HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE UNIFICATION FIGHT : At Least, Tyson Able to Put It All Together

Times Staff Writer

Mike Tyson unified the heavyweight title in a virtual haunted hall, ghosts of champions past and future peering down from the bleachers.

Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes were at ringside, as if to check Tyson’s growing legend with their presence, a nice reminder that greatness is not forever, not even long enough. Michael Spinks, meanwhile, stood melancholy in the last row, reminding all that even Tyson’s title is not truly consolidated until he gets a somewhat better seat, say a stool, at one of these fights.

And in the ring stood Tony Tucker, a 9-1 underdog, extending this phenomenal manchild the entire 12 rounds, exposing a few weaknesses along the way. Tucker, who frustrated Tyson with his superior lateral movement, was no match in the end for the concussive champion. Tyson’s decision was lopsided. Yet, one saw in Tucker the kind of fighter who might someday dismantle Tyson.

“I think,” said Tucker (35-1), “I took some of his invincibility away. He can be hurt, he can lose. I pointed out some key factors; he fights anybody else with movement, he’ll get beat.”


Don’t get the impression that the Tyson Train was derailed Saturday night in the Hilton Center. But there was a definite deflation in audience enthusiasm when Tyson (31-0, 27 KOs) failed to demolish Tucker, who had gained his International Boxing Federation title almost by default. His was the title Spinks vacated to fight Gerry Cooney (or avoid Tyson), and he had gained it unconvincingly by beating Buster Douglas. For Tyson, anything short of a complete razing is call for apology.

And not only did Tyson fail to floor Tucker, 221, but he was jolted badly himself. Tucker, of Houston, dug with a left uppercut barely 30 seconds into the first round, with a spectacular result. “He picked me right up in the air,” admitted Tyson, of Catskills, N.Y., who added the IBF to his World Boxing Council and World Boxing Assn. titles. Tyson, also 221, took four steps backward, the first time he was ever backed up by a single punch in his two-year pro career.

The rest of the fight was a dreary affair, with lots of circling and clinching. Tucker, who later complained of hurting his hand in training, hit Tyson with other hard blows, mostly left-handed, but Tyson’s were more frequent and more telling. However, Tyson, though jabbing more, used few combinations and did not appear able to solve the clinching, which had marred a previous fight or two. And when he did punch, it was to lunge forward on his toes.

The Tyson camp, which admittedly labors under ridiculous expectations after his spectacular rise through the ranks, downplayed these failures. Tyson said: “As long as you make mistakes, no reason to be happy,” in explaining a lack of jubilation after the decision. Yet he blamed Tucker for any lack of fight.


“He was very game,” Tyson allowed, “and he hit me with some good shots. He’s been fighting for seven years, has 35 fights. And maybe I kinda took him for granted, a big mistake which I learned in the first round. But around the fifth, sixth round, he stopped fighting completely, moving more. He knew he couldn’t win.”

Tucker countered predictably: “I knew I hurt him, but my intention was to box him for five rounds and come on toward the end. But my right hand didn’t give me that opportunity.”

As for the flurry in the final round, when Tucker did take some fight to him, Tyson said, “He was looking for miracles.” Then slyly, he added: “There are no miracles here.”

Trainer Kevin Rooney has supposedly been working on Tyson’s jab to negate the unpleasant tactic of clinching, which Bonecrusher Smith used to spoil everyone’s evening. But still there was enough waltzing to make fans think of Matilda. Tyson protested: “When you’re in with a good fighter who holds and survives, there’s nothing you can do. The fight left him after seven rounds.”


The defensiveness of the Tyson camp, having to apologize for a decision in resolving the heavyweight division for the first time in nine years, suggests at least the burden of expectation he carries. It was Tyson who rose from obscurity--not even an Olympic team jump-off for him--to save this heavyweight tournament and restore some explosive excitement to a sport that had been home to fat and lazy and numerous champions. He had never walked down the aisle until March 1985. But his well-publicized trail of victims, some two a month, and his brutalizing persona have created a terrible and demanding celebrity.

Now he must answer to fans who learn that he left camp--for a girlfriend or for his caretaker?--or that he was involved in a scuffle or even that he failed to score another knockout. The pressures will only continue to grow for a 21-year-old who was largely prevented from enjoying what no man has lately done, win three heavyweight titles. It could be, as the presence of Ali and Holmes suggest, that championships are not simply something you win but something you grow into. Still, there is hope for Tyson. As Holmes later reminded, “He’s only a kid.”

Tyson, who scored a $2.5-million payday to a $1.9-million purse for Tucker (which is in escrow until various managers and promoters can carve it up), has a line of paydays ahead of him. Tyrell Biggs, an Olympic hero, is slotted for Oct. 16. There is supposed to be another winter fight in his busy schedule and then a March 21 fight in Tokyo, for which he is supposed to get $10 million to open a new arena.

Someday, maybe Spinks, although Tyson can choose to elude him just as Spinks earlier eluded Tyson. “Spinks is not on my agenda,” said Tyson. Added Rooney: “I thought he was retired.”


But bet this way: Tyson will fight Spinks, maybe even Holmes, who said he remains open to offers. Someday. Unless one of those other ghosts doesn’t get to him first.