WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Mike Tyson will no doubt be remembered, but the question as the aging fighter nears the end of his career is how history will rate him as a boxer.
Will it be as one of the sport's all-time great heavyweights or as the ear-biting bully who sometimes lost his heart when a rival hit back?
Tyson is now on a quest to regain the heavyweight title after an 11-month layoff that began when he was knocked out in the fourth round by journeyman Danny Williams of England. Tonight at MCI Center, Tyson (50-5, 44 KOs) meets unheralded native Irishman Kevin McBride (32-4-1, 27 knockouts) of Brockton, Mass.
Tyson was already on a quick ascent when, in November 1986, he sent Trevor Berbick reeling with a second-round knockout to become the youngest heavyweight champ at the age of 20. Tyson was already a three-belt titlist before adding to his mystique in June 1988, when he rose to 35-0 with a 91-second demolition of previously unbeaten Michael Spinks.
But Tyson has never been the same since February 1990, when 42-1 underdog Buster Douglas scored a 10th-round knockout, leaving Tyson on all fours, groping for his mouthpiece on the canvas and struggling in vain to put it back in.
In the years since that defeat, Tyson, who turns 39 on June 30, has twice been in prison, once on a rape conviction. He's endured two highly publicized divorces and filed for bankruptcy after grossing an estimated $300 million. In 1996, Tyson suffered dramatic beat-down against Evander Holyfield, who pinned Tyson on the ropes, pounded him and forced the referee to rescue Tyson in the 11th round.
As a result, boxing historians have begun to reassess Tyson's legacy.
Was Tyson ever as good as many of them believed, when they compared him favorably to Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali? Or was he overrated because of easy wins against intimidated rivals and the boxing world's pursuit of a charismatic, dominant heavyweight champion?
Boxing historian Thomas Hauser said Tyson's career is defined by age. "If you put the young Mike Tyson in the ring with the current Mike Tyson, the young Mike Tyson knocks him out in three rounds," Hauser said. "The young Mike Tyson would have been competitive with any heavyweight who ever lived."
Others agree, and believe the older Tyson is still capable of winning a heavyweight title.
Jose Torres, who authored a book on Tyson called Fire And Fear, met Tyson when the latter was 12. They were introduced by trainer Cus D'Amato, who had earlier guided Torres to a light heavyweight title.
"Mike Tyson was a terrific fighter," said Torres. "But when he began to get hit, he lost that determination, started to lose confidence in himself.
"Even at age 39, he is still good enough to be champion of the world if he can take blows and not get discouraged."
Former heavyweight champ and top-ranked contender Hasim Rahman, a Baltimore native, said Tyson's decline can't be ignored from a historical sense.
"The first block of his career, he seemed destined for the greatness of Ali, Louis, Marciano, Johnson, [Jack] Dempsey," Rahman said. "But if you take the second half, he falls into the second tier of heavyweights, in line with guys like Floyd Patterson."
For Tyson, a two-time champion and 20-year professional, a victory tonight might not be certain, considering his loss to Williams last July 30. But it would keep alive his hopes of meeting World Boxing Council champion Vitali Klitschko.
"What Mike had in his early 20s, he's not going to have today," said Shelly Finkel, Tyson's adviser for his past nine bouts. "But the division has four champions, and it's not the strongest. Maybe he can pick one [of the titles] up and be champion again. Hopefully, he can do that and still be great."
D'Amato made Tyson a professional fighter in March 1985 at the age of 18, determined to make him the sport's youngest heavyweight champ. By the next January, Tyson had flattened 12 of 16 rivals in one round, two more in the second round and one each in the third and fourth.
"Cus already had taught him about timing and accuracy, punching in combinations, hitting and not getting hit," said Torres, 69. "Mike Tyson punched like a mule. I couldn't see anyone surviving in the ring with him. He looked invincible when his mind and body were working together."
That November, 13 months after D'Amato's death, Tyson obliterated Berbick. It was his 26th stoppage in 28 bouts without a loss, and he won the WBC crown.
