Tyson began finding more nationwide exposure after his first appearance on Sports Illustrated, and his carefully managed matchmaking resulted in his highlights shown on cable television. His manager, Jimmy Jacobs, and his trainer, Kevin Rooney, were trusted friends of Cus D’Amato, continuing to see that D’Amato’s declarations of Tyson becoming the youngest heavyweight champion would not be in vain. He would have to step up the caliber of competition to do so, but now that he had racked up 18 consecutive KO/TKO victories by this point, Tyson was ready to prove he could deliver on D’Amato’s predictions. During the post-fight interview against Conroy Nelson on November 22, 1985, Jacobs stated the plan was to get Tyson in the ring with a top 10 ranked opponent by June 1986; he was slightly ahead of schedule, but we won’t be covering that particular bout today. Instead, I’ll be covering only two fights in this article, as Tyson’s KO/TKO streak ended with a unanimous decision victory in his 20th professional fight against James “Quick” Tillis.
Steve Zouski – March 10th, 1986
Rather than gloss over his contest against Steve Zouski, a 25-9 journeyman who had lost seven of his last nine fights going back to 1982, it’s worth noting Tyson entered this bout ranked No. 10 by the WBC. Zouski was unranked at this time and finished his career with a 31-18 record, so this was merely a way to keep Tyson busy. Interestingly enough, Tyson opted to wear his white trunks with red trim, making this the last fight he wore anything other than his black trunks for the rest of his professional career.
Round 1 saw Tyson counter Zouski’s opening jab by slightly hesitating a step back before snapping out a straight right that clipped Zouski on the temple as he threw up his guard to block some of it. They both jabbed and missed, but Tyson quickly cut off Zouski’s angles and pinned him against the ropes. Zouski ducked and covered up, and perhaps wary of being frequently clinched his last two bouts, Tyson backed up and allowed Zouski to regain his composure and reset. Tyson’s feints had Zouski on the retreat, boxed in near the corner, but at least he threw out a hook before covering up once more. However, Tyson was lenient on Zouski and instead backed up again to allow him to reset and throw another straight. Tyson slipped it, unloaded two left uppercuts to the body, leaned his torso back to avoid a hook, waited for another ducking straight from Zouski, and landed another uppercut on Zouski’s body. Tyson’s pressure and movement were too much for Zouski to solve, so instead, he covered up and stepped forward into a Tyson clinch.
Tyson was uninterested in fighting from the clinch with Zouski, so he pushed him away towards the center of the ring, which was easier for Zouski than trying to box his way out of the corner, I suppose. Zouski was staggering as he moved around, his jab disrupted by Tyson’s as he ducked and tried pivoting around Tyson. Instead, he caught a counter right uppercut to the body deep in his crouch. Zouski fired a hook, but Tyson fluidly sidestepped it and pressured Zosuki into the corner with his jab-disrupting jab. Zouski clinched twice to push his way out of the corner but grabbed Tyson a third time near the ropes to keep himself away from an area he could be pinned down at.
Zouski was pushing Tyson away, but interestingly enough, Tyson was patient, walking wide across the ring to cover Zouski’s angles and possibly pin him near another ring corner. Zouski instead backed up near the ropes and quickly covered up as he sidestepped around Tyson, blocking a jab and taking a left uppercut to the guard as he passed him. In the center of the ring, Zouski fired a straight right that Tyson ducked, but Zouski followed up with a left hook to Tyson’s head that Tyson blocked well enough. However, instead of firing off hooks and uppercuts to a crouching Tyson, he grappled with him briefly before swinging another weak left hook that may have hit Tyson in the shoulder. Tyson continued his patient approach, throwing counter uppercuts and hooks to disrupt Zouski’s timing while simultaneously using his jab to pressure Zouski back into the ring corner. Neither man landed any punches during this stretch, but Zouski did get out of the corner by covering up, stepping into Tyson, and pushing himself back to create some space. Tyson continued stalking Zouski, shifting his body and throwing a right uppercut immediately after Zouski threw out two jabs and tried creating further separation, disrupting his offense and getting Zouski against the ropes.
Finding success covering up and pushing Tyson off him, he ducked and covered, only for Tyson to connect two forceful hooks on Zouski’s body anyway. He continued attempting to practically wrestle with Tyson, who was happy to stifle him with his jab while landing more crushing body shots. Tyson walked Zouski across the ring against the ropes, carefully picking and landing thunderous shots upstairs and downstairs, effectively utilizing his stiff jab to land shots on Zouski’s face as Tyson continued landing big body shots. Zouski covered up, able to block Tyson’s attempted punches and deny him an opportunity at a clean look as he backed away, only to land himself into another ring corner. Tyson was ever the pursuer, so rather than find himself trapped in the corner again, Zouski bounced off the ropes and rushed forward for a clinch, leading to a referee breakage near the two-minute mark of the round. In 16 seconds, Tyson snuck powerful hooks and an uppercut onto Zouski’s sides as the taller man assumed a crouching guard and continued moving around in a desperate attempt not to get pinned against the ropes or into a corner. Despite his attempt at being elusive, he was taking damage and being forced back into a ring corner regardless, so rather than continue fighting defensively, Zouski spent the next 20 seconds throwing punches.
