Twenty years ago this week, the sport of boxing ended. It’s biggest star – who, coincidentally is still more famous than any current fighter – was taken from the ring in the prime of his career and the sport never recovered.
Twenty years ago this week, Mike Tyson raped Desiree Washington. The sport died at that point.
Oh, sure, you can argue that guys like Oscar De la Hoya and Roy Jones Jr. and now, most recently, Manny Pacquiao, have been relevant. But that would be a bad argument to take up. None of them have been like Tyson. None of them have been able to carry a sport. They cannot rally an entire U.S. nation to take notice.
(Since 2000, Sports Illustrated, a weekly magazine, has produced just two covers featuring boxing – one with Oscar de la Hoya and Floyd Mayweather on it and another for the movie The Fighter in 2010. A movie has garnered as many covers for a sports magazine that publishes at least 52 times a year than actual fighters. Now, how’s that argument of the aforementioned fighters hold up?)
When Tyson was put away in early 1992, boxing was put away as well.
There has never been an athlete in modern times that has been incarcerated in the prime of his career when he is his sport’s most public figure. It would be like Peyton Manning going to prison now. (Kobe Bryant was accused, but never convicted, and his image has since recovered.)
Tyson was the undisputed heavyweight champ of the world just a year before the July 1991 rape and the youngest-ever champ.
For all of the attention Pacquiao is receiving – he has his own clothing line with Nike, even – he is not the undisputed champ of any weight class. Tyson was the top dog in the only weight class that casual fans care about.
He was a destroyer. He won his first 19 fights by knockout with 12 of them coming in the first round. He was a badass and America loved him. They loved him because they were afraid of him.
Yes, he was nuts. Robin Givens admitted that on television. But that was one of the reasons why he was beloved. We want our mean and nasty fighters to never lose that edge. Tyson embodied that. He scared the living shit out of people.
Yet, on the flip side, he had arguably the most successful sports video game until the Madden franchise.
So Mike Tyson appealed to kids who played his video game and to adults who watched his fights. He was a crossover star, accomplishing all this by his 25th birthday.
He was the next Muhammad Ali. Tyson was going to be more marketable than any athlete ever before. He was must-see television.
Then, the rape occurred. Tyson was put away and he took boxing with him.
Sure, he did have two of the highest-grossing pay-per-view fights upon his return, but that was more of the fact that people wanted to see Iron Mike again. It’s not like folks were paying top dollar to see Lennox Lewis or Evander Holyfield or Riddick Bowe. No one cared about those guys. They weren’t destructive in the ring. They won a lot of fights but not in the one-hitter fashion that Tyson did.
Why do some people watch NASCAR? For the crashes. People watched Tyson for the chance of seeing someone get knocked out in 20 seconds. It was a car accident inside a boxing ring. People could not turn away.
After he gave Holyfield the Van Gogh treatment that was the most-talked about thing in boxing before or since Tyson was put away for raping Washington.
Sadly, Tyson now has become a caricature of himself. He tattooed his face. Heappeared as a joke of himself in a hit movie. He has produced an iPhone app to try to bring attention to himself. He has filed for bankruptcy. He is a mess.
When Tyson raped Desiree Washington and subsequently went to prison, it was a blow to the boxing world. And it never recovered.