This past May, a video went viral of former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in what looked like heavy training at age 53.
Sporting bulging quads, biceps the size of softballs and a white beard, Tyson fired off combinations with speed and rib-rattling power. His trainer wore thick body armour but still withered under the assault. There isn't a foam pad dense enough to keep you safe when Tyson punches with what he famously called "Bad Intentions."
To the casual sports fan Tyson, who has since turned 54, looked as sharp as the 20-year-old phenom who won the heavyweight title in 1986, and possibly ready to challenge a current heavyweight champ such as Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury.
But close followers of boxing remember Tyson peaked in 1988, and is about as likely to beat Joshua as Ben Johnson is outrun Christian Coleman for Olympic gold next summer. Staying ripped and blazing fast at 54 is an achievement; it doesn't make fighting at 54 sensible.
But aging champs don't unretire to pursue good ideas. They do it to chase paydays and attention, and the illusion that a new diet or trainer or workout regimen can erase years – or decades in Tyson's case – of decline and help them perform like the fighter they used to be.
Roy Jones Jr. knows.
Late last week the 51-year-old ex-champion and light-heavyweight legend emerged as Tyson's opponent in the main event of a pay-per-view card slated for Sept. 12 at Dignity Health Sports Park in suburban Los Angeles.
Organizers are selling it as an overdue clash between Hall-of-Fame fighters, but any bout in which the participants' combined age totals 105 isn't a sporting event. It's a spectacle. And Tyson-Jones Jr. is less a fight than an infomercial wrapped in a boxing match, perched precariously atop a pair of potential health catastrophes.
If the main event between Tyson and Jones doesn't tell you this fight card's target audience doesn't include hardcore boxing fans, the co-feature between YouTube star Jake Paul and retired NBAer Nate Robinson makes it clear. Tyson has won 50 of his 56 career bouts, but the important number here is his 17.9 million combined Instagram and Twitter followers.
Paul, meanwhile, is 1-0 as a pro, his lone official fight a win over fellow YouTube celeb AnEsonGib. And if you don't know who those guys are, the 20.1 million people who subscribe to Paul's YouTube channel do.
The goal here is less to determine the best fighter than to harvest the participants' vast social media followings.
For pay-per-view buys, of course, but also to funnel Tyson and Paul's existing fans to Triller, a new mobile app and social media platform and a partner in the fight card. It's not just that Tyson already has a Triller account and nearly 133,000 followers. The video-heavy social platform is producing a 10-part documentary series leading up to the fight as well as streaming the card to pay-per-view customers, all to help turn the start-up into the next TikTok.
Except TikTok already is TikTok, and the intersection of sports and social media is littered with the wreckage of allegedly better versions of existing platforms.
Remember Shots? It was "the next" Instagram, funded and promoted by Justin Beiber and Floyd Mayweather. In 2013 and 2014 Mayweather would use the app to announce his upcoming fights.
Still don't remember Shots?
Or what about Tsu? It was "the next" Twitter, a status-update heavy platform that wrapped posts in ads and shared revenue with users. Used correctly, it was supposed to help U.S. college athletes monetize their fame without breaking NCAA rules.
Still don't remember Tsu? That's fine. Most of us don't.
If novelty fights were a reliable marketing tool – as opposed to just a recurring one –Paul's bout with AnEsonGib would have triggered a flood of subscriptions to DAZN, the sports streaming service that broadcast them. DAZN reported 8 million subscribers worldwide as of last December, but the company's offerings run deeper than Paul's fight..
In Canada, DAZN owns the rights to English Premier League Soccer and streams NFL Sunday Ticket. It also has committed more than $1.3 billion US to boxing, including an 11-bout, $365-million deal with four-division champ Saul "Canelo" Alvarez.
Tyson will also use this fight card to launch his Legends Only League, which hopes to stage a series of live events pitting retired athletes against each other. Anyone who has ever sent a text message will recognize the self-sabotage that comes with the LOL acronym, but the stakes are serious in any boxing match between two men in their 50s.
Sports can't outrun pandemic
Boxing in the U.S. paused for COVID-19 – live events stopped in March, then resumed in June when Top Rank began staging events at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. But pro sports can't outrun the pandemic. Monday morning we learned that at least 14 players and staffers with the Miami Marlins tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the team to cancel its home opener and the league to scramble for backup plans if this outbreak hits other clubs.
The Tyson-Jones bout is scheduled for California, a coronavirus hotspot where more than 8,100 people have already died from COVID-19, and where the caseload is growing by nearly 10,000 people daily.
And the event can't transcend medical science, which confirms that the middle-aged brain is especially vulnerable to the trauma boxing inflicts.
Doctors understand that reality through study, and Jones knows from experience. Through the early 2000s Jones was an untouchable light-heavyweight champ with lightning reflexes and even faster hands, the author of highlight-reel knockouts. He cracked Virgil Hill's ribs with a single right hand in their 1998 bout. Four years later he hid his hands behind his back, then cracked Glen Kelly across the temple with a roundhouse right, ending that fight.
But as Jones slowed with age he became the victim of a string of terrifying knockouts, most recently in 2015 against England's Enzo Macarinelli.
Five years later, we can't guarantee he's better equipped to withstand a Mike Tyson uppercut, but Tyson is vulnerable, too. He looked unbeatable in the gym but we haven't seen him absorb punches since 2005, when he quit on his stool against Kevin McBride.
Twenty years ago, when Tyson-Jones Jr. was discussed as a fantasy catch-weight matchup, the bout would have made compelling sport. But in 2020 it's a gamble that pay-per-view buyers will turn into Triller users, and that two fighters in their 50s can escape an eight-round exhibition without serious injuries.
Tyson and Jones might attract an audience with their names alone, but nothing here is promised except danger.