In October 2001, the fearsome Mike Tyson ventured to Denmark to take on the 62-1 Brian Nielsen. Here’s what really happened…
“Life’s a piece of s**t, when you look at it.”
NOT an unusual quote for a reporter to leave a Mike Tyson fight week with.
Ordinarily the line would have been the prelude to Tyson’s latest dark meanderings but this time it was followed by the sound of 26 thousand Danes cheerily whistling along.
Decked out in a very off-brand powder blue hoody, Tyson waited in the bowels of the Parken Stadium as Brian Nielsen strode to the ring to the strains of Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’
“All my life I just loved that music. I think everybody believed in my fighting heart and that was great for me,” Nielsen growled down the phone from Spain where he spends his life arranging golfing holidays. “I love that memory. I remember all the people singing along as I walked. It was a great thing. What a great time. I would do it again tomorrow.”
Welcome to Copenhagen and a very different Mike Tyson fight week.
How much Tyson knew about Denmark is anybody’s guess. Maybe he remembered the scratchy images of Battling Nelson he once projected onto Cus D’Amato’s walls during those long hours spent studying film but if he was expecting the third and final leg of his European tour to be as riotous as his visits to Britain he was in for a surprise.
There were no protesters camped outside International Arrivals or MP’s desperately trying to score political points by decrying his visit. His appearance was greeted with curiosity rather than adulation. If Tyson arrived with any kind of siege mentality, it quickly began to lift.
Mogens Palle had been involved in the sport from almost 50 years when the opportunity to promote a Mike Tyson fight presented itself. Palle had brought Larry Holmes, Carlos Monzon, Ken Buchanan and John Conteh to Denmark but Tyson still presented a unique challenge.
“Exactly when, I do not remember, but we had the very popular Danish heavyweight, Brian Nielsen, and that is where the idea started. Most of all it was for the prestige in promoting the baddest boxer on the earth and – as we had a heavyweight to match – that was the goal,” Palle said. “We had no problems whatsoever either with the authorities or anyone at all. No protesting. The press were non-believers but were surprised big time when the fight was announced. The fans were excited. Nothing is easy involving Mike Tyson but with the help of my [at the time] US agent, Robert Mittleman and Tyson’s advisor/manager Shelly Finkel things were worked out.”
One of the least far-fetched stories from the land that gave us The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling is that whilst the Danish Royal Family could be left alone to enjoy a quiet coffee in one of the cafes that line Jægersborggade, Nielsen would be mobbed. A big friendly bear of a man, ‘Super Brian’ held an Olympic Bronze medal, a proud 62-1 record and national hero status.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I do know that I was very popular in Denmark though. I have lived in Spain for 20 years now. Not many people know me here. In Denmark it’s another thing. Everybody knows me.
“Of course I was nervous. There were 26,000 people there so of course I was,” he joked. “But, no, everybody was talking about how hard he punched. I had a sparring partner who had boxed him and that’s all they kept saying, ‘He’s a very good puncher. He punches so hard.’ All that stuff. He couldn’t knock me out though, I really believed that.”
Adam Smith had felt the electricity generated by Tyson in America and witnessed first-hand the pandemonium he created when he led fans and media Pied Piper-like between the jewellery shops, hotels and boxing rings of Britain. As a Sky Sports reporter, Smith found himself watching on as the Tyson jamboree pitched up in the late autumn sunshine of Copenhagen.
“Every Tyson week was an exciting one because you never quite knew what to expect but he seemed in a really good place,” Smith said.
“We’d had the ‘nice’ Mike around the Julius Francis fight where he was leaning out of hotel windows waving to people and Julius played his part. Then we got to Lou Savarese and it was all a bit nasty. It was a filthy, horrible night in Hampden Park and the referee, John Coyle, got felled and Mike started talking about eating Lennox Lewis’ kids.
“When we got to Copenhagen and we weren’t sure what type of Mike would turn up.
