We had never seen anything like Mike Tyson. He was beyond our ken. He turned the supposed “sweet science” of boxing into brief encounters ruled by ferocity and primal fear. He was precocious. He inspired awe. He could not be stopped.
We had never seen anything like Tiger Woods. He played, as the saying goes, a game with which we were not familiar. He made golf courses, or at least their former dimensions, obsolete. He introduced athletic intimidation to a genteel sport. He was precocious. He inspired awe. He could not be stopped.
Wearing low-top boxing shoes and no socks, Tyson altered the look of the sport and captured a new audience. He became the youngest boxer ever to win the WBA, IBF and WBC heavyweight titles, and the only heavyweight to unify those titles. In 1996, Tyson was 45-1 as a pro when he faced Evander Holyfield.
Holyfield frustrated Tyson, and Tyson finally bit Holyfield’s ear. Holyfield won on Tyson’s disqualification in one of the strangest twists of fate in the sport’s history. Holyfield would win the rematch, completing Tyson’s transformation from mythic figure to pathetic joke.
Woods became the youngest golfer to win a major, and set records at the Masters and the U.S. Open for margin of victory. He put himself on pace to obliterate the records of Jack Nicklaus. He hit the ball farther and higher than anyone on tour, and made more clutch putts than any golfer since Nicklaus. He altered the tenor of the sport and even its fashion sense, replacing seersucker and plaid with bright red shirts symbolizing aggression and victory.
He was well on his way to Nicklaus’ records when his personal life fell apart, making him the target of scorn and ridicule. Although he remains the top-ranked golfer in the world, his Sunday fade at Muirfield made him winless in his past 17 major championships.
At 37, Woods is more comparable to Tyson than Nicklaus.
Woods and Tyson dominated their sports in ways that could not have been imagined before their arrival. They were embarrassed by revelations about their personal life while in their prime. Their falls from grace were precipitous.
Here’s the most damning point of comparison:
Woods and Tyson physically dominated their competition early in their careers. When faced with opponents who were not intimidated by them, they faltered.
Before Tyson’s first fight with Holyfield, legendary trainer Teddy Atlas predicted Tyson would lose. Atlas had worked with Tyson and also held a gun to Tyson’s head after the boxer, according to Atlas, had fondled an 11-year-old female relative of his. He saw in Tyson a man who, when faced with courage and skill, would turn coward. Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear to escape the ignominy of decisive failure.
Woods used to inspire a golfer’s version of fear. Great players folded when forced to play beside him. He presented himself as a force of nature. He almost always won when he led or was tied for the lead before the final round of a major.
Now he’s like so many of the golfers he used to leave in his wake. From 2005-2011, Woods was minus-60 on weekends at majors. In 2012 and 2013, he’s plus-23. He has never come from behind in the final round of a major to win.
Woods’ history suggests he is dominant when wielding a physical or psychological advantage, weak when on equal footing. That is the definition of a bully.