Updated: Nov 26, 2020
Exhibition. The word on everyone’s lips as former undisputed heavyweight champion ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson comes out of retirement to take on former four weight world champion Roy Jones Jr. The two men, 54 and 51, will face off in a supposedly non competitive affair.
Although the phenomenon of exhibitions is relatively new to modern boxing fans, their significance is not lost on Tyson. A man who’s appreciation for boxing history has been a feature of his career, ever since his mentor Cus D’Amato began to show him film reel so many years ago.
From being a young boy he idolised two men above all others, two men, for whom what Mike has chosen to do now was not alien, but familiar. Both Jack Dempsey and Muhammad Ali participated in several high profile exhibitions, for entertainment, charity, money and sometimes bragging rights.
Boxing's two most transcendent boxing figures, many will argue that Tyson is the third, a pop culture figure as much as a heavyweight champion.
The first major exhibition in the series that will culminate with Tyson v Jones is the one that had the most devastating outcome; Jack Dempsey v Clarence Preston “Cowboy” Luttrell.
In 1940, 13 years after his retirement a 45 year old Jack Dempsey had spent most of the millions he’d earned in the prize ring. Like so many fighters Tax and poor investments had left Jack in need of money.
While Dempsey was guest refereeing a wrestling match in Atlanta, he got into an argument with a notorious ‘Heel’ (a wrestling villain) Cowboy Luttrell. After the bout Cowboy stated "I've licked tougher guys than Jack Dempsey, There's never been a boxer who could beat a good wrestler. I want to be known as the guy who KO’ed Dempsey."
Later on the two exchanged words and swings, and after a few days passed the bout was agreed.
The ‘exhibition’, unlike Saturday’s fight, was booked under the traditional Queensbury rules, for the night of July 1, 1940 at Atlanta's Ponce de Leon Park.12,000 keen spectators bought a ticket, just looking to see the man who two decades earlier had been the biggest sporting star in the world.
Lutrell though was only a wrestler and when the two came together the blows of an out of shape (205lbs) Dempsey looked as though they had come from the 187lbs Jack that had faced Willard 21 years prior.
It took only two rounds for Jack to win. He dropped Cowboy four times and bloodied his face badly. Ultimately it was a big left hook knocked the 226lbs Lutrell through the ropes and into the first row, where he struck his head on a camera case and lost consciousness.
This only has limited parallels with the bout this weekend. Yes Tyson and Dempsey employed a similar style and have both been out of the ring for some time but unfortunately for Mike, Roy will certainly be a more accomplished opponent than Cowboy.
The next great exhibitions came from Tyson’s hero, a man whom he would eventually have the prestigious honour as acting pallbearer for, Muhammad Ali.
First came in 1976 when Ali accidentally invented mixed martial arts. Facing Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in what Ali believed the bout to be a non competitive pro wrestling type match.
He even trained with pro wrestlers Kenny Jay and Buddy Wolff in televised WWE style bouts where Ali was the agreed winner.
Despite the implicit agreement when the fight came about in the Nippon Budokan Inoki tried to legitimately defeat Ali. To avoid the champions punches; Inoki lay on his back and kicked Ali's legs 107 times uninhibited by the referee.
Although judged as a 15 round draw reaction was mixed. The Associated Press said “what is called by some the world's first Martial Arts Championship and by others a multi-million-dollar sham".
With the rise of the UFC in the west, this bout has received great reverence in MMA circles but the boxing community still regards the bout with a more critical eye.
Comparisons here are limited and are more like what we saw in the early days of MMA, but clarity of the rules will not cause confusion this weekend as it did then as this time there has been a published rule set, agreed upon by both fighters.
Ali’s next high profile exhibition is one from which more parallels can be drawn. In 1979 he took on American Football star Lyle Alzado
Alzado was a 30-year-old star defensive end for the Denver Broncos, and an amateur boxer who fancied his chances against Ali. He had been a Golden Gloves champ with a 44-1 amateur record before choosing the NFL.
Ali was 37, and had just won back the heavyweight title from Leon Spinks. Out of shape but always willing to cash in on his stardom the fight was signed.
Alzado was a star and backed the promotion so much that put up his house as collateral, to cover the promotional costs. The fight took Place at the Mile High Stadium, home of Alzado’s team the Denver Broncos, on July 14, 1979.
The fight itself wasn’t pretty. Alzado was just two days out from preseason so was a big strong 255lbs and tried hard in the unscored exhibition to earn some respect from the boxing public.
Ali on the other hand was out of shape, having not trained at all since the Spinks fight. The gulf in class was obvious, but so was the gulf in conditioning. Ali clowned his way through, only becoming serious on two occasions when Alzado really tried to knock him out. Ali’s response each time was a razor right cross, simply serving to remind Alzado that it was an exhibition.
Financially the bout was a disaster. They expected 60,000 people, but they ended up getting 20,000, but only 11,128 we’re actually paying fans.
The fight only made $209,000 and Ali was guaranteed $250,000. Alzado was supposed to make $100,000, but ended up with nothing. Nine years later the promoters and Alzado were still fighting a legal battle all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, over money owed.
One comparison that could possibly be drawn is the difference that conditioning can make in place of skill. Both men in their 50’s conditioning could be key to a victory.
The other cautionary tale is finances, Alzado and the Denver promotional outfit overestimated the appeal of a ‘freak show’ fight. With Tyson v Jones on PPV all over the world and no crowds the financial risk is high, will the gamble pay off?
What Tyson v Jones will be, even now in fight week, remains unclear. Yes we know the rules, yes we know the fighters and the venue but will they approach it like Dempsey? Try hard for the knockout? Or will they be Ali, coasting to victory?
Exhibitions are unique because unlike regulated boxing matches they each have different rules and take place in very specific, very different, circumstances. The only thing we know for sure is that this is not the first anomaly, and it won’t be the last.
Ewan Breeze for SimBoxx