Recalling the Time Mike Tyson Travelled to England to Fight Julius Francis

Rob Lancaster@RobLancs79Featured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2016

Mike Tyson (left) and Julius Francis stare each other down at the weigh-in.
Mike Tyson (left) and Julius Francis stare each other down at the weigh-in.ADAM BUTLER/Associated Press

Mike Tyson's first fight on European soil was brief, but yet not without incident.

On Jan. 29, 2000, Iron Mike wiped out British champion Julius Francis after 63 seconds of Round 2 at the M.E.N Arena in Manchester, England.

It was a miracle the bout even lasted that long, considering Francis hit the canvas five times in total.

However, it wouldn't have happened at all had Home Secretary Jack Straw not granted special dispensation for Tyson—who served half of a six-year sentence after being convicted of rape in 1992, before then being jailed again for four months in 1999 for attacking two motorists—to enter Britain.

Francis was just the supporting act to the star attraction. It didn't matter who the opponent was, in truth, as Tyson took over London for two weeks.

A pair of defeats to fellow American Evander Holyfield, the second seeing him disqualified for biting a chunk out of his opponent's ear, meant the fighter dubbed The Baddest Man on the Planet was no longer even the best heavyweight in his home country.

Yet despite slipping from his lofty perch, Tyson was still a sporting icon around the globe.

British boxing fans knew all about him after seeing him twice flatten Frank Bruno—one of England's national treasures—in Las Vegas, first in 1989 and then again in 1996.

Tyson's arrival, along with that of his healthy entourage who would occupy a whole floor of the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, led to chaos at Heathrow Airport.

It was just the start of things to come.

Still, he nearly had to turn around and quickly head for home again, as Justice for Women—a feminist campaigning organisation—put in a legal bid to declare the fighter's entry to Britain illegal.

The attempt failed, and Tyson's response to the application was as brutal as one of his hook shots. He said of the group, per the Express (h/t William Neuman of the New York Post): "They are just a bunch of frustrated women who want to be men."

The pre-fight drama didn't end there, though.

In between shopping trips that left jewellers rejoicing his visit, Tyson—who based himself in the English capital for the majority of his stay—made a very public appearance in Brixton, an area of south London with a large percentage of residents of African and Caribbean descent.

What was meant to be a routine walk resulted in a trip to the police station. Tyson did nothing wrong, but such was the level of interest in his presence he had to be taken away for his own safety.

Simon Jeffery in the Guardian estimated a crowd of more than 2,000 turned up to get a glimpse of the fighter, who addressed the audience outside the police station with a megaphone out of a window: "I have got to get back to training, so I would appreciate if you let me break out. Thank you very much, thank you very much. I love you Brixton."

Tyson draws a crowd as his visits Brixton in south London.
Tyson draws a crowd as his visits Brixton in south London.MARTYN HAYHOW/Getty Images

While Tyson brought areas of the English capital to a standstill, opponent Francis left his home in London to finish his preparations at an army barracks in Aldershot.

At the age of 35, fighting Tyson was a huge opportunity for Francis, a man who had his own chequered past.  Much like his rival, boxing had changed his life for the better.

He did not turn pro until 28, yet he won the British and Commonwealth titles. He also fought Vitali Klitschko in 1998, losing to the Ukrainian inside two rounds.

But facing Tyson was the fight of his career, not least because he would reportedly receive £350,000 for his efforts, per BBC News.

Many felt it was deserved danger money, but Francis—who had a 21-7 record at the time—felt confident he could at least make it a contest, according to quotes used by John Rawling in the Guardian:

He [Tyson] can do all the shopping and talking he likes, it makes no difference. It's when he gets into the ring that counts and if he is underestimating me, then that is his fault. All I can do is make sure I am ready for the most important fight of my life, and it is one I believe I am going to win.

I may be away from it all here [in Aldershot], but I have seen the TV and read the newspapers. People love to talk about Tyson, but I never think about becoming a worldwide superstar. All I am doing is concentrating on winning this fight. I can cope with the rest after that.

However, his words felt a little hollow when it emerged the underdog had signed a deal to have the soles of his boxing boots sponsored by a national newspaper, the Daily Mirror.

