By Steve Bunce
MIKE TYSON vanished to Nepal with an infected face tattoo, carrying 40 pounds of fat and with an injured back when he withdrew from his February 2003 fight with Clifford Etienne.
Jeff Fenech went back to Perth and Freddie Roach stopped waiting for Tyson to show at the Las Vegas gym and just went back to his room.
This all happened 10 days before the first bell and there was a lot on the line in the fight; a rematch with Lennox Lewis was planned for 21 June. Lewis would instead fight Vitali Klitschko on that date in his last ever fight.
This is all true, by the way. Well, the rumours were true. Anything crazy that you think Tyson Fury is capable of, forget it – the original Tyson genuinely had people losing their minds. I thought the bit about Nepal might just have been true. Tyson had talked about living a spiritual life quite a bit over the previous couple of years. He was going to be a Dutch monk for about five minutes.
Etienne’s story has been told; the short version is that he started to box inside Angola prison when he served 10 years for armed robbery. He had been a kid of 18 when he was arrested. In Memphis, Etienne was getting very agitated and was not thrilled at the prospect of his one-million-dollar purse vanishing because Tyson was having a meltdown. There was a suggestion that two reserve heavyweights were placed on standby and were lurking in the shadows; Etienne’s state of mind was being monitored. It was not the first time, and it would not be the last time.
And then, on the Monday of fight week, Tyson withdrew with “flu-like symptoms”. This was particularly tricky as I was flying on the Tuesday. I went anyway. When I was in the air, Tyson announced he was back in, and he called Roach, and they got on a plane. That was a relief. This was the fight where a fake Tyson landed in Memphis in a private jet and kept his head and brand-new face tattoo hidden under a towel. There were a lot of rumours and photographs of ‘Tyson’ ducking into a car after landing. He whacked his head on the door. It was not him; Freddie and Mike were on another private jet, which landed on the Tennessee border, and they got in without notice. That was at about midnight on Tuesday; at the same time, Etienne was threatening to pull out and he was serious. He discovered that two other heavyweights were waiting to fill his boots if he had second thoughts. There was a feeling that Big Clifford, who was not that big, was scared. The notion insulted Etienne.
On the Wednesday, after a long wait, Tyson and the face tattoo appeared for the first time. He had with him his small son, Miguel, who had made his boxing debut in his father’s dressing room the summer before at the end of the Lewis fight. Tyson sat the boy on the top of the conference table, sat himself in a chair at the end and spoke to us for over an hour. It was vintage stuff, he seemed happy.
“Lennox is a great fighter, hopefully I can get another chance,” he said.
He laughed at all the rumours about his health and body. He never said much about Etienne. I think by about the Thursday, when there had not been much from a jittery-looking Etienne, it was obvious that Tyson was going to have an easy night. Bruce Seldon, another armed robber and felon, had folded in one round in 1996 at the MGM. Seldon lasted until 1-49 of the opening, before coming to rest face down with his arms near his head. It was an odd position for a knockout. There remains a debate about the Seldon ending; most people believe that Bruce took a dive and that he was simply overwhelmed by Tyson.
Etienne was not as good as Seldon; the question was whether he was braver? He had beaten Lamon Brewster, who had been 23-0 at the time, he had been stopped by Fres Oquendo and had drawn with Frans Botha in his previous fight. Etienne’s Angola prison boxing record was meant to be 30 and zero. Maybe, who knows.
Anyway, as the fight got closer and closer, it was obvious that Tyson meant business and Etienne simply did not want to be there.
Etienne was braver in the end and tried to let his fists go, he actually tried to let his fists go after Tyson had thrown his punches. It was not a bad tactic, but it meant he was open and that is why he walked onto the final right hand that buckled him over his legs. He hit the canvas flat on his back and stirred at about the count of eight. He never beat the count; it was officially over at 49 seconds of the first. Tyson rushed to help pick him up. People accused Etienne of faking it.
Tyson never got the Lewis rematch and was stopped in his next two fights before walking away.
Etienne fought on, but in 2005 he had a “cocaine psychotic” moment when he car-jacked a family, robbed a store at gunpoint and shot at the police. He was arrested and sentenced in 2006 to 160 years in prison. It was reduced to 105 years.
There was one real laugh in Memphis that week. The sight of infamous figure skater, Tonya Harding, making her debut and wearing a pair of shorts that would have been too big for Riddick Bowe. She lost, by the way.