment. And now Tyson is seen as taking too long. What’s he doing fighting Tubbs (who has been so out of shape recently that the Tokyo promoters insisted on a conditioning clause in the contract) when Spinks is right here waiting?
“We will not have Mike Tyson fight a fight that is promoted or co-promoted by Butch Lewis,” Jacobs explained Friday night. Meaning, if Tyson and Spinks meet, Tyson’s people want to handle all the action.
Or else, no go.
Meanwhile, fans are falling asleep.
Now, it is hard to look at a man who is wearing a tuxedo jacket with no shirt underneath and try to take him seriously. You had to do that with Butch Lewis Friday night.
“Why does Mike Tyson want to make $50 million fighting seven or eight guys when he can make that in one fight against us!” Lewis yelled, rattling his jewelry.
“They keep trying to duck us. They keep trying to give their guy more experience. A Spinks-Tyson fight would be so big! Did you see the headlines for this (Holmes) fight this week? And this was not a fight! This was not a fight! This was a sad night for boxing! Holmes was huffing and puffing after the second round. And Tyson comes out flexing his muscles like he’s some great champion! It’s sad!”
Lewis paused to catch his breath. He looked toward the door, which the Tyson party had exited minutes earlier.
“Man,” he laughed, “did you see those guys bolt? They left here quicker than Carl Lewis.”
It’s not certain whether Tyson-Spinks would be a great fight. After all, Tyson is a natural heavyweight, the power of a truck with the tactics of a steamroller. Spinks, meanwhile, moved up to heavyweight only to steal Holmes’ crown, almost lost it in the rematch, and defeated a useless Cooney.
What is certain, however, is that only Tyson-Spinks can capture any imagination in what used to be the glamor division of this sport. Tyson is almost too good. Interest is fading. Boasting doesn’t do it. Ridiculous purses
don’t do it. Boxing fans — and their ranks are thinning — are in desperate search of a good fight. Tony Tubbs? Are they kidding?
So we will see a Tyson-Spinks fight. Sooner or later. The same way we saw a Leonard-Hagler fight; the same way we saw all those sorry Ali comeback attempts — because the names were there, the potential for wealth was written all over the fights. Fifty million to $100 million, Lewis was talking about. Maybe he can even buy a shirt.
Meanwhile, Tyson books tickets to Tokyo. And Spinks — the only man on the planet who might stand a chance against him — waits in a tuxedo. All is normal in the boxing world.
“What did you think of tonight’s fight?” someone asked Spinks.
“I guess Holmes is laughing all the way to the bank,” he said, allowing his gap-toothed smile. “But the fashion he went out — it was sad. It was a stunt! It was ridiculous! You couldn’t give me $3 million to pull a stunt like that.”
Right. He’s waiting for 50. CUTLINE Having belted Larry Holmes back into retirement, Mike Tyson retains his three-part title.