Mike Tyson’s most underrated KO came against the greatest heavyweight he ever fought – Larry Holmes – and it helped Tyson fulfil a promise of revenge made to his hero Muhammad Ali.
The brutal fourth-round knockout in 1988, after a bad-tempered build-up, was a 21-year-old Tyson’s fifth heavyweight title defence.
His 91-second stoppage of Michael Spinks or the demolition of Trevor Berbick to win his first title belt are viewed as Tyson’s most iconic wins – but the victory against Holmes is remarkably impressive in retrospect.
The often underappreciated Holmes was the dominant heavyweight force of the late 1970s and early 80s. He made 20 successful world title defences – more than Ali, Tyson or any heavyweight except Joe Louis – and reached 48-0 before losing two close, controversial decisions to Spinks.
Tyson’s KO of Holmes came when the ‘Easton Assassin’ was 38 and many at the time saw it as a young puncher laying waste to a past-it great. But Holmes actually had a late-career resurgence after his loss to Tyson, winning 21 of 24 bouts – including a famous upset of previously undefeated Olympic gold medallist Ray Mercer – and challenged twice more for world titles, going the distance with Evander Holyfield on one occasion.
Notably, no heavyweight – before or afterwards – was able to do what Tyson did. Holmes fought some ferociously big hitters but only ‘Iron Mike’ was able to stop him in his 75-fight career.
Yet Tyson had extra motivation beyond just keeping world titles and adding to his highlight reel of KOs. As a teenager, Tyson and his mentor Cus D’Amato had watched on TV as an aged Ali had come out of retirement and been given a one-sided pasting by Holmes, his former sparring partner.
“Ali got the s**t kicked out of him. Cus was mad… I’d never seen him that angry before,” Tyson recalled. D’Amato called Ali post-fight and put his young protege on the phone with one of his idols. “Don’t worry champ,” Tyson told Ali. “When I get big, I’m going to get him for you.”
It was a promise he’d keep in spectacular fashion eight years later. The Tyson vs Holmes promotion saw Larry – whose tongue could be as vicious as his lacerating jab – take several swipes at the youthful champion.
“I’m unbeatable,” said Holmes, who bitterly disputed his defeats by Spinks. “I’m going down in history, not Mike Tyson. He’s going down in history as a son of a bitch. If he do happen to win this fight, down the line he’ll destroy himself.” (Tyson later admitted that Holmes had at least called the last part right, observing: “I guess he was Nostradamus that day.”)
But only one man looked right on the night in Atlantic City. Tyson punched a hole in his dressing room wall pre-fight and emerged without music and bare-chested, striding to the ring with his unmistakable black trunks, socks and boots.
Holmes was a rangy 6ft 3in and his plan was clearly to tie Tyson up in close, while catching the champ coming in with jabs and right hands. For three rounds, the first part at least worked OK as Holmes held, spoiled and avoided much of the incoming firepower.
However, Tyson was displaying his underrated head movement to get inside Holmes’s jab and was, in fact, landing plenty of his own sneaky, sharp jab.
In the fourth round, everything changed. Holmes came out bouncing lightly on his feet, doing a curious impression of Ali in his prime. Pretty soon he was bouncing off the canvas.
Tyson broke through with a sledgehammer right hand that sent Holmes flat on his back. The 17 years older boxer got up, as he always did – Holmes’s powers of recovery were legendary – but on rubbery legs. He tried to cover up and to fire back but neither tactic worked. A combination sent Holmes down for a second time.
Displaying tremendous heart, Holmes got up a third time and almost made it to the end of the round. Yet with seconds left, a series of clubbing blows sent Holmes spread-eagled to the mat, referee Joe Cortez pulling out his gumshield without even bothering to count.
“A bull in an antique shop,” assessed HBO analyst Larry Merchant, summing up the prevailing feeling that the fight was largely a case of Holmes being too old to compete. But in fact Holmes would hang around near the top level for another decade – and no heavyweight was able to come close to pulling off what Tyson achieved and walking through him.
Not that it made the prickly Holmes any kinder towards his conqueror. Tyson later recalled their post-fight exchange: “I leaned in and said: ‘You’re a great fighter. Thank you.’
‘You’re a great fighter too, but f*** you,’ Holmes said back to me. “F*** you too, motherf*****,’ I said.” At least Tyson kept it modest to the media, telling them he wouldn’t have stood a chance against Holmes at the peak of his powers.
But in seeing Holmes off in style, Tyson had fulfilled his vow to Ali – and also beaten both of the fighters who defeated ‘The Greatest’ at the tail end of his career, as Tyson had already blasted through Berbick.
“I had a personal stake in the fight,” Tyson said in his autobiography, Undisputed Truth. “Cus and I had been talking since I was 14 about beating Larry Holmes. He had given me a blueprint – hit him with the right, behind my jab. I thought I would become part of boxing history by taking Holmes out and avenging my hero Ali’s defeat.”
Tyson ended up making boxing history throughout his rollercoaster career. But his explosive beatdown of a fellow heavyweight great is a sometimes overlooked victory, one that only appears better with age.