“I found that sometimes you’d wait for days for him and then get an irate Tyson. Some other days you’d get an absolute sweetheart who’d be talking about his love of kids and boxing. I loved interviewing Naseem Hamed because he was a challenge but with Tyson you never knew what was going to come out of his mouth. He was a brilliant boxing historian but if he wasn’t in the right place he could spin off and be extraordinarily nasty so you had the sweet and the savoury. In Nielsen you had a bright, lively, funny guy who didn’t seem to take it too seriously. I don’t know if he and his team thought he had a chance – they probably did with Tyson being at that stage of his career – but nobody else did.
“We went to see the Little Mermaid and the Copenhagen sights and it’s a city of serenity really and then you’ve got Tyson and his entourage pitching up in town. It was all very surreal.”
Whether they wanted him to knock somebody out, give them a soundbite for a headline, sell pay-per-views or simply pay for their hotel room, everybody wanted something from Tyson and at this stage in his career everybody wanted – needed – him to make it to a big money fight with Lewis.
It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. A faded Tyson had lurched from one fiasco to another since biting Evander Holyfield in 1997. Frans Botha, Orlin Norris, Lou Savarese, John Coyle, all had their own personal Mike Tyson tale to tell. In Detroit he left the lunacy to Andrew Golota but despite forcing the unpredictable Pole to quit, testing positive for cannabis meant he had to settle for a no contest.
It was decided that bringing Tyson to Europe would allow him to step away from the madness and reinvent himself. There were mixed results in Britain where intense interest had the effect of moving a goldfish to a smaller bowl but in Denmark he was allowed to simply be. It may be a coincidence but after spending years on a hair trigger, in Copenhagen the safety catch remained firmly on.
“There had been problems in England and we were advised by the people from Showtime not to interact with Mike Tyson. So we did not,” Palle said. “We [eventually] met at the press conference but there were no problems at all.
“I am sure they enjoyed themselves. He also brought a very large entourage. We do not remember any incidents. Tyson and his people were on their best behaviour, including ‘Crocodile’ who seemed to like it here.
“Brian was extremely excited. He had the chance and the purse of a lifetime. He was not intimidated. He told Tyson at the press conference that he would give him a beating and he was training for the fight to do so. The Danes were definitely rooting for our own guy.”
In Manchester, it felt like the air was sucked out of the venue when Steve ‘Crocodile’ Fitch pushed open the doors and led Tyson into the bedlam. Stood at the centre of the boxing world, poor Julius Francis might as well have been invisible. Savarese suffered the same fate in Glasgow. The British came to watch a public execution rather than a boxing match.
In Copenhagen, the crowd had come to see a giant killing. They still strained to catch a glimpse of him but Tyson walked out to boos. The Danish fans hadn’t come to bay for blood. They wanted a new fairy tale to tell their children.
“I think that was the main difference; the people,” Smith said. “Denmark has boxing history but it’s certainly not like Britain’s but boxing can be like theatre. It’s a show. It’s not just about a fight and I think that’s how the Danish people took it. ‘What he’s doing here? Can our guy beat Mike Tyson?’ It was a sort of curiosity show. Everybody hoped that Brian would come out safe and sound and that he could pull off the upset and we saw it happen a few times late in Tyson’s career so it wasn’t impossible. Tyson came with that intimidation and fear factor but Brian seemed to stand up to it.”
Facing the biggest man he had ever fought, Tyson weighed in heavier than ever before. Maybe it was done deliberately to counteract Nielsen, maybe it was the result of a year-long layoff or maybe it was a sign of the level of threat he felt. Only when the ring announcements were winding down and the eyes of the world focused upon him did Michael Gerard Tyson become what people had come to expect. That baby blue hoody came off and ‘Iron Mike’ finally emerged, tearing into Nielsen from the opening bell.
Nielsen survived the early barrage and gave Tyson his longest fight since the first stunning defeat to Holyfield five years earlier but he was floored in the third and cut around both eyes. After the sixth, referee Steve Smoger paid a visit to his corner and ended any hopes of a fairytale.
