It seems nothing with Mike Tyson is ever easy.
Tonight in Las Vegas, after 5 rounds of professional fighting, Mike Tyson's fists were raised over his head in victory. His opponent, Francois Botha, lay in a crumpled heap on the canvas, the victim of a brutal knockout. It was the ending that everyone in and around boxing predicted...but no one could have predicted everything that preceded it.
Mike Tyson's return to the ring was supposed to also signal the return of the "Tyson style": head movement, combinations, handspeed, devastation. In between profanity laced rants, Tyson and new trainer Tommy Brooks had promised anyone who would listen that the Mike Tyson of old would rise from the ashes of "The Bite".
To make their task easier, Botha was plugged in as the perfect opponent: slow, plodding and powerless. His padded record, IBF ranking, and unsculpted physique made him a seemingly perfect opponent for Tyson to comeback against. No one gave Botha a chance to win, let alone survive the early onslaught. On paper, this would be another easy Tyson win.
Luckily, fights aren't decided on paper, because nothing went according to plan.
The first surprise of the evening came at the opening bell, as Tyson came out to center ring and stood there. Missing was the ferocious onslaught that characterized his quickest victories. As Tyson and Botha circled, it was Botha who threw the first punch: a range finding jab. Tyson slipped the punch, fired a jab of his own, and circled some more. Tyson's patience surprised Botha, who quickly put his own game plan into action.
Evander Holyfield perfected the technique to beat Tyson: Hit him when he comes in, tie him up when he's in close, and walk him backwards every chance you get. That Botha was able to replicate this style was the second surprise of the evening. Throughout the first Botha fired a quick one-two, catching Mike more often than not. Tyson threw only occasionally, usually with wide punches that the South African easily avoided by stepping back.
As the first wore on, Tyson's "style" wore off. Halfway through the round, the brief glimpses of head movement evaporated, and a Tyson jab was simply a rumor. Avoiding any form of combinations, Tyson let Botha's confidence grow. As the round ended, blood trickled from above Tyson's right eye, although it was inconclusive whether the small cut was the result of a punch or butt. Everyone wanted to know how Tyson would hold up under such pressure, and at the bell to end the first, Tyson gave us a partial answer.
As the fighters were tied up, Tyson wrapped his right arm around Botha's left elbow, and used his free arm to push Botha back. The result appeared to be a blatant attempt to break Botha's arm, a deja vu of a move Tyson tried briefly in the Holyfield rematch. As the bell sounded, and Botha's face contorted in pain from the arm twisting, referee Richard Steele got between the fighters to break them. He was unsuccessful. As Botha threw a punch over Steele's head, Tyson pulled on his arm some more. More punches followed, and soon the ring was full of cornermen and officials, each trying to pull the fighters apart. As Tommy Brooks pulled Tyson, Mike clung to Botha's arm, and soon the ring was full. It was surreal.
As both men returned to their corners, the live crowd was aghast. The ring apron was teeming with uniformed security officers. When the cameras caught Nevada boxing czar Mark Ratner in the ring, the deja vu was complete. As if Tyson's stability needed any more questioning, this ugly incident was a sickening reminder of the chaos of Tyson's last outing. Richard Steele went to Tyson's corner and repeated the admonition "Mike, you cannot win with a foul" several times.
When the bell rang for round two, the ring was still overflowing with bodies, and it took nearly another minute to resume the action. When it did resume, Tyson rushed Botha in anger, firing wild punches that missed their target, but drew gasps from the audience. Botha continued his game plan, popping Mike with the right hand and then tying him up. Three times in a row, when the fighters tangled up, Tyson AGAIN tried the arm twisting maneuver. After the third time, Steele called time, deducted a point and reminded Tyson that he couldn't win with a foul.
Tyson looked very confused. His ring rust resulted not only in missed punches, but bad balance put him in bad position, and Botha surprised by whacking Tyson in the kisser with each mistake. Throwing one punch at a time, Tyson's improvements were nowhere to be seen. As Botha continued to replicate the Holyfield gameplan, he racked up another round in his column, and Tyson's frustrations manifested with a punch/forearm to Botha's face after the bell.
Tommy Brooks attempted to calm Tyson in between rounds, but the calming only lead to more inactivity on Tyson's part. In the third and fourth rounds, Botha repeatedly t hit Mike and tied him up. Although his punches never seemed to hurt Tyson, Frans was often landing clean, while Tyson wasn't landing at all.
Confidence swelling, Botha was also putting on a great mental game. He had Tyson flinching with exaggerated feints. He taunted Tyson by standing right in front of him with his hands at his side while Tyson stood and watched him. He even was emboldened enough to verbally taunt Tyson at several points. It was a performance far beyond what anyone had predicted Botha was capable of.
Meanwhile, Tyson's own performance was spectacularly underwhelming. Simply put: Tyson looked shot. His handspeed was present only at times in the fight that he looked angry. Often, Tyson looked outright slow. His balance was miserable, and as the fifth round began, Mike looked winded and disinterested.
But in the fifth, Botha's confidence got the better of him. As Tyson's inactivity gave Botha chances to rest, he also began taking chances. The dropped hands that had worked to demoralize Tyson only a round earlier, were becoming a dangerous habit, and Tyson finally began to land some punches of his own, albeit one at a time. As the fifth round came to an end, I was about to mark the round in my notebook as 10-9 for Botha...representing an improbable shutout....when everything changed.
