By In Golf

Tyson, Woods and the Enduring Power of Awesomeness

You might remember this: Nobody wanted to let go of Mike Tyson’s career. I have made the argument — to much disgust and “what you know about boxing couldn’t fill a business card” dismissiveness — that Tyson was an overrated fighter. I still believe that. He came up at a time when there really wasn’t a good or great heavyweight in the world, and he was brought along very carefully and to maximum effect.

But that doesn’t change the basic facts. He got to 27-0 by knocking out mediocrities with jaw-dropping Looney Tunes punches. Then he elbowed Trevor Berbick silly, destroyed an over-the-hill Larry Holmes and annihilated a blown up light-heavyweight Michael Spinks, who did not look like he wanted to be there. Tyson had tremendous punching power, and he had an aura of menace that made the toughest men around shiver. He began his career 37-0.

And in a larger sense, it wasn’t Tyson’s fault that there really wasn’t an Ali to his Frazier or an Ezzard Charles to his Marciano. He fought the fighters put in front of him, and clubbed them mercilessly, and it was one heck of a show. Who in boxing history captivated and bewitched and generally frightened America the way Mike Tyson did. George Foreman? Sonny Liston? Do you have to go back to Rocky Marciano?

Then, twenty-five years ago, a generally uninteresting fighter named Buster Douglas — who had lost to guys named David Bey, Mike White, Jesse Ferguson and Tony Tucker — went to Japan and bludgeoned Iron Mike Tyson. Like a lot of other people, I remember exactly where I was that night: in my apartment and wearing my jacket because I was going out to meet some friends as soon as the fight was over. I expected it to last roughly 43 seconds. Only I never did go out. Instead, I sunk into the chair and watched, jaw wide open, as Buster Douglas pummeled Tyson round after round after round. I know people call the Buster Douglas victory one of the greatest upsets in sports history and by definition that is right. Tyson was a 42-to-1 favorite. Nobody, and I mean nobody, expected the fight to last three rounds, much less for Douglas to win it. So, yeah, it’s an all-time upset.

But, in a different way, it wasn’t actually an upset at all because: Douglas was a better fighter than Tyson. This wasn’t a guy landing a lucky punch or a fighter getting a unfair decision. If you had aliens from the plant Zutron watch the fight, they would say: OEJDNEONVE, which means, “That Buster fellow is the superior fighter.”

And that’s different from a typical upset. Think of the great upsets (U.S. hockey team defeating the Soviets in 1980; Rulon Gardner over Alexandr Karelin; Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan at the U.S. Open; Robin Soderling over Rafa Nadal in Paris; No. 16 seed Harvard over Stanford in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and a hundred others). They are notable because you know that if the competitors faced off 10 times, the favorite would probably win nine.

This wasn’t the case with Douglas and Tyson. If they fought 10 times, exactly as they were that night, Tyson might have won some by catching Douglas with a big shot and knocking him out. Tyson almost did it that night. But Douglas, I feel sure, would have won more. He was the better man. It was as if the U.S. Olympic Hockey team didn’t just beat the Soviets, but crushed them 7-3.

Tyson came back from the Douglas fight by doing what he liked to do — knocking out mediocre fighters. He took out a weak-chinned cruiserweight named Henry Tillman in one round and England’s Alex Stewart, also in one round. He then fought two wars with a decidedly not mediocre fighter, Razor Ruddock — the first fight was close and seemed to be stopped too quickly and in the second Tyson broke Ruddock’s jaw. Then Tyson went to jail after being convicted of rape.

We are finally getting to the point here. When Mike Tyson came out of jail, many people wanted to believe he was still the fighter they remembered (it should be noted that many also believed he should not be allowed to fight). He had made boxing interesting, made every fight an event.

When he came out and destroyed a tomato can named Peter McNeeley, then beat the heck out of Buster Mathis, Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon (the last for a championship belt of some kind) the comeback seemed complete. Mike Tyson once again seemed to be the most dangerous man in the world. When he was set up to fight an aging and fading Evander Holyfield – who had lost to Michael Moorer, gotten knocked out by Riddick Bowe and had some sort of heart condition — there were widespread concerns that Holyfield could get permanently and irreparably hurt. Tyson, it goes without saying, was the prohibitive favorite.

