“Iron” Mike Tyson – At His Sharpest

tyson644621By Jay McIntyre: The following is a modified version of the original article which can be found here: http://a-neutral-corner.blogspot.ca/2014/08/iron-mike-tyson-at-his-sharpest.html

He was “The Baddest Man on the Planet”, “Kid Dynamite”, and “Iron Mike”, and all of these nicknames are precise in their description of the former champion.

Guided by the enigmatic and hermit-like sage Cus D’Amato, Mike Tyson was a self-proclaimed “throwback fighter”. With the contemptuous air of Jack Johnson and the stylized hair and punching prowess of Jack Dempsey, he was eager to disassociate himself from his contemporaries, and connect himself with a more charismatic past.

Truth be told, forging the bad boy from Brooklyn into “Iron” was no small feat and it required much more than outward appearances. While the ingredients were there, the refining process involved long hours, sacrifice, and little recognition from others for the hidden toil. Sequestered away in an old house to avoid unnecessary distractions, with a surrogate family to raise him, Tyson spent long hours watching archaic boxing footage and banging away on a mattress wrapped around a post. Chores became a part of his daily routine, as was responding to a battery of trivia questions about the fighters of days gone by. Harry Greb, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, and Willie Pep were his heroes – an inspiration that served as a whetstone to sharpen his edge.

This humble method was simplistic in intent, but layered with a pedagogy lost on current generations. Cus’ fastidious commitment to teaching mental and physical lessons made the juvenile delinquent into something much more than he could ever hope to be.

It turns out that Catskill, New York was the perfect blast furnace to make Mike Tyson into the undisputed and lineal heavyweight champion of the world. Boxing in the 1980’s wouldn’t have been the same without him, but when they ended, so did his reign of terror.

Many observers say that Mike Tyson was never the same fighter when he returned from his incarceration from 1992-1995 to resume his quest to reunify the titles. Many historical observers also attributed the fall of ancient Rome to the barbarian hordes sweeping across its frontiers in the 4th and 5th Centuries A.D. Rome however, was not built in a day, nor did she fall in one. Similarly, Tyson’s fall began much earlier, and much more surreptitiously than the effects of his three years in prison.

The reality is that this blast furnace that was Catskill, New York could never hope to remove all the impurities that were fused to his very core. The constant toil to separate the essential from the unessential was as hopeless as the rolling of Sisyphus’ boulder. But it was as close to perfect as it could get, and much of those flaws: his fears, aggression and insecurities actually translated into his strengths in the ring. Harnessing those weaknesses became imperative to his style, but letting them overwhelm him could be disastrous. It was a fine balancing act walked on the edge of an iron blade.

The Baddest Man on The Planet” was at his baddest from 1985 to 1988. All the positive forces in his life still were influential, and few of his weaknesses outside of the ring were strong enough to disrupt his in-ring performances. At the peak of his talent he was a brief, yet incredible force – much like an explosion – that left a crater-sized impact on the heavyweight division.

His other nickname “Kid Dynamite” proved to be impressively prophetic.

But dynamite needs to be carefully placed in order to deliver maximum results, and it is the nuances of Tyson’s game, rather than his sheer power, that we will appreciate today.


After the jaw-dropping destruction of WBC champion Trevor Berbick in 1986, Berbick’s trainer, Angelo Dundee remarked on the singular destructiveness of Tyson’s punching. “He throws combinations I never saw before. When have you seen a guy throw a right hand to the kidney, come up the middle with an uppercut, then throw a left hook?” Truthfully, it was rare sighting.

When throwing the right hook to the body Tyson had a self-admitted tendency to move his right foot forward and to the outside of his opponent’s left foot. The main reason behind this was to make it easier to arc his right hook around the left elbow of his opponent.

Although the combination displayed against Berbick was his trademark, he really was at his best when employing his jab and his right uppercut (not necessarily in the same combination). In the case against Marvis Frazier, the jab was used to bewilder and back up Frazier to the ropes, thereby opening a clean path for the right uppercut to land. After the first uppercut, Frazier is already out on his feet, and the remaining punches are simply vicious afterthoughts.

The Jab

Being the shorter man, Tyson couldn’t stand at range and let his taller opponents unload jabs and straight rights at him. It just couldn’t work. A boxer needs to know who he is and what his body is capable of doing. Jabbing against a longer jab is a terrible idea, but doubling up on the jab to get inside the opponent or stepping in behind your jab can do wonders.

When Mike Tyson fought the preeminent jabber Larry Holmes, he used his own to great effect as a range finder and a distractor for his power punches.

In this fight, Tyson used his jab as a means to back up Holmes’ and also to serve as a shroud so that he could step in behind it to land his power punches. He did it right out of the gate in the first round, and he also did it in the frames above. One thing the camera doesn’t show in most footage is foot placement. While Tyson is stepping in to close the distance for his right hand, he has also kept his weight back on his rear foot so that he can spring forward. He also uses his left hand to clear a path for his overhand right – which is pretty clever.

