Tyson-Tillman, the Prequel


When HBO serves up the comeback of former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson on Saturday at 7 p.m., we will see him revisiting the site of a defeat that in some ways was more painful than the one he experienced February in Tokyo.

So boxing scholars and psychologists will have no difficulty attaching some bitter nostalgic baggage to Tyson’s assignment Saturday night. The setting, Caesars Palace, will surely summon up unhappy memories for the 24-year-old ex-champion. It was there, in the summer of 1984, that he lost in a ring for the last time until Buster Douglas pulled off one of sport’s greatest upsets in Toyko.

And when Tyson on Saturday looks across the ring at his opponent, Henry Tillman, he’ll see the man who kept him off the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.


Forget for a moment that Tyson was upended this year by Douglas, ending a championship reign many expected to run for as long as Tyson wanted.

Instead, imagine a Brooklyn teen-ager, possibly on the brink of capturing the heavyweight berth on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. And imagine his pain when he failed.

The 1984 U.S. Olympic boxing trials were in Fort Worth in June, 1984. The favorites for the heavyweight berth were Tillman, then 24, and Tyson, who was still learning to box, still learning how to eliminate the wild, out-of-control fury from his formidable arsenal.

Tillman was from south-central Los Angeles, Tyson from Brooklyn’s Brownsville. Both were dead-end kids, up from numerous scrapes with the law. Tillman learned to box at the California Men’s Institution in Chino, Tyson at an upstate New York reform school.

In Fort Worth, in a close heavyweight final, Tillman won a 5-0 decision, earning one-point margins on every judge’s scorecard. Tyson was then chosen as Tillman’s “most worthy” opponent for the Olympic boxoffs at Caesars Palace a month later. To make the team, Tyson needed to beat Tillman twice in two days. If Tillman won the first bout, he was on the Olympic team.

July 6, 1984: Before 3,018 in the Caesars Pavilion (Saturday’s Tyson-Tillman and George Foreman-Adilson Rodrigues doubleheader is in Caesars’ 15,300-seat outdoor stadium), Tillman registered another close, 4-1, decision win.

Tyson believed he had won, but good-naturedly raised Tillman’s hand after the decision was announced. Then his gloves were taken off, he left the ring, went out the door and kept right on walking. His blood was coming to a boil. He came to a salt cedar tree about 200 feet from the pavilion, next to a freeway onramp.

There, in the hot darkness, all his rage came down.

His fists still taped, Tyson rained hard punches onto the tree. Tears streamed down his face and he howled with pain. His 76-year-old trainer, the late Cus D’Amato, waited a minute or two, until the fire cooled.

Then he embraced his warrior and gently led him away, to his future.

Tillman went on to Los Angeles and won the gold medal. As a pro, his career has been largely disappointing. He is 20-4 and has twice lost to journeyman heavyweights.

Tyson, who attended every boxing session at the Olympics as an alternate, turned pro shortly afterward. He was an instant sensation, reeling off 24 straight victories until he captured his first heavyweight title, at 20, by knocking down Trevor Berbick three times with one punch in 1986.

Three and a half years later Tyson was 37-0 when Douglas, a 42-1 underdog, knocked him out.

Later, Tyson called it a painful lesson.

“I’d had too many easy victories, fallen into too many sloppy training habits, and I never took that fight seriously,” he said.

As heavyweight championship runs go, this was a good one. When Douglas won, it was Tyson’s 10th defense of the championship. In this century, only Joe Louis (25 defenses), Larry Holmes (20), Muhammad Ali (19) and Tommy Burns (11) successfully defended the title more often.

History also teaches us that the best of fighters, once badly beaten, are often never the sa me. One example: Floyd Patterson was a dominant heavyweight champion in the 1950s, but an ordinary heavyweight after he was knocked out by Ingemar Johansson.

And so boxing insiders will be inspecting Tyson with great scrutiny Saturday, when he enters combat for the first time since Tokyo. And make no mistake, Tyson was beaten up badly in Tokyo. In fact, seldom in the modern history of boxing has any heavyweight taken four punches as brutal as those Buster Douglas landed to finish that fight.

Even at that, fueled with uncommon bravery, Tyson got up and almost beat the count.

Tyson is a heavy betting favorite Saturday, but a lot of ringsiders will be watching him closely, looking for signs of distress in the former champion, should Tillman land a hard blow early in the fight.

Footnote: A year ago, hours before a Caesars Palace fight card, I wandered behind the pavilion, looking for the salt cedar tree Tyson had assaulted that night in 1984. It was gone, replaced by a maintenance yard. So much, I decided, for historic landmarks in boxing.