Twenty-four years ago this week, Mike Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick in the second round to win the first piece of the soon-to-be-unified heavyweight championship of the world. It was confirmation of what everyone had expected: That Tyson, barely tested to date but the subject of unimaginable hype, could ascend to the top of the mountain. Three years later, on the heels of five straight fights that ended within the first five rounds, Tyson ran into Buster Douglas in Tokyo and ended up on his ass. And so began the saga of Kid Dynamite
Though he was 37-0 entering the Douglas fight, Iron Mike had barely been opposed in his previous matches. When he knocked out Berbick to begin his consolidation of titles, Tyson had only had three fights that went past the seventh round. He took another two to the finish between Berbick and Douglas, but he showed diminished speed and punching power in later rounds. Fortunately for him and his fans, he so rarely needed it. The public ate this up, of course; everyone loves a pummeling. Buster Douglas was a tomato can, an embarrassment to the concept of the professional fighter, a sacrificial lamb for consumption on pay-per-view. But Douglas beat Tyson by recognizing his weaknesses -- questionable chin, lackadaisical training1, poor stamina -- and recognizing his personality. Tyson was a bully who charged at you and threw massive uppercuts for two rounds and had no energy and no strategy after that.
1 - And once again, Sly Stallone saw the future. Had Tyson only seen Rocky III, he would have recognized his management's desire to turn him into a product and have him defend the title against tackling dummies. For those of you wondering, Stallone also saw the future in Demolition Man.
Tyson fought a couple of fights after Douglas before doing a stint in prison. His eagerly-anticipated return fight was against another cupcake, Peter McNeeley, and Iron Mike did not disappoint, winning by disqualification after McNeeley's manager threw in the towel in the first round. Subsequent quick wins over the then-undefeated Buster Mathis, WBC champ Frank Bruno, and WBA champ Bruce Seldon had the fans and media thinking the former Tyson was back. Title in hand, he faced Evander Holyfield, restored as the kind of overwhelming favorite he had been before Douglas. And Holyfield did what Douglas had done years before: He took Tyson's initial punch and stayed standing, and when the fighters answered the bell for the eleventh round, Tyson was beaten down and ready to collapse. He had lost again as a huge favorite, in the exact same fashion as before. And in response, he took the opportunity of the rematch to bite Holyfield's ear off, leading to another extended break.
When Tyson returned the second time, the bad signs were immediate and obvious. He struggled with Francois Botha, then overlooked Brian Nielsen while preparing for a bout with Lennox Lewis. The defending champion was clearly superior by this point, and toyed with Tyson for seven rounds before finishing him off in the eighth, in much the same manner as Douglas and Holyfield. The Lewis loss proved Tyson was finished; a final loss to Kevin McBride -- in a fight stopped by Tyson's trainer due to Iron Mike's 'exhaustion' after six rounds -- was the final nail in the coffin. Tyson, who had started with such promise, such expectation, such hype, never reached those otherworldly expectations and left the ring a beaten man, with a white towel laying in the ring.
So, this season really fucking sucked.
It started with two blowouts, over I-AA Eastern Illinois and not-quite-as-good-as-we-thought Iowa State, both at home, both marked by consistent success in the running game and stout if unspectacular defense, both essentially done by halftime. They only reinforced our preconceived notion that a reload at linebacker and a year of experience everywhere else would leave Iowa immune to the close finishes that marked last season, that it would be a season of comfortable results and trophies and trips to Pasadena. And then Iowa flew west to face a supposed pretender to the throne. When the pretender took Iowa's first shot and hit back, there was no Plan B. When Arizona gave Iowa one final hook in the late rounds, Iowa crumpled to the ground, and the championship was lost.
The Hawkeyes returned with a blowout over another cupcake, this one even more thorough than those before. That was followed by wins over two solid mid-carders, and the hype was restored. We heard the excuses: That Arizona was just a bad case of jet lag, or that it was just one lucky shot from the underdog. Rose Bowls and Big Ten titles were still in play. Nothing was fucked here. At least, nothing until Wisconsin watched game film and exploited the same weaknesses -- incompetent special teams, an easily worn down defensive line responsible for late-game pass rush and quarterback containment, and an offense astonishingly unprepared for a late-game comeback -- and beat Iowa in the same way Arizona did, by keeping it close at the half, attacking the defense with outside runs and short passes, and utilizing special teams, in a late go-ahead touchdown drive, and waiting for Iowa's offense to implode when a score is demanded. And Iowa responded to that loss by biting Sparty's ear off.
