LAS VEGAS -- Well, that didn't take long, did it? Mike Tyson furnished himself a reason to believe that what happened against "Buster" Douglas was just a freak accident by reverting to form and banging someone out in one round -- poor Henry Tillman. And George Foreman waddled ever farther down the path to credibility by making short work of another big target -- poor Adilson Rodrigues. The Saturday night doubleheader was billed as The Road Back, but it was a road not traveled very long: Tyson made a turn after 2 minutes 47 seconds; Foreman pulled off after 5:39.
One year ago nobody in his right mind would endorse this. Now I will:
Any thunderclaps? No? Fine, another convert.
Tyson and Foreman -- the most popular figures in the heavyweight division -- were a study in contrasts in the ring. Standing in his corner, bald and Buddah-like, Foreman serenely awaited the bell for his bout against the impassive Brazilian, Rodrigues. Then, wading belly first, like a sumo wrestler, Foreman began pawing at him, trying to shorten the ring. Rodrigues offered some gauzy opposition for one round, but presented himself for close inspection late in the second round. A four-punch combination, culminating with a left hook flush on the chin, sent Rodrigues tumbling. He flopped around like a salmon trying to swim upstream as the ref counted him out.
Tyson was so eager he was lathered. When the bell rang he ran across the ring, throwing leaping lefts at Tillman. Tillman evaded him for a bit, and once even hit Tyson with a hard right hand -- a punch that might have backed up other men, but didn't discourage Tyson an iota. Had he been wiser, Tillman would have sensed impending doom. Alas, he grew bold. "My game plan was to escape his attack, but after the good right hand I thought, 'Hmm, maybe I've got something here.' " Yeah, trouble. Shortly thereafter, Tyson caught Tillman flush on the forehead with a jackhammer right, crumbling him, heels up off the canvas; as hard a punch as the one that cleaved Michael Spinks from the heavyweight title two years ago. And yes, you could see the identical deer-frozen-in- the-headlamps look in both men's eyes.
Neither Tillman nor Rodrigues was expected to last long; they were presumed to be mere speed bumps on The Road Back. Rodrigues, a nester who had fought but three of his 39 bouts outside of Brazil, must have thought Vegas was Ipanema. He logged so much placid time poolside at Caesars Palace all week, people assumed that after the fight he'd apply to be a lifeguard.
Tillman was a 30-to-1 long shot on merit. Though he'd beaten Tyson twice in the U.S. Olympic trials six years ago and gone on to win the heavyweight gold medal in Los Angeles, Tillman made sputtering progress as a pro, fighting mainly as a cruiserweight. Fellow 1984 U.S. gold medalists Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Frank Tate and Pernell Whitaker all have surpassed Tillman; Evander Holyfield, who settled for a bronze medal, kayoed Tillman when they fought three years ago. Since then, Tillman fought without distinction or regularity. He appeared to be such a sacrificial lamb, it's a wonder the hotel chefs didn't walk behind him carrying marinade.
Tyson and Foreman were the marquee names. The plan was to put them together on a few more doubleheaders and build eventually to the showdown. The next stop was to be on Sept. 8 with Tyson -- who said he wants to be more active than he was in 1989 when he fought just twice -- matched against Alex Stewart. But Foreman is agitating for Tyson next. "I don't think there should be another doubleheader," Foreman said. "I think George Foreman and Mike Tyson should be the header, and that's it."
Tyson would rather have the winner of "Buster" Douglas-Evander Holyfield, as well he should. On the surface Tyson- Foreman appears a ludicrous match. Tyson is 18 years younger and incalculably faster. Foreman says Gerry Cooney hit him hard to the body; Tyson might excavate his rib cage. The only case for Foreman is this: He can't fight, but he can win. Foreman has fought so many stiffs on this comeback he ought to be sponsored by Gawler's. "People say George Foreman only fights guys on a respirator. That's not true, I'll fight them eight days off a respirator," Foreman joked. But take note that Rodrigues beat "Bonecrusher" Smith and James "Quick" Tillis, who both went the distance with Tyson. For a powerful stationary puncher like Foreman a mauler like Tyson, a small man who will come straight ahead, may be a godsend. These next few months count how many dreamers suggest that Tyson could be another Joe Frazier for Foreman.
Foreman balking at the doubleheader plan may bring an end to the Extremely Odd Couple of co-promoters -- Bob Arum, who has Foreman, and Don King, who has Tyson. Hard to imagine Arum and King shaking hands -- and neither one holding a poison tack. (Next you'll be telling me that Andrew Dice Clay is going to marry Nora Dunn.) As the old stud hoss Keith would wail, "These two folks plaaaaaiinnn don't like each other."
Let's go to the videotape: Right here at Caesars, after the Leonard-Hagler fight, when King tried to climb into the ring and display his magnificence to a worldwide TV audience, Arum -- who already was in the ring since it was his promotion -- threw a punch at King and kept pushing, trying to repel King off the apron. For his part, the etymologically inventive King has called Arum, among other things, "the prince of evilality" and "a master of trickeration."
What unites them now is common enemy, Steve Wynn, owner of the Mirage, who seems to have picked King's pocket of "Buster" Douglas. The worst King has called Wynn so far is "a renegade," disappointingly tame for King. Arum has gone for the gusto, labelling Wynn, "the most reprehensible person I have ever run into in any walk of life," something Arum probably hasn't said about more than 500 people in the last three weeks.
The Douglas Deal is complex, and, of course, it's in litigation. (Is there anybody out there who hasn't sued King or Arum, or been sued by them?) Without jeopardizing the case, let me propose that anyone who gets on both Arum's and King's hit list can't be all bad.