LAS VEGAS -- Mike Tyson proved he was ready to tackle bigger game after knocking out Francois Botha, South Africa's self-proclaimed "White Buffalo," at 2: 59 of the fifth round last night at the MGM Grand Garden. But, the former heavyweight champion raised as many questions as he provided answers with his uneven performance.
After being frustrated by failing to land a telling punch in the first four rounds, trailing on all three scorecards, the 7-1 favorite ended the scheduled 10-rounder in explosive fashion with a straight right hand. Botha tried to beat Richard Steele's count, but was obviously out on his feet when the referee signaled it was over.
Fighting for the first time in 19 months following his suspension by the Nevada Athletic Commission for biting Evander Holyfield's ears in his last encounter here in June 1997, Tyson looked extremely rusty as he repeatedly missed with right hands and failed to put any punches together.
"I'm very rusty," Tyson said. "I think I'll be a better fighter if I stick with [new trainer] Tommy Brooks. But I'm not ready to jump into a championship fight."
Tyson (46-3, 40 KOs) said Botha was trying to goad him into a dirty fight and almost succeeded when the first round ended with Tyson elbowing his foe in the neck. The trouble started when Tyson locked his right arm in a vise-like grip and Botha responded with a punch. "He was trying to break my arm," Botha said later. Asked about it later, Tyson said, "He's correct."
The first round ended with about a dozen people in the ring trying to separate the fighters. Steele delayed the start of the second round for 45 seconds while he talked with Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Steele then warned both fighters before he allowed the match to resume.
Tyson was bleeding from a cut over the right eye from the first round and it seemed to bother him. He complained to Steele about butting, but it was Tyson who was penalized a point, for excessive holding, in the second round.
Despite the distractions, Botha was leading on two cards by a 40-35 margin and 39-36 on the third before the sudden ending.
"I was trying to bait him," admitted Botha, who lives in Newport Beach, Calif. "I just walked into it [the final punch]."
Germany's Axel Schulz, a ringside witness, is expected to be Tyson's next challenge April 24 on pay-per-view. Schulz lost a decision three years ago to Botha for the vacant International Boxing Federation heavyweight title, but it was declared "no contest" when Botha tested positive for steroids.
After behaving for the past week like a loose cannon with his profanity-laced conversations with the media, Tyson vented his anger on Botha, a hulking heavyweight whose 39-1 record had been built on a succession of non-entities.
Botha was more than holding his own in the mauling, dirty fight when Tyson landed a bomb to the South African's chin with 10 seconds left in the fifth. The 233-pound Botha went down in a heap, tried to get up, then dropped back into a sitting position. He got up at the count of seven, but fell back into the ropes and Steele waved the fight over.
When the fight ended, Botha slumped again to the canvas and Tyson went over and tried to help him up.
"He was talking a lot of smack and stuff, but I was cool," said Tyson, who blew his cool in the MGM Grand Garden in his rematch loss against Holyfield.
"Everybody said I was losing my confidence. You know what, they were talking bogus about me. It made me angry. No one was going to disrespect me. I just need to fight," said Tyson, after only his seventh bout in the last eight years. "I need to put on a better show."
The sudden ending concluded a fight that almost ended in controversy at the end of the first round. It also saved a career that was in jeopardy.
"I'm going to go right after him," Tyson had said before the fight. "I expect him to go down, out cold."
Until the end, however, Tyson looked anything like the Iron Mike who took boxing by storm in the 1980s.
He missed with many of his punches before landing the one that saved the night.
Botha was the first to enter the ring, wearing, of course, a robe of buffalo hide. He looked slightly scared unlike the confidence he displayed in the pre-fight proceedings. Tyson was greeted by a big ovation, garbed in his customary simple black robe and trunks.
Tyson, at 223, was the heaviest of his career, but still 10 pounds lighter than his bulky rival.
In the opening seconds, Botha landed several ineffective jabs. Tyson missed with a big right but landed a stiff cross. Botha answered with a crisp combination. Surprisingly, it put Tyson on the defensive.
The round ended in chaos when Tyson elbowed Botha in the throat. Botha answered back while Steele helplessly tried to part them.
Both corners emptied into the ring before order was restored. Tyson got warned by Steele for throwing another elbow early in the second round and Steele deducted a point for holding.
Tyson pressed the attack but was having difficulty landing a solid punch as Botha countered with chopping rights. A right to the body and another to the head knocked Tyson against the ropes. Again, the two fighters shoved each other after the bell.
This seemed to enrage Tyson, who flew out of his corner at the start of the third round, but Botha effectively tied him up. Tyson missed with two wild rights, but most of the round was spent in clinches. The South African landed a lead right hand as Tyson showed signs of frustration.
This was Tyson's first appearance in five years minus the support of promoter Don King and managers John Horne and Rory Holloway. He dismissed the trio after his second loss to Holyfield, charging them with mismanaging his financial affairs and suing King for $100 million.
For his second comeback (his career was halted in 1992 for three years following a rape conviction in Indiana), Tyson hired Shelly Finkel as his new manager and Dan Goosen as his promoter.
He earned a $10 million purse compared with $1.85 million for Botha.
The atmosphere in the arena lacked the electricity of previous Tyson fights. Many seats were given away or severely discounted as ticket sales lagged.
If anything, Botha grew too confident and bold as the fight progressed. He'd proved capable of overcoming Tyson's bullying tactics and was scoring points with light combinations. There were moments in the early rounds when the crowd laughed occasionally at Tyson's ineffective attack.
But Botha got too close to Tyson's punching range in the fifth round. He threw a slow, wide right just as the Brooklyn native fired the short right that ended it and earned Tyson grudging respect.
Earlier, unbeaten International Boxing Federation lightweight champion Roberto Garcia (32-0) of Oxnard, Calif., survived a late rally by John John Molina (45-6) of Puerto Rico to win a unanimous 12-round decision by identical scores of 115-112 on the three judges' cards.
Garcia dominated the early rounds, repeatedly shaking Molina with ripping right hands. But he showed signs of fatigue in the closing rounds.
Molina dropped Garcia with a chopping right in the final round, but could not finish the job. A low blow by Garcia in the closing seconds left Molina in severe pain when the bout ended.
Zab Judah (19-0) of Brooklyn, a left-handed Pernell Whitaker clone, won the interim IBF junior welterweight title by stopping Wilfredo Negron (17-4) of Puerto Rico at 1: 44 of the fourth round.
Judah, a masterful boxer, proved much too quick for the unorthodox Negron, who attempted to rough up the New Yorker in the early rounds with some wrestling tactics.
"Bring on Vince Phillips," said Judah, offering a challenge to the IBF champion whose 140-pound title was put in escrow when he was having trouble making weight.
Ghana's Ben Tackie saved his best fighting for the 12th and final round, when he scored a flash knockdown, but it was too little, too late in his fight with Mexico's Goyo Vargas for the World Boxing Council Continental America lightweight crown.
Vargas (39-6-2), a former WBC champion, was far busier throughout the bout and landed the more telling combinations in handing Tackie (18-1) his first loss as a pro.
Pub Date: 1/17/99