LAS VEGAS — Boxing is approaching the 50th anniversary of the start of Joe Louis' fabulous reign, an era during which a champion fought both ably and often.
Boxing has not seen the like in the half-century since. Now, boxers attain the championship, fight once in a year or more, usually while embroiled in litigation, and then turn the title over.
The astonishing proof of that is that there are no fewer than 11 former champions still active, many with no more than a single title defense to their names.
Then there is Mike Tyson, who at 20 plans a campaign that evokes memories of the careers of the ancients, workaday fighters whose resolute discipline defined consistency.
Tonight, in his 30th fight in the two years since he turned pro, the heavyweight champion of both the World Boxing Assn. and World Boxing Council will defend for the second time, fighting Pinklon Thomas in the Hilton's outdoor arena.
For these times, that already amounts to an exemplary career. Especially when compared to Thomas, the No. 1 WBC contender, who once had the title himself. Perhaps Thomas, 29, best typifies the path of his heavyweight contemporaries--that is, everyone but Tyson. After winning the title in 1984, Thomas fought twice in 18 months before turning his title over, and has fought just three times since then.
But Tyson's already busy career, barring a major upset, does not figure to end here. Following tonight's HBO match, Tyson plans to fight again Aug. 1, meeting the International Boxing Federation champion in the final bout of the unification series.
The division unified, he intends to persist with an immediate mandatory defense of the WBA title, against Tyrell Biggs in October. And then there will be bouts in January and on March 21, the last signed and sealed, for $10 million it is said, to showcase a new sports arena in Tokyo.
After that? Perhaps the winner of the Michael Spinks-Gerry Cooney bout in a closed-circuit fight next year.
"Mike likes to fight," said Jimmy Jacobs, the fighter's co-manager. "He doesn't want to wait two months between fights."
For fight fans accustomed to the recent rotation of champions, this is baffling. Jacobs explained: "Mike has the advantage of being 20 and genuinely loving what he does."
Jacobs, it may be noted, is a prominent fight historian. Tyson, as his protege, is similarly inclined toward fight nostalgia. He is, in fact, a frequent borrower from Jacobs' celebrated film library. In a strange way, it seems that the two are trying to reenact the past. They are walking, talking archivists, determined to revive boxing's golden era.
"Jake LaMotta fought once a week," Jacobs said. "I heard Henry Armstrong recently. He was saying he defended the title five times in one month."
Jacobs' point is not only that it's possible, but maybe attractive to certain people. The evidence suggests it is attractive to Tyson, at least.
"Burnout? Mike can fight once a week," he said.
Well, boxing being what it is, he certainly can fight once every two months. The question is whether there are enough exciting opponents out there. Tyson's punching power--he has 26 knockouts--makes him a galvanizing attraction.
But as was witnessed two months ago, when he defended against James (Bonecrusher) Smith, he can be drawn into a terrible fight by a terrible opponent. Tyson is not yet a solo act.
Even Thomas, who has been beaten just once in his 31 fights, is not a box office opponent. Nor is the next one, probably the winner of tonight's IBF elimination bout, Tony Tucker or Buster Douglas.
Tyson can fight as often as he wants. But whom? And for how much?
Jacobs says not to worry. "There's always room for Mike Tyson to make $3 million a fight."
That's a nice minimum wage. Jacobs is currently negotiating with HBO to extend their relationship to provide that dollar floor and also to allow Tyson to fight outside that contract on closed-circuit cards, such as against Cooney or Spinks.
Then, too, Jacobs says, there is always some credible opponent out there.
"You look at the top 10 rankings of two years ago and now today. The top 10 has been replaced. We won't run out of opponents. There are guys like Evander Holyfield, Bert Cooper, new and exciting. Remember, Mike is the baby now, but he won't always be the young guy."
It is important to note that Tyson was not in that top 10 two years ago. Is there another Tyson out there? You can hardly rule it out.
Projected, it amounts to a sensational career. Six fights a year for the next 10 years? Do your own arithmetic.
Talking to anybody in Tyson's camp, it is possible to get carried away like that. But even the staunchest supporters are aware that things can happen.
The one other thing that Tyson, fight historian, has learned from those remarkable old-time fighters is that anybody can be beaten. According to Jacobs, Tyson watches films of Louis and Muhammad Ali losing, as well as winning. They didn't lose often, of course.
Boxing Notes The final bout of this series was to have pitted the Mike Tyson-Pinklon Thomas winner against IBF champion Michael Spinks. But Spinks bolted the tournament for a big payday, June 15 with Gerry Cooney, and was stripped of his title. So, relative unknowns Tony Tucker and Buster Douglas get the opportunity. They fill out tonight's card, fighting for the vacant IBF title. . . . Also on the card are former heavyweight champions Tony Tubbs and Greg Page. Tubbs is fighting Wimpy Halstead, Page James Broad. . . . Thomas' trainer, Angelo Dundee, was pulling a few legs the other day when he said that the Thomas camp had obtained films from Tyson's closed workouts. "He has been slipping and sliding, bobbing and weaving," Dundee confided. "And he seems to be a little off balance." Oddsmakers believe that is the only fun Dundee will have all week.