When many consider a fighter like Mike Tyson against the early heavyweight greats they either dismiss the ability of the old-timers and consider them “too small” or go the other way and canonize them above modern fighters. The critic will weigh the likes of Jim Jeffries, Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey in their day versus Tyson under modern rules. The first misconception that the old timers couldn’t fight is simply not true and while size does matter it can be trumped by ability. The latter point of comparing fighters under different rules is just not a level playing field. Let us consider then that we had a time machine and propelled Mike Tyson back in time to fight these men during their heyday. There are two important considerations besides the ability of the fighters themselves and those are: 1) the rules of the period and how the referees handled the fights and b) the gear that the fighters used.
On the first point the rules were very tolerant and took into consideration the need for infighting, holding was well tolerated and the rounds were scheduled for 15-25 rounds and in some cases fights to the finish (no limit until the last man is standing). Some observers would immediately believe that the rules and conditions would favor the champions of a century ago as Tyson never fought beyond 12 rounds. However, although the long distances would not be something Mike had prepared for, many of the other rules would certainly make him even more vicious and intimidating than the Mike Tyson who stormed through the heavyweight division in the mid to late 1980's.
Mike was quite at home grappling inside for position and the excessive holding would not bother him in the slightest and the liberal rules allowed for a lot of dirty infighting. Mike’s use of an arm bar like he did against Francois Botha or the throw of a late blow would barely get a hard look from the referee. Mike would not be easily tied up and could grapple inside and work the body with no worries about the referee interfering. Once he slipped inside the referees of days past would not be in such a hurry to separate the men and would let them fight, grapple and maneuver for position without calling for a break like most modern refs would.
Now think about Mike Tyson being able to stand over a fallen foe. From John L. Sullivan until Dempsey lost the title a fighter could stand over a downed opponent and slam him with both hands as soon as he tried to stand up. No standing 8 counts, no saved by the bell, no going to a neutral corner. After knocking down an opponent Mike would get to stand over them and hit them as soon as they tried to get up. Such a fighter would be a sitting duck for his sizzling uppercuts and smashing hooks. Good luck surviving that.
In evaluating these fights one cannot consider Dempsey vs. Willard and compare that to Tyson vs. Mike Spinks or Razor Ruddock without mentioning the difference in the gloves, which no one ever does. What if Tyson wore the same gloves as Johnson and Dempsey? Imagine “Iron Mike” wearing the 5 ounce Sol Levinson gloves that Dempsey wore against Willard. In his fight against Andrew Golota, Tyson left the 6'4", 240 pound Pole incoherent and stuttering after he sent him to the hospital with a fractured left cheekbone, a herniated disc and a concussion that caused slight bleeding in his brain. This was accomplished with 10 ounce gloves. Now picture Tyson with gloves half that size that were very hard leather and padded with horse hair for maximum impact. Brutal and eviscerating are the adjectives that come to mind when conjuring an image of Iron Mike wearing such weapons of destruction.
Mike Tyson would have been a mystery to all fighters prior to Jack Dempsey whose style he mimicked. Consider Jack Johnson's statement about Dempsey "having a style all his own." One must realize that Dempsey was the first really sophisticated swarming style fighter. Most of the other crowding style boxers were straight forward in their attempts to get inside and trade with an opponent. Heavyweights like Tom Sharkey and Tommy Burns were more like a nose tackle in American football sticking at the line of scrimmage rather than slipping side to side like Dempsey and Tyson.
The simple fact is men like James. J. Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, Jim Jeffries, and Jack Johnson never imagined a fighter like Mike Tyson during their fighting primes. Tyson's speed and power were virtually unheard of for a heavyweight at the turn of the 20th century. Fighters who ended most of their fights in the first rounds were a rarity not the norm. This was due partly because fighters were expected to hold back and put on a boxing exhibition as paying customers at the Nickelodeon did not want to pay to watch a fight that ended almost as soon as it started. Mike would care nothing about it. His aggression, slipping and side to side bobbing and weaving, would be a surprise to heavyweights like Jeffries and Johnson who would be seeing (or not seeing) punches coming in from unexpected angles as compared to what they were used to and with speed, power and combination punching that they had never before experienced.
Two heavyweights who are sometimes mentioned as comparable to Mike Tyson from this era are Battling Jim Johnson and Sam Mcvea but when I look at the film of their Aug 7, 1910 bout I see nothing that looks like Tyson. What I see is a lot of leaning back while stepping straight in, no head movement, no side to side motion, no bobbing and weaving. What I do see is a heads straight up linear attack, some feinting and countering but also winging wide open punches. Nothing that compares to the tight defense, head slips, and side to side weaving combined with short compact punching that Mike implements. Nothing that resembles the sophisticated combination punching that one sees on films of Joe Louis or Mike Tyson.
Jack Johnson is considered by most historians as the best heavyweight of the pre Dempsey era. In the HBO video "Tyson and the Heavyweights", 1988, Mike commented on Johnson's ability. "He used to slide back and pick off punches out of the air...this would be so much more difficult to do today" due to pressure, combination punching and "consistent punching". If Mike Tyson went back in time and fought Johnson during "Lil’ Arthur's" title reign Johnson would be astonished by Mike Tyson's attack. He could hardly be prepared for the shock of his punches especially with those small, hard punishing gloves. Johnson was a great boxer who had speed and athletic skills but his defensive prowess would crumble against the quickness and sophisticated attack of Mike Tyson.
