Sunday, June 09, 2002

Born to be rivals, they fought for keeps too late

AP Sports Writer

        MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis were practically born to be rivals.

        They began circling each other as teen-agers, the two best prospects in a generation brimming with promising fighters. It seems remarkable now that it took nearly two decades to match them up, though this late in their careers proved only slightly more satisfying than never.

        “Heavyweights mature at different times,” Lewis said Saturday night.

        Moments earlier, he had finished off a brutal knockout with a crashing right hand that put Tyson down at 2:25 of the eighth round.

        “When Mike was 19, he ruled the world. I'm like a fine wine,” Lewis said. “I came along later on. I went along, just took my time, and I'm ruling now.”

        Afterward, Tyson was still bleeding from the mouth and nose, and both eyes were swollen. He said he didn't worry about what might have been, about whether the result would have been different had they met in their primes.

        “It wasn't meant to be,” Tyson said.

        The first time the two clashed, there was nothing on the line. The fighting covered a few sparring sessions in 1984, when they were brash youngsters going at it over the course of four days in a makeshift ring in the Catskills in New York.

        Cus D'Amato, the manager who had plucked Tyson from a Brooklyn ghetto and pointed him toward the title, warned his young charge to keep an eye on Lewis' progress even then.

        Six years ago, Tyson decided he'd seen enough. At about the same time, Lewis decided he'd heard enough.

        The one-time Olympic champion was already conducting a very public crusade to clean up the sport. Nothing would have pleased him more than sweeping Tyson out with the rest of the garbage Lewis claimed was clogging up the heavyweight division.

        There was only one thing separating them at the time, but it was a formidable obstacle: The cable networks that held each fighter's TV rights had become even fiercer rivals than the boxers themselves.

        “Frankly,” HBO Sports senior vice president Mark Taffet said, “this fight wasn't even on our radar screen any more. The one and only reason we did it is because Lennox asked us to. He said at this point in his career, this was the fight that would cement his legacy and his place in the sport.”

        Remembering the day the contract was finally signed, sealed and delivered, Showtime chief Jay Larkin smiled mischievously.

        “Our priority was to get Tyson a shot at the title,” he said. “Everything else we viewed as details.”

        Oh, but what details were in the contract to make certain the only fighting Saturday night was inside the ring.

        The inches-thick document is a testament to lawyers and the notion that money, finally, is what makes the world go round. It guarantees each fighter $17.5 million and an equal split of worldwide revenues that could reach $150 million if the pay-per-view buys (at $54.95) approach the record 1.9 million recorded for Tyson-Holyfield II.

        HBO and Showtime are companies that do business in radically different ways, but once they sat down to negotiate, the single most important detail was security.

        The contract called for a $3 million penalty to be paid from one fighter to the other if either was disqualified because of a vicious foul. Instructions were delivered to the fighters in their locker rooms beforehand. Security guards stood shoulder to shoulder in a diagonal line to keep Tyson and Lewis apart during the introductions. The first time they were close enough to touch each other was when the bell rang.

        Yet all the precautions turned out to be unnecessary.

        Lewis is 36 and Tyson 35, and as the fight wore on, it was clear which fighter's skills had diminished with age. The 5-foot-11 Tyson could not fight his way inside against the 6-5 Lewis. Despite repeated threats to “crush” Lewis' skull and “smear his pompous brains” all over the mat, Tyson rarely dented Lewis' defenses and never tried to foul him.

        “I love and respect him too much to be disrespectful that way,” Tyson said as the fighters stood side by side afterward.

        He thanked Lewis for giving him a chance at the heavyweight championship when no one else would and then, in the most touching moment of the evening, Tyson reached up and wiped a spot of blood off Lewis' cheek.

        With Tyson's blood still splattered across his white satin trunks, Lewis was equally gracious.

        “Some of the punches that I caught him with, he took like a man. I felt them all the way through to my hands,” Lewis said.

        But he stopped short of committing to a rematch.

        “He's asked for one. I definitely would consider it, but it depends on what the people want,” Lewis said.

        Iron Mike is done.

        People who want to see more of this should have their heads examined.

        Lewis was stronger, faster and better conditioned, and he will be every time they meet from here on out.

        This wasn't a fight as much as a clinic. Once turned out to be enough.


        Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at


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