How fighting Lennox Lewis was a turning point in Mike Tyson’s popularity as bad blood from press conference brawl and interview was changed in one moment that paved the way for The Hangover, podcasts and a whole new fanbase
Mike Tyson’s knockout defeat to Lennox Lewis 20 years ago marked the end of his time as an elite-level heavyweight boxer, but the beginning of his unlikely renaissance with the sporting public.
Everything aligned in June 2002 to create a personal and professional rock bottom for Tyson. Struggling with drink, drugs, debt, lawsuits, depression and rage, the then 35-year-old had the last remnants of his ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’ reputation crushed by Lewis as the hotly-anticipated showdown ended in a one-sided beating.
But Tyson’s courage in the ring and his gracious behaviour afterwards were the first steps on his public recovery. A path that led from hangovers to ‘The Hangover’; and from being a pariah to one of the most popular ex-sportspeople on the planet at 55 – an age many thought Tyson would never reach. Least of all himself, 20 years earlier.
The bad blood before the Lewis-Tyson fight had been intense. “I want your heart, I want to eat his children,” snarled Tyson about a then child-less Lennox after his first-round KO of Lou Savarese in Glasgow. When the pair later came face-to-face to promote their contest, Tyson stalked across the stage to attack Lewis.
“Put him in a straight jacket!” shouted a member of the media, prompting an expletive-filled rant from ‘Iron Mike’ – one that you probably wouldn’t want your own mother to hear, let alone a watching worldwide TV audience. Tyson’s actions were so outrageous that even Las Vegas – ‘Sin City’ itself – voted against staging a fight that would be the biggest PPV hit of its era, selling 1.95million buys in the USA alone.
Instead Tyson’s challenge for Lewis’s world titles took place in Memphis, Tennessee. Except it wasn’t much of a challenge. After a lively first round, Tyson – who had peaked at a far younger age than his opponent – ground to a halt under a steady barrage of Lewis jabs and uppercuts. In the eighth round, with Tyson bleeding over both eyes and from the nose, Lewis finally knocked him out with a booming right hand.
Tyson, the vulgar street thug, had been vanquished in his last heavyweight title fight. Yet in the aftermath, public opinion was already turning his way. As Lewis and Tyson paid one another respect in the ring, ‘Iron Mike’ admitted that his pre-fight insults were just part of the hype, pausing to gently wipe away blood from Lewis’s face mid-interview. The man who had wanted to eat Lewis’s kids was now telling him how much he loved the Brit and his mother.
“The little gesture of me wiping the blood off Lennox’s cheek was seized on by all the boxing writers,” Tyson said later. “They thought that I had been heroic in defeat. And for the first time, a lot of them started to see the human side behind my facade.”
In his changing room post-fight Tyson was interviewed again, this time cradling his young baby Miguel in his arms. “Daddy had a bad day at the office,” Tyson replied when playfully asked what Miguel made of the fight.
The answer to a question on where Tyson went next brought a more ominous answer. “I might just fade into ’bolivian,” Tyson said, famously mangling ‘oblivion’. “I don’t have nowhere to go or nuthin to do. I’ll just go fly my pigeons on the roof in New York, you know.”
The counterpoint to Tyson’s arrogance and insults were always that he saved his harshest criticisms for himself. He was brutally honest about his own failings. And, almost always, had a refreshing lack of excuses in defeat.
He’d taken similar blows from Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield in their first fight, but those were such monumental shocks that the upset inevitably became the whole story.
The Lewis fight, in which Tyson was a pre-fight underdog, was different. The world could now focus on Tyson’s grit in fighting through the punishment. If some believed that his biting Holyfield’s ear in their rematch was Tyson ‘looking for a way out’, there was no quit in him in Memphis. Tyson ate 193 punches from vaunted puncher Lewis – including 15 power punches in the fight’s final round – demonstrating his heart and his chin.
His bravery during the fight and humbleness after it softened views of Tyson. But they did nothing to take the edge off his demons. Tyson’s private life continued to veer out of control and in 2003, he filed for bankruptcy despite having earned over $300million in his career. But opinion was shifting. Instead of condemning the spendthrift fighter, many were asking who had been ripping him off all this time.
Tyson had spells in rehab but the next turning point in his public profile was his appearance in 2009 mega-hit ‘The Hangover’. The comedy did wonders for the PR of Las Vegas – ironically the city had banned Tyson before the Lewis fight – and for the former undisputed champion’s public profile. An older crowd got the nostalgia pop of seeing the heavyweight phenomenon of their youth channel his feral charisma on screen; a new generation were being introduced to Tyson and being sent down YouTube rabbit holes of his sensational KOs.
Soon Tyson, the demon barber, was threatening to give the Jonas Brothers a haircut during a live skit at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards, then appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s show to talk about his life in graphic detail. Cameos on ‘Entourage’ followed and by 2014, Tyson was voicing himself in a Scooby Doo-style cartoon series ‘Mike Tyson Mysteries’. This from a man once jailed for rape, shunned, a fighter who seemed public enemy no.1 in his own country.
Sympathy towards Tyson and the hand life dealt him, from his troubled upbringing in Brooklyn’s ghettos to the exploitation he was subjected to at the peak of his fighting powers, played a part. But there was also Tyson’s acceptance of his many flaws, his lacerating self-honesty, qualities on show after his pummelling by Lewis’s fists.
In 2022, Tyson – with a popular podcast, successful media career, happily married – cuts a different figure to the one to the menacing fighter of 20 years ago. Even if, judging by the 1.6million US buys his 2020 bout with Roy Jones Jr did, he might actually still be the biggest draw in heavyweight boxing.
This remarkable comeback began in the ring 20 years ago. Tyson lost that night on 8 June but, outside the ropes, he has battled back from the brink so many times it has earned admiration.
After all of the opponents he knocked down and out, it appears Mike Tyson continually picking himself back up has been the defining success story of his life.