25 years ago today, we saw the beginnings of two of the most seismic changes and stunning collapses in modern societal history.
Nelson Mandela walked out of a South African prison after 27 years of incarceration, uttering these, his first public words – “Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom. I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you the people…Today, the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognize that apartheid has no future. It has to be ended by our decisive mass action. We have waited too long for our freedom.”
South Africa was entering a new era, away from the government rule of President F.W. de Klerk and into an unchartered future with Mandela at the leadership helm. Four years after his release, over 22 million South Africans voted in the very first multi-racial parliamentary and presidential elections and on May 10th, 1994, Mandela was sworn in as the country’s first black president.
Some might think it’s silly to compare the fall of apartheid with what transpired in a heavyweight boxing match, and it truly is, but for boxing fans and sports enthusiasts, what began its accelerated disintegration on this day 25 years ago was equally as shocking.
I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. In college at the time, I was walking down 40th Street in West Philadelphia, a block away from Spruce Street and my favorite chicken cheese steak spot, Billy Bob’s.
My buddy and schoolmate Charles Adams, who knew that I was a huge Mike Tyson fan, smiled from ear to ear as I passed him on the street.
“You heard what happened in Tokyo, right? Your boy Mike Tyson got knocked out,” he said.
I thought he was simply playing games with my emotions. Picturing Mike Tyson getting knocked out was beyond impossible.
“Yeah, OK,” I laughed, as we crossed paths walking in opposite directions. He insisted that he was serious, and I chuckled again. “Mike got knocked out, hahahaha.” The thought was funnier to me than Billy Ray Valentine yelling, “That’s a Persian rug. It’s from Persia! Hold up! Hey, who’s been putting they Kools out on my floor? Who has been putting they Kools out on my floor?”
But Philly is a fight town, and as I stood in line waiting to order my food, the excited chatter in Billy Bob’s was all about how the most indestructible and belligerent forces in modern boxing had been not only outboxed, outfought and beaten, but knocked out by the relatively unknown challenger, a 42-1 underdog by the name of Buster Douglas.
In one fell swoop, an era that had extended beyond the boundaries of merely boxing and sports had ended. Most fight fans were blinded by the image of him watching black-and-white films of depression area fighters, of the black boxing boots he wore into the ring, of him eschewing a robe for a towel that had a hole cut out for his head to fit through.
Tyson was the unbeaten Heavyweight Champion of the world, the youngest to ever win the belt. He walked into the ring that night on February 11th, 1990 with a ferocious and frightening reputation. He was already being mentioned among the all-time greats, a guy with superhuman strength who used his jab to get inside, worked the body, was an unhittable target due to his head movement and finished the night’s work with uncanny acumen for terrifying knockouts.
“Tyson used to stun you with those quick deliveries, the quickest since Joe Louis,” Hall of Fame trainer Eddie Futch told Sports Illustrated in 1991. “But the value of his punch was realized in combination. He’d finish you off after he stunned you.”
Tyson walked out of the Douglas fight as a mere mortal, though, and a man who had run away from his potential, deserted his technique and neglected his gifts. He’d be bankable again for a few more years, but never truly relevant any longer.
His skills had eroded due to a combination of arrogance, fame, wealth, drinking and drugging, the greedy, clever and sinister manipulations of Don King, and the duplicitousness of Robin Givens and her moms. The man who could have been one of the greatest fighters of all time, it soon became evident, was consumed and destroyed.
It was one of the most abrupt and unanticipated falls from power ever, like the apartheid rule in South Africa.
Yup, 25 years ago today, both of those things happened.