He threw 11 punches in that time, most of them being right hooks while fighting in close quarters with Tyson in the ring corner. These right hooks did land, but Tyson slipped a jab and blocked a left hook. Zouski landed three jabs and backed away from the ropes, but Tyson, as always, was successful in cutting off his angles and instead led Zouski straight back into another ring corner. Tyson remained in control for the remaining 24 seconds, staying within Zouski’s range as he landed an uppercut that shook Zouski’s head. Zouski missed most of his responding right hook due to Tyson’s quick snap of the head to his left, so in a defensive time-wasting measure, Zouski pressed forward and held his arms out in front of him to push Tyson away and guard most of his upper body. Tyson responded with a series of vicious alternating hooks to the body that made Zouski back up, with the final right hook clipping Zouski on the temple. Winded and staggering towards the ropes, Zouski threw a jab that Tyson ducked and followed up with a left hook that Tyson blocked. Thankfully for Zouski, the bell rang as Tyson landed a jab on Zouski’s body at the exact moment Zouski was about to throw a straight right, disrupting Zouski and forcing him to guard as Tyson stepped closer inside and delivered two alternating uppercuts to the body at the bell.
After that lengthy, if not slightly tedious, detailing of the straightforward 10-9 round in Tyson’s favor, round two saw the opening six seconds delayed due to the referee calling for a timeout upon the ring girl getting her leg stuck between the ropes as she exited the ring. Tyson wasted no time meeting Zouski in his corner, throwing out a jab and landing a follow-up right hook on Zouski’s side after ducking Tyson’s initial jab. Zouski sprang up tall from his crouch like a coil, but it was clear he was losing stamina as he staggered around flat-footed, throwing one to two punches at a time as Tyson patiently stalked him around the ring, landing body shots and keeping up the pressure with his jab. Around the 40-second mark, Zouski attempted to stand his ground and initiate some inside fighting with Tyson near the center of the ring but, Tyson absorbed the weak punches he threw while landing a strong left hook on Zouski’s jaw that stunned him. Tyson followed up with a right hook to the body and snuck in a right uppercut as Zouski moved his head away from Tyson and backed up to reset.
Rather than continuing to throw bombs, however, Tyson remained patient, snapping out his jab and pushing Zouski deeper into the corner of the ring. Zouski attempted to step to his right and get against the ropes, but Tyson cut him off and landed two more right hooks on Zouski’s body and head, although he had his guard up to block the head strike. Zouski was content to rest his forehead against Tyson’s and go for another extended session of inside fighting; Tyson wasn’t busy from this position, so Zouski used the opportunity to back up and continue being stalked across the ring. Zouski covered up and leaned against Tyson to stall for time and avoid damage, but as the two separated, Tyson landed another right uppercut upstairs. Now with a minute spent in the round, Tyson put together two three-punch combinations that had Zouski retreating from against one side of the ropes to another, where he then tried throwing a right hook that Tyson blocked with his glove. Tyson remained in front of Zouski for the next 40 seconds and continue the patient approach by landing body shots from an inside fighting position as Zouski remained on the defensive in the corner.
However, after nearly a minute of clinching and throwing short punches inside with Tyson, Zouski began finding a rhythm as he landed two right hooks and a left inside on Tyson’s jaw. Zouski landed another right hook around the two-minute mark, and Tyson had enough. Tyson exploded with a furious combination of alternating hooks to the body that forced Zouski to back up, where he was then clipped with alternating hooks upstairs as Tyson pounced after his retreating opponent. Zouski was staggered as he tried ducking, but Tyson followed up with alternating uppercuts that found their target, as the wobbly Zouski staggered even further across the ring until he was able to lean against the ring ropes. Tyson could have continued applying pressure and gone for the knockout right here, but instead, he allowed Zouski to cover up, step away, and recover. The remaining minute of the round consisted of Tyson staying light on his feet, slipping and maneuvering around Zouski to pick his spots and land body shots. Meanwhile, Zouski continued retreating, throwing solitary punches, and initiating ineffective inside fighting when Tyson got far too close for his comfort.
Zouski was backed against a ring post and pushing Tyson away when the bell rang. Unlike the previous round that ended with Tyson throwing uppercuts at the bell, this round saw Tyson merely pressuring Zouski with his jab and using his movement to avoid any last-second big punches by Zouski. Tyson won the round 10-9 and was in complete control of the bout but did not come out firing on all cylinders as one would expect for the start of round three. Tyson stayed outside, moving his head around, switching his stance up, and looking for counterpunches to the body. Zouski was at his most active in this round, using his jab more often to set up three-punch combinations, with a short, sloppy, but stiff right hook landing on Tyson’s jaw that visibly shook him up for a split second. It was the best punch he landed in the opening minute, however, as he quickly ducked, covered up, and stayed inside Tyson before he could snap off a big power shot, and this worked, as the patient Tyson stepped back to allow the two to reset.
