The most notable US athletes of 2020: No 6 – Mike Tyson, back from the abyss

When Mike Tyson announced he was fighting an eight-round exhibition against Roy Jones Jr over Thanksgiving weekend after floating the idea of a comeback on Instagram for most of 2020, you’d have been forgiven if you dismissed the whole thing as a cynical money grab.

Nostalgia is a powerful narcotic. And the unspoken allure of old-timers exhibitions like Tyson v Jones is that people are paying not for the product on offer but a memory – a feeling. Embedded in the sales pitch of a Tyson fight was the promise of transporting the customer even briefly to a fairer, better time that mostly exists in our memories.

But while that promise evoked a time when Tyson was a figure larger than life in the late 80s, cresting on a string of highlight-reel knockouts to become the youngest ever heavyweight champion of the world, I couldn’t help but think back on the dark, largely forgotten early-aughts period of his story. When you remember the dark places he forced himself to inhabit to get himself up for fights with Lou Savarese, Orlin Norris, Clifford Etienne and Danny Williams, you wondered if this was something we really needed to see. And that’s putting aside the physical risks of a 54-year-old absorbing blows from a heavyweight opponent without protective headgear, even with larger-than-normal gloves in a controlled setting. Hadn’t Tyson sacrificed enough of himself for our entertainment?

As a promotion Tyson v Jones went on to shatter all expectations. The pay-per-view did a reported 1.6m buys, a shocking figure that makes it the best-selling boxing event of the past several years. One could read that as a grim indictment of the sport’s present-day health, but mostly it’s a testament to Tyson’s endurance in the global sporting consciousness. More than three decades after his brief but indelible reign as undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, Iron Mike remains not only the world’s most famous living boxer (and it’s not particularly close) but one of our most famous sportspeople.

The even bigger surprise, however, was the exhibition itself, which despite our worst fears was far from the grim spectacle it probably deserved to be. Tyson clearly took his training seriously, coming in at 220lbs, right around his fighting weight during his title reign. He spent most of the night squarely in his opponent’s chest, conjuring the energy to explode with a combination once or twice a round and forcing Jones to keep his distance, looking to peck away with counterpunches. The two quinquagenarian punchers fought to an unofficial split draw, which headlined a fast-moving, sleekly produced telecast from a first-time broadcaster filled with unexpectedly entertaining fights and seamlessly integrated musical performances.

Of course, expectations for the event were so tempered that anything but a total farce could have been considered a win. But the night above all belonged to Tyson, who underwent dramatic lifestyle changes in shedding more than 100lbs for the affair, adopting a vegan diet and building from 15 daily minutes on a treadmill to an exhaustive workout regimen involving running, biking and punching. Watching Tyson dig in to find the best of himself today, put aside the pantomime villainy and give a more honest accounting of himself than he did when he quit exhausted on his stool in his final professional fight against Kevin McBride back in 2005, was a genuinely inspiring moment of redemption by any measure. Only at the end did we see the journey was the reward.


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