With 11 seconds left to go in the round, Botha missed with a right hand and walked right into a short right from Tyson. It was the only straight punch that Mike had thrown all night, and it landed perfectly on Botha's incoming face.
The White Buffalo collapsed to the canvas like a bag of wet cement. As he feebly tried got up to all fours, a seriously hurt Botha fell face first to the canvas. A second attempt had Botha crawling around on wobbly arms. Frans finally made it to his feet as Richard Steele called out "Nine", took a good look at Botha and waved the fight over. Good call, because as soon as Steele waved his arms, Botha literally walked backwards on his heels and again collapsed into the ropes. Steele and Tyson simultaneously rushed to catch him, and the fight was over. Mike Tyson KO5.
And so Tyson's comeback was a success....sort of. Not only was he unable to follow his corner's instructions to bunch his punches together, but Tyson looked completely shot in the ring. Fighting for only the seventh time in eight years, Tyson's finesse, handspeed, and even basic technique were nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, while Botha regained his senses, his stock was already soaring from this better-than-expected performance.
After the fight, Tyson (46-3/40) seemed more interested in giving shout-outs to deceased "Brooklyn warriors" than answering questions about his fighting. Although he did admit that he was rusty, Tyson laughably claimed that he was a "much better fighter than when he fought Holyfield."
After the fight, Tyson consigliere Shelley Finkel was asked about future Tyson opponents. A realistic Finkel replied "We're looking at Vaughn Bean, Axel Schultz, Lou Savarese...the regulars." Indeed. With Tyson's subpar showing, Finkel would be well advised to continue to match up Tyson with overrated punchers. If Tyson wants to rematch with Holyfield, as both he and his financial team surely prefer, then he'd best tread water with the division's walking heavybags. Otherwise, he'll find himself defeated again.
Botha, now 39-2, did better than anyone thought he could, despite losing by knockout. He showed no fear against the maniacal Tyson and looked to be beating Mike easily up until the final boom. In a post fight press conference, UK promoter Frank Warren announced that he would look to line up Botha with the winner of February's Herbie Hide-Orlin Norris WBO title fight. And after tonight's showing, I'd pick Botha over either of them.
Tyson-Botha topped a card that featured three entertaining bouts that were fought in front of an empty arena. As celebrities and boxers mingled at pre-fight parties, a silent MGM Grand Garden hosted three title fights. Well, sort of.
The first "title" on the line was the WBC Continental Americas lightweight title. Former featherweight champion Goyo Vargas roughed up previously unbeaten Ben Tackie of Ghana over 12 rounds. Vargas (39-6-1) was the aggressor throughout, throwing stiff combinations at Tackie all night long. The challenger missed several opportunities to turn the momentum of the bout when Vargas tired by not pressing the action. Vargas' left hook, both upstairs and down, did particular damage, and by the eighth Vargas was running away with the fight by throwing three and four punch combinations, stepping back, and repeating. Vargas survived a flash knockdown and a crunching low blow in the 12th round to hang on for the 117-110, 116-111 (twice) unanimous decision. Interesting note: Tackie is trained by Dan Goosen...who also manages Goyo Vargas. Despite the conflict, and a pre-fight suggestion that he may sit the fight out, Goosen chose to appear in Tackie's corner.
Also on the undercard was an action packed title defense by IBF 130 pounder Robert Garcia. Credit 32 year old John John Molina for being in excellent condition. After losing his last fight to Shane Mosley at 135, Molina was scheduled to fight Miguel Angel Gonzalez at 140 before a cancellation nixed the bout. Dropping back to 130 didn't seem to suit Molina, but he looked fantastic for his age. Throughout the fight, the two fighters stood toe-to-toe and bombed back and forth. As the fight wore on, Garcia began taking the upper hand, and was dishing out a steady stream of punishment to Molina. But John John took everything Garcia laid on him and would not retreat in the least. And Garcia did some excellent work, including some devastating shots thrown from the southpaw stance. Garcia also found himself on the canvas in the 12th, but got up to see the bout end in a most peculiar manner. With 15 seconds left in the round, Garcia landed a punch well south of the border, and Molina collapsed to the floor in pain. He was given time to recover, but still looked hurt when the fight resumed. The ref signaled for the fight to restart, and Garcia caught Molina before he was fully ready with a couple of punches that drove Molina back to the ropes. But as he bounced off the ropes, he bounced head first into the oncoming Garcia, and the resulting headbutt nearly knocked Molina cold. The butt came at the same time as the final bell, and Molina was seeing stars as his corner carried him back to his stool. Despite a good showing, Molina took the loss when all three judges scored for Garcia 115-112. Garcia showed grit, overcoming not only the late knockdown, but a cut that came early in the bout and a badly swollen eye. His IBF title and occasionally flashy moves make him a natural opponent for the division's other big name, Floyd Mayweather.
Also on the card, Zab Judah needed less than four full rounds to score a TKO over Wilfredo Negron. Judah's southpaw style draws many comparison's to Judah's mentor Sweat Pea Whitaker. Judah may have more power than a young Whitaker did, and certainly shows comparable handspeed. Judah is the fighter many are looking to be boxing's newest young star in 1999. After winning the fight, and the "interim" IBF 140 lb. title, Judah called out missing in action champion Vince Phillips by demanding that Phillips "either make the weight or get out of the division."
All told, the action of the early fights, and the soap opera drama of the main event made this a rare pay per view worth purchasing.