The ancient Greeks had a good handle on tragedy. Polybius, one of their historians, intoned, in the early years of BC, “Those who know how to win are more numerous than those who know how to make proper use of victory.” Fans of the sweet science got yet one more example of those words last Saturday night. However, what struck me as I watched the seemingly inevitable tableau play itself out in the MCI Center was another philosophical adage about the past: “The only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn.” We, as boxing fans, had of course been there previously; it was, indeed, deja vu, again.
Last Saturday night, it happened to be Mike Tyson, sitting on a stool, after six desultory rounds with a journeyman fighter named Kevin McBride in the “never-was” fight town of our nation's capitol. It wasn't difficult, for some of us, to rewind four decades and call to mind another fighter who chose to sit on his stool in a once great fight town on the cusp of being made irrelevant by the sport of boxing moving to casinos in the desert. Of course, in the case of Sonny Liston, the opposition was not a journeyman that February, 1964 night in Miami Beach. But few witnesses knew, at the time, the future impact of the opponent then known as Cassius Clay. The similarity was that Liston, like Tyson, over forty years later, sitting on his stool after six rounds, could probably clearly see both the end of that night's fight and the impending end of a career once thought to be invincible.
In the beginning both Liston and Tyson were saved from an inevitable end to their easy-to-imagine doomed lives by a caring stranger. For Liston the savior was, somewhat appropriately, a St. Louis priest, whose name has been lost to the ages. Tyson's salvation came in the person of a respected fight trainer. Cus D'Amato was a boxing “lifer” who steered the future heavyweight champion on his path to the ring and away from the toxic streets of Brooklyn. Both fighters would later fall from the guiding grace of their early mentors, but both benefited from these early abductions from a path of almost certain destruction.
Each fighter manifested overwhelming wins against overmatched opponents during their early careers. While this is commonplace in the sport, it was the fact that Liston and Tyson did not just win, they completely dominated the opposition that distinguished their early efforts in the ring. While the names and faces were different for each, the fighters who fell before Liston and Tyson were largely interchangeable. Billy Hunter, Wayne Bethea, Nino Valdes, Roy Harris – all early round knockout victims at the oversized hands of Liston. Similarly, Donnie Long, Sterling Benjamin, Conroy Nelson, Mark Young were toppled by Tyson, all within one or two rounds. They rose in the ranks and the heavyweight championship seemed, for both fighters, predestined. Early KOs were the norm, easy wins anticipated. Nothing, it seemed, was in the path of each fighters' path to the heavyweight title.
Of course, as with all inexorable marches to fame in the boxing ring, there was, for both Liston and Tyson, the classic “rite of passage” match that propelled them into the rarefied echelon of “unbeatable.” In both cases, when they finally faced seemingly formidable opposition, each fighter so overwhelmed, so intimidated, so totally annihilated the opponent that longtime boxing fans had the identical reaction, years apart, about Liston and Tyson: “Who can possibly beat him?” In almost all cases, no one had an answer.
For Liston, it was Floyd Patterson, then heavyweight champ, and when Patterson crumbled before Liston, not once but twice, the result was the transfer of the crown to the ever scowling Liston. Patterson, a durable fighter known for overcoming previous losses and adversity became so unnerved by the Liston destructions, that he resorted to disguising himself in order to escape the public and the anticipated ridicule and shame. Tyson's defining moment came against former light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks, who was expected to finally present a formidable test for the seemingly unbeatable fighter. In less than two minutes, Spinks was flat on his back in Atlantic City. In his own “Floyd Patterson moment,” Spinks had entered the ring with what many observers described a “deer in the headlights” look.
At this point in their respective careers, Liston, following his annihilation of Patterson, and Tyson, who had just about pulverized Spinks, stood colossus-like at the top of the heavyweight division. But, as is often the case, those pinnacles represented the end of the beginning of each career and, almost simultaneously, the beginning of the end of those same careers. For Liston, the descent was quicker. Less than a year after the second Patterson bout, it was a fast talking, fast handed, former Olympic champion coming out of the other corner in Miami Beach, headed not only past Sonny Liston, but towards controversy, fame and immortality. Following Miami Beach and Lewiston, Maine, Liston hung on until 1970 when he ended his career against Chuck Wepner in Jersey City, figuratively within sights of the bright lights of New York City, but nowhere near the bright lights of his former acclaim.
For Tyson, the descent began two years after the Spinks bout, but the message was just as clear to Tyson as it was to Liston in Miami. For Tyson the locale was Japan and the messenger was someone named “Buster.” Douglas, a 40-1 underdog, incredibly KO'd Tyson in ten rounds. No one in the sport, including Douglas, really believed it happened, but it did and the beginning of the end for Mike Tyson was underway. He, like Liston, continued in the ring. For Tyson, unlike Liston, there were more championships, but there was also jail and erratic outside-the-ring behavior . . . and then the losses began to accumulate: Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, not surprisingly, then Danny Williams, very surprisingly.
Sonny Liston's career didn't end on that stool in Miami Beach and I don't think Tyson's career has finished on a stool in the District of Columbia. As with Liston, forty years ago, the rhetorical question must be asked about Tyson: “What else is he going to do?” It's a cruel reality, but it is a reality, nonetheless. Five months after the Wepner fight in Jersey City, Sonny Liston was found dead in his bedroom in Las Vegas, under circumstances that, for some, have never really been made clear.
It's somewhat difficult to label Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson as credits to the sport of boxing. Both certainly left memorable and, in many ways, similar footprints in the sport. The ancient Greeks had it right; Liston and Tyson experienced numerous victories, but neither one learned how to make proper use of those victories. A final hope for the one still standing is that the deja vu doesn't carry through to a lonely bedroom and a mysterious exit for Mike Tyson.