NEW YORK — When the series to crown one heavyweight champion was announced 18 months ago, few, if any, expected the final bout to come down to Mike Tyson and Tony Tucker.
Certainly, the executives at HBO must have envisioned a better finale than the one the cable network will televise Aug. 1 from the Las Vegas Hilton.
Tyson is a whopping 12-1 favorite to add the International Boxing Federation title to his World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association crowns. The winner will become the first man to hold all official heavyweight championships since Leon Spinks in 1978.
But when HBO and promoter Don King devised the series, they hoped to finish with a great fight--rather than a mismatch. Several months into the series, they begain building toward a Tyson-Michael Spinks bout. Spinks ruined those plans by bolting the series to fight Gerry Cooney in a closed circuit fight.
Spinks in turn gave up the IBF title, which brought Tucker into the series. He won the vacant IBF crown by stopping Buster Douglas on the undercard of Tyson's May 30 sixth-round knockout of Pinklon Thomas.
When the series started, neither Tyson nor Tucker were in the title picture. Tyson was just beginning to make himself known as a 19-year-old contender but soon established himself as the heavyweight division's star.
Despite a 34-0 record with 30 knockouts, Tucker, of Houston, is still virtually unknown and brings little to the unification fight except a target for Tyson.
Tyson, of Catskill, N.Y., is 30-0 with 27 knockouts.
"This is what it's all about," Tyson said of the unification bout. "I'm so happy I'm the one participating in it."
King has ordered up a costume crown, made of "baubles, rubies and doodads" for the winner. If the oddsmakers are correct, Tyson will wear that crown and stand as the unified champion, but all the doodads in the world won't make him the undisputed king.
Some argue Spinks is still the rightful descendant of John L. Sullivan by virtue of his victories over Larry Holmes. Spinks, of course, is among them.
"I think we should settle it after the fight against Tucker," Spinks said. "It's something I've wanted to clear up for a long time. Everybody knows that is the fight that is next. For anybody to delay that fight is crazy."
If Tyson demolishes Tucker as expected, it will complete his domination of the unification series. His two-round knockout of Trevor Berbick last November made him the youngest heavyweight champion in history at the age of 20. After waltzing to a boring 12-round decision over James "Bonecrusher" Smith to win the WBA crown in March, he pounded former champion Thomas to regain his reputation as a feared puncher.
Outside of a budding bald patch on his head, which his doctor told him is from stress, Tyson has advanced to the final unmarked.
"I broke the record at 20, everyone knew I was the best fighter in the world," said Tyson, who recently turned 21.
Not everyone is sure about Tyson being the best. There is still the matter of Spinks, which Tyson and his managers apparently would like to avoid for now.
"He doesn't mean anything to us," Tyson said. "He's not the champion. He gave it up, which is worse than losing it in the ring."
Tyson's co-managers Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton have yet to negotiate with Butch Lewis, who handles Spinks' career.
They have plans for Tyson to fight Tyrell Biggs in October, and other opponents in December and March. Then, they will think about Spinks. But they will find Spinks overshadowing each of those upcoming bouts--just as Tyson overshadowed Spinks' fifth-round knockout of Cooney last month.
When Spinks pulled out of the unification series, there was speculation that he was ducking Tyson.
"If I was afraid, then the shoe is on the other foot," Spinks said. "Now they're back-pedaling. As an amateur I fought a lot of names. I find it isn't the name that makes the fighter. All the mystique, all the hoopla, all the talk about Tyson doesn't bother me. I'm going in there."
Lewis and Spinks probably won't be at the Tyson-Tucker fight because they don't feel welcome. Lewis had to battle HBO, King and the Las Vegas Hilton in court to win his right to stage the Spinks-Cooney bout.
"If I went, I'd probably get assassinated," Lewis said.
Many people are saying the same about Tucker.