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At Large | Mike Tyson, the Legends Only League and old stars in a world of new content

In disjointed economies, more and more companies are leaning on some form of content as a crutch but in order to be relevant, there must still be context.

6 August 2020 Eoin Connolly

Call it the Covid comeback. Week by week, small pieces of the sporting world we used to know are restored in some compromised form: motor racing, the Premier League, the National Basketball Association (NBA), Mike Tyson. 

This pandemic, surely, cannot have been going on that long. 

In September, the undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion of the 1980s will return to the ring at the age of 54. He is due to face off with Roy Jones, the pound-for-pound king of the 90s, in an eight-round exhibition in the teasingly named surroundings of the Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, usually home to the LA Galaxy of Major League Soccer (MLS). The bout will be sold on pay-per-view (PPV) or for a fee on music video app Triller, which is also rolling out a ten-part, pre-fight documentary series.  

Your mileage may vary as to the wisdom of the whole affair. Two men easily old enough to be the fathers of current heavyweight kings Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua – Jones is 51 – should really avoid getting punched in the head too much. The promoters tell us not to fear for either fighter. The billing may claim that ‘everything is on the line’ but, they insist, we can expect a well-controlled demonstration of technique and quinquagenarian conditioning – enthusiastic sparring, not full-blooded contact. 

As much as it might have emerged at any moment, it is difficult to separate this wheeze from our interesting times. Over months of stasis, the archives brought salvation. A day when nothing happens is still the anniversary of something and an excuse to dive into one pool of memories or another.  

Even before its pandemic-enabled acceleration we were living through an era of turbocharged nostalgia, the favourite bits of our recent past always within easy digital reach, always promising comfort or rejuvenation. Perhaps it was inevitable that someone asked what would happen if those ghosts haunting video libraries came back to life and started hitting each other. Idle former champions with access to a gym, if not a time machine, clearly had the same thought. 

For Tyson, this is the opening gambit in a brand new old venture. The Legends Only League is to open not just to inactive fighters but to “baseball players, basketball players, soccer players”: “everybody who society says they’re too old, they’re over the hill, but they still have it in them”. His backers are Eros Innovations, an arm of the media and tech investment company Eros Investments.  

Eros Innovations describes itself as ‘a global venture creation group’ which ‘invests in and creates globally recognized businesses for celebrities across premium content, consumer products and live experiences’. Chief executive Sophie Watts was previously the president of STX Entertainment, a ‘mini-major’ film studio and media company specialising in mid-budget vehicles for bankable stars. The apparent plan is to turn the Legends Only concept into a broader network that capitalises on the long tail of interest in an older generation of celebrated sportspeople.    

Again, there will be differing opinions – to put it mildly – as to whether this is the best way to recapture all the value in those legacies. Sport has always been a vessel for storytelling, boxing especially so. Stories offer a compelling means for making sense of life, but they are imperfect: all finessed details and lopped-off codas. Again, this is rarely truer than it is in boxing, where some purists, in assessing the legends, seem almost to place as much emphasis on a narrative arc as they do on skill, will, intelligence and durability.   

Roy Jones’ career is a case in point. In his brilliant prime he could have been considered, without hesitation, as an all-time great. He would be still, had he hung up his gloves after taking John Ruiz’s WBA heavyweight strap back in 2003 to become the first former middleweight champion in 106 years to win a title from one of the big men. Instead, he fought on professionally until 2018, growing less competitive, then less interesting, then less interested in being competitive.  

Tyson’s record would also look a lot different had it ended in early 1990. Instead, his experience pretty much defies that kind of interpretation altogether. His has been a circuitous public life. He was once the baddest man on the planet and has by turns been the maddest, the saddest and the gladdest. 

Those early days followed the old boxing template – hardscrabble kid earns incredible success – dialled up to 1980s levels of bombast. Then came the accelerated fall from grace, then the fearsome comeback, the decline, and who can remember what else. But people will inevitably try to bash the life and times of Iron Mike into some kind of shape: his latest flurry of publicity comes with a Hollywood biopic in the works, with Oscar winner Jamie Foxx attached.  

This latest exercise exists outside all of that. The edges have been sanded off: the depression, the addiction, the personal tragedy and domestic abuse, the rape conviction. There is something in the idea of an older athlete reconnecting with his physical gifts but that, really, is a small part of what is going on here. This is the boxer as cipher, the opening pitch in a playground argument or pub debate.  

For Shark Week, Discovery is pitting Mike Tyson against a Great White. His continued ring adventures and misadventures against Jones or Evander Holyfield or whoever else can be convinced to throw on an old training sweatshirt can likely be taken in that spirit. At its most harmless, this will be one step on from a simulation.  

And Tyson’s ring return also guarantees a hulking pile of content to shovel into the maw of the media monster. Tabloid websites and social media aggregators have invited a gawping response at every point: look how trim he is, watch how smoothly he still moves, listen to that awesome snap of glove on training pad.  

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