Romney vs. Obama: the Sound and the Fury

Watching the first presidential debate, I was struggling to figure out why this particular contest seemed so familiar to me.  It was only at the end that I realized I had seen it before.

It was November 9, 1996.  I was hosting a viewing party for what would prove to be one of the greatest heavyweight fights of all time.  Evander Holyfield was seeking to reclaim the heavyweight title.  Holyfield's opponent, by virtually all accounts, was unbeatable: the notorious "Iron" Mike Tyson.

On paper -- which is to say in the press -- Holyfield didn't have a prayer.  At one point, the odds makers put his chances of winning the bout at 25 - 1.  This was due to the successful, but "lackluster" title defenses he put up against well-past-prime former champions George Forman, Larry Holmes and non-champion Bert Cooper, as well as the loss of his heavyweight title to Michael Moorer two years prior.

Tyson, on the other hand, had ripped through his previous four fights in a combined total of just over 18 minutes.  Though his opponents in those fights were less than prime contenders, the boxing establishment gushed over the ease with which Tyson destroyed all comers.  To them, he had fully resumed the primal ferocity he had achieved prior to the three-year prison term that prevented him from facing Holyfield as originally scheduled in 1991.

I was a Holyfield fan.  I had first become aware of him when he was still a cruiserweight on the rise, though admittedly I had little more reason than his cool name to become a fan.  Evander Holyfield just sounds tough and at the time, tough caught my attention.  He was also a humble, "good guy," not prone to boast in his own strength and skill, but unshakeable (sometimes annoyingly so) in giving all glory and credit to God for his success.  I followed his career as best I could, but back then boxing coverage in the major press had but one name: Tyson.

While Tyson was dismantling his opponents to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history, terrifying almost everyone along the way, Holyfield was also dispatching his opponents handily, though much more humbly, without the mystique the press had created around Tyson.

In most cases, Tyson's opponents were beat before the starting bell.  In fact, they stepped into the ring against two opponents: Mike Tyson himself, and "Iron" Mike, the murderous creation of a press corps that couldn't find enough adjectives to describe his greatness.

In the lead-up to the long-anticipated match, even though Holyfield had also knocked out many of his opponents early, the press still questioned his "cred."  They refused to believe he was "The Real Deal" and had what it takes to go toe-to-toe with their super-fighter.

Boston Globe sports writer Ron Borges and I were the only ones I know of who thought differently.  I can't speak for Borges, but as for myself, I observed something the others seemed to miss.  It was true that some of Holyfield's most recent performances against should-be easy-out challengers had been somewhat underwhelming; but what I saw in those performances was that Holyfield had a tendency to rise just above the level of his opponent.  He may not have dominated like Tyson against all challengers, but he got the job done. 

Still, with all of his success, there was only one way he would be able to rise above his opponents in the press: he would have to face their destructive darling, "Iron" Mike.

When Tyson went to prison, boxing fandom thought Holyfield vs. Tyson was a dream fight that would never be.  Yet here we were, five years later, with a crowd of thirty or so watching at my house and millions watching around the world.  The fight was on, as the promoters aptly billed it--Finally.  It was the middle of the sixth round.  A wicked Holyfield left had put Tyson down.  He had just risen from the mat and was once again facing his opponent; but "Iron" Mike's demeanor was now not predatory confidence.  Instead, he projected stunned uncertainty.  The fight would continue for another five rounds, but it was already over.  It wasn't supposed to happen like this.  So how could it be happening?

Simple: Holyfield was a better fighter than Tyson.  Tyson was powerful, yes, and intimidating as the devil himself; but like the devil himself, Tyson had no real end-game past scaring his opponents into submission.  Fear, not skill, won most of his recent fights.  Tyson simply had no answer for an unflinching warrior who fought unabashedly in God's name.  For such warriors, the devil holds no fear; and without fear, the devil holds no power.  Holyfield wasn't afraid of Tyson.  In fact, after the first round, Holyfield had turned the tables on him, as Tyson admitted in a recent interview:

This is what amazed me about [Holyfield].  In the first round...I hit him with a right hand to the body.  I heard him scream (grunts angrily), next thing I know I'm on the ropes, ten rounds, eleven rounds...I wish I'd never hit this guy (laughs).  I hit this guy in the body and he tried to kill me.

It was officially over in the eleventh, after a "stunning" TKO that left Tyson out on his feet.  Minutes later, the ringside reporter caught up with Mike and asked him the question that was surely burning in the collective mind of the press: "What happened?"  Looking truly confused and sounding spacey, unsure and uncharacteristically tame, Tyson summed it up simply and honestly:

I really wasn't aware of what happened, but um...he fought a good fight.

He may as well have said, "Where am I?" and the audience would have believed he was not sure where he was or even what year it was.

The media were shocked.  What had happened to their golden boy?  Was he really just beaten that badly?  Even before the TKO, the scorecards had Holyfield ahead.  He surely would have won the decision had it come to that.  Almost before the blood was dry, the press was looking to the inevitable rematch.

As it turned out, they had less than a year to wait, and proving the first fight was no fluke, Holyfield was winning on all scorecards when in a fit of now infamous frustration and fury, Tyson bit both of Holyfield's ears and lost by disqualification after the third round.  Interestingly, prior to the rematch, one of Tyson's former trainers predicted that once faced with an opponent he could not intimidate, Tyson would deliberately get himself disqualified.

Watching Obama's demeanor in the first of the debates, as Mitt Romney administered a sound and satisfying drubbing to him, I saw the same stunned confusion that stifled Tyson's fury.  This wasn't supposed to be happening.  Hearing the President's stammering, unsure delivery in response to Jim Lehrer's questions, I may as well have been listening to the former champ trying desperately to search his hazy mind and figure out what was happening.

As the rematch approaches, I have only one piece of advice for Governor Romney:

Guard your ears.