Tyson v Jones: Steve Bunce recalls pigeons, punches and Putin’s tracksuits

Is the Mike Tyson v Roy Jones Jr exhibition fight what boxing fans want to see?

Mike Tyson scowling outside Johnny Tocco’s gym in a part of Las Vegas where the bad Elvis impersonators can make you husband and wife in 90 seconds, and Mike Tyson kissing a pigeon in the Black Country are images that fade slowly.

On Saturday, Tyson ends his ring exile with an exhibition/fight/carnival/tragedy/comedy – take your pick – against another faded and jaded great, Roy Jones Jr, in Los Angeles.

But ‘Iron Mike’ has never been far away since his last sanctioned fight in 2005.

He has been on tour in Britain several times, and I was often selected as the night’s compere – and that is the right word, because host and interviewer both fall short of my true role.

I was there when he visited a pigeon breeder one day in Bloxwich, and that seemed dignified. I dodged eggs, phlegm, pigeon waste, flying fists, outrageous accusations and praise during the tour.

It started in Derby in 2005 at a small hotel; the police had been tipped off that fans of Derby County and Nottingham Forest had purchased several tables. My remit was simple on paper, but 10 minutes before we sat down to eat I was called into one of the hotel’s tiny rooms.

Mike was there with Joe Egan – an Irish former amateur boxer who once fought Lennox Lewis – and Tom Patti – an actor and childhood friend. Patti demanded to see my questions, which was difficult because I was planning to work from memory.

I told Patti I would start with pigeons in upstate New York, missing the Olympics, the death of trainer and manager Cus D’Amato, winning the world title, losing the world title, going off the rails, going to prison, winning the world title back, Frank Bruno, his journey since then, the end of his career and his peace missions. I was pleased with that list. I knew the audience would love it.

Mike never said a word as I rolled off the highs and lows. It was Patti who kept shaking his head. “It has to go,” he said. “Which part?” I asked, assuming it was the prison mention. It was more.

“You must not ask him about boxing,” Patti began. “You must not ask him about anything to do with his boxing career. And not about money. And the prison stuff, all gone.”

I was left with plans for a peace mission and then, without any sense of irony, comedy or despair, Patti added: “You can ask him about Wayne Rooney and Birmingham Tumblers and Rollers.”

I understood his desire to protect Mike from his free-falling emotions by limiting the talk to a footballer and two genius pigeons, but it was a tough break. That was it: Rooney, pigeons and a peace mission.

The curtain came up minutes later, the tension was mounting.

I did under 10 minutes “in conversation” with Mike on a tiny stage before we all left in a series of cars. Behind us, a riot broke out and made the front pages of the papers.

Tyson collected pigeons as a child and Bunce was with him when he visited pigeon fancier Horace Potts in the UK in 2005

The next gig was two nights later in front of 1,200 people at the Hilton in London’s Park Lane.

In Derby, somebody had tried to punch me. At the Hilton, somebody spat on my back when I had finished 20 minutes without boxing talk.

Mike seemed happy, if a bit docile at the proceedings. The tour continued to Birmingham, Manchester and Doncaster. I had eggs thrown at me by protestors in Birmingham. And another wayward punch at Old Trafford.

The punters wanted Mike to talk about the bite fight with Evander Holyfield and his world title knockouts – they did not come for a paean to pigeons from the ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’.

The entourage had swollen with each mile and city and night. Two cars became three, then four. A Hummer with fur-lined interior joined the caravan, a man in fur joined the carnival, and some bikers from somewhere were on the scene for a night or two.

By Doncaster I finally had Mike talking about some fights, and that worked a treat. He seemed more relaxed.

Did I mention he was easily distracted? I would have to go over shows with him each day. I would do this after introducing myself at breakfast. It was a dangerous time in his life – he was on edge, a sharp and precarious edge. He was menacing most days and nights on that tour.

He came back a couple of years later with a cleric and personal trainer and was a different man.

The shows ran smoothly, he cried when talking about losing Cus, and he threw the punches that knocked out so many in a show that he was clearly building.

The Spike Lee and Mike Tyson adventure followed, and I like to think part of that best-selling stage show was refined during his UK shows. I have no solid facts, but I’m guessing Lee omitted Rooney and Birmingham Tumblers and Rollers from the Broadway script.

Steve Bunce, Roy Jones and Barry Jones
Roy Jones’ tracksuit top was a gift from Russian president Vladimir Putin but disappeared at a UK studio

There is a place in Cannock, Staffordshire where nearly 100 of the world’s top boxers have appeared on the stage.

Tyson was booked to appear there in 2014 before a change in legislation led to him being refused entry.

When Roy Jones visited, more than 600 diners ate and waited. It was a long, long night.

Roy arrived at 7pm for the meet and greet; he posed for 100 arranged and agreed pictures, smiled, but did not say a word.

We sat down at 8pm. Richie Woodhall, an Olympic bronze medal winner, who lost to Jones in the light-middleweight semi-final in 1988, sat next to Roy and me. Roy was still silent. I tried a few words, Richie tried a few words and a few glasses of red wine. Nothing.

It was 9pm, then 10pm. The auction came and went. Roy never said a word. The red wine was flowing, but he was just sitting there and watching his fights, which were being played on a series of big screens.

It was gone 11pm, the crowd a bit restless, before I did my 10-minute introduction. Roy smiled and kept watching his knockouts. Richie was scheduled to ask him questions for 40 minutes. At about 11.30, I handed over.

Richie was scared, there is no other way to describe it. Roy had been silent for the best part of five hours and 600 people were waiting to hear one of the best fighters in history. This was a real boxing crowd. They wanted to know about round three against James Toney.

They stood, facing each other. Richie welcomed Roy to Cannock, and a magical transition occurred.

Roy Jones, world champion at middleweight and heavyweight, took up a boxing stance and started to speak and shuffle and move. He delivered the identical punches to the ones on the big screens.

“Watch, watch,” he implored the crowd – and they did. A left hook dropped somebody, and Jones threw the same punch. He went through the injustices of Seoul, winning world titles, beating the best at his weights, moving to heavyweight, his regret that he never met Tyson in 2003. Richie pushed him and Roy kept delivering.

It was close to 1am when he suddenly stopped talking. Nobody had left. The standing ovation was incredible, and then he was gone. Richie sat down, sweating and exhausted.

A couple of years later, when Roy became President Putin’s friend, I had him on a television show I did.

Roy came in a tracksuit Putin had given him – a gift from the president. Roy delivered that day, was sharp, brilliant on history and polite.

Sadly, somebody with light fingers stole his gift from Putin, and he left without the tracksuit top. He was not that bothered luckily; he had taken his new Russian passport out to use as a prop on the show.

Jones and Tyson trade on memories, not tracksuits. When the first bell sounds on Saturday, they will match memories under the lights in a ring. I wish I had the pair of them on a stage together.

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