Tyson-Lewis and the Return of Boxing to Tennessee

A look back at the last major bout in Tennessee, Tyson-Lewis, as boxing returns to the state with Caleb Plant defending his 168-pound world title in a homecoming bout Saturday night on FOX.

Boxing is returning to Tennessee. Native son Caleb Plant, the undefeated IBF World Super Middleweight champion, will defend his title against Vincent Feigenbutz on Feb. 15 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, live on FOX and FOX Deportes (8 p.m. ET/5p.m. PT).

Of course, it’s not the first big-time fight in Tennessee. One of the most memorable events in the history of the sport – Mike Tyson vs. Lennox Lewis in 2002 – landed in Memphis, about 200 miles southwest of Nashville. Here’s a look back at that event.

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Memphis had its culture. The rich musical heritage, with its nerve center on Beale Street. Graceland is there. The barbeque. Once you’ve tried the Memphis version you’ll never forget. The history. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, which later became the National Civil Rights museum. And the city of almost 700,000 became a major sports town when it was announced before the 2001-02 NBA season that the Vancouver Grizzlies would relocate to the south.

But the site of a Mike Tyson boxing match? Highly unlikely. Until it happened.

Tyson, nearing the end of his career but still an iconic figure, was scheduled to fight reigning heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis on April 6, 2002 in Las Vegas. Then, at a surrealistic press conference to promote the fight on Jan. 22 of that year in New York City, Iron Mike went berserk.

He and Lewis were being introduced on separate sides of a stage at the Hudson Theater when his rage boiling over. Tyson walked toward the champion and sparked a melee involving both of them and their camps. Amid the chaos, the fighters ended up on the floor and Tyson – already infamous for gnawing off a portion of Evander Holyfield’s ear in a 1997 fight – bit Lewis on the leg.

“I don’t like being bit,” Lewis said afterward.

Tyson then turned his attention to the crowd and unleashed a profanity-laced tirade that would raise questions about the troubled fighter’s sanity at that time. The press conference was The Ring Magazine’s Event of the Year for 2002, arguably overshadowing the fight itself.

“It was real, very real,” Shelly Finkel, Tyson’s manager, told PremierBoxingChampions.com. “Mike just jumped on him when they got close and it got out of hand. Lennox put his hand out to keep some distance between them and it became incendiary.

“I think [Tyson] was under a lot of pressure. I think he felt misunderstood by a lot of people. Whether it was right or wrong, that’s how he felt. He seemed to calm down. Then there would be something else that would ignite him. That’s just what happened.”

The fallout wasn’t friendly to Tyson. Nevada officials, who had revoked his license after the ear-biting incident but allowed him to fight there two times in 1999, refused to grant Tyson a license for the Lewis fight and several other states followed suit.

The organizers of what promised to be an enormous event suddenly had a problem: They had a marquee matchup but no place to stage it.

“We were nervous,” Finkel said.

Enter Memphis and Joe Towns Jr., a Tennessee state legislator. Towns, a boxing fan, followed the drama surrounding the Lewis-Tyson fight closely – including the search for a site – and raised a simple question to movers and shakers in both his town and in nearby Tunica, Mississippi, with its casinos: Why not here?

The city had never hosted a sporting event on the massive scale of Tyson-Lewis but the Pyramid had been the site of a few major fights. Former middleweight champ Michael Nunn defended his title there twice in the early 1990s, for example. In other words, they weren’t complete strangers to boxing.

When I look back, it was astounding how huge it was. Tennessee State Legislator - Joe Towns Jr.

What about the ruling in Nevada? Towns and Co. recognized the objection to Tyson’s actions at the press conference, but they didn’t want to make a moral judgment. And, from Towns’ perspective, was Las Vegas – Sin City, after all – really in a position to judge anyone?

“Las Vegas, the den of sin, how could it be the prayer book for anything?” Towns said in an interview with PremierBoxingChampions.com.

And, of course, the most important element to this dream was the potential financial impact such an event would have on Memphis. Towns and investors who ultimately put up a $12.5 million site fee to stage the fight figured it was a good gamble. Tyson vs. Lewis promoters met with officials from The Pyramid, casino executives and local politicians on March 19, 2002 in the office of then-Mayor Willie Herenton and they emerged convinced that Memphis could handle the event.

The fight, scheduled for June 8, 2002, was on.

“We took a look at everyone that made a proposal,” Finkel said. “Memphis was the first one we knew was real. The money was there.”

So was the enthusiasm. Many citizens of Memphis were dubious when word got out that their city was in the running to stage the fight but, once it became official, Towns said, “they were really excited.”

The magnitude of the event itself was mindboggling to the locals. Towns confessed that while he knew it would be big, he could never have imagined what would unfold.

“Every airport within a hundred miles was filled with airplanes, private jets, in [neighboring] Arkansas, Tunica, Mississippi,” he said. “The Memphis airport was filled to the brim. There was no place to park additional aircraft.

“At The Pyramid, where the fight was, I could see as I drove up around 750 cameras or satellite stations from around the world trying to telecast what was going on. No cars, just trucks and cameras and satellite stations. That’s just a glimpse of what was going on.

“When I look back, it was astounding how huge it was.”

So were the numbers generated by the event.

The fight itself was predictable, at least to those who understand that Tyson, a tired 35, was no longer the dynamo who barreled through overwhelmed opposition more than a decade earlier. Lewis, aging but still lethal, battered the smaller man for much of the fight before finally stopping him in Round eight, bolstering his legacy because of his opponent’s name and effectively ending Tyson’s career as an elite fighter.

The numbers generated by the fight also were predictable. The paid attendance was 15,327, well below capacity, but – with tickets as expensive as $2,500 – it generated a then-record live gate of $17.5 million. Also, 1.95 million homes bought the pay-per-view broadcast in the United States, generating $106.9 million. Both of those numbers were records at the time.

“It was a giant success,” Finkel said. “The event, the excitement around it. Everything. Obviously, the fight didn’t go the way I wanted it to go. Mike’s time had passed. The fight was secondary, though. It was a successful event.”

Towns feels the same way, saying the event provided an “economic boom.” He estimated that tens of millions of dollars were spent in Memphis and its neighboring communities. And he said visitors provided nothing but positive feedback.

“I was told people enjoyed the hospitality of the people who live there. That’s how Southern people tend to be,” he said.

And perhaps those people, the locals in and around Memphis, didn’t see themselves quite the same after the Tyson-Lewis fight. For most of one week, their city was the center of the sporting world and they reveled in it.

“I think it gave residents an image of themselves they didn’t have before,” Towns said. “People were proud to be able to snag something of that magnitude. They were really, really, tremendously proud for the image of the city.

“I’m happy about that. It was something they deserved.”

For a closer look at Plant vs Feigenbutz, check out our fight night page. 

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