IT WAS fight number 57 for Mike Tyson at the Freedom Hall in Louisville on that hot, hot summer night.
Away from the ring his chaotic life was in a lethal free fall, his career over, most of his money gone and he was also a broken man. Back then, we never cared about the man’s personal health and issues – all we worried about was his lawsuits, rumours of a rematch with Lennox Lewis and how much money he owed the United States government. He was close to suicide, and we still asked about a second Lewis fight. The travelling British press could be a harsh machine.
In the ring that night, against a backdrop of glorious nostalgia, Brixton’s Danny Williams was preparing to change his life by feasting on what was left of Tyson’s boxing life. Williams had nothing to lose.
Freddie Roach had been with Tyson for just one fight and, like Freddie does, he held court like the persuasive boxing statesmen he has always been. He was ageless Freddie at his best when he told us what to expect. He talked of greatness, of sensational sparring sessions, of his plans for the Lewis rematch. We now know that he never believed a single bloody word he said! The problem was, we did. When Freddie backs his man, he backs his man to the bitter end. “It was an impossible job,” Roach admitted a decade later. “It was a waste, it was hard to work with him.”
It was July 30, 2004, and the days ticked away behind a fake wall of smiles and too many promises that there was a lot of quality Tyson nights yet to come. The crazy thing is, some of us held out hope that it was possible. That was what Tyson could do to a man’s judgement and there was still enough of the Tyson machine in Louisville to remind everybody just how good he had been.
Crocodile, the late Steve Fitch, was howling, Tyson was shuffling menacingly from event to event. There always seemed to be the same desperate men surrounding Tyson. Don King’s cronies were gone, but there were no problems finding others to fill the empty roles.
At the same time, in another part of town, Williams and his people were winning over new friends. As expected, nothing was too much for Williams; he was the antidote to the attitude of Tyson, who was at his last stand as a major attraction. The fight in Louisville was not his last, but it was without doubt his final night as Iron Mike, his final night as the man who once ruled the world. Lewis had, in 2002, beaten the last of the fear out of him, but he had left enough of the man’s name intact; in the old Louisville ring, Williams would erase the name.
A year earlier, Tyson had filed for bankruptcy; it was a bad time with an arrest for an alleged assault and he had finally fallen out for good with Don King. He was 37 at that time and skint. He owed a Las Vegas jeweller $173,706.05, the Ferrari dealership in Beverly Hills $60,605.00 and a Los Angeles law firm $382,028.02. However, the bulk of the $27 million dollars of registered debt was owed to the American revenue services in unpaid taxes. Make no mistake, Tyson was in a very bad place when he arrived in Louisville to fight Williams. He wore a mask, we ignored some of the signs.
His previous fight had been in February of 2003 and it had been at the end of an unpleasant week in Memphis. There was a lot of the old rage back in Tyson. On the night, he had needed just 49 seconds to drop and stop Clifford Etienne. It was, in the end, painful to watch the utter fear on Etienne’s face as he walked to the ring, stood in the ring and waited for his own massacre. Tyson had been doing that to opponents since he turned professional. Etienne was a hard man, a felon, an armed robber and had been part of the boxing programme at Angola prison. He was untouchable as a prisoner and that helped him get an early release. And he could fight, make no mistake. In 2006 he was sentenced to 160 years, reduced to 105, for an armed carjacking that went wrong.
In Louisville in July 2004, after days of Muhammad Ali sightings and memories, Tyson closed in on the inevitable when he walked to the ring in the ornate Freedom Hall. It was the ring and venue for Ali’s first professional fight all those years earlier. Williams had already walked in the footsteps of Ali to get in the ring. That was, let’s be honest, fantasy enough for sweet Danny: fighting in Ali’s hometown against Mike Tyson.
It was also the venue for the last known Ali Shuffle to ever be performed in public and in a ring by The Greatest. It is a beautiful story, I watched from 10 feet away, crying like a child that evening. It was the gala night for the Ali Cup in 1997, an international amateur boxing event that never took place again. Over 12,000 were in the Freedom Hall. Tyson had failed to show, Evander Holyfield had been there and the blood was still dark and crusty on his bitten ear; the Bite of the Century fight had been 10 weeks earlier. The plan was for Ali to make them shake hands. An apologist from King’s retinue called Sig Rogich was there to make excuses for Tyson. He was booed.
Then it happened. In the ring, James Earl Jones was sitting, trapped in the building’s only beam of light. He was reading from Ali’s book. There was total and utter dark inside the Freedom Hall. Just that voice, telling the story of an angry boy losing his bike. You know the rest. It was breathless stuff.
It was mesmerising in the silence of a Louisville night, then there was a sense of movement in the utter blackness, a gentle disturbance. The lights came slowly on, the crowd stood and he was there. Muhammad Ali was in the ring, moving, moving like a man with no damage or shackles or fears or cares. He was 55 that night. He was moving like the old Ali and Jones kept reading, and then it happened.
Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, did the Ali shuffle in a boxing ring for the last time, a great shuffle, not a stumble, but fluid and clean and beautiful. “Ali, Ali, Ali,” they howled. It was a miracle that night and in 2004, Williams pulled off another trick to finish Tyson in four. Same ring, different magic. Tyson sacrificed at both events.