It was an opportunist move by both Francis and the paper, who reckoned they could get some extra exposure if, perhaps more likely when, the home boxer was knocked flat onto his back.

There was nearly a late twist to the tale, though.

Per Timothy W. Smith of the New York Times, the weigh-in was delayed due to an "upset and agitated" Tyson heading to the city's airport with the intention of flying home. He was talked into staying by some of his team and, when he did finally step onto the scales, was in good shape.

Despite his efforts in camp, Francis was labelled "kinda fat" by his opponent. It was less of an attempt to gain some sort of psychological advantage and more just a simple observation.

So, after an eventful fortnight, it finally came around to fight night.

Any thought that Francis could enjoy his own James "Buster" Douglas moment and upset Tyson disappeared when he was knocked down twice in Round 1.

Tyson landed a solid left hook in the opening seconds, and from then on went headhunting. He became a little reckless with his shots, and Francis, to his credit, refused to take a backward step.

Then, with 45 seconds remaining, a right uppercut recorded knockdown No. 1.

Francis rose, albeit slowly, but was soon down again. A hard jab dropped him as the bell sounded to end the first. Again he beat the count, before retreating to his corner for some brief respite.

Tyson takes a swing at Francis during Round 1.
Tyson takes a swing at Francis during Round 1.GERRY PENNY/Getty Images

It wasn't too long until he was back on the canvas again. None of the three knockdowns in Round 2 were from particularly eye-catching blows, and the last of them saw the struggling Brit just wilt under the weight of pressure, rather than any punch of note.

Realising the fight was beginning to become a farce, referee Roy Francis (no relation to Julius, obviously) called a halt to proceedings, even though the PA announcer continued to count to 10.

Tyson—who had barely broken a sweat—was embraced by members of his corner, yet never altered his facial expression. It was another facile win to add to his collection.

He would return to Britain later in the same year, using up a mere 38 seconds to stop Lou Savarese at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland. That night in June was memorable for a post-fight interview that included some astonishing quotes about WBC and IBF champion Lennox Lewis and his offspring.

Francis, meanwhile, bowed out of the spotlight, although he carried on fighting. His career had peaked, however, as he won just two of his next 19 outings before retiring with a 23-24-1 (12 KOs) record.

His biggest victory after facing Tyson actually came in court, as he won substantial libel damages after being accused by a newspaper of not trying his best to win against the American.

He later admitted in a 2004 interview with William Lee for the Observer that the bout in Manchester was a surreal experience: "I was knocked down in the first round. I got up, he carried on and the rest of the fight was a bit of a blur. He was hitting me with all sorts of body and head shots; he even lifted me off the ground with some of them and I weighed 17 stone! It was relentless."

Tyson could do that to opponents, even if back-to-back defeats to Holyfield had weakened the aura around him. Sure, he was on the decline, but he was still capable of putting away below-par opposition.

In the same article by Lee, Francis commented on the "unbelievable intensity and ferocity" his foe displayed once just the two of them were left inside the ring.

But, for his manager, Frank (now Kellie) Maloney, the writing had been on the wall from the moment Francis had gone head-to-head with the ex-world champion for the first time, per Jonathan Rendall of the Guardian:

I could not believe it when Julius went up to him [Tyson] and said, "Excuse me, Mike, can I have your autograph, please?" This was at the press conference. I mean, I didn’t say anything because this was a big day for Julius. But I could not believe it. He was totally in awe of Tyson, and I knew then that we had absolutely no chance of winning this fight, even though I knew that already.

Francis shares one similarity with Tyson since retirement—both have tried their luck on stage.

While Tyson took a one-man show to Broadway in New York, Francis—who also had a short stint as an MMA fighter—was in a modern version of Shakespeare's Othello in a boxing gym in a church in London.

His efforts treading the boards will never overshadow his career in the ring, as he told Alan Hubbard of the Independent: "I was a champion and fought two of the greatest heavyweights who ever lived [Tyson and Klitschko]. When I die that can be written on my bloody headstone."

Francis had his four minutes (and three seconds) of worldwide fame, but Tyson was always going to be the headline act in Britain. 

Just like the Romans many years before him, he came, he saw, he conquered.