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It did not take long for the buzz to grow into a searing roar. When Mike Tyson put out a training video earlier this year showcasing ferocious speed and power for a 53-year-old man, it produced exactly the decided reaction. Almost instantaneously, media and fans were discussing the idea of Tyson fighting again. Even though Tyson hasn’t been “Iron Mike” in two and a half decades, there was still passionate interest in seeing what he could do in live competition again. For better or worse, fans will get to see to some degree on Saturday when Tyson takes on Roy Jones Jr. in an exhibition bout with heavily modified rules.
This type of freakshow attraction has long been a part of MMA and boxing. Tyson-Jones has more in common with Bellator MMA’s presentation of Ken Shamrock-Royce Gracie in 2016 than either fight has in common with Teofimo Lopez-Vasily Lomachenko or Khabib Nurmagomedov-Justin Gaethje. In an individual sport, there’s always the temptation to bring athletes out of retirement and hope they can show glimmers of what they brought to the table in their prime. It’s never pretty, but sometimes people tune in to the spectacle.
Unfortunately for the fighters involved, combat sports are not like swimming or basketball. Getting punched or kicked in the head at age 50 is just not beneficial to one’s long-term health, but the temptation will be there if there’s money to be made and there’s an opportunity to reengage in a sport the athlete loves. Promoters won’t turn down the opportunity, either, if they see dollar signs, and so ultimately, the frequency of these types of fights will depend on how much revenue they can generate. As such, here’s hoping that the Tyson-Jones event isn’t a runaway success.
That is not intended as a slight at Tyson or Jones; they have the right to do what they want with their lives. The problem? If this becomes a major cultural event, it’s going to inspire plenty of copycats in the months and years to come. Right now, someone considering bankrolling a major MMA fight between older legends is likely to think of what happened when Golden Boy Promotions got behind Tito Ortiz-Chuck Liddell III. That’s the most recent case study to turn to. It was an unmitigated disaster on pay-per-view, and Golden Boy hasn’t reentered the space since.
Tyson-Jones could have the opposite effect, showing the upside of building around famed fighters from the past. If we only do 20 percent of the business, aging legends will think, that will still be a smashing success. It’s the approach that doomed K-1 and has greatly hurt Bellator under Scott Coker: the diminishing returns of focusing on the past or on novelties rather than world class fighters in their primes. The first one tempts you to do more, but future business trends only down, never up.
The question then becomes whether or not Tyson’s return to pay-per-view ends up being a big deal or not. A few months ago, it felt like it might be massive, but now that we’ve reached the week of the event, it doesn’t seem like that big of an attraction. The sports slate, which was virtually empty a few months back, is now full. Politics continues to dominate the news. The fact that California has made it clear they’re going to try to limit the element of danger as much as possible hasn’t added intrigue. There also hasn’t been that much in the way of advertising. Deiveson Figueiredo-Alex Perez, for instance, had more of an advertising presence.
Still, this is Mike Tyson, not just a sports icon but a global cultural phenomenon. There’s a generation of older sports fans who were enraptured by Tyson in the 1980s and 1990s, then multiple generations who knew about him but weren’t able to take it in at the time unless their parents were boxing fans who let their kids stay up late to watch professional fistfights. It’s thus a significant curiosity to both new viewers and old ones. It usually isn’t evident until late in the week how much a pay-per-view is clicking, so we’ll see after Thanksgiving if Tyson can capture the public imagination. There is considerable upside if he does.
There will be plenty of older fighters watching what happens. If Tyson-Jones ends up being a big event and delivers enough entertainment value for the viewer, things look a little brighter for Anderson Silva-Fedor Emelianenko or an Ortiz-Wanderlei Silva rematch. Of course, that’s precisely why I’m hoping for Tyson-Jones to be a quiet, fun event of nostalgia that doesn’t give anyone any crazy ideas. Nostalgia fights get less appealing the closer you get to them.
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