History was made at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y., on Friday, August 23, when former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson made a triumphant return to the sport of boxing in his new role of promoter. The Iron Mike Productions debut card made ESPN2's Friday Night Fights finale one of the best shows it has broadcast this season.
The non-televised portion of the card was packed with talented prospects, and the live broadcast featured two world title fights that were both all-action wars.
The upstate New York crowd was on its feet all night. And throughout the evening, Tyson seemed to do his best to shake hands and take pictures with as many people as he could.
If Iron Mike Productions is going to be successful at promoting boxing cards, a large part of that success is going to come from Mike Tyson selling himself to the public as a brand. He's been the sport's biggest star in the past 25 years and continues to capture the imagination of fight fans like nobody else can.
He spent the week of the fight at Turning Stone Casino doing media and shaking hands with fans and was nothing but enthusiastic the entire time. He delayed a public press conference on Wednesday to continue taking questions from the crowd and then spent another 40 minutes or so afterward shaking hands and taking pictures with fans.
He seemed overjoyed to be back involved with the sport that made him a legend. "I feel like a child," he told media at the post-fight press conference. "I've just felt giggly all week."
The debut card for Iron Mike Productions provided one of the best episodes of Friday Night Fights all year. There were two world title fights, and both were all-action wars.
In the undercard fight, Jesus Andres Cuellar (23-1 with 18 KOs) applied aggressive pressure to Claudio Marrero (14-1 with 11 KOs) all fight long to hand him the first loss of his career. The win gave Cuellar the vacant interim WBA featherweight belt.
As Mikey Garcia noted on Twitter, it's yet one more world champion for the prestigious Robert Garcia Boxing Academy:
3 featherweight world champions in the same year by Robert Garcia Boxing Academy. Garcia, Gradovich, Cuellar. has to be a record!— Miguel Mikey Garcia (@TeamMikeyGarcia) August 24, 2013
Marrero was the promoter's fighter, but Tyson and his partner Garry Jonas just sounded glad to have put on a great fight. "We weren't going to wait until he [Marrero] was 20-0 to test him against somebody worthy," Jonas told reporters.
In the main event, Argenis Mendez retained his IBF junior lightweight title via a majority draw against Arash Usmanee. Usmanee actually won 115-113 on one card, while the other two judges had it even.
I spoke with Usmanee's trainer, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, briefly at the press conference. He was happy with his fighter's effort but noted that he thought the referee had failed to rule a knockdown that would have given Usmanee a clear decision.
"That would have been the fight for us," he said.
The non-televised portion of the card was excellent as well. Welterweight contender Ed Paredes improved to 34-3-1 with 22 KOs, winning a near shutout against journeyman Noe Bolanos. Undefeated prospect Dorsett Barnwell (10-0, 5 KOs) stayed perfect, as did junior lightweight Alexei Collado (17-0 with 16 KOs) and middleweight Antoine Douglas (9-0 with 6 KOs).
Mike Tyson and Teddy Atlas have a relationship that goes back to Tyson's earliest days in the sport—when he went to live with Cus D'Amato as a teenager while Atlas was D'Amato's assistant.
The two fell out years ago, and Atlas has never hesitated to discuss the flaws he sees in Tyson's character. For boxing insiders, a big subplot going into this event was wondering how Tyson might interact with Atlas, who is the commentator for Friday Night Fights.
It came as a shock to many when Tyson approached Atlas on camera, and the two shook hands and embraced. MaxBoxing writer Steve Kim expressed what a lot of fans and writers were thinking when he tweeted:
Tyson was emotional when asked about it at the press conference after the fights. He said that knowing he would run into Atlas during the fight had weighed on his mind during the buildup and that attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting had helped give him enough courage to go through with it.
"I'm proud of myself for that," he said. "And I'm not usually proud of myself for much."
Iron Mike Productions' debut card was a smashing success. It was one of the best cards to appear on Friday Night Fights all season, and it was the best of the half dozen nationally televised cards I have covered from Turning Stone Casino in the past year.
Tyson delivered big time as a promoter of quality fights. He succeeded even more as a public personality. This entire week was all about him interacting with and entertaining the fans.
There is a lot of promise here for Iron Mike Productions to develop into a top promotional organization.
But this is boxing, where nothing is ever certain; and this is Mike Tyson, who nothing is ever certain about.
As happy as he appeared all week, it seemed to take a tremendous amount of energy for him to be the larger-than-life character he is when in public.
Tyson fairly shocked the press conference when, just before leaving for the night, he confessed, "I haven't used drugs or alcohol for six days now."
He has clearly turned some corners in his life in recent years, and by all public indications is in a much better place than he ever expected to be. But a recurring theme in his public statements this week has been to acknowledge how much trouble he has often had functioning as a person.
Perhaps it is why he takes such obvious delight in great successes like this debut card. Tyson seems genuine in his appreciation for how well things are going for him, and things are lined up perfectly for the streak to continue.
But it will mean a lot of hard work for a man who has never made any secret about finding life difficult at times.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.