This was the greatest version of Mike Tyson, and Donald Trump wanted to make sure Frank Sinatra could see it.
The current US president demanded the ring at his Atlantic City casino be lowered so that the legendary American singer did not have to arch his neck for a view of the action.
After all that, Sinatra did not turn up on fight night – but Tyson did, with menace. And Michael Spinks was there too, briefly.
It took 91 seconds. Spinks never fought again. A man with 34 straight wins, one of which had ended the 48-fight unbeaten record of Larry Holmes, was bowled over by fear, fury and ferocity.
The 1988 bout – unpicked by Mike Costello, Steve Bunce and former world heavyweight champion David Haye as part of the new BBC Sounds Greatest Fights podcast – was the pinnacle for ‘Iron Mike’.
Thereafter a cocktail of mismanagement, distraction, defeat and prison would turn an unbeatable force into a fallible human.
Trump sat ringside. The $11m he paid to stage the bout worked out at around $121,000 a second.
But the spotlight was on his resort and the Monday night fight allowed gamblers a full weekend to wager an estimated $344m (£282m) in the city’s casinos, almost $130m (£107m) more than an average four-day take.
Tyson was bringing crowds – and fear – like no-one else in the fight business.
Feel the fear
In the changing rooms, Tyson punches a hole in a wall after Spinks’ manager objects to the way his hands are gloved.
“In the other changing room, the real story is how Spinks is falling apart,” says Bunce. “Emanuel Steward said Spinks told him he was not going to be able to leave that room.”
In his white gown, 31-year-old Spinks raises his hand in the ring. Watching it back, Haye remarks: “He just looked petrified, absolutely petrified. I was about seven and remember fearing for him.”
Tyson, three days short of his 22nd birthday, is pushed by a security-heavy entourage of around 100 through the crowds. The eerie accompanying music conveys to the 22,000 attendees that something menacing is in the air.
Ring announcer Michael Buffer has already reeled off the names of around 80 celebrities at ringside. Sinatra may be missing but actor Jack Nicholson looks on as Muhammad Ali – who tipped Spinks to win – stands in the ring and tells his pick to hit and move.
Within 45 seconds Spinks throws a right hand and Tyson ducks it before hammering back. If Spinks was tentative initially, such moments suck away even the faintest belief.
“The punches Spinks are throwing are ‘stay away from me’ punches, ‘how long can I last punches’,” remarks Haye.
A left uppercut followed by a right to the body sends Spinks down for the first time as a professional. He nods, steps forward and instantly walks into a right hand that ends the show.
Brief it may have been, but Ring Magazine named it round of the year. Spinks would later admit: “Fear was knocking at my door big time.”
Costello says: “It was one of the most destructive performances in the history of the heavyweight division.”
Haye replies: “I think this was the best Tyson there ever was. At this stage he is as unbeatable as you can ever imagine any fighter in history ever being. Prime Lennox Lewis, prime Muhammad Ali – whoever you say, they are going to have one of the hardest nights of their life against this guy.”
Tyson had 35 wins and seemed unstoppable. He used his press conference to ask journalists why they ignored his boxing ability and only gave him credit for his ferocious knockouts.
Bunce adds: “There was no-one at that time talking of what we talk about now – a great defensive boxer. All they talked about was annihilation.
“That Tyson belongs with the greatest on great nights. Unfortunately where he went after that, with each calamity and disgrace, he starts to issue himself with an exit warrant from any top list. But on that night, that was a fighter that could go anywhere.”
Sinatra’s advice unheeded
Tyson picked up $22m for beating Spinks and held the three major heavyweight belts at the time. ‘Iron Mike’ had it all.
But within months he and actress Robin Givens were heading for divorce, manager Bill Cayton was ousted and long-time trainer Kevin Rooney – who had steered Tyson’s career following the death of former trainer and father figure Cus D’Amato – was replaced.
The few elements of consistency in an otherwise chaotic life had disappeared. Within two years his titles were gone too, surrendered to James ‘Buster’ Douglas in one of sport’s greatest shocks.
A fighter who had become an icon for a generation of young would-be boxers had already seen his best days come and go.
“If he is having that impact surely he belongs in the top 10 heavyweights of all time but the argument against that is that on those nights he was really asked to find something he didn’t,” Costello says.
Haye replies: “I find it hard to say someone is in the top five of all time if they have never had to come back to win.
“He was a baby in boxing terms, but at 21 he peaked. Had he had Rooney in the corner, people looking after him and investing his money, he could have been number one, without a doubt.”
Less than four years after that night in Atlantic City, Tyson was imprisoned for rape. After his release a brief reign as world champion would be followed by losses to the likes of Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. A career that promised everything, and delivered plenty, left behind too the disappointment of potential unfulfilled.
“Listen kid, it’s not how good you’re doing, it’s how long you’re doing good,” Sinatra once told Tyson.
We will never know how good Tyson might have gone on to be.
But on the night in Atlantic City that Sinatra missed, he did not need long to do good.
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