When a 13-year-old delinquent named Mike Tyson began his education as a boxer in an upstate New York foster home a decade ago, he learned as much about the sport from watching old fight films as he did from pounding the heavy bag. Tyson developed an almost scholarly passion for boxing history by sampling the extraordinary 17,000-film library of Jimmy Jacobs and Bill Cayton, who later became his co-managers.
When HBO began developing a series of videocassettes from the Jacobs-Cayton collection in 1987, the pay cable service turned, naturally, to its star sports attraction for commentary. Tyson was a seemingly invincible champion back then, and his observations about some of history's greatest fights carry a credibility not often seen in fight-clip collections.
Iron Mike's shocking loss of his heavyweight crown to James ''Buster'' Douglas adds unexpected poignancy to his comments on Ringside With Mike Tyson, particularly when he pontificates about how past champions could have avoided upsets. He'll have to eat a lot of these words.
Although Tyson has seen these bouts scores of times, he still marvels at the savage power of Rocky Marciano's one-punch knockout of Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952, ''the hardest punch ever thrown in boxing history,'' he says. His high voice brims with admiration as George Foreman nearly launches Ken Norton out of the ring with an uppercut in their '74 title bout.
But Tyson's pugilistic skill and boyish enthusiasm are also drawbacks. His off-the-cuff commentary comes as fast as his fists once flew and can be difficult to follow. The significance and peculiarity of some events go unexplained as when Tyson identifies flamboyant promoter Butch Lewis in one shot, but doesn't explain who Lewis is. One of Tyson's biggest heroes, Roberto Duran, is oddly absent from the tape. And a ''follies'' segment at the end is an embarrassing throwaway, as Tyson cackles uncontrollably over a series of shopworn bloopers and comedy bits. The quality of the footage is excellent, however, even the clip from 1899 of a James J. Jeffries heavyweight title match that was filmed with a camera concealed inside a cigar box.
Of all the fights in this collection, Tyson says he probably learned the most from Sugar Ray Robinson's stunning loss of the middleweight championship to an unheralded Randy Turpin in 1951. For several years prior to that bout, Tyson says, Robinson was ''beating people easy... traveling all over the world, picking up paydays, living the fast life, not taking (opponents) seriously. He had become cocky and overconfident, and that's why he lost. If [Robinson] could lose, everyone can lose. That's why I take everyone seriously.'' Maybe Tyson the loser in the greatest upset in boxing history should take another look at this tape. B-