It was all for naught for Zouski, as Tyson continued staying outside, walking Zouski into a nearby corner. In an attempt to remain the aggressor, Zouski threw out a jab that Tyson canceled with his own. Zouski then attempted to press forward with a straight right, but Tyson stepped closer to intercept him and caught Zouski with a short left jab to the temple that stumbled him. Admittedly, I had to pause, rewind, replay, and stop the footage multiple times to confirm the punch landed, as Zouski’s wild staggering seemed highly exaggerated at first. Zouski recovered quickly, stumbling against the ropes, ducking Tyson’s jab, and getting in close with Tyson to disrupt his rhythm. Tyson remained patient, however, remaining in front of Zouski, moving his head around, and letting Zouski come to him. Tyson continued implementing his strategy of attacking Zouski’s body with thunderous hooks and uppercuts, controlling the pace of the bout as Zouski responded with inside fighting and solitary punches as Tyson effortlessly stalked him around the ring.
A patient approach finally led to results, as Tyson snuck a left uppercut onto Zouski’s chin around the two-minute mark as the pair engaged in more inside fighting. Zouski’s head snapped back, and the crowd began hollering as Tyson unleashed a five-punch combination of uppercuts and hooks both downstairs and upstairs on Zouski. Staggering against the ropes, Zouski stuck his arms out to push Tyson away before attempting to grapple him, and while he did get a referee breakage from this clinch, he still received a thudding right hook to his side for his troubles during the exchange. Zouski remained in the corner, letting Tyson come to him in an attempt to set up a combination, resulting in Zouski instead taking another stiff right uppercut to the chin as the pair missed the rest of their punches during the exchange. Zouski clinched and got around Tyson, slipping away as Tyson missed a right uppercut, but Tyson was in front of him quickly, cutting him off to the opposite ring corner. Zouski tried clinching some more to push Tyson away and create more space, he tried throwing a jab as he continued backing away from Tyson towards another ring corner, but Tyson finally caught him with a pouncing left hook on the chin. Zouski fell flat on his face and couldn’t beat the count, reaching his feet just a second after the referee had already counted to ten.
The announcer stated Zouski had never been knocked off his feet during his career, and upon further examination of his record through BoxRec, this claim seems plausible. Five of his nine losses were by decision, three more were corner stoppages, and his one official TKO loss was when the referee stepped in at the two-minute and 13-second mark of the sixth and final round of his May 11th, 1981 bout against Marvis Frazier. Admittedly, I have not seen footage of every single Steve Zouski fight, so it is a difficult task to verify if it was indeed the first time Zouski had fallen in his professional career. However, the stoppage against Frazier was very questionable, and the damage he took against Tyson leads me to believe even if it is not veracious, it is likely not much of a stretch. Regardless, it was the 19th consecutive KO/TKO victory for the 19-year-old Tyson; despite having to postpone his scheduled March 29th, 1986 bout against James Tillis to allow time to recover from an infected ear1, he appeared ready to earn more victories against the higher-quality competition.
James Tillis – May 3rd, 1986
James “Quick” Tillis was 31-8 but unranked, with the prevailing thought being the 29-year-old’s best days were behind him. Tillis challenged Mike Weaver for the WBA heavyweight championship in 1981 when Tillis was ranked No. 3 by them, but he lost a tough 15-round unanimous decision. Tillis later fought Greg Page and Tim Witherspoon for regional titles in 1982 and 1983, respectively but lost both bouts by TKO. He managed to win a regional title against Otis Bates2 and defended it at least three times based on his frequent scheduling3 in Oklahoma from February to August 1984. However, his 1-4 record heading into the Tyson bout began with a unanimous decision loss to Carl “The Truth” Williams in October ’84. Tillis closed the year by earning a unanimous decision victory over Bashir Wadud in December but lost both his ’85 bouts to Marvis Frazier and Gerrie Coetzee by unanimous decision before losing his bout against Tyrell Biggs in January ’86 by unanimous decision as well. He was a high-caliber journeyman capable of testing up-and-coming and top ten ranked competition, making Tillis a considerable test for Tyson as his last fight under his ABC contract.
Tillis lived up to his nickname, coming out circling Tyson quick and using his footwork to sidestep powerful hooks. He was slipping away from Tyson’s jab, creating space and throwing out his jab as Tyson used his trademark elusive head movement to maneuver his way inside. Tyson managed to pin Tillis against the ropes in the corner, but Tillis clinched effectively and got out of the corner, and continued using his footwork to move around the ring. Staying light on his feet, Tillis continued using the jab to keep Tyson at a distance, but Tyson proved to be as patient as ever, moving his head and upper body side-to-side as he chased Tillis around the ring. Both fighters exhibited great defense, Tillis with his footwork and Tyson with his elusiveness, but Tillis struck first with a right hook to Tyson’s guard upstairs as Tyson backed him into another ring post. Tillis slipped away, only for Tyson to quickly pounce as if on a string connected to Tillis’ hip, landing a thudding right hook on Tillis’ side. Attempting to continue moving toward the corner, Tillis kept his guard high as Tyson cut off his route and delivered another right hook to the body.
