Pretty Boy vs. Kid Dynamite: Mayweather against Tyson, in their Primes

By Boxing News - 01/02/2023 - Comments

By Joseph Hirsch: Few fighters have transcended the sport in the way that Mike Tyson has. The only fighter who most fight fans and laypeople would recognize as more transcendent would be Muhammad “The Greatest” Ali.

Floyd Mayweather, by contrast, splits the fight crowd and doesn’t so much transcend the sport as embody its greatest success story. “Floyd played the game better than anyone else,” is how sports commentator Max Kellerman put it, which isn’t quite the same as saying he is the greatest. But Floyd not only got out with “his wits and his winnings,” as Chris “Simply the Best” Eubank once so aptly put it. He so cleverly turned the tables on the promoters and managers that he became a sort of avenging avatar for every boxer who’d ever been screwed out of their earnings. Some criticized his defensive style, claiming it shaded toward the negative and the spoiling. Those same people also claim he was too picky about who to fight and when, avoiding Antonio Margarito altogether and only coming for Pacquiao well after his prime. But if Floyd hadn’t made the moves he made, he might be walking on his heels, slurring his words, sleeping on a cot in some boxing gym’s broom closet. And let’s not focus just on his business acumen and showmanship to the exclusion of his incredible skillset.

He never touched canvas (though some debate that he did in fact when fighting Shane Mosley), and he never lost (though some argue he did to Jose Luis Castillo.) But even his most ardent detractor has to admit that his reflexes were unparalleled, his defense Fort Knoxian, and his counterpunches as certain and lethal as tripwire.

Floyd made it look easy most of the time, even when he was in hot water. When the other man was swinging hardest, and the crowd was baying loudest for his blood, Floyd was usually at his calmest, most composed. And against Chino Maidana, Emmanuel Augustus Burton, and Miguel Cotto, he showed he had a great heart to go with the brain. He was not a man to falter before the sight of his own blood.

If you like the “hit and don’t get hit” school of scientific boxing, you have to admire Floyd’s sublime radar and peerless work ethic. If you’re moved more by the gladiatorial ferocity of a man fighting as if it he either wins or dies, your heart goes to Mike.

What might have happened, though, if both men had met in their primes? If we got our hands on a DeLorean with a Time-Flux capacitor and took it to the past to pick both men up for a squared circle rendezvous. Of course, we would also have to either blow Floyd up to Mike’s size or shrink Mike down to Floyd’s size when Money was in his Pretty Boy prime. But since we have a time machine, we might as well throw in the matter shrinker for good measure.

That begs the question, though, presenting another prelim we have to get out of the way before going further. When exactly was Floyd’s prime? If you think he was better when still more offensive-minded, under the tutelage of Roger Mayweather and calling himself “Pretty Boy,” you might pick the Diego Corrales fight.

People forget that the match was considered pretty much a pick ‘em at the time and that lots of fans were shocked by Floyd’s total outclassing of Chico Corrales.

Early riders on the Floyd bandwagon, though, might even go back to his dismantling of Gennaro “Chicanito” Hernandez. Seeing Floyd, when he was still basically a kid, dismantling the rugged champ round by round, was both painful and awe-inspiring. You felt bad for Chicanito but couldn’t help admire how Floyd defused that bomb without breaking a sweat.

With Mike Tyson, his prime is much easier to locate, at least for this fan. It’s the night that he removed all doubts that he was the lineal champ, the night he utterly annihilated Michael Spinks. It was already over at the stare-down stage, where Mike bored his eyes into Spinks’ skull while Spinks dropped his eyes and his lip seemed to quiver. The actual fight (which lasted a shade over ninety seconds) was like watching a hungry pit-bull devour a steak tartare.

Setting coordinates, first, for January 2001 and snagging Floyd, then scooping up Tyson in June of ’88, it’d be time for the punters to start handicapping.

The first question would be one of psychological edge. The consensus around Tyson is that he was a bully and that when his opponents possessed a jab and some sangfroid, they could neutralize his unbridled aggression. There’s some truth to this, but not as much as Tyson’s naysayers would have you believe. When forced to go the distance (against James Tillis, for instance), young Tyson was more than happy to get the rounds and gain valuable experience.

Post-prison Tyson was easily frustrated and had an appetite for human cartilage, but that’s not the Tyson we have before us. And here’s something else to bear in mind. Tyson intimidated even when he didn’t intend to, especially the pre-prison Mike. As someone who was there at the time, I can tell you: Mike speaking softly while wearing a button-down cardigan was more frightening than Mike with the tribal tattoo on his face threatening to eat people’s children.

I have no doubt that Floyd, if faced with that version of Tyson, would remain a professional and work his gameplan, but the terror would be there. How much of a factor it poses is the question, but I would hazard it wouldn’t be a negligible factor in the handicapping.

Would Floyd get out of those first couple of rounds, though, would he tame the fire or succumb to it? Floyd, like most master boxers, usually got better as the fight progressed. He could be caught cold, even flatfooted, in the early going. And Mike was at his most brutal and focused for the first two or three stanzas, launching himself, practically sun fishing like a bucking bronco that refused to be broken. Where most fights were measured in minutes, Tyson’s were usually adjudged in breathless seconds, especially during his rise against journeymen and part-time fighters. Every moment that his opponent remained standing on their feet seemed like a moral victory for the hopeless underdog.

Tyson liked to lunge, which Floyd usually punished with check hooks or pull-counters used to lure the opponent in for a brutal combination. But when Tyson lunged, he did so behind metronomic head movement, the famed bob, and weave, that might have let him get inside on Floyd.

