1 August 2004
For sheer stand-up-and-shout, impossible-to-believe excitement, it took the ticket. Here, on Friday night in the astonished pandemonium of the Freedom Hall, Louisville, Kentucky, the utterly unconsidered Danny Williams of Brixton had somehow survived an overwhelming opening blitz and now, in the fourth round, he was not just matching `Iron Mike’, he was melting him.
It was the tilt of Tyson’s left leg that told you. He held it slightly away from him like a horse that is sorry for itself. He was up in the right-hand corner with his back to us. As Williams attacked, you noticed how Tyson’s legs suddenly seemed a bit slight for his body, how his hugely muscular shoulders now had a touch of the old man’s hunch about them. Then Williams got through again and the 38-year-old Tyson was driven back to the left-hand corner. The end, the brutal, conclusive end, would not be long.
Just a quarter of an hour earlier, no impartial observer would have bet a cent on it. Sure, both Williams and his astute little manager Jim McDonnell had talked a good and, in hindsight, an uncannily accurate fight beforehand. But there had stood 31-year-old Williams with his arms hanging limply from his white silk jacket, his feet shifting uneasily on the ring floor, his eyes showing a lot of white as they flitted around the 17,000 baying for his blood. Opposite him, in black, sleeveless singlet over those massive, tattoed biceps, was Mike Tyson.
The once self-styled “baddest man on the planet” may have spent the past week showing off his new pigeons and his new “anger-free” persona, but this was the 55th time he had waited for the opening bell and he had never started nicely yet. Williams, 31 victories from 34 fights but none of them remotely near this class, was a self-confessed “tears in the dressing room” worrier. At a massive 265 lbs (18 stones 13 lbs – 32 lbs heavier than Tyson) he was hardly a lamb, but set for slaughter he surely was.
Within seconds, a Williams attempt at aggression had been torn apart. Twice Tyson’s jab, the soften-up weapon of his glory days, had cracked viciously into his opponent’s face. Williams became tentative, he even backed into a corner as Tyson marched in. Then the onslaught began. Even now, 19 years since someone called Hector Mercedes became his first victim in Albany, New York, and eight years since Tyson held a title, there was a hypnotic horror at watching the American attack up close.
There was a savagery in the way he ducked under the lead of the taller man, cracked a blow upwards and then ripped punch after vicious punch into the head and body of the luckless sufferer. As Williams hung on by the most desperate of threads, I tried to remember where once before I had seen something to equal this. Tyson was at him again, the blows thudding into the ribs with a sound you could sense through the bedlam.
Then the memory came back. It was of a bull goring a Picador’s horse one scorching afternoon near Avila. And here, where a 20-year-old Cassius Clay began his career in 1960. Williams looked an unlikely matador. The only time he had challenged at even European level he had been tossed around by a usually unfeared Turk called Sinan Samil Sam. His great legs now wobbled as he clutched forward for balance as much as protection.
I looked at the stopwatch. There were two whole minutes left of this very first round. “I am ready to be hurt more than I have ever been hurt before,” Williams said. No prophecy was ever so immediately, so unsparingly made real.
For a glorious moment Williams fought back with a brief, furious flourish. But then Tyson was at him again. Still a full minute to go. Still being backed into corners. Any moment the final, decisive blow seemed certain. Even the last ten seconds were terrible. Williams could only wobble to the corner.
But he had survived. He even got a real good shot away early in the second before being savaged anew. Tyson was still terrifying, but he was spending superhuman energy in his attempts to blow the heavy, clawing Williams away. The stopwatch was agonisingly slow but Williams made it again. This time he walked better and as he hit the stool, McDonnell leapt in front of him and gave Williams a hairdryer of a talking-to.
The third round was bizarre as well as brutal. When Tyson pinned Williams on the ropes in front of us, the big man fought back so toughly that he cracked a cut on Tyson’s eye for which the referee penalised him and then took an age to resume proceedings.Tyson now had the added danger of the wounded beast, but the jab had gone. Haymaking fists were often wasted in empty air and pushing around a bigger man was taking its toll.
So to the fourth round and the end game. In truth we never knew it was so close, only that no two men could collide so violently much longer without collapse. We had all assumed that Williams would be the one to weaken, but now it was he who had the authority and you could detect an an air of vulnerability in the beast at his throat.
Tyson was going. His instincts drove him forward but Williams’ massive fists sent him back. Twenty-six great smacking punches hammered into his head. Williams drew back a massive arm to apply the crudest of pile drivers. Tyson was not just going, Tyson was sitting on his backside gazing dumbly as the referee muddled his way through a good twenty seconds of count. At the end `Not-So Iron Mike’ staggered upward but nodded in understanding at the spread fingers in his face. It was over, over, over.
A full 10 minutes later, Tyson came slumping past amongst his minders and you actually felt sorry for him. The once scary tattoo on the side of his head seemed just a silly squiggle, the formerly fearsome dragon was heading for hospital with an injured knee and a $38 million (about £20 million) bankruptcy schedule that no Emergency Ward will ever clear.
At the press conference, Tyson’s quiet bespectacled trainer, Freddie Roach, said: “He has taken a lot of shots tonight. This definitely could be the end, no doubt about it. He said to me he was sorry, sorry he didn’t fight the right fight, didn’t keep up the jab. But I thought he showed a lot of heart. There are other ways to make money, but it is hard to walk away from this game.”
Roach, with tousled hair and a soft voice already slowed by Parkinson’s Disease, shines out like a good deed in an often extremely naughty world. Not so the local promoter Chris Webb, a diminutive figure with a dodgy moustache and an equally dodgy record which includes a cocaine conviction, four recent theft charges, and a court appearance tomorrow for allegedly breaking a domestic-violence order.
Yesterday’s trick was not to pay the money. The contracted $80,000 pre-fight deposit had still not been produced by 10.30 yesterday evening. Back in London, Williams’ manager Frank Warren vowed to cancel proceedings and Webb only escaped that ignominy by then surrendering the night’s box office takings which Warren’s aide Andy Ayling was still checking as Tyson was counted out.
Into these machinations now goes a polite, 31-year-old from Brixton whose wife, two young children, mother and father had all trekked over to Kentucky to see his finest hour. “I really was calm,” Williams said afterwards as lightning flashed repeatedly across the sky. “Tyson was tremendously strong but Jim [McDonnell] and I were certain that if I could withstand that opening rush he would begin to tire. I kept up my belief and used my weight and strength. I have had my ups and downs, but now I want to move on.”
Whether he can ever fulfil the original world title dream of his father Augustus depends on how much he may have been flattered by Friday’s performance. But what an hour that was when Danny Williams put fear aside to look destiny in the eye and forever end the hold Mike Tyson had on boxing’s demonology.