Twenty-five years ago this month, Iron Mike Tyson fell to the mat in front of a silent Tokyo crowd. No one knew what to make of it when James 'Buster' Douglas' hand was raised. Amid all the storylines of love, loss, abuse, and betrayal, Mike Tyson's ring career lived and died by his opponent's jab.
In boxing there is nothing so certain as the fact that the jab will make all the difference. Fights are won and lost because of the straight left, even in the case of fighters who do not rely upon it. Even Jack Dempsey, an all out battler, wrote that you can tell who is winning a fight by how effectively the jab is working. How the left straight is applied, or countered, is the entire story of a boxing match. Perhaps no case is so clear as that of Tyson.
When Mike Tyson, then known as Kid Dynamite, won the world heavyweight title at the tender age of twenty he became the youngest man to ever do so. The previous record holder, Floyd Patterson, had a good deal in common with Tyson because they were both trained. Both men were trained in a unique style of boxing by the great coach and innovator, Cus D'amato.
D'amato was by all accounts a genius. He recognized, as many fighters and trainers have, that a fighter is at his most exposed when he is opening up with his offence. D'amato also realized that when a fighter is moving constantly, he is an exceptionally difficult target. Consequently D'amato's school of boxing stressed movement of the head a great deal more than was the norm at the time, or even today.
Floyd Patterson was a terrific example of this. His leaping left hook out of a crouch became as much of a trademark as his blistering hand speed. This infamous “Gazelle Punch” or “Kangaroo Punch” laid out Ingemar Johansson, Archie Moore and a few others.
When we say movement of the head, we actually mean movement of the trunk—or even, as Jeff Fenech would point out, movement of the hips. The head is not alone, and no movement is done with the neck because the neck much be ready to absorb shock at any time. Nobody can actually avoid getting hit altogether.
What D'amato stressed was the idea of elusive aggression. D'amato's fighters were taught to always be in motion and to keep their head moving after their punches. The famous saying is that if a fighter is trying to be hard to hit, he should be fine. If he forgets about it, he's going to get hurt.
Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres, and Mike Tyson—D'amato's three most successful students—were known as terrific punchers in close, and their numerous knockouts attested to it, but most of their best connections and knockdowns came as they moved in under their opponents' punches.
Now the idea of getting to the inside was nothing new, Joe Frazier had knocked out dozens of men in the 1970s by moving in on them, but the science and variety which D'amato applied to it was certainly a game-changer for the men he trained.
One of Frazier's absolute best performances as he battles Muhammad Ali.
Frazier's head movement, while containing slight slips from side to side, almost invariably involved bending forward at the waist. Not only is it difficult to continue advancing while bending forward in this manner, it also makes a fighter tremendously susceptible to the uppercut. When George Foreman started smashing Joe Frazier with his thudding right uppercut, Frazier was left with a tough call. He couldn't stop bending at the waist, that was all he knew how to do, but if he kept doing it he would keep being met by uppercuts.
“Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”
Archie Moore repeatedly cried “underneath!” to Foreman and that uppercut, along with the thudding left hook that followed it every time Frazier tried to stand back up, took the heavyweight title.
The genius of D'amato's movement was that he had his boxers slipping so deep that they were bending over almost sideways in many instances. Where Frazier moved up and down with a little deviation off of the centerline each way, D'amato's boys were well off to one side or the other as they ducked. Any one slip done by Tyson was a hybrid between a deep slip to the side and a vertical change of level. Consequently Tyson's slips could evade every punch in the boxing arsenal.
Here Tyson performs seemingly a slip to his right side, but it is deep enough that a left hook goes clean over the top of him.
A little exaggerated show-boating. Notice that Tyson is well off line when the uppercut comes through though, rather than desperately trying to stand up in answer to it as Frazier often had to do.
So much of Tyson's training with D'amato was spent on being elusive, difficult to hit, not simply responding to his opponent's blows. One particular trademark of D'amato's peek-a-boo style was the especially deep inside slip.
An inside slip is where one slips to the inside of the opponent's jab. Ordinarily it is much smarter to slip to the outside of the opponent's jab (the elbow side, to your right if you are fighting against an orthodox fighter) because he has no follow ups on that side. If you slip to the inside you are placing your head directly in front of the opponent's right hand. Consequently fighters have either gone to it only occasionally—when they feel their opponent is jabbing without intention to throw the right—or used the cross guard to make it safer as Archie Moore did.
The D'amato method was to slip to the inside of the jab but not to do it by turning the trunk and bending slightly forward—the classical slip—instead bending down deep to the left side, so that the fighter's head was carried well below where the opponent's right straight could come through. When you hear old D'amato students talk about head movement, they often stress that it is throwing the hips out to the right more than it is leaning down to the left. By slipping to the inside of his opponents' jabs, Tyson put himself in perfect position to jump in with his counter punches.
