With Mike Tyson headlining the 2011 Boxing Hall of Fame class that was inducted this past weekend, it sparked some fairly chippy public skirmishes between boxing writers over whether Tyson should be in Canastota. On one side are those who argue Tyson was a major force in the heavyweight division, one of the most famous boxers and sporting figures of all time, etc., etc., and on the other side are those who argue Tyson lost every major fight of his career.
There’s a certain kind of entertainment to be had in such skirmishes, of course; who doesn’t enjoy a war of words between top-notch wordsmiths? But in reality, there’s virtually no value in these particular battles over the Hall beyond those empty calories. The truth is, there are no standards for who deserves induction, and without them, any boxer can be voted in for any reason whatsoever. It’s all up to the Thomas Hausers and Dan Rafaels and Rusty Rubins and Lint Baldwins of the world to just go, “Yeah.” And from there, you can debate all you want whether “yeah” was the correct answer, but without any rules of engagement, it’s almost entirely a meaningless free-for-all.
That’s not to say that debates about fighters’ legacies can’t be legitimate. That Tyson is now in the Hall of Fame is as good a time as any to debate his legacy. I’ll come down on the “pro-” side below, vis-a-vis Tyson, but also examine how boxing differs from other sports on Halls of Fame when it comes to its standards.
I asked pal o’ the site David P. Greisman — who gets a Hall vote by virtue of being a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America — whether voters receive any instructions about what qualities are Hall-worthy. They don’t. [SLIGHT UPDATE: They kind of do, but it’s very non-descrptive, per the scanned document from dpg below.] (This was a subject we recently discussed in the Open Thread, with another pal o’ the site, willfrank, raising the original question that got me thinking about this.)
The Hall site itself is beyond vague about what makes a fighter Hall-worthy. The closest it comes is that it explains its mission as being to “chronicle the achievements of those who excelled.” Which could mean nearly anything.
Baseball writers are at least given some kind of directions for Hall voting: “Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
Basketball is a bit looser, too, than baseball. When Reggie Miller got snubbed this year, it laid that bare.
Deciding who’s worthy for any Hall of Fame is already subjective. You can try to make arguments relying on objective facts, such as statistics, but ultimately there are going to be reasonable disagreements among even baseball writers about how you measure “integrity” or “playing ability.” But when there are no standards at all, it’s left purely to individual choice.
I’m not saying the Boxing Writers’ Association of America needs to develop standards. I have no opinion on that proposition. There’s something to be said for anarchy, sometimes. But if it wants to do a better job of minimizing vast differences in the quality of the fighters its writers induct, then maybe standards would be a good idea. It’s really all about what you’re trying to achieve. (There’s also something to be said for of process of inducting three modern boxers every year. Some years have exceptionally weak classes of Hall of Famers [see: 2010], and some years good fighters get left out.)
Without standards in place, many writers use their own criteria, which vary widely. A similar thing happens with varying pound-for-pound criteria, which writers and fans use to try and decide who are the best fighters in the world right now regardless of their weight class. The difference is, there’s no building memorializing the current pound-for-pound fighters, like there is for the Hall of Fame.
That brings us to Tyson.
I have experienced Tyson much differently than other boxing fans and writers. Although I was aware of and loosely followed boxing during the period where he was the sport’s reigning star and anti-hero, I only became a passionate fan of boxing around the turn of the century. As a kid, I remember what a huge presence he was and what a destructive, intimidating force, but it was only later that I really came to scrutinize his career on its merits. I’m not saying I see him better than boxing writers or fans who followed him closely in the days where he was one of the most popular athletes on the planet; I’m just saying that I see him differently, separated from the emotion Tyson generated at the time.
Those who criticize Tyson for never beating much of anybody speak the truth. He did get upset by Buster Douglas, he did lose to Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis and he did lose the “aura of invinciblity” that helped carry his early career. But this underestimates Tyson a good deal, I think, to focus on only those aspects of his boxing life.
Prime young Tyson, the man who still had Cus D’Amato in his corner or retained the vestiges of his training, was an extraordinary boxer. We always remember the power, of course, because how could you forget it? — but we do forget some other things. He was exceptionally fast for a heavyweight. And he was very well-schooled. Watch Tyson on one of those days when ESPN Classic has a marathon. Watch how he bobs and weaves, works the body, covers up with his gloves well, punches in combination, sets up the knockout. Then, because the marathon will eventually get you there, watch how different a fighter he was against Douglas. Wide open to be hit, rarely more than one big punch at a time, no movement. It wasn’t just losing the aura of invincibility that hurt Tyson. It was losing his technique.
It’s an important thing to consider because there’s a school of thought that Tyson was some kind of balloon of perception that burst. No. He was very good, once. In fact, he was the youngest heavyweight champion ever, and that says something about his talent.
One day while flipping through one of Ring Magazine’s year-end awards issues, I spent some time studying all their old pound-for-pound polls. To my surprise, I found that Tyson was ranked #1 — atop fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard — for both 1986 and 1988, and probably would have been in 1987, but they didn’t do a poll that year for some reason. Prior to those years, and for several after, Tyson was in the top 10. A poll is a poll, also subject to individual tastes, but those annual polls are usually a fairly accurate snapshot of who the best boxers in the world are, insofar as such a thing can be known.
You can say of Tyson, “But who’d he beat? An old Larry Holmes? Michael Spinks?” For starters, yeah. It’s true that Tyson presided over a pretty weak era of heavyweights, but you could say the same about any number of heavyweights of the past few decades. What made Tyson pound-for-pound worthy was sustained dominance. And “dominance” is the right word. It’s not like he pounded out workmanlike decisions mixed with the occasional big knockouts like Lewis or Wladimir Klitschko. Tyson obliterated people. And by the way, I’m not saying Tyson was a better heavyweight than Lewis; I’m just saying that we credited Lewis and Klitschko in pound-for-pound evaluations based on sustained dominance over weak competition, and Tyson deserves some credit for that as well.
Then there are certain intangibles. If I had a Hall of Fame vote — and I don’t, nor have I sought one — I’d take into account the “fame” part of things when considering Tyson. There was a point in time where he was as big as a boxer gets. He left a massive psychic imprint on the world, at least by an athlete’s standards, and on the sport as a whole. Some of that was for his infamy, as much as his fame, for worse as often as it was for better. To this day, “Tyson biting off Holyfield’s ear was the end for me” is a reason people site when people tell me why they don’t follow boxing (I often ask, but a mystifying number volunteer it when I tell them I’m a boxing writer; it’s a strange thing to do to someone when they bring up a passion/job, but whatever). I enjoyed prime Tyson. I’m not sure I like his legacy. But his impact on the sport is irrefutable, good and ill, and if any boxer deserved to be voted in based merely on profile, it would be Tyson.
Oh, and by the way, I agree with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. making the Hall, an obvious choice, as well as Kostya Tsyzu, a less obvious choice whose induction has spawned some mini-debates, but I like Tszyu in the Hall because he’s one of the best ever in his division.
Of course, you should feel free to disagree with me. It might even be fun to argue about it. But without any standards as to who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, we won’t get very far.