Thing is, Evander Holyfield was a different class of fighter from the guys Mike Tyson had beat up his entire career. Holyfield was an all-heart warrior with skill, and he completely outclassed Tyson. There were a couple of accidental head butts that marred the fight, but all in all Holyfield was faster, stronger and, shocking to many, the harder puncher. The fight was stopped in the 11th round. Tyson had been knocked all over the ring. Like in the Douglas fight, there was no question who had been the better fighter.

When Tyson fought Holyfield again seven months later, Iron Mike was again favored to win by most people. Why? We had just seen Holyfield make hamburger of Tyson. But this was Tyson’s gift and curse; people just kept waiting for him to unleash the irrepressible force that had marked his early career. Instead, of course, Tyson was unhinged. In the third round, he bit Holyfield’s ear, was somehow not disqualified, so he bit off a piece of Holyfield’s other ear. He had gone mental. Nobody could watch that display and believe Mike Tyson had anything left as a boxer.

But people did believe. People just kept on believing. Tyson splattered a few more Lou Savareses and Brian Nielsens and actually got himself another championship fight, this time with Lennox Lewis. “I want to eat your children,” Tyson had said to Lewis in one of those prefight things, and I can actually remember there were STILL people who thought Tyson would unleash the lion. There was no lion. Lewis toyed with Tyson and then, when the time felt right, eliminated him in the eighth round with one of the more savage knockouts of 2002.

And STILL Mike Tyson fought, and STILL some people thought he might put a boxing career back together. He did not. He ended it all getting knocked out by men named Danny Williams (who would get knocked out TWELVE TIMES in subsequent fights) and Kevin McBride (who would lose six of his next eight fights). Tyson actually quit in the McBride fight. Tyson then went on with the rest of his life, the crimes and misdemeanors and face tattoos and Broadway shows …

People kept believing in Mike Tyson long after there was any reason to believe. Why? There’s a comedian out there (wish I could remember who to give credit) who does a joke about people who think Elvis is still alive. “Yeah,” the joke goes, “because it’s hard to believe that someone who took such good care of himself would just die like that.” I think it has something to do with what happens to our minds when we see something that is literally awesome – something that sparks feelings of awe and wonder and even fear. You can’t get that image out of your head. You can’t believe it will end, no matter how hard reality smacks you in the face.

That’s what I think is happening with Tiger Woods now. Yes, that’s the point of all this. Woods has not won a major championship since 2008 but people keep expecting him to win the next one. The guy has changed his swing repeatedly for years but people keep expecting him to suddenly find the one that makes him young. The guy has had injury after injury but people keep expecting the body to be lithe and flexible all over again. Again and again people talk about how Woods — if only he can get his pitching touch back, find a swing that allows him to drive the balls straight, stay healthy and clear the mental cobwebs that have gathered the last few years – can be great again.

It makes no sense. Tiger Woods is 39. Most of the great golfers were not only done by 39, they were LONG done by 39 – Palmer, Watson, Ballesteros, Nelson, Sarazen, Jones and dozens of others. And it’s not like you can say Tiger Woods is a young 39. He’s been swinging golf clubs since he was three. He has been in the public eye since he was a teenager. He has been through one of the nastiest public scandals in recent memory. He has been one of the world’s most famous people for a long time.

His last two tournaments were agonizing to watch – there were the pitching yips in Arizona and the back-bracing drives a week later. He scored his highest score ever on the PGA Tour and he walked off the course in the middle of a round and talked about how his glutes did not activate. And people still talk about him winning the Masters, you know, if he shows up.

Call it Tysonography, our refusal to believe that even the most extraordinary talents fade quicker than we expect. There are a lot of “What’s wrong with Tiger Woods” stories out there right now, and some of them are interesting, but I still suspect they miss the point. Nothing’s wrong with Tiger Woods except that he’s human and he’s fading and it’s the most obvious thing in the world but, like with Mike Tyson, we willfully refuse to accept it.

23 Responses to Tyson, Woods and the Enduring Power of Awesomeness

  1. BobDD says:

    But, But, But at least Barry Bonds and maybe Rickey Henderson could have played one more MLB season and golf is less physically demanding, he was Tiger after all, and . . . and . . . and . . . well damn!