Tyson was good on the inside, but it was never really where he was best. Guys lasted surprisingly long by simply tying him up. Even a thirty-eight year old Larry Holmes tied Tyson up relatively easily through the first three rounds, and only really got caught when he began to tire. Most heavyweights don't understand the tie ups especially well, but Holmes had been through dozens of rounds of sparring with Muhammad Ali so he knew how to hold.
Tyson had techniques there, we could talk for hours about Tyson's double ups, the famous Tyson shift, or his work from the southpaw stance, but unarguably his best moments came as he bridged that distance, on the way in as his opponents panic jabbed at him. The pressure, the slip and the counter were the essence of Tyson.
Where traditionally the jab is a long, lancing, relatively safe weapon, for D'amato's fighters all it did was present cuts of meat. The left rib cage was open for the right hook, the right jaw line was often open for a left hook due to a drooping passive hand, the right temple was wide open for the cross counter. Tyson's finest hurting blows against his best opponents came as they opened up.
Ultimately though, Tyson fell victim to his own hype. The focus was always on what a tremendous hitter Tyson was, rather than how he landed such clean blows. The perpetual elusive head movement became evasive head movement—only reacting to opponent’s blows. Tyson began to walk his opponents down where before he held back until he was invited in underneath the opponent's blows. Much of this had to do with the death of Cus D'amato himself.
Much has been made of the relationship between D'amato and Tyson, but all you need know is that D'amato was the role model that Tyson was never lucky enough to have in his youth. The frank conversations that Tyson has had on camera about his mentor do much to hammer home just how much they meant to each other. But the footage of the two men in the gym is perhaps the finest.
It's summed up in the famous film of Tyson hammering a heavy bag with a five punch combination in a split second and D'amato saying “Your head is coming up. Get it perfect. It's good, but it's not perfect.” and Tyson attempting it again even more crisply. Maybe it was staged for whatever they were filming, but Tyson clearly cared about D'amato's opinion, and D'amato's perfectionism exhibited itself in Tyson's fights.
After D'amato's death, Tyson was not the same fighter. He worked for a while with Kevin Rooney, one of D'amato's most trusted students, but eventually the two parted ways. Even if Rooney was every bit the coach that D'amato was, the relationship was clearly not the same, and Tyson was not the same. He was getting hit more, he was throwing two punches at a time and no more. He was fighting on the lead as a brawler, rather than on the counter as his opponents panicked.
It all came to a head in Tokyo. With a multi-million dollar bout with Evander Holyfield set to follow, Tyson took on James 'Buster' Douglas, and Douglas boxed Tyson's ears off. Tyson was in a toxic marriage, surrounded by people who were using him, and with a trainer who had no idea what Tyson's game was about. But to point to that alone is to take away from Douglas. With an eighty-three inch reach, Douglas was physically gifted, but spurred on by the death of his mother, Douglas fought the bout of his life.
Douglas danced under the ring lights like a young Ali, feinting his jab and dancing away. Feints followed by genuine jabs had Iron Mike bamboozled, and Douglas began opening up with combinations in the very first round. Douglas was there to box, but he was also there to fight. Douglas gave every bit of the performance he needed to—he butted Tyson, he hit him on almost every break from the clinch after noticing the referee didn't care, and he smashed his forearm into Tyson's face every time the shorter man wanted to tie up.
Through the rounds Douglas repeatedly connected on that back-stepping right straight which Ali used so often, and which was perfected to an art form by the forgotten champion, Jimmy Ellis. By the seventh round Tyson didn't know where he wanted to be. On the outside he was getting lit up, on the inside Tyson was being fouled to the point where he would tie up, get broken by the ref, and end up back on the end of that tremendous jab.
The end came as an exhausted Tyson moved forward, head in one spot, and ate a thunderous uppercut.
A feinted right hand into a quintuple jab. Beautiful stuff.
In the ring, Tyson lived and died by the jab. At his best you couldn't hit him with a handful of sand, every lead was an opening and Tyson would return everything thrown at him ten-fold. But when he couldn't get past that jab, Tyson's physical disadvantages peaked through. His height disadvantage meant he couldn't work if he was kept at range, and his breathing difficulties from childhood gave him difficulty in the later rounds.
Lennox Lewis—who eventually beat a far past prime Tyson—used to say when commentating fights that you had to give props to the man who was leading and making stuff happen because he's putting himself in danger. Really it's an outlook thing, but the magic of Tyson at his best was that his opponents knew leading against him was suicide, but they'd still end up doing it anyway.
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