John McGrath

John McGrath: Tyson helped make mess out of boxing

Deontay Wilder, a 29-year old boxer from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, won the WBC heavyweight title last month with a unanimous decision over Bermane Stiverne.

If the names don’t ring a bell, it’s because the title of “Heavyweight Champion of the World” — a designation that held international prestige for more than a century — lost its allure 25 years ago Wednesday, when Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson in Tokyo.

Boxing’s descent from must-see spectacle to agate page obscurity can’t be attributed solely to the stunning upset of Tyson, listed as a 47-1 favorite by the only Las Vegas casino that bothered posting odds. Other factors have contributed to the sport’s demise.

Start with the bureaucratic bumbling of alphabet soup organizations — Wilder is one of three reigning heavyweight champions — and mix in an aging fan base whose regeneration has been stalled by the popularity of mixed martial arts among young fight fans. And, of course, there’s the intellectually indefensible nature of boxing itself.

Five hundred years from now, it’s likely boxing will be seen as primitive and incomprehensible as the human sacrificial rituals the Aztecs performed 500 years ago.

And yet, boxing still was a major sport — a heavyweight championship bout still was a big deal — before Tyson took the flurry of 10th-round punches that knocked him out on Feb. 11, 1990. The 23-year-old defending champ was 37-0. Between his wrecking-ball right hand and a cold-blooded stare packing even more intimidation, Tyson took on a superhero persona.

When Mike Tyson walked into a ring, the world stood still. He was indestructible, invincible, larger than life.

And then he wasn’t.

In retrospect, Tyson’s improbable fall — in terms of historic upsets, it ranks with New York Jets defeat of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl 3, and the USA hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union during the 1980 Winter Olympics — wasn’t all that improbable.

Tyson was unraveling both personally and professionally. Fame had embraced him, kissed him, and he liked it. The early-morning distance runs, the hours spent sparring and jumping rope and pounding the heavy bag in a gym, were replaced by watching TV on a couch.

Meanwhile, Douglas, who showed up in Tokyo with a reputation as an underachiever disinclined to train at a championship-caliber level, was an athlete possessed. Grieving the recent death of his mother, estranged from his father and wife, he had nothing to live for until presented with the challenge of something to die for.

Team Tyson was so confident that night, his corner didn’t include a cut man. Midway through the bout, when a succession of Douglas jabs created swelling under Tyson’s left eye, nobody was there to tend to the wound.

Tyson still could punch, but his best punch — it sent Douglas to the floor toward the end of the eighth round — was ill-timed. Douglas picked himself up and used the interval preceding the ninth round to clear his head.

The 10th-round knockout, the culmination of a comprehensive beating, was startling only because the knockout victim happened to be a tower of power nicknamed “Iron Mike.”

From that moment on, boxing, for better or worse — and it’s been all worse — never has been the same. Instead of applauding the new champion, fans were distracted by the attempts of promoter Don King to overturn Douglas’ victory on a technicality. (King argued Douglas was given more than 10 seconds to stand up after the eighth-round punch that put him down.)

Although the win was upheld, Douglas resumed his casual indifference toward training. He weighed in for the first defense of his title belt, against Evander Holyfield, almost 15 pounds over the weight he fought at in Tokyo. Holyfield knocked out Douglas in the third round.

Tyson careened even more severely. Convicted of a 1991 rape, he served three years in prison before losing to Holyfield in 1996. Their 1997 rematch is recalled for Tyson biting off a chunk of Holyfield’s ear.

The most famous living athlete is Muhammad Ali, whose boxing legacy was enhanced by his authentic conviction to principles that were not regarded as mainstream during the 1960s. A crucial component of Ali’s stance was the platform from which they were delivered: Heavyweight Champion of the World.

Once upon a time, that designation meant something. And then, 25 years ago Wednesday, it stopped meaning anything.