Tyson would also frequently jab to the body. The more options a defender has to consider, the more difficult it will be for him to respond with split-second timing. I have said before that defense is all about anticipation. Jabbing to the body makes an opponent think about more than just one level (the head) to protect, and instead forces him to account for other hazards.

In his fight against Pinklon Thomas (a fighter known to have a ramrod jab of his own), Tyson jabbed frequently in an effort to create opportunities.

First Tyson slips and steps in when his opponent jabs. The stepping in is an important maneuver since Tyson was shorter than pretty much every opponent he ever fought and he needed to close the distance to land his hooks and uppercuts. By jabbing to the sternum after slipping, he forced Thomas to think about his body and this opened an avenue for him to hook off that jab. Of course his fight against Thomas isn’t the only time he jabbed to the body, or even hooked off the jab, but it is an instructive example to see the range of his ability during his sharpest years.

Head Movement

Head movement at its best is about binding defense and offense into one seamless maneuver (as they say in the business: “make him miss, make him pay”). Obviously the “peek-a-boo” style of defense was a Mike Tyson staple, but it was not unique to him. Years before Tyson was even born the “peek-a-boo” style was also used by Floyd Patterson, another D’Amato protégé, who reigned as heavyweight champion of the world from 1956-1959 and from 1960 to 1962. With his gloves glued to his cheeks, Tyson would use his lower back as a “ball and socket” so that he could swivel his head out of harm’s way. While evading, he would step in and time a counter punch – the left hook, overhand right, or right hook to the body being common counters.

Ring Cutting Ability

Cutting off the ring involves more than a “devil may care attitude” and forward motion. It’s an art of subtle aggression. Control of distance, diminishing the opponent’s angles of escape, and creating opportunities for your punches to land are all part and parcel when it comes to developing one’s ring cutting ability. If the pressure fighter gets too close to his opponent, then they can pop out to the sides or tie him up quite easily. Conversely, if the pressure fighter is not committed to trapping his opponent, then they have use as much of the ring as they desire. Being at just the right range lets the pressure fighter control the ring, and oftentimes the jab is crucial in achieving this.
Jack Dempsey Version 2.0

I think it’s safe to say that if you watch to old footage of Jack Dempsey and the footage of Mike Tyson some very obvious parallels can be drawn. For example, in Dempsey’s manual “Championship Fighting”, he outlines the importance of the “shoulder whirl” in generating power. In an interview with Fighting Fit Magazine in 2012, Mike Tyson’s former trainer Teddy Atlas recalled a similar emphasis on the “shoulder snap” when he was training Tyson. The torqueing of the shoulder gives added power without the need to wind up. Dempsey also emphasized the importance of the “kinetic chain” when punching in combinations, and both fighters were notorious for achieving knockouts with such a technique (to acquaint yourself with the kinetic chain, use this link: http://a-neutral-corner.blogspot.ca/2014/05/the-art-of-knockout-punch.html).

The pendulum-like head movement. The savage left hook. The body punching. The relentless pressure. The overhand right. Such descriptors easily match both men. Tyson took what Dempsey did so well when pressure fighting and added his own bit of menace to it – namely a shrewd jab and more uppercuts.

Lastly – and it’s important to note this – while Tyson has strong similarities to Dempsey – and in many ways surpasses him – he is not as well-rounded an inside fighter. Dempsey was a better at hand fighting and working in the clinch whereas Tyson had fewer techniques and often far less effective when his opponents tied up his hands.

The Decline And Fall Of The Baddest Man On The Planet

Having unified all the major titles (WBC, WBA, IBF and lineal) by 1988, Tyson had little left to accomplish. He was only twenty-two and already a king among the giants. He was both an undisputed and a unified champion – the legitimate challengers remaining were virtually non-existent.

By 1989, Tyson was still on the warpath. Frank Bruno and Carl Williams were dispatched in the fifth and first rounds respectively. But even by this time one could tell things were easy for him and that he didn’t take things as seriously as he once did. Not only that, but the decadence that comes with the trappings of wearing the heavyweight crown also distracted and took its toll on the wayward champion. Perhaps these variables could have been controlled, but let’s not also forget that the stewards of his life, Cus D’Amato and Jim Jacobs both passed away leaving him rudderless and at the mercy of the conniving Don King.

Those aforementioned flaws that could not be purged during training finally found soil to take root and it was only a matter of time before Tyson’s time was up. In 1990, James “Buster” Douglas may have been a 42:1 underdog, but he found a version of Tyson that was ripe for the plucking. Gone were the long hours in the gym, the attention to details, and – I would argue – the focus that kept him tempered and sharp.

Final Thoughts

Tyson was a great and entertaining boxer during a decade when the heavyweight division needed a captivating fighter. His style was indeed “impetuous”. His defense was impressively “impregnable”, and he was unequivocally “ferocious”. However, he was only ever all of these things at once when he was at his sharpest from 1985 to 1888. After that he was still a psychological terror, he was still a destructive force in the ring, and he was still a colossal pay-per-view draw. But he was an iron that slowly lost is edge.

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