Tillis attempted cutting back the way he came to get out of the corner but had to take another right hook to the side on the ropes as he moved away and began circling Tyson once more. Now just over a minute into the round, Tillis had avoided taking significant damage and continued using his jab and footwork to move around Tyson and keep him jabbing at a distance. However, Tyson was able to keep him against the ropes and in the corner for the next 30 seconds, using his jab and elusive head movement to keep pressure on Tillis as he slipped a hook through Tillis’ guard during an exchange. Tillis managed to get out of the corner and expertly tied up with Tyson when Tyson pounced on him near the ring ropes again. It mattered little, as Tyson backed Tillis into the opposite ring corner with wild swings that missed, but Tillis found success with a right uppercut that landed clean on Tyson’s chin. Rather than take charge and start throwing big hooks from the corner, Tillis quickly grabbed a momentarily stunned Tyson, and the two held onto each other until the referee broke it up near the two-minute mark.
Tillis snapped off a quick one-two combination as Tyson ducked; however, Tillis did land the straight right on Tyson’s forehead as he ducked down. Tyson remained outside, trying to get Tillis’ timing down as he stayed in front of him, cutting off his angles. Tillis refused to be inactive and fired off a strong jab that irritated Tyson, as he then started wildly swinging once he was close enough, but Tillis appeared to land the cleaner punch with a left hook during the exchange, as Tyson’s punches missed. The two reset once Tillis leaned up against Tyson and pushed himself away, but Tyson continued falling short of the mark as Tillis slid back from his jab, evaded another jab, and then sidestepped a right hook. Tillis continued using his footwork to move around the ring as he fired off another jab, but Tyson was stalking him relentlessly, forcing him to the edges of the ring behind his jab before pouncing in with hooks once close enough. Tillis clinched twice in those 20 seconds he spent on the edge of the ring, stifling Tyson’s offense. Tyson was learning, however, because as Tillis grabbed him around the head the second time, Tyson began throwing hard hooks to Tillis’ body, forcing Tillis to shove him away before the referee stepped in to break it up.
With just over 30 seconds remaining in the round, Tillis decided to open up his offense more, as he threw a six-punch combination of two jabs, straights, and hooks each as Tyson stepped in, even evading Tyson’s counterpunches and disrupting Tyson’s combination-disrupting attack. Tillis continued stepping back towards the ropes, missing a right uppercut but landing a hook and a straight before landing another one-two combination and a follow-up jab in the process of moving out of the corner. Tyson continued the chase, however, blocking Tillis’ jabs and pinning him against the ropes, just barely missing a flush right uppercut that grazed Tillis on the chin. Tillis attempted to step away, but Tyson sprung up faster and delivered a right hook flush on Tillis’ face, forcing Tillis to step back to avoid Tyson’s follow-up left hook and stick his arms out to keep Tyson at bay for the remaining seconds of the round. Tyson must have been frustrated with Tillis’ resilience, as he threw three alternating hooks after the bell had ended before the referee stepped in between the two, much to Tillis’ displeasure. It was a hard-fought round by Tillis, but I would score this round 10-9 in favor of Tyson, who also showcased good defense, landed the cleaner and more significant strikes, and was the clear aggressor.
Despite Tyson landing one of his three punches after the bell, Tillis came out undeterred, firing his jab at Tyson and moving around the center of the ring. Tyson jabbed back, moving his torso around as he chased Tillis down from the outside, eventually cutting off his retreat angle and pinning Tillis against the ropes, forcing Tillis to clinch just 26 seconds into the round. Tyson continued fighting from the outside, backing Tillis into a corner as Tyson continued pressuring back against Tillis’ jab with his own, eventually landing an extended straight right on Tillis’ cheek that forced Tillis to clinch again at the 43-second mark. Tillis began shaking his head as if to signal both his disgust for the cheering audience and that Tyson’s punch had not hurt him; however, Tillis also continued holding Tyson for an additional nine seconds after the referee tried separating the two. Tillis fought back, however, connecting on a ducking Tyson with hooks and an uppercut from a safe distance before simply pushing Tyson away and using his momentum to push himself back and off the ropes to quickly create more space to his left.