“He was not in shape to go 10 or 12 rounds or whatever. I’m sure I would have gone 12 rounds and he would have been very tired and he doesn’t like that,” Nielsen said. “The referee stopped it because he cut both my eyes and every time he hit me my eyes shimmered. After the fight he was very tired. I could feel that. Every time we came into each other I could hear, ‘Snort, snort, snort’. He only thought he was going to for one or two rounds when he came over. He gave me five or six head butts and cut both my eyes. There were no punches.”
Midway through the opening round, Nielsen landed a picture perfect one-two on the ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’. It was the type of split second that fighters can use to soften the blow of defeat. It provides them with ‘What if’ moments. What if his eyes hadn’t been cut? If he could land those shots on that version of Tyson, what if Nielsen had boxed him 18 months later?
“No,” Nielsen said. “I think I could have beaten him then, in 2002. If I hadn’t got that cut on my eye I think there would have been another fight.”
Adam Smith had one job left to do. “I was down in a tunnel in the stadium. I had a director in my ear and he said ‘Mike’s coming down the corridor now and we need to get a couple of minutes with him.’
“If you think of the bulls in Pamplona or the Palio in Siena where the horses all run, there was almost like a kind of noise from around the corner. Suddenly this group came around the bend. There must have been 30 or 35 of them and Mike was right in the middle. ‘Crocodile’ was at the front with his shades on shouting and doing the slit throat stuff and as they saw the camera it intensified. It was pretty intimidating. I’m still a young reporter and I’m standing there with Tyson’s entourage flying at me. I remember getting told in my ear, ‘Come on Ads, you’re a good public schoolboy. Stand up straight.’ They stopped in front of me and Mike didn’t look happy.
“I couldn’t gauge the mood but I had to go right into it. I said ‘Mike, you got the win and it’s been a great week. Have you enjoyed Copenhagen? You look happy.’ The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m not a happy kind of guy.’
“He’d just won a fight, it seemed like he’d had a good, calm week and instead of saying ‘I’m happy to have won and I’ve had a great time here’ which he might well have done half an hour later, buzzed up by his team – the ones that had their roles and the hangers on – he came out with that.
“I sort of got him back but then it was over and he stormed off past me and I was stood there holding my microphone with my cameraman.
“An amazing city, somewhere totally different for boxing, a bit surreal and a calmer, tamer Mike until I got to him and you saw the switch flick. That was Mike Tyson.”
With Smith in their wake the group continued on, winding through the corridors until they reached Nielsen’s dressing room. All week, ‘Crocodile’ had been the loudest voice in every room and he was the was the first man through the door. Business concluded, a weary Tyson also paid his respects.
“Crocodile was just a troublemaker. I said that many times at the press conference. He was with Tyson to make the trouble,” Nielsen said.
“Tyson was quiet but that guy was screaming and shouting all the time but I will say that he was the first one to come down to my dressing room afterwards and he said ‘Good fight.’ I was happy about that. He told me that Mike thought he was going to go for two minutes and knock me out. Never. I had 120 amateur fights and 67 professional fights and was never knocked out.
“I saw Mike after the fight. He told me it was a good fight. He was very tired and he was ok. He was a nice guy.”
Both Nielsen and Tyson quickly resumed the roles they were more accustomed to playing. Nielsen was back in the ring just a month later thrilling his fans and outpointing one Ken Murray. Around the same time, Tyson got hit with a $66m suit for apparently tearing a mink coat at a Brooklyn nightclub. Eight months later his world title ambitions were well and truly ended by Lennox Lewis.
“We met the day after at the hotel. We did not speak much but had a photo taken with my wife, my daughter Bettina, and myself,” Palle said.
“He seemed to be fond of Copenhagen. They left for Amsterdam and Barcelona, but they returned after two-three days and stayed for three more weeks at one of the most expensive hotels here. I did not have contact with them, but Bettina had a little. But they hung out on their own and had made some friends here.”
Nobody knew what to expect when Tyson’s plane landed in Copenhagen but when he did eventually decide to leave, he left the city in the same state he had found it. For once there was no wreckage to pick through. After years of being exploited, maybe, for once, Tyson gained the most from the whole affair.
“If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle, that’s the thing”