The next time we saw the Hawkeyes, the problems were evident. Not only was the punching power gone, but they looked slow. Iowa needed a small miracle to get past the Orlin Norris of the Big Ten, Indiana, then actually lost the fight before Lennox Lewis because Northwestern has a VCR and isn't dumb. Then came Lewis, the defending champ, the mountain that had always been too tall. The old way of doing things, of hitting hard first and hoping for a first-round knockout, had now been exploited three times now, by lesser foes than this, and with Iowa at the height of its powers. The method of execution was as predictable as the loss itself. When the Hawkeyes lost this weekend to Minnesota, arguably the worst team in the conference, the team looked listless, slow, and ready to retire. It was so bad that, with Iowa down only three points and four minutes left to play, television cameras caught Iowa equipment managers moving Floyd to a spot on the end of the sideline, so that oncoming Gophers wouldn't have to run through the team to get it. Ferentz should have probably just thrown in the towel and told the refs his team was too exhausted to continue.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, not for these Hawkeyes. These Hawkeyes, who had beaten Penn State two Novembers ago, who had entered last November undefeated, who entered the season on the heels of the program's biggest win in 50 years. These Hawkeyes, who didn't just hear the expectations of the fans and the press, but who openly engaged in their setting2. This was the most eagerly anticipated season since 1985, a fact the athletic department exploited to great effect when selling tickets, and it wasn't without warrant. So few players left last year's team, a team which itself achieved unparalleled success, that dreams of Pasadena weren't unreasonable.
2 - And don't even get us started on DJK's benching for half the first series, which Ferentz explained was due to Sandeman having a better week of practices. This was Johnson-Koulianos' last regular season game in a career where he went from high school quarterback to the most prolific receiver in program history, all despite taking constant overreactive shit from a coaching staff that benches him for a tweet but lets Stanzi walk around disparaging hippies in the Ped Mall. Even if Sandeman really had a better week, DJK's past performance demanded the start, and his play Saturday only reinforced that. It was even more disgraceful than that timeout at the end of the game taken solely to delay Minnesota from running across the field and taking Floyd.
After 12 games, we instead have five losses by a team that is a shell of its 2009 self. Where the 2009 Hawkeyes dominated the fourth quarter on both sides of the ball, the 2010 Hawkeyes couldn't move the ball on offense or stop anyone on defense. Where the 2009 Hawkeyes capitalized on special teams plays against Penn State and Ohio State, the 2010 Hawkeyes were undone by special teams gaffes against Arizona, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Where the 2009 Hawkeyes had the offensive line and halfbacks to run out the clock in a single-possession game, the 2010 Hawkeyes inexplicably relied on the pass over and over again despite its complete ineffectiveness. Where the 2009 Hawkeyes, despite watching their undefeated season die against Northwestern and their Big Ten hopes end the next week in overtime at Ohio State, found the heart to utterly dominate Minnesota's offense to end the year, the 2010 Hawkeyes took the last week of the season off and were thoroughly beaten by a worse Gopher squad in a gutless performance.
The last season like this was 2006. Sure, 2005 had greater expectations, but at least that year ended with wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota. But 2006 is the real case study: A multi-year starter at quarterback, three potential halfbacks (including a 225-lb. freshman who showed a lot of promise), bookend defensive ends with NFL hype, but holes at linebacker and cornerback to fill with replacements who never seemed up to their predecessor's high standards. That season, too, began with Big Ten championship hype dashed by a September loss, followed by a November implosion featuring two losses to Northwestern and Minnesota sandwiching a three-point home defeat to a conference contender. The great irony, of course, is that eleven starters on this year's team were redshirted freshmen on that team. Eleven starters -- DJK, Stanzi,Clayborn, Klug, and Hunter, among others -- witnessed that season firsthand. The 2006 meltdown was so traumatic, in fact, that Julian Vandervelde actually cited it during the preseason as the reason why this class would achieve so much; the 2010 seniors wouldn't do what its predecessors had done. And yet, much like that year's squad, this team had its dreams dashed early and gave up the ghost with three weeks to go.
Mike Tyson was a case study in what happens when you don't adapt, when you commit to a certain style for so long, with such doctrinal devotion, that it becomes detrimental. Tyson charged his opponents and looked for the early knockout. When he didn't get it, he hung on for dear life, bit off an ear, or hit the canvas. He continued with this strategy even after it was evident that it no longer worked, that for whatever reason he was no longer able to deliver the knockout blow early. In fact, aside from the DQ in Holyfield II, Tyson lost every fight in the same manner. He was knocked out late by Douglas after his early blitzkrieg had been stopped. Same for Holyfield I, and Lewis, and Williams, and McBride. It became inevitable, that as long as Tyson didn't obliterate his opponent in the first three rounds, he would lose by round 8. And yet Tyson never changed. He never adapted to his opponent's own weaknesses. He was so convinced of his own power that such changes were deemed unnecessary, even when his own corner man would tell him otherwise. It's why Tyson could never be Ali; not only would Tyson not have the chin to utilize the rope-a-dope, but he'd refuse to even consider whether a different strategy was worth pursuing.
Iowa, too, failed to adapt; you don't lose five games (and a would-be sixth) in exactly the same manner if you have any adjustments, any answers to what your opponent has done. Everyone knows what Iowa does, and everyone has a plan against it. And what worked in the past was deemed ineffective now. Had Iowa executed better, had they still had that knockout punch by mid-October, Indiana and Northwestern and Minnesota would have fallen like Michigan State before them, mere tomato cans without a prayer of making it past the second round. As it was, they took whatever punch we had left and stayed standing, waiting to deliver a knockout blow of their own when the Hawkeyes had punched themselves out. Those teams adjusted, and we got rope-a-doped. We wanted to win it all and ended up a disappointment. We wanted to be The Greatest. We turned out to be Kid Dynamite.