Tyson cut that angle off quickly, though, and the two engaged in some inside fighting, with Tyson landing the crisper body shots. Tillis jumped back as Tyson threw alternating hooks that missed, much to Tillis’ delight based on the smirk he gives Tyson. Tillis kept Tyson fighting outside, using his jab and footwork to at least pressure Tyson as Tyson continuously moved his head around and picked his spots to land power shots. To Tillis’ credit, he was displaying good defense as well, keeping his guard up and his head and feet moving to block or dodge most of Tyson’s hooks upstairs. He even shoved Tyson again to get him away before Tyson finally caught Tillis on the ropes, forcing another clinch around the one-minute and 38-second mark of the round. However, Tillis landed a good left hook to Tyson’s body after evading Tyson’s right hook with some good head movement and then landed another left just before the clinch. Even while Tyson was the clear aggressor, Tillis wasn’t fighting passively while on defense. However, Tillis snatched the momentum, as he became the aggressor the next 20 seconds, weaving in and out of Tyson’s range as he landed jabs and straights and evaded Tyson’s counterpunches, successfully keeping him contained to the center of the ring.
Tillis landed a three-punch, 1-1-2 combination and began stringing together another one before Tyson was the one to clinch up and halt Tillis’ momentum. The referee managed to break up the pair at the two-minute mark, but the round continued to play out in the same fashion. Tyson stalked Tillis around the ring as Tillis landed some jabs and a hook to the body, while Tyson showcased good head movement but was just out of range for his counter hooks to the head of Tillis. Tillis looped around the edge of the ring until he eventually backed up into the ropes once more and clinched up with Tyson with 50 seconds left in the round. The referee broke the two apart, and it seemed as if the two were slightly gassed by this point, as Tillis was content to back away from Tyson and keep his guard up high as Tyson followed him over and pinned him against the ropes once more. Tyson only threw one punch, a right hook to the body, before he allowed himself to get clinched up again by Tillis, much to the crowd’s displeasure. A long stretch of inactivity and crowd yelling must have awakened something in Tyson because he came out firing crisp alternating hooks from a crouch during an inside exchange with Tillis that saw Tyson duck and perfectly time a left hook in particular on Tillis’ temple.
Tillis backed up and kept his guard high, allowing Tyson to snap off a right uppercut to the chest area of Tillis, but Tillis was able to secure a clinch that the referee broke up with 10 seconds left in the round. Tillis kept Tyson at a distance, firing off jabs that Tyson nullified with his own before sneaking in the best punch of the exchange with a counter straight that landed on Tillis’ face and noticeably snapped his head back a bit. Tillis tried throwing more jabs at the continuously bobbing and ducking Tyson, but he stepped back out of Tillis’ range to reset as the bell rang to end the round. It was a good round by both boxers and a tough one to judge. Tyson was the aggressor for the vast majority of the round and landed the more exciting significant strikes; however, Tillis fought well defensively and even briefly became the aggressor, forcing Tyson to clinch at one point. Despite that, he became largely passive during the final 50 seconds of the round as Tyson snatched back momentum and finished as the aggressor, even landing a good straight right from the outside. I’m calling it 10-9 in favor of Tyson but had Tillis kept some of the momenta he captured during the middle portion of the round, then I would’ve called it a draw.
The third round picked up where the second one ended, with Tyson battling from a distance with Tillis. One of the announcers stated the aggression was gone from Tyson as he was “learning how to box with Tillis,” and that’s a partial truth. Tyson was staying at a range where he could avoid or slip Tillis’ jabs and get Tillis’ timing down, but Tyson was still throwing his jab and stepped in for a 3-6 combination that Tillis had to block and sidestep, which kept him along the ropes. He maneuvered along the ropes around the edge of the ring as Tyson stayed directly in front of him, moving his head around and avoiding Tillis’ jab. Tyson kept the pressure up with jabs as well, and just as he was to pounce on Tillis, who was leaning against the ropes, Tillis sunk in a clinch at the 40-second mark. The action slowed down from there as the two men circled each other and jabbed, but Tyson ducked Tillis’ hook and delivered a left hook upstairs partially blocked by Tillis. Tillis stepped back, and the two jabbed at each other some more until Tyson had Tillis backed against the ropes once more, where he only managed to land one right hook to the body before being shoved away.
Tyson went back on the attack and got Tillis back on the ropes and closer towards the corner but missed a hook as he stepped in, and Tillis grabbed him. The referee breakage came at the one-minute and 13-second mark, but the two went right back to inside fighting, where Tyson landed a right hook to Tillis’ body and then just barely missed a right hook that whizzed by Tillis’ face as the two broke apart. Tillis missed a straight while Tyson landed a left that unfortunately hit Tillis in the back of the head as he leaned forward to throw a straight from where Tyson had already moved. The two clinched up, and Tillis was much more hesitant to step inside with Tyson, continuously backing up closer to the ring corner as Tyson kept up the approach. Tyson missed a combo due to Tillis sliding out of range until he hit the ropes near the corner and clinched once more, leading to another breakage closer to the center of the ring.
