It all started because of a question, an idea from his brother-in-law and an appearance by a Hollywood executive on his podcast, recorded earlier this year.
To fully understand how and why Mike Tyson is getting back in the ring Saturday for the first time in 14 years — in an exhibition against Roy Jones Jr. — start there.
Tyson said that back in March, Azheem Spicer, the brother of Tyson’s wife, Lakiha, approached him with an idea. Spicer knew Tyson didn’t want to fight at the time, but would he entertain a bout against mixed martial artist Bob Sapp? The idea piqued Tyson’s interest.
“I said, ‘How would he want to fight me?’ I was in good, decent shape. I looked well. I wasn’t in shape, but I looked like it because I was working out a little,” Tyson told ESPN. “He said he’ll box you Marquess of Queensberry, and so I said, ‘I’ll do it.'”
The fight with Sapp fell through. Then, Tyson said, other fights fell through, too. Around that time, Tyson had Sophie Watts, a longtime boxing fan and former president of STX Entertainment, on his podcast. Watts asked Tyson if there is any sort of sports league for icons who are larger than their particular sports.
Tyson told her that nothing like that existed, but that it was an idea he had in the past, that he’d like to do it and that he’d like to start it with a fight featuring him. The idea became the Legends Only League, and Tyson-Jones Jr. is the first event.
“You surpassed your sport into being a global icon, and it’s our belief that audiences — not just sports fans but audiences united — really want to engage with those icons and understand the story that made them a legend,” Watts said. “Mike is a legendary, legendary boxer, but he’s also a legendary figure in lots of different ways.”
They still needed to find Tyson someone to fight.
The idea of Jones Jr. came up in the spring. Tyson said he thinks it was Spicer who made the connection again, and the fight was agreed upon. Tyson said the two had discussed fighting in the early 2000s before Jones Jr. fought John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight title, but it never happened.
Now, in a different way, it will.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s so awesome,'” Tyson said. “It’s always something I wanted to do, but it never happened. We both wanted to do it.”
It won’t look quite like what you’re expecting on Saturday at Staples Center. It is an eight-round exhibition with two-minute rounds, no headgear, 12-ounce gloves instead of 10-ounce gloves and no legalized betting in the United States — because it is an exhibition fight. Tyson said his money from the fight will go to charity.
Watts, who is part of the group with Tyson that created this new league and produced the fight, said, “Safety, for us, is of absolute paramount importance.” That is part of why they had the WBC and commission involved. Watts also said they are trusting and relying on the California State Athletic Commission to protect the fighters.
The unique nature of this fight and the changes involved haven’t stopped Tyson from training with intensity because he wasn’t in the best shape. He isn’t at the level he went to when fighting in his prime, but he has been putting in the work.
“Training’s been hell from the beginning,” Tyson said. “I anticipated it would be hard, but I never anticipated that I would be, like, starting over in the thinking process. I took my youth totally for granted.
“That’s what I realized during this process: I took my youth totally for granted.”
Watts said the pay-per-view will look different than what boxing fans might be used to. There are no fans allowed, and the producers are working music acts, including Lil Wayne, YG and Wiz Khalifa, into the telecast, along with undercard fights and the main event of Tyson-Jones Jr. Not having fans, Watts said, allows them to do things differently.
“It is an interesting moment where you say, OK, how do you not distinguish between hosts and fights and music acts? How do you bring this together in one comprehensive event?” Watts said. “Media companies aren’t built that way. They are built to do sports, or they are built to do movies, or they are built to do a live music show. Weaving that together has been about breaking down barriers and recreating how this could be done.”
For Tyson, the focus is on kick-starting his organization with an entertaining fight against Jones Jr. This is his chance to show that people 50 and over “can still be very active physically and psychologically. This is a return to glory.” He’s talking about the fight — and also about his new sports venture.
He insists that this is “no one-off.” It’s the start of an organization that he believes will change the sports landscape. He mentioned the idea of John McEnroe playing Serena Williams in tennis or Dennis Rodman facing Metta World Peace in one-on-one basketball.
He anticipates Saturday feeling like he’s going into the gym again — albeit a bigger one in a massive arena. He figures there will be nerves, too. “If there weren’t, I wouldn’t participate,” Tyson said. “That’s just how it is. That’s just how I want to feel.” — Michael Rothstein
A deep dive into the career of Mike Tyson
Tyson’s career has crested with the highest of highs and fallen to the lowest of lows. He was the heavyweight champion of the world, one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, and then it all fell apart, as he was convicted of rape and imprisoned for three-and-a-half years during the prime of his career. Tyson has slowly become a pop culture figure again over the past decade, thanks in large part to his cameos in “The Hangover” and “The Hangover Part II.” He has had a growing presence with his “cannabis resort,” a starring role in an animated series, his Broadway show and a podcast, among other endeavors.