  2. jeremy says:

    Maybe it’s my imagination but it seems to me like there was a major difference in tigers game (ahem) after the thanksgiving night crash. Maybe that’s why people still think he could still get his head right and come back and win one. Like its a mental block he could get rid of

  3. Steve says:

    Joe, I agree with you 100%. I call this the ‘light year effect’. When we look at the sky, we see stars that may have died years ago still burning dright, because the light takes years to get to Earth.

    I work at a golf course. Many golfers there still belive in Tiger, even though they should know better based on the age of the club tournament winners.

    I predicted in 2010 Tiger would not break Jack’s record just because of injuries. Now that his short game is also gone astray, I feel even more comfortable with that prediction.

  4. Jim says:

    I made the same Tyson – Woods connection Wednesday when I saw it was the 25th anniversary of the Douglas fight. Both were the biggest name in sports, went through a scandal, got old. Great point Joe about how it is to get the awesome factor out of our heads, even when all evidence points otherwise.

  5. sdl65 says:

    Tyson was a beast as was Tiger. They both had what I like to call watershed moments that changed who they were. Tyson’s was when Cus D’Amato died and he left Rooney and Johnson for Don King. Was never the same after that. Tigers was of course that fateful night in Florida. Some things just can’t be overcome. No matter how brilliant and dominating they were before. Once you lose your focus especially at the level they performed at its tough to get it back.

  6. Mark says:

    I can’t agree with your notion that Tyson really wasn’t that good pre-Douglas and was exposed by better competition. Reasonable minds can differ, but I think the young Tyson was a great fighter, with an amazing combination of movement, power and punching accuracy. After Cus died and Tyson cut ties with Rooney, Tyson became a one note, undisciplined puncher and very beatable. I guess you could count me as one who was waiting, at least for some period of time after Douglas, to see if Tyson could re-establish as a good boxer. But there was no evidence that he was interested in doing the work or getting the help he needed. This wasn’t an older athlete switching swing coaches. This was a much younger athlete deciding he didn’t need any help and could live off his own legend. In my view these are very different stories.

    • Bpdelia says:

      Exactly. Young Tyson was just a force of nature. Power, speed. It was simply impossible to keep him away. Even guys with great jabs were utterly incapable of keeping Tyson at arms length.

      He used the ring space like an artist. But after rooney and damato were gone it was clear he believed the hype and was no longer a boxer but was a puncher.

      Tyson was almost never seriously hit early because he was just really damn hard to hit. Always moving forward. Excellent defense. By Douglas he was basically trying to land punches. No strategy, no plan.

      At the top levels of boxing the physical gifts are absurd and technique is EVERYTHING. Tyson let his technique get sloppy and undisciplined.

      • Maybe so, but it’s true that Tyson didn’t have any fights against a top fighter in his prime…. at least not one that he actually won. Who knows how the Lennox Lewis fight would have gone if he had taken care of himself and trained. But the fact is, there was no “signature win” in Tyson’s career. He beat setups, guys moving up in class (because there were no legit fights to be made) and guys past their prime.

        • heavy c says:

          I don’t think Tyson is overrated anymore. I don’t really like the terms underrated and overrated anyway (except when we talk about Derek Jeter). It’s too subjective and now that we’ve seen the end of Tyson in the ring we have proper perspective. Unfortunately, we lost Tyson’s prime through his poor discipline both in and out of the ring. As a few pointed out he no longer had the stablizing forces of Rooney and D’amato, even before he lost to Douglas. Douglas was similarly undisciplined as seen in his next fight with Holyfield, but he managed to get it together for a poorly conditioned Tyson. No way was Douglas a more skilled fighter than Tyson. D’amato’s Tyson had great head movement, timing, a good guard and footwork from the peekaboo style and set up the KO better than just about anyone. I think people accuse Tyson of elbowing because his hooks were so devastating and like any good hooker he followed through bringing that elbow across. All that went out the door once he left Rooney and he fell in love with his one punch power and the trappings of fame. I think we were about to see Tyson take on some big contenders after cashing in and being manipulated by King and Robin Givens. A prime and better conditioned Tyson is a different story than 30+ Tyson with a 4 year hiatus from boxing. Holyfield, Bowe and Lennox were just around the corner. Instead they fought at the past due date with Tyson a shadow of what he was built to be.