Tillis began frequently clinching for the next 33 seconds as Tyson tried jabbing or stepping in with strong hooks that forced Tillis to grab on and halt his momentum. This clinching eventually led to a sequence of events beginning at the two-minute and 15-second mark of the round; Tyson first landed a right hook to the body and then pivoted and threw a right uppercut and a left hook that landed on Tillis’ temple. Although he partially blocked the left with his guard, Tillis’ momentum had scotched, forcing him to lean against the ropes and keep his guard high as Tyson threw a left hook high and a right hook to the body that landed. Tillis dropped his guard and ate two left hooks to the chin and a follow-up right that staggered him further along the ropes, where Tillis became enraged and began swinging with reckless abandon to match Tyson’s frenetic swinging. The difference being Tyson’s wild-looking wide swings were the result of careful measuring and landed with much more frequency, as he even took the time to move his head to avoid one of Tillis’ swings and misdirect a left hook to land on Tillis’ temple. It was a quick, three-second all-out slugfest that ended with Tillis grabbing Tyson around the head and clinching him.
There was more clinching by Tillis as Tyson made his way inside after referee breakages, and while Tillis did land a right uppercut during this time, it wasn’t enough to make up for the events that preceded it. Tyson landed two quick alternating hooks to Tillis’ body, and suddenly the two popped up from their inside positioning; Tillis responded with a one-two combination that Tyson sidestepped and countered with a right hook. Tillis blocked the right, and two circled and quickly locked up again as the bell rang to conclude the round. It was a much more clear 10-9 round for Tyson, as even though he played to Tillis’ game by fighting from the outside, he used it against him to eventually step inside and land more significant strikes this round against Tillis, who ended up fighting more defensively by the end of it. The fourth round began with more clinching by Tillis after quick pressure from Tyson. However, Tillis kept his feet moving even after Tyson came in with an extended straight right that landed on his chin, eventually landing a thudding left hook that cracked Tyson on the jaw as he stepped closer to him.
Tillis and Tyson clinched up once more, and then Tyson pressured Tillis into the corner with his jab before being grabbed by Tillis. That’s how the round continued to play out, with Tillis waiting for Tyson to approach before throwing punches out at him and tying him up when Tyson was able to pressure him into a corner. Not all of Tillis’ shots landed, as Tyson was able to showcase remarkable head movement and even ducked low enough to avoid a 5-4 combination that he could’ve headbutted Tillis’ knee at the one-minute and forty-one-second mark of the round. Still, Tillis was in control of the round, weaving in and out of Tyson’s range to deliver quick punches and then tie Tyson up when Tyson got close. However, Tillis became overconfident; with 15 seconds left in the round, he leaped across the center of the ring with a left hook that Tyson ducked. Tyson then expertly pivoted to quickly reposition himself behind Tillis so that his wide left hook would land square on his chin as the off-balance Tillis tried to turn around and recover his footing. He made it to his feet by the count of three and received a standing eight count, but the round immediately ended after the action was ready to resume. He had the snot knocked out of him, as it can be seen on his upper lip while receiving the count before being wiped off when he went to his corner, a definite 10-8 round in Tyson’s favor.
Despite being knocked down, Tillis was still willing to trade with Tyson, as he began round five by stepping forward with a 1-2 combination before tying him up. Tyson landed a right hook to the body and tried opening up with a solid combo, but Tillis was still eager to trade punches, stepping back to try and get off his combination. They quickly clinched up, but this time Tillis was the one to snap back and throw out a punch. Tillis tried keeping the fight on the outside as the two swung and missed, but Tyson was quickly tied up as Tillis stepped in with alternating straights that mostly missed the mark due to Tyson’s quick head movement. Tyson tried getting a double jab off to set up another right hook to the body, but Tillis kept his guard high after his last combination, at best, clipped Tyson and tied his glove up in the crook of his arm to force a clinch. Immediately after this clinch, Tyson displayed some brilliant defense, ducking Tillis’ hooks and slipping his jabs to cut him off towards the ropes, where he landed another right hook to the body.
Tillis, with his back against the ropes, clinched Tyson once more. After that, however, Tyson was not acting as aggressively as he usually touted, content to allow Tillis to circle the ring and grab him when they clinched up without throwing punches to the body before a referee breakage. There was an intense series of exchanges between the two, beginning around the one-minute and 17-second mark; Tyson tried stepping forward with his jab only for Tillis to intercept him with a wide left hook as he sidestepped Tyson’s approach. Tyson ducked and pivoted to stay in front of Tillis and continued firing off his jab, even as Tillis swung a forceful straight right to Tyson’s temple that partially landed. Tillis attempted to shift over to Tyson’s right and mix up his approach with an uppercut, but Tyson’s relentless jab made Tillis’ footwork sloppy. His patient approach gave Tyson the chance to throw a short left hook that stopped Tillis’ momentum, although Tillis did slide back out of range to avoid it. Tillis remained active, stringing together three-punch combinations and maneuvering around the edges of the ring, avoiding Tyson’s hooks and straights and tying him up when he got too close.
