On This Day: The Mike Tyson Legacy Begins Against Hector Mercedes

Before there was 'Iron' Mike, there was Michael Gerard Tyson
09:25, 06 Mar 2022

Before the tiger on a gold leash. Before the tribal face tattoo and the torso-Mao. Before the mouthfuls of ear. Before the rise and before the fall there was just a kid. Before the black-trunked man was the 18-year-old boy, angelically adorned in white with red trim. This heavily-muscled yet fresh-faced product of the Catskills ceased to be angelic once the bell rang to begin one of the most controversial, volatile and ultimately impressive ring careers of our time. 

Before he was ‘Iron’, before he was the baddest man on the planet and before there was any talk of “Prime Mike”, there was just Michael Gerard Tyson. And unfortunately for Hector Mercedes, who he met on his pro debut on 6th March 1985, he was f**king lethal.

This fight is Mike Tyson in embryonic form, emerging from the primordial soup of his influences. The raw savagery he leased from his hero, Sonny Liston, is on display as he stalks the Puerto Rican. The inventive waist-movement that made him unjabbable was not yet in evidence, as the subtleties of trainer Cus D’Amato were only beginning to take hold. This is Tyson uncut and unpolished. A child in the body of a tyrant, imbued with untold strength but still figuring out how to use it. Like loading shotgun shells into a sniper rifle, Tyson’s first professional punches were wild in their aim, but devastating in their impact.

Later opponents would not dare dip a toe in the pool with Mike, and aimed to simply survive long enough to leave with both their pay and their teeth. But there was no precedent of fear around the future ‘Iron’ man yet, and Mercedes does have a go in the bout. Shuffling forward behind a high guard, he throws some futile body shots before the ramrod left-rights of the teenage powerhouse in front of him cause a retreat. Tyson’s warning shots are cuffed in a way that wise old trainer D’Amato would soon coach out of him, and they would be replaced by an unsettling thud in future fights.

The lack of inside fighting is interesting from a fighter who would later make it his stock in trade. There are times when Mercedes holds, and Tyson looks to the referee to break in a holdover from his then-recent amateur days. In later years Tyson would work expertly on the inside, and in his fading post-prime he would often snatch an opponent's arm and try and break it, as he did to Frans Botha and Kevin McBride. But on his debut, Tyson respects the referee’s plea for “a good clean fight”. It wouldn’t last.

Another thing that wouldn’t last was Hector Mercedes. Tyson began finding success with uppercuts to the body, and sneakily peppered them in alongside his solid straight punches upstairs. Sending Hector flying with a left jab, Tyson was able to trap the 0-3 novice along the ropes and rip in hard, fast combinations to the solar plexus. It was at this moment that the uncommon physical gifts in the Catskills fighter’s possession came to the fore. The hand-speed, the power, the relentless ferocity. This was a fighter genetically engineered to rule the world, a boxing ubermensch made flesh.

The thunderous body shots can be heard clearly and cacophonously on the grainy camcorder footage that survives of the fight. With no commentary and a meagre crowd, the prevailing sound is that of balled, gloved fists colliding with rapidly-tenderising human meat. Mercedes does not resist the butchery for long, going down for the count and being waved off for a TKO. Mike embraces his stricken foe immediately, an oft-overlooked feature of his fights that would continue throughout his three decades in the sport.

The rise from here would be a sharp and captivating one. A year and four days later, Tyson would win his 18th consecutive fight via stoppage. Six months after that, he would win the WBC heavyweight championship of the world, destroying Trevor Berbick in two rounds. 

From there, the Mike Tyson freight train would never stop. Whether he was winning or losing, suspended or imprisoned, active or retired, the world never stopped talking about him. He is second only to Muhammad Ali in terms of transcending the sport of boxing. He is the imperfect cultural icon that his opulent and unruly times deserved. But on 6th March 1985 he was just a kid called Mike, in his white trunks with red trim. By the end of that night, everything had changed.

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