Funny the odd things that stick out, looking back at something you covered more than 18 years ago.
I remember the incongruity of a heavyweight boxing contender on stage at a press event, playing a game of chess against a seventh-grader named Carlos Harbert.
This, when his opponent had most recently been in the news for turning the ear of Evander Holyfield into a hors d’ouerve and proclaiming of his upcoming opponent, “I want to eat his children.”
That was the heavyweight championship fight in Memphis, on June 8, 2002, when Lennox Lewis left Mike Tyson sprawled on the canvas inside The Pyramid like a chalk outline at a murder scene.
Lennox Lewis, chessmaster.
Mike Tyson, well, I suspect everyone would have his own definition.
One adjective: Persistent.
Eighteen years after he looked deader than Elvis in Memphis, 34 years after he won his first heavyweight championship, 28 years after he slunk away to prison on a rape charge, 17 years after declaring bankruptcy despite $300 million in winnings, 54-year-old Mike Tyson won’t go away. He had a widely viewed exhibition last fall against the youngster, 51-year-old Roy Jones, that had commentators abuzz. He continues to be a go-to for commentary and hot takes.
Spare us, Lord, but there’s even talk of a Tyson-Holyfield rematch. The fight “must happen for both our legacies,” Holyfield said.
Indeed. It’d be the perfect last line to those legacies. An over-hyped event for two has-beens who didn’t know when to quit the first time around, a money-grab for two men who didn’t know how to manage themselves or their wealth. (To wit: Holyfield once had the largest house in Georgia, a 54,000-square foot, 109-room palace once worth $20 million, that he lost in foreclosure.)
But I digress. Tyson’s re-emergence took me back to Memphis in June 2002.
I was fortunate to cover an amazing variety of events. Sometimes, this one doesn’t pop up when I start reminiscing. Maybe because the fight itself wasn’t so memorable. But the three-ring circus and the freak show that accompanied it was a columnist’s dream.
The fight logo was
Stacked on top of each other. The IS of Lewis and the ON of Tyson were different colors from the other letters. It was subtle and brilliant graphic design, reminding us the fight IS ON after it was originally scheduled for Las Vegas. The state of Nevada refused to license Tyson after a pre-fight hype press conference erupted into a near-riot on-stage. Tyson continued his foray into cannibalism by biting Lewis on the leg.
When Las Vegas says you’re too illicit for us, it says something.
Memphis snatched up the fight, then the Redneck Vegas that is Tunica became the gathering spot. Tyson’s group was at Fitzgeralds, Lewis was at Sam’s Town. Journalists who opted for the sanity of Memphis and the reward points of the hotel chains, commuted a few times during the week, being reminded that one of the most pathetic atmospheres on God’s green planet is a casino at mid-morning.
We also chased the news to the site of the chess game – Lewis would offer his financial support to a chess club at an inner-city school – and to the convention center, where the fighters weren’t even allowed in the building at the same time during the weigh-in.
“I’m just ready … to crush this guy’s skull,” Tyson said that day.
Presumably, in small enough pieces to sprinkle atop a salad.
There was a character/caricature named Crocodile Finch, who was part of Tyson’s camp, and who sported combat boots and camo. His primary jobs seemed to be (1) yelling impromptu encouragement to Tyson during the week and (2) presenting himself as column fodder for sportswriters.
The press section in The Pyramid wasn’t the glamorous ringside seating I’d seen through the years, of those writers in their stern black suits and portable Smith-Corona typewriters on which they bat out their prose. We were up in the stands, maybe 100 feet from the ring.
Wikipedia tells me that I shared space inside The Pyramid – now a 535,000-square foot Bass Pro Shops – with, among others, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, Britney Spears, Clint Eastwood, Ben Affleck, Hugh Hefner, Halle Berry, Richard Gere, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Vince McMahon, The Undertaker, LL Cool J, Wesley Snipes, Donald Trump, Kevin Bacon, Chris Webber, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Morgan Freeman and Alec Baldwin. And a guy with a shredded ear named Evander Holyfield.
From the VIP seats and from a perch 100 feet away, there was no mistaking the toppling of the villain, Tyson collapsing onto the canvas in round eight.
Checkmate for Lennox Lewis.
The bitter end for Mike Tyson.
Or so we foolishly then believed.