Tillis continued landing punches as Tyson got close, and the round continued in this fashion with Tyson not throwing shots to the body whenever he got Tillis near a corner or near the ropes and got clinched. Tillis and Tyson clinched up and split apart to throw quick combinations at each other, only to clinch again and walk each other across the ring. Eventually, with around 40 seconds left in the round, Tillis landed two short uppercuts directly to Tyson’s face as he was in-fighting with his back against the ropes. That provided Tyson the chance to sneak in a big left hook to Tillis’ body as Tillis tried backing away from Tyson along the ropes. Tillis kept his guard up and ducked down, but Tyson then landed a right hook to the body, and that visibly winded Tillis as he stood up tall and looked like he was about to puke. Tillis leaned forward and draped himself over Tyson, remaining defensive for the final 28 seconds, even as Tyson put together a three-punch, 3-4-6 combination that Tyson followed up with two alternating hooks. It was the best combination Tyson landed in the remaining seconds of the round as a visibly winded Tillis staggered out of clinches and kept his distance from Tyson, immediately grabbing him when he got too close to survive the round. It was another 10-9 round in Tyson’s favor on my scorecard.
Round 6 was a much more relaxed affair for both boxers, as they both essentially fought from the outside and avoided throwing punches that would leave themselves open for a counterpunch. Tyson stalked Tillis from the opening bell, leaping at him whenever he could with a sweeping hook, but Tillis managed to avoid the big shots this round as he moved around the ring well and tied Tyson up effectively when needed. Tillis kept his jab as active as his feet and used his arms to efficiently guard and block Tyson’s punches that landed early on, but Tyson began showing much more aggression near the final 30 seconds of the round. Tyson unloaded body shots on Tillis that forced the taller man to move away and revert to tying Tyson up for the remainder of the round as he kept his distance. Tillis fought a clean round but wasn’t incredibly productive and remained far too defensive against a more relaxed, flat-footed Tyson looking to continue chopping away at Tillis’ body. I’d score it 10-9 in Tyson’s favor due to his output, him being the aggressor, and him landing the only significant strikes of note during the round.
Tillis did come out as the aggressor in round seven, circling Tyson and firing off his jab as Tyson remained flat-footed and looked for potential counterpunches. It was another relaxed round from Tyson, who was either gassed or incredibly content with his score on the cards and simply looking for the big knockout punch. Regardless of why Tyson continued boxing from outside at his leisure, Tillis took advantage and kept his feet moving around the ring as he weaved in and out of Tyson’s range with one-two punch combinations. While Tyson’s guard remained high, and he used subtle head movements to absorb or outright avoid most of Tillis’ strings of one-two combinations, he wasn’t putting together enough offense to offset the lack of aggression. Naturally, Tillis continued tying Tyson up whenever he got too close; Tyson’s insistence on allowing Tillis to come to him allowed Tillis to continue dictating the pace until around the two-minute and 17-second mark of the round. Tyson sprang forward with a right hook that snapped Tillis’ head back as he walked back towards the ropes, which stunned Tillis, who grabbed Tyson around the head to walk himself away from the ropes, taking a right uppercut to the body for his efforts.
Tyson missed a follow-up right uppercut as Tillis let go and kept his guard up, and then Tyson missed alternating hooks as Tillis slid back towards another set of ropes. Tillis showed good defense, sliding away before meeting Tyson low in his crouch and exchanging punches that led to a clinch by Tillis. Tyson’s right hook from moments ago had now opened up a cut above Tillis’ left eye. Undeterred, Tillis finished the round by getting into inside skirmishes with Tyson, with both boxers showing good defense and landing some good punches. The bell rang as Tillis’ clinch was broken up by the referee, and despite being on the defensive in the final seconds of the round and having a cut opened up above his left eye, I would score this round 10-9 in Tillis’ favor. Tyson was far too passive in the first two minutes of the round, and his final explosive seconds can’t make up for that this time. This trend not only continued in round eight, but it amplified, as Tillis remained active while Tyson was even more flat-footed.
There were no punches of note in the eighth round, as Tillis jabbed away from a distance while exhibiting tremendous defense. Tyson was just out of range for his lunging strikes in this round and, as a result, missed most of his significant strikes, unable to catch Tillis as he danced around the ring, jabbed, grabbed, dictated the pace, and blocked Tyson’s best punches when he wasn’t outright avoiding them. Tillis didn’t land any damaging strikes either, but Tillis outworked Tyson this round and frustrated him. Tyson was unable to hit Tillis and appeared unsure of how to approach, with the announcers going so far as to say he seemed “confused” due to him favoring his natural southpaw stance4 in the final seconds of the round. I’d score it 10-9 in favor of Tillis, but he would have to KO Tyson if he wanted to get a victory by this point.
Round 9 was essentially a repeat of the previous round, with Tillis effectively using the distance between them to keep Tyson at bay as he jabbed away. The crowd became louder in their disapproval of what they saw as a lack of action as Tyson continued working his way inside, only to clinch up and not throw body shots on Tillis. Tillis, to his credit, remained active with his jab and footwork, even switching up his stance as he mixed up his punches from the outside, no doubt frustrating a young Tyson. Tyson only once threw a combination of hooks to Tillis’ body during a clinch throughout the round and landed one significant strike; in contrast, Tillis expertly used his reach advantage to cover distance and avoid punches while clinching when Tyson gave chase. It was another 10-9 round in Tillis’ favor on my scorecard, as Tyson’s passive flat-footedness meant he largely accomplished nothing during the round.