    • Rick says:

      The reality is that the Tyson camp ducked Holyfield for years. It should have been Holyfield beating him in Japan instead of Douglas. Tyson was a modern day gladiator with great power but was never a very good boxer (he threw way more elbows than punches). A spectacular phenomenon to be sure with all of the knockouts but they stayed far from the better boxers of which there were few in Tyson’s heyday. Holyfield was a great Light Heavyweight and a very good Heavyweight but not historically good, but much better than Tyson.

  7. On behalf of tomato cans everywhere, that Peter McNeely shot was a low blow…


  8. NevadaMark says:

    If only we had all of Joe’s posts back to 2007 so we could re-live the whole Tiger thing again.

  9. Phaedrus says:

    Joe, you’ve written a couple times now about how it’s not a surprise that Tiger hasn’t aged well.

    Perhaps I’m misremembering, but I always thought the argument was that Tiger would age well because he kept himself in such good shape. As I recall, the theory was that if an overweight, ex-smoker like Jack could win the Masters at age 46 (and be competitive at age 58), then a fitness nut like Tiger could easily compete into his 60s.

    I’m not saying that theory was correct, but I think all this talk about how Tiger obviously wouldn’t age well is just a response to his injuries. Hindsight is aleays 20/20…did you or anyone else write that stuff 8-10 years ago?

  10. David in NYC says:

    Elin Nordegen did more damage to Tiger’s game than he has ever (or will ever) admit, both physically and — more important — psychologically. I don’t recall much speculative writing about the damage that can be done with a 9-iron, especially if you maintain your plane and have good hip rotation. That last phrase is a joke (sort of), but I do think he was physically injured more than he admitted.

    But the big blow to his game (no pun intended), and why he basically has not been Tiger after the altercation — to be truthful, he’s been good, even had a 5-win season and a Player of the Year award, I know, I know). But he has not been other-worldly, the most powerful force in sports, arguably better than anyone has ever been or will ever be. He’s been a very good golfer (extremely good, if you’d like; his ranking did return to #1 for a while), but he has not been TIGER!!!

    And, in the most important space for any athlete ever — the 5″ distance between the ears, he has completely lost the plot and will never regain it. And I think the fundamental, rock-bottom issue for Tiger, the one that’s still messing up his mind, is this:

    He got beat up by a girl.

  11. Django Munchausen says:

    Tiger was on PEDs early in his game, and now his body has quit on him. That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it…

  12. Grzegorz Brzeszczyszczykiewicz says:

    The Beginning of the End for Tiger was August 16, 2009, a little over three months before the Thanksgiving Incident.

    With respect to Tyson, he would have never even held a belt if Felix Savon had gone pro.

    • Jim says:

      Completely agree. Y. E. Yang was Woods’ Buster Douglas. He lost after holding the 54 hole lead for the first time in a major and lost the aura of invincibility.

  13. I’ve hung on to the notion that Tiger would win again, mainly because of the 5 win year a couple of years ago. He played well that year and, while not technically in contention for the Majors, was just short of being in contention. There obviously have been a variety of issues since then. Most obviously, the injuries have not allowed him to play much golf. Then, I think because of his health, another swing change. Then the yips and the spector of “mental” challenges. The whole thing comes down to the fact that while all these things were going on, Tiger got older. If a guy played baseball and had a comeback season at age 37 and won the MVP, then descended into injury & then seemed to lose it, we’d just accept that age gets everyone eventually. Expectations would be low going forward. That’s the way things should be with Tiger. I still want to see what happens the rest of the year. But after this last round of golf & more injuries popping up, I’m less optimistic. How is someone going to work against injuries, the yips and age? I believe with good health, Tiger can rebuild his game. But the mental issues, combined with injuries and age are a tough trinity of problems to overcome.

  14. Marco says:

    Two points/questions:

    1. If his struggles today are due to the Erin incident, how did he manage to attain the #1 rank in the world post incident?

    2. Woods was the #1 golfer in the world as recently as May of 2014. Is it really completely outlandish to suggest he still has something left in the tank?

  15. KHAZAD says:

    In the first Holyfield fight, I was in Las Vegas the month before the fight and saw that Holyfield was a 15-1 underdog. I felt that Holyfield should have been the favorite, so it was a no brainer to put money him at 15-1. Easiest $1500 I ever made.

  16. […] Posnanski has a great post up on the subject of Mike Tyson and Tiger Woods. His argument, as far as Tyson goes, is that Tyson […]

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