Johnson did not have the greatest chin either. Jack was knocked out by light-heavy Joe Choynski and dropped by middleweight Stanley Ketchel. Forget Johnson's agreement to carry Ketchel and put on a show the fact that a middleweights punch could put him down is enough. Can one picture Ketchel dropping a prime Tyson? Can one truly imagine Tyson with his 19" shock absorbing neck, who was never knocked out by one punch, dropped by a middleweight? The 158 pound Ketchel’s punches wouldn’t even make Mike blink.
Roy Jones had skills similar to Johnson in terms of countering, speed and athleticism and was about the same size as Johnson. His chin is also fairly similar. Envision Tyson hitting Roy Jones on the chin. That is what we are talking about in this match up. Tyson wins by devastating knockout within 7 rounds. Tyson would destroy Jack Johnson. If you don't think so you are under the delusion of nostalgia and wishful thinking.
Jim Jeffries is a bit different. At 6'2 1/2, 218 pounds and with a reach of 76" he was actually bigger than Mike. Tyson stood 5'10 1/4" with a prime weight of 216 pounds and a short reach of just 71", although this was not as big a detriment as one might think as Tyson came in low with a high guard and threw short compact punches to take advantage of his stature by offering less of a target coming in. The point here is that Jeffries was not "too small" to beat Tyson he is actually the bigger man. Jeffries was also a proven strong man and an athlete capable of feats of strength and endurance.
Jeffries, however, would be in the same position as other heavyweights of his era in that he never imagined a heavyweight like Tyson. In much the same manner that Terry McGovern astonished crowds with a series of oh's and ahs at bantamweight and featherweight when his crushing early round knockouts shocked the boxing world, the same accolades would be laid on Mike Tyson should we send him back in time to compete with the heavyweights of that day. Jeffries, despite what some claim, was not a particularly hard puncher. Most of his knockouts came in the later rounds. He wore down his opposition with superior strength, toughness and endurance. That is not to say that Jeffries couldn't hit or wasn't capable of the occasional early round knockout it’s just verifying that most of his wins against better competition went into the mid and late rounds.
There is definitely something to be said for toughness, especially mental toughness in boxing. Tyson had his deficiencies but before Robin Givens said she was pregnant and forced Tyson into an unhappy marriage and before Don King lead Mike down the wrong path he did not exhibit such weaknesses as a pro. Toughness only comes into play when a fight goes into later rounds and fighter’s wills are tested, and that was certainly Jeffries game. But would he be able to last until the latter rounds against Tyson? Mike would be coming at him fast and furious with a speed and ferocity he had never before known. The punches would be the hardest and most explosive he had ever felt. The infusion of speed, power and compact combination punching would be unlike anything Big Jeff had ran into before. Jeffries coming at Mike with his trademark left hand sticking out would be exposed and in the line of fire for Mike's famous right to the body, right uppercut combination. Tyson by early rounds knockout.
The one fighter to which Mike Tyson can be easily compared is Jack Dempsey. Dempsey was the first successful fighter to use a “bob and weave” swarming attack. In terms of attacking style, pound for pound punching power, combination punching as well as physical and mental toughness Jack Dempsey's reputation as an all time great is well deserved.
In Tyson the "Manassa Mauler" would be staring at a virtual image of himself stylistically, but one that outweighed him by close to 30 pounds. It is difficult to imagine any man weighing less than 200 pounds surviving long against a raging Tyson. The mirror image glaring back at Dempsey would be a bigger, faster, stronger version of Dempsey's own viciousness. These two men would not have to look for each other but would clash at ring center like gladiators in a short pitched battle. There could only be one conclusion. Tyson would stand victorious looking over the fallen form of his ring idol. Tyson wins by devastating early rounds knockout.
Gene Tunney made his fame as a great American light-heavyweight who moved up and became the conqueror of Jack Dempsey. Gene had thoroughly studied Dempsey and believed he had the formula for beating him. It is not necessary to state how badly Jack had deteriorated as a fighter during his 3 year break before being out boxed by Tunney except to declare that I believe Tyson suffered a similar slippage of skills after his 3 year layoff.
The "Fighting Marine" weighed 20 pounds less than the Mike Spinks who faced a peak Tyson in 1988. Gene would be up against a very powerful swarmer that he would not be able to keep at bay. Tunney struggled to keep a 165 pound Harry Greb off of him in several of their encounters. Mike would just be too much of a beast for the 192 pound Tunney to keep Tyson back with a defensive jab and counters. If Gene tried to circle and move, Mike would slip the jab, cut him off and drive him to the ropes taking away Gene's space and forcing him to rush his punches which would leave him open for Mike's quick and powerful hooks and body punches. Tyson would overpower Tunney and would quickly have him fighting for his life. Tyson by decisive early to mid-rounds knock out.
Mike Tyson would be the most polished, well schooled and stylistically mature boxer that any of the early heavyweight legends had ever squared off against. Tyson, not only enjoyed size advantages over most of the day's opposition but also had big advantages in style and boxing ability. In conclusion Mike Tyson would dominate the pre modern era heavyweights with a mixture of speed, power, style and skills that would be a revelation to those who experienced it for the first time.