His short arms made such a strategy a fait accompli in every fight, but by the time he’d gotten done bum slaying, he’d turned his disadvantage into his greatest asset. Tyson didn’t have a great wingspan, but neither did the t-rex, and it dominated the Cretaceous as effortlessly as Tyson ran the eighties.

Tyson broke a cardinal rule in his peekaboo stance by squaring up to gain extra leverage, which would give Floyd a big target. But the head wasn’t just in motion when Tyson advanced, but also when he was sitting on his punches.

Tyson was also compact, a small target with his elbows tucked tight and head guarded behind the wall formed by his upraised arms.

Once Tyson got inside, in the first round—probably in the first minute— he would be at his most dangerous, faster, and more vicious than anyone Floyd ever faced. Would he have been able to make hay, though, land those jackhammer uppercuts that lifted men off their feet and sent them stumbling to the canvas? Could he perform a task that’s unthinkable to all the fanboys in their TBE-fitted hats (who also got suckered into buying Floyd’s NFTs?) Could Tyson actually take him out in a round or two?

I think we get some of the answer to this in Floyd’s method of manhandling guys when they were in close. Some of this involved forcing the clinch when the other wanted to fight in the phone booth. Floyd had a way of toying with anyone who tried to engage inside, especially when he wanted to continue working mid- and long-range. This was especially true when Floyd was on the ropes. Anytime I saw someone corner Floyd, the crowd would roar its approval, but the promised shellacking never really happened (though Maidana came closest.) It looked good if you were in the cheap seats and only saw the action from Maidana’s side, but most shots hit Floyd’s gloves or rolling shoulders.

Like Canelo or James Toney, Mayweather took Ali’s rope-a-dope and added slips and shoulder rolls to the defensive arsenal. And unlike Ali, Floyd never went to the ropes because his legs were tired or to compensate for flagging stamina due to wear and tear or undertraining.

And Floyd’s stamina never flagged, not only because he was monastic in his training but because he didn’t do as much running as his critics assert.

Floyd, despite being a great boxer, didn’t rely on the dancer’s footwork we associate with the pure boxer, the balletic Ali or backwards-bicycling Pernell Whitaker. Instead, he held his feet, usually staking his claim in the middle of the ring, getting the kind of leverage we usually associate with punchers.

And as Teddy Atlas is fond of saying, like the real estate market, boxing is a game of “location, location, location.”

On the ropes, Mayweather could probably handle Tyson. In the no-man’s land of center ring, though, where he also liked to work, he would be much more vulnerable. And it only takes one shot from Mike to change the complexion of the fight. A lot of Floyd’s good work could be undone in fractions of a second.

But despite Mike’s head movement and high shelling guard, I think he takes some punishment moving to meet Floyd at center ring.

Mayweather had triphammer counters ready for any advancing onslaught, and his jab to the body was a strength-sapping demoralizer unlike any other. People got tired of chasing Floyd pretty quickly. And the pain in the gut along with the frustration, usually turned their grand designs for victory into more modest plans to simply survive.

Tyson ultimately lives or dies against Floyd—kills or is killed—based on whether he can get inside and whether, once inside, he can work.

To the first question, I answer in the affirmative, and to the second, I answer with a resounding no.

Hell, yes, Tyson could get inside on Floyd. Tyson could get inside the Pearly Gates of Heaven after cursing out Saint Peter even if God surrounded those Gates in rings of fire. But no, once inside, I don’t think he could work against a Floyd who used angles and footwork as well as good old-fashioned clinching to stymie every boxer’s momentum. Floyd also had a way of sneakily positioning fighters, touching them with his arms extended as if trying to arrange their posture for a family photograph. It was so subtle that most fighters let themselves be guided by this gentle shoving until they were in the kill zone.

A lot might depend on who was refereeing and how apt they were to allow men to fight their way out of the clinch rather than being broken up. Ricky Hatton’s trainer Billy Graham claimed that ref Joe “Fair But Firm” Cortez simply wouldn’t let Ricky work inside. This forced Ricky to keep crossing no-man’s land after breaks, which eventually led to the hook that dropped him like a sack full of cement. And while Hatton is no Tyson (who is?), there is some truth to this argument.

Floyd wasn’t big on dirty fighting, but he was such a purist that he wasn’t a big fan of rough fighting either. A ref with a big blindside or one who preferred to let men fight their way out of clinches might give Tyson a chance to land the Sunday punch.

That said, I don’t think the third man in the ring determines the ultimate outcome of the fight. I think the outcome of this fight, like every fight Floyd fought, would be determined by Floyd.

If prime Floyd fought prime Mike, I think, the event itself would be anticlimactic. The roar of the crowd would eventually give way to sporadic boos that would metastasize into an unending chorus of boos. Yes, I’m saying this mythical matchup between two all-time greats with larger-than-life personalities and contrasting styles would probably result in a stinker. Admittedly a lucrative stinker, but we already saw that with the Pacquiao “superfight.” We don’t need to time travel or shrink matter to see it again.

And while Floyd was no dependable knockout artist, I think that eventually, exhaustion with jockeying for position inside would fatigue Mike severely. I think it could get to the point where a light breeze (or at least a three-punch combo) from Floyd sends him to the deck, and exhaustion keeps him down.

But more than likely, we get a wide unanimous decision for Floyd, unless Don King somehow sneaks into the DeLorean and works some magic for Mike. But how the hell is Don “Only in America” King going to sneak into the back of a DeLorean DMC sportscar with that tower of hair?

For Floyd Mayweather versus Mike Tyson, my money would be on May.

Just don’t tell Mike I said that.