The referee forced the men to touch gloves to start5 the tenth and final round, and the two men came at each other swinging and dodging in-between bouts of clinching for the first minute of the fight. Tillis then took control of the round, as Tyson came in contorting his body around and getting low in his stance, but didn’t throw a punch as the two men clinched up again. Tillis then tried stepping into the pocket with Tyson and throwing combinations together. Tyson, in response, stayed low in his crouch and missed counterpunches, leading to Tillis leaning on Tyson and clinching up as the two engaged in inside fighting for the remainder of the round. They two occasionally popped up to deliver punches from range but otherwise ducked low in their crouches, kept their foreheads together, and tried landing big shots in close. Despite a flurry of hooks from Tyson in the final ten seconds of the round that backed Tillis into Tillis’ ring corner, Tillis was the one who was landing the better punches for the majority of their exchanges, even backing Tyson into a ring corner at one point. Tillis continued throwing punches after the bell, with the referee stepping in between the two after Tyson landed one in response to the one Tillis landed, but things quickly died down as the bout ended.
I’d score that last round 10-9 in Tillis’ favor, awarding Tyson a 96-93 decision on my scorecard. Two of the judges agreed with my scoring as they called it six rounds for Tyson to Tillis’ four; one of the judges gave a baffling eight rounds to two decision in favor of Tyson, awarding him an otherwise deserved unanimous decision win. Tillis showed heart and grit during this bout and ended Tyson’s 19-fight knockout streak but was unsuccessful in earning a victory over the rising contender.
We’re only over a third of the way through Tyson’s professional matches in 1986 now. It’s more than obvious his profile was growing by now, as his next bout would be his first in his new HBO contract. I’ve linked several articles in these Game Film articles on Tyson that have referred to the heavyweight division at the time as “alphabet soup,”6 and his new HBO contract was part of the plan that sought to unify the division under one undisputed champion. Upon a suggestion by Don King in October 1985, HBO announced the tournament7 on January 17th, 1986, with the idea of it being a seven-fight series. At first, Tyson fought separately8 from the unification series, but he continued winning and growing his profile throughout the year, eventually earning the right to be inserted9 into the tournament. The IBF stripped10 Michael Spinks of their championship11 on February 26th, 1987, after Spinks elected to fight Gerry Cooney, separate from the unification series, rather than take less money to box Tony Tucker before his bout against the winner of the Mike Tyson-James Smith bout. The tournament took longer than the seven fights due to Tim Witherspoon testing positive for marijuana12 after his victory13 over Tony Tubbs14 and the shenanigans surrounding the IBF title, but Mike Tyson, Don King, HBO, and all three sanctioning bodies did end up getting what they wanted out of it.
- The Daytona Beach News-Journal – 3/26/1986 – Tyson-Tillis Bout Postponed
- UPI – 2/10/1984 – Heavyweight boxer Otis Hardy Bates lost more than just his Midwestern U.S. heavyweight championship Thursday night. He was jailed and charged with attempted robbery.
- The Okalhoman – 4/28/1984 – Tillis Successfully Defends
- Tyson was a natural southpaw who was converted into an orthodox fighter by Cus D’Amato. This conversion is why Tyson mastered the peek-a-boo style, as the squared stance suited his ability to throw forceful punches from any angle.
- He halted the bout, grabbed their gloves, and forced them to extend them towards each other before allowing them to continue boxing. This gesture wasted eight seconds since both boxers were slow to meet in the center of the ring after getting up from their corners.
- Chicago Tribune – 4/15/1986 – HBO SERIES TRIES CLEARING BOXING MESS
- Chicago Sun-Times – 1/18/1986 – Tubbs finally beaten in first title defense – Witherspoon WBA king
- Knickerbocker News – 3/29/1986 – TYSON MAY BE SAVIOR
- Top Class Boxing – 5/11/2020 – LOOKING BACK AT HBO’S HEAVYWEIGHT UNIFICATION SERIES
- Los Angeles Times – 2/27/1987 – Michael Spinks Stripped of Heavyweight Title
- This came nine months after the first official bout of the tournament.
- UPI – 2/6/1986 – Tim Witherspoon admitted Wednesday to smoking marijuana before his Jan. 17 title bout against Tony Tubbs and asked for leniency from the World Boxing Association.
- Witherspoon’s victory over Tubbs was the same day Don King and HBO announced the heavyweight unification series, with the announcement taking place during the post-fight interviews.
- He would be fined $25,000 by the WBA and had to rematch Tubbs, who later pulled out of the bout due to injury. James Smith replaced Tubbs and won that bout by first-round KO on December 12th, 1986. Witherspoon failed the pre-fight and post-fight drug tests against Smith, once again testing positive for marijuana. However, the New York State Athletic Commission later overturned the results due to a clerical error.