The rules of engagement
Both Tyson and Jones have talked tough to promote this bout, but it is very much an exhibition, per regulators. No knockouts are expected (though one could happen), and there won’t be a winner announced, according to California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) executive officer Andy Foster. No judges will be assigned.
Per Foster, Tyson vs. Jones will fight over eight two-minutes rounds, and if either man suffers a bad cut, the exhibition will be called off by referee Ray Corona. The two boxers will not have to wear headgear, and they will wear 12-ounce gloves, rather than the 10-ounce gloves typically used in professional fights. Corona will have discretion when it comes to any instances of a fighter being rocked or dropped, Foster said.
Foster said the bout will basically amount to “hard sparring” inside a gym.
“I want to make sure the public understands that this is an exhibition,” Foster said. “It’s about entertainment — it’s not about competition.”
Tyson and Jones did complete out-of-competition drug testing administered by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA), and both passed, Foster said. They will be tested again by VADA on fight night. The only exception to standardized drug testing is the exclusion of marijuana.
The semi-main event between YouTuber Jake Paul and former NBA star Nate Robinson will be a legitimate pro boxing match of six three-minute rounds, according to Foster. The card is being promoted by Jimmy Burchfield Jr., who is best known as the head of the regional MMA promotion CES out of Rhode Island. — Marc Raimondi
Tale of the tape
By the numbers
Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information
116: Combined professional wins for Tyson (50) and Jones (66)
91: Combined knockouts for Tyson (44) and Jones (47)
22: First-round knockouts in Tyson’s career, second among fighters who have won a world title, behind only Shannon Briggs
3: First-round knockouts by Tyson in heavyweight title fights, second only to Joe Louis, who had six
8: American male boxers who have won world titles in four divisions, including Roy Jones Jr. (Others are Oscar De La Hoya , Floyd Mayweather , Sugar Ray Leonard , Thomas Hearns , Pernell Whitaker, Mikey Garcia and Adrien Broner). Jones’ world title wins came at middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight.
A look at the undercard
Nate Robinson certainly had a memorable NBA career. The three-time Slam Dunk Contest winner was a first-round draft pick in 2005, and he spent five seasons with the New York Knicks, including a career-best campaign in 2008-09 in which he averaged 17.2 points and 4.1 assists. He went on to play for the Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans before continuing his basketball career in a variety of international leagues and the NBA D-League.
How did he end up as one of the featured fighters on the Tyson-Jones undercard, taking on 1-0 YouTube persona Jake Paul? Other than a chance meeting between Robinson’s manager, Napoleon “Polo” Kerber, and Paul, Robinson’s connection with boxing dates to his childhood.
“I’ve been a fan of boxing my whole life. Me and my brother, we used to slap box and use boxing gloves in the backyard with my dad. So it’s nothing new. It’s just real business now,” Robinson said. “I’ve played in front of thousands of people my whole life hooping, so just being able to step into a realm that I’ve never been in before is challenging for me, but it’s also fun to try to see how far I really can go with this.”
Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones Jr., eight-round exhibition, heavyweights
Badou Jack vs. Blake McKernan, eight rounds, light heavyweights
Jamaine Ortiz vs. Sulaiman Segawa, eight rounds, lightweights
Irvin Gonzalez vs. Edward Vasquez, eight rounds, featherweights
Joe Cusumano vs. Nick Jones, eight rounds, heavyweights
Jake Paul vs. Nate Robinson, six rounds, light heavyweights
More boxing on tap for the weekend
Daniel Dubois views his upcoming fight with Joe Joyce as a world title clash. Watch Dubois vs. Joyce on Nov. 28 on ESPN+.
There’s a lot of other boxing action going on this weekend, including a battle between undefeated British heavyweights Daniel Dubois (15-0, 14 KOs) and Joe Joyce (11-0, 10 KOs) that could be a glimpse of the next wave of fighters pushing toward a heavyweight world title shot (2:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN+). The 23-year-old Dubois’ knockout rate makes him one of the most intriguing prospects in the division, and Joyce presents his biggest challenge to date.
Joyce, who is 12 years older than Dubois, believes his experience will make the difference. Joyce’s lengthy amateur career includes a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Daniel Dubois vs. Joe Joyce, 12 rounds, for vacant European heavyweight title
Hamzah Sheeraz vs. Guido Nicolas Pitto, 10 rounds, junior middleweights
Jack Catterall vs. Abderrazak Houya, 10 rounds, junior welterweights
Jack Massey vs. Mohammad Ali Bayat Farid, eight rounds, cruiserweights
Louie Lynn vs. Paul Holt, eight rounds, featherweights
David Adeleye vs. Danny Whitaker, six rounds, heavyweights
Joshua Frankham vs. MJ Hall, four rounds, junior middleweights
Mitchell Barton vs. Matt Gordon, four rounds, heavyweights