In succession, Tyson lifted the World Boxing Association crown from James "Bonecrusher" Smith; defended it by flattening former champion Pinklon Thomas; earned his third belt with a decision over International Boxing Federation king Tony Tucker; and handed former Olympic gold medalist Tyrell Biggs his first loss with a seventh-round knockout.
At the time of his fourth-round knockout of Larry Holmes in January 1988, Tyson, still 21, was dating models Naomi Campbell, Suzette Charles and Robin Givens. He had endorsement deals, and his popularity was at its highest.
"When I was young, I could fight without training sometimes. I felt like I was a superior being from another planet," he said.
Tyson was 37-0 in 1990, when Douglas shattered his aura of invincibility. He is now considered a shell of the fighter he once was. "Not so much because he has decayed physically, but because he has decayed mentally," Torres said.
"Before the Douglas fight, he was knocked down in training. And it affected him for their fight," Torres said. "He took a lot of punishment, showed a strong chin against Douglas, but it seemed like once he became aware that he could get hit and get hurt, it messed him up."
Tyson failed to rise against Williams when he appeared capable of doing so, according to some experts.
"Mike Tyson quit against Danny Williams," Hauser said, "and he quit against Evander Holyfield the second time" in their 1997 rematch, when Tyson was disqualified for biting Holyfield's ear.
Still, Tyson is perhaps boxing's biggest draw. His fight tonight is expected to be a near sellout and Showtime pay-per-view has a $44.95 fee. The bout has attracted more than 230 journalists from all over the world.
Tyson will earn $5 million to McBride's $150,000, but the former champ will likely receive only about $250,000 because of his bankruptcy plan.
"If somebody like Mike can get this much media here for fighting a Kevin McBride, he can wind up vying for the title - and who knows what kind of circus it will be if he's fighting for the title," said Rahman, who is working Tyson-McBride as a guest analyst for ESPN's SportsCenter.
"Mike's not the same since prison, but Mike Tyson can still punch," said Rahman, the WBC's No. 1 contender. "With his rough and rugged style, I'm looking for him to walk through [McBride] and bring excitement back to the division."
Earlier this week after a workout, Tyson discussed his motivation before a small group of reporters in the basement of Burr Gymnasium at Howard University.
Tyson, a father of six children ranging in age from 3 months to 16 years, claims a renewed desire to restore his legacy by once again becoming champion.
"No fighter can say they've been in the hole, in prison and come out and won a title," Tyson said. "I was fighting the prison goon squad, guys doing triple-life, guys that are never coming out. I went through that prison mentality, but I'm not that person anymore."
But Tyson still has that frightening power to end a fight in an instant.
"Mike Tyson at 23 was invincible, but Mike Tyson at 38 is still a great fighter," Tyson said. "My only timetable is that I'm not stopping until I get what I want, and [winning a title] would mean a great deal."
Main event: Mike Tyson, (50-5, 44 KOs, 233 pounds) vs. Kevin McBride (32-4-1, 27 KOs, 271 pounds) 10 rounds, heavyweights
Where, when: MCI Center, Washington, first bout 6:30 tonight
At a glance
What: Good Samaritan Bowl, a high school football all-star game for graduated seniors from Baltimore- and Washington-area schools
Matchup: East, coach Eric Knight (Potomac) vs. West, coach Dan Makosy (Damascus)
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis
When: Tonight, 6
Tickets: $12; portion of the proceeds go to the Good Samaritan Foundation for inner city youths
East local players: Brandon Johnson (OL), Archbishop Curley; Brandon Abney (WR), Brett Cheplowitz (OL) and Chris Desautels (PK), Broadneck; Alex Butt (RB-LB), Andrew DePaola (QB) and Steve Steinbacher (OL), Hereford; James Lee (RB) and Victor McCray (LB), Milford Mill; Terrell Ingram (DB) and Richard Lee (TE), Old Mill; Melvin Alaeze (DL), Efren Edwards (LB), Jamari McCollough (DB) and Bryant Parker (LB), Randallstown; James Gamble (LB), Woodlawn
Web site: http://www.goodsamaritanbowl.